Mothering Sunday – other mothers

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This is Mothering Sunday – let’s use the correct, historical, term, please 🙂 .  Obviously there are lots of mothers in books, but, especially in older books, there are a lot of children who are brought up by grandmas, aunties, older sisters, stepmothers, female guardians, female cousins, foster mothers, nannies or governesses; and there are also a lot of other women, such as family friends and teachers, who play an important role in characters’ lives. So let’s hear it for all those fictional characters, many of whom gave up their own chances of careers or romance to look after our heroes/heroines, and also for *all* the women who play, or have played, an important role in our own lives.

Sometimes, these fictional ladies get a bad press.  Think about Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, or Jane Eyre’s villainous Aunt Reed.  But most of them are wonderful, and here are just five who sprang to mind:

  1. Madge Bettany in the Chalet School books.  At the start of the series, Madge, aged twenty-four, has sole reponsibility (her brother is unhelpfully working in India) for her twelve-year-old sister Joey, and their guardian’s just died after messing up their finances.  Unable to take a job and look after Joey at the same time, Madge starts her own school – but soon gets two pupils, one in her teens and one aged only six, dumped on her full time as well.  But she just gets on with it – and, happily, her having three kids in tow doesn’t put off Dr Jem Russell, whom she meets and eventually marries, and with whom she has six children.  And they end up looking after four nieces and two nephews as well
  2. Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables.  Marilla and her brother Matthew were looking to take on a boy to help on their farm.  Instead, they end up with Anne – and Marilla becomes a wonderful mother-figure to her.  It’s a lovely, lovely story.  I love the relationship between Anne and the Cuthberts.
  3. Sylvia Brown in Ballet Shoes.  I actually find Sylvia a bit annoying, because she takes freebies from friends and lets her servants go unpaid, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she, a young, single woman, somehow ends up bringing up three girls whom her great uncle bizarrely collects and leaves with her.  Let’s also hear it for Nana and for the two female academic doctors: they too play a big part in helping to bring up the Fossil girls.
  4. Izzie Carr in What Katy Did.  Aunt Izzie is one of many characters in books who go to live with a widowed brother or brother-in-law, act as his housekeeper and bring up his children.  We’re never really told whether or not they’re happy about this.  Maybe, for some of them, it was a good option.  For others, it probably wasn’t.  But a lot of them don’t seem to be appreciated as much as they should have been, and I think that Aunt Izzie’s probably one of those.
  5. Jo March Bhaer in Little Men.  Let’s not go into Louisa M Alcot’st family’s rather “interesting” ideas about life and education, and, instead, focus on the fact that Jo becomes a mother figure to several Lost Boys who end up at her boarding school/home.  Marmee March is often hailed as an ideal fictional mother figure, but she really does get on my nerves.  Sending Jo to a posh party in a burnt frock?  Letting Beth’s canary die?  Nah.  Her daughters do a much better job!  I prefer young Jo to adult Jo, but, even so, I think adult Jo is a great example of a mother figure in a scenario which isn’t that of a traditional family.
    I don’t think we get so many of these Other Mother figures now, because the Victorian trope of the Motherless Heroine has pretty much died out; but, even if there’s a loving mother around, grandmas, aunties and other older female relatives or friends can still play a huge part in a child’s life.Here’s to all the wonderful mother figures in fiction, and here’s too all the women who’ve influenced our lives xxx.

 

Valentine’s Day Lockdown Lists

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A bit of Valentine’s Day lockdown timewasting … strange ways in which couples in books met, most romantic places which couples in books visited, key worker heroes in books (other than doctors, there are strangely few of these), and worst proposals in books.  Useless fact of the day – speaking of strange ways to meet, the song by The Hollies, about a couple who meet when they share an umbrella at a bus stop, was inspired by a no 95 bus, which goes within a few yards of my house.  Except that it didn’t then: it’s been re-routed since.  I know that people needed to know that.  As I said, timewasting …

During lockdown, people are finding it difficult to meet potential partners, except online.  Five strange ways in which couples in books met: 

  1. Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart in The Thorn Birds.  He was her priest.  Don’t try this one at home.
  2. Judy Abbott and Jervis Pendleton in Daddy Long Legs.  He funded a college scholarship for a girl from an orphanage.  She was the girl.  He wanted her to write him letters telling him how she was getting on … but he didn’t tell her that they’d actually met umpteen times and he’d concealed his identity.  I used to find this terribly romantic when I was about 9.  It now seems a bit weird.
  3. Henrietta Rawlinson and Adam Swann in God is an Englishman.  She’d run away from home and was washing her face in a puddle near Warrington.  He gave her a lift on his horse.  As you do.
  4. Madge Bettany and Jem Russell in The School at the Chalet.   They were both on a train which caught fire.  Madge bravely risked her own safety to help an unpleasant woman escape through a window.  Jem was impressed by her pluck.  Very feminist, really 🙂 .
    5. Florentyna Rosnovski and Richard Kane in The Prodigal Daughter.  They met when she was working in a shop of which he was a customer.  Seems normal enough … but she was actually hiding her real identity, and it turned out that their dads were sworn enemies.  Oh dear.

