OK … this is an ordinary school story, from 1931, which bizarrely turns into a cross between Escape from Alcatraz and Raiders of the Lost Ark before reverting to being, er, an ordinary school story! It’s quite a well-written book, but the mixture of genres is a bit bizarre.
Our heroine is Toby, short for Tabitha. What is it with boyish “shorts” in Girls’ Own books? I mean, what’s wrong with “Tabby”?! Toby is the new girl. It’s a little bit different from standard school stories in that i) Toby is in the VIth form and ii) she is a day girl at a boarding school. Oh, and there’s a bit of animal stuff thrown in as well – Toby has a pony, and an anthropomorphic dog (which, again, seems rather odd in a school story) rejoicing in the name of Algernon.
It starts off in a standard sort of way. Toby has a boyish name, and a widowed father, and has never been to school before. She’s keen to get in with the in crowd, and hopes to do so by virtue of playing well in a tennis match … but her hopes are thwarted by someone else’s misdeeds, and she can’t clear her name without sneaking. Of course, it all comes out in the end: Toby’s name is cleared, she gets her place on the tennis team, and she gets to be everyone’s friend.
There’s a sub-plot about a girl who wants to go to art college but can’t afford it, and, of course, that all ends up happily, thanks to Toby. And there’s a prestigious prize, which, needless to say, Toby wins. And there are some naughty younger girls, and a bully who, thanks of course to who else but good old Toby, meets her just deserts.
So that’s all standard stuff, and all makes for good reading if you like school stories. However, we’ve got two very odd sub-plots thrown in. One involves Ursula Grey and Lesley Musgrave, who feature in the Dimsie books but are now in their 20s, Lesley being one of Toby’s teachers and Ursula being a famous cellist. A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor jail (the school’s in that area), and it turns out that he is Lesley’s brother and Ursula’s fiance, and has been wrongly convicted. Of course, he comes across Toby, who, rather than screaming blue murder, can tell just from looking at him that he’s as pure as the driven snow. She, Lesley and Ursula arrange for an old school chum of his, who has a small private plane which can be landed on the moor – as you do – to rescue him and fly him off to relatives in Africa.
On top of that, Toby thinks that the Ark of the Covenant is hidden on Dartmoor. Now, I thought that the Ark of the Covenant was supposed to be in Ethiopia. Yes, I know that Indiana Jones went looking for it in Egypt, but that was presumably just because it worked better for the purposes of the film. But apparently there’s a legend that it was taken to Tara. That’s *the* Tara, the one in Ireland, not Gerald O’Hara’s plantation.
I have to confess that I’d never heard of this idea, but, according to the “oracle” that is Wikipedia, “Between 1899 and 1902, adherents of British Israelism dug up parts of the Hill of Tara in the belief that the Ark of the Covenant was buried there, doing much damage to one of Ireland’s most ancient royal and archaeological sites”. I mean, we all know that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere near Glastonbury, right? And that the descendants of Aeneas, the “hero” (he’s such a wimp!) of the Aeneid, came to Britain? And were the ancestors of King Arthur, whose sword is probably also somewhere near Glastonbury? Evidently a very popular place, Glastonbury. I went there a couple of years ago. Nice vegetable pasties.
Anyway, this idea obviously *did* exist, and Dorita Fairlie Bruce had obviously come across it. So Toby has heard some sort of local story that, rather than being taken to Ireland, the Ark was taken to Dartmoor. And she thinks she’s found it. I suppose it makes about as much sense as some of the things that happen in the Enid Blyton “Secret” and “Adventure” books, but it just doesn’t fit into an ordinary school story at all. Not quite as bad as someone vanishing into space in a Chalet School book, but not far off.
However, at this point, Dorita Fairlie Bruce does return us to reality, and it turns out that what Toby has found are some items removed from a local church in the mid-17th century, and hidden to protect them from Cromwell’s troops, and that the local story which Toby has heard has got tangled up with the Lost Ark thing because the bloke who hid the church stuff was, like the prophet who’s supposed to have hidden the Lost Ark, called Jeremiah. If anyone’s actually reading this, are you still with it? It’s really not the kind of thing you expect to come across in a school story!
The sub-plots were crazy and really didn’t belong in the book. It would have been enough to have said that Toby had come across some buried treasure which turned out to be from the Civil War period, and the escaped prisoner storyline wasn’t needed at all. But it’s always nice to learn something new, and I really had never come across that idea of the Ark being in Ireland before! So, er, there you go!