And, because of the infernal travel restrictions, we can’t go anywhere … five very romantic locations visited by couples in books:

  1. The Lake District is the most romantic part of the UK … and features in a lot of poems, but not nearly enough books.  However, lucky Damaris and Brian in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books don’t just go to Grasmere, but move there to live permanently.
    2.  Venice is the most romantic city outside the UK, and is where Katy Carr and Ned Worthington in What Katy Did Next get engaged.  They aren’t a very exciting couple, and it isn’t a very exciting romance, but the fact that they get engaged in a gondola makes up for a lot.
    3.  The Italian lakes (I like water, OK) – the setting for The Betrothed, the eponymous couple being Lucia Mondella and Renzo Tramiglia.  There’s a lot of plague in this, but never mind.  Also visited by Elio Perlman and Oliver (who appears to have no surname) in Call Me By Your Name.
    4. Lake Geneva – (more lakes!) – where Amy March and Laurie Laurence get together in Good Wives.  There seems to be this idea that Amy betrayed womankind by stealing her sister’s man, but she really didn’t: Jo had turned Laurie down
    5.Russia – ignore all the political stuff: Russia is a very romantic country.  Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova in Dr Zhivago are one of its many well-known fictional couples.
  2. Five key worker heroes in books not already mentioned:1. Doctor – Gilbert Blythe, in the Anne of Green Gables books.
    2. Vet – Guy Charlton in the Lorna Hill Sadlers Wells books.  Guy is my hero, OK – I had to mention him somewhere!
    3. Farmer-cum-heroic-fetcher-of-food-for-entire-town – Almanzo Wilder in the Little House books.
    4. Policeman – there are loads of policemen in books, but, for some reason, most of them are either idiots or else just annoying.  The best I could come up with was more of a secret agent than a policeman, but he’ll have to do – Bill Smugs/Cunningham in the Enid Blyton adventure books.
    5. Postman/delivery man – this was even worse!   I’m struggling to think of any postmen in books, other than Courtney Elliot in the Adrian Mole books, and he’s only a minor character.  I suppose it’ll have to be Postman Pat, who does feature in books as well as TV programmes!

And, just because lockdown is not actually very romantic, unless you actually enjoy being stuck in, five really bad proposals:

1.  Mr Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice – he tells her that her family are common and vulgar, and that he’s tried to get over his thing for her, but it hasn’t worked, so will she marry him.  She says no.  They do get together eventually, but he’s got his act together by then.
2.  Rhett Butler to Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind – this is the best book of all time, and the proposal scene is brilliant, but it’s awful as well!  Her second husband has just died, and Rhett says that he needs to go away on business so will she please get engaged to him before she goes, as, otherwise, she’ll probably have married someone else by the time he gets back.  He does talk her into it.
3. Reg Entwistle to Helena (Len) Maynard in Prefects of the Chalet School – the unheroic Reg, who’s been pestering Len for months, is fished out of a stream by her middle-aged uncle, and put to bed in her parents’ house.  She says he looks dreadful.  He then says “I take it we’re engaged.  Like it, darling?”.  She says that, yes, they are, but they mustn’t tell anyone until the end of the school term.  It’s grim.
4. St John Rivers to (his cousin) Jane Eyre, in Jane Eyre.  He says that he only wants to marry her because he wants someone to go to India with him, to be a missionary trying to convert people.  You do wonder how he’d feel if a missionary from India turned up in his Yorkshire parish and tried to convert all his congregation to a different religion.  Jane is not keen on the idea of marrying someone she doesn’t love.  He tells her that she’s “formed for labour, not for love”.  She turns him down.  Thank goodness.
5.  Bill Thistleton to Anastasia (Tazy) Kingston in The Troubles of Tazy. He says  “Are you game to fix up with one of us? [either him or his brother]”.  Either one will, presumably, do.  I think that this is the worst fictional proposal ever: even St John Rivers didn’t mention his brother (although, to be fair, he didn’t have one).  She does actually accept.  Him, not his brother.

Lockdown Timewasting over.  Thank you to anyone who’s read that.  Stay safe xxx.

 

 

 

 

 

Ten book characters who’d be good in this time of crisis

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I’ve said “book” rather than “fictional” because I think I could do with having Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland around, to go out for supplies if the Toilet Paper Hoarders (an issue not actually mentioned by Laura Ingalls Wilder, come to think of it) strip all the local shops’ shelves bare.  On a more serious note, I’ve just had a message from my favourite café, urging people to buy, if possible, from small local businesses which are really going to struggle to weather this situation.  If there’s an equivalent of the De Smet store nearby, and it isn’t out of barrels of wheat or Ma’s sewing ribbons or whatever, that sounds like a very good suggestion.  So, who would be the best book characters to have around?

1a and 1b – Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland, from The Long Winter.  They heroically went out in the heavy snow and ice, and made a 24 mile round trip to bring back supplies and save the whole town of De Smet from starvation.  No mention of hand sanitiser or toilet roll, admittedly, but still.

2 – Jane Eyre, from (to state the obvious) Jane Eyre.  Jane lived through the typhus epidemic at Lowood School.  She’s been there and done that.  OK, she left her stuff on a coach, but no-one’s perfect.

3 – Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind.  One of the genuinely inspiring things about Gone With The Wind is the way that all the petted Southern ladies go to work in the hospital, in horrible conditions.  Scarlett hates it, but Melanie throws herself into even the most unpleasant of work.  She’s also practical – she accepts donations from the local brothel, because the hospital needs it, when everyone else gets all holier-than-thou over it.  Melanie is clearly a gal to have by your side in difficult times.

4. Karen from the Chalet School books.  Whilst Matron Besley is getting hysterical over a thunderstorm, Karen calmly marshals all the domestic staff to make sandwiches and hot drinks for everyone.  And she’d be able to make something nice out of whatever food you’d got left in stock.  She managed to feed everyone during the “Famine” in the early Swiss years, even when Miss Annersley sent some of her flour over to the Maynards.  Just a shame that she specialises in coffee rather than tea, but, as with Jane, no-one’s perfect.

5. Madge Russell from the Chalet School books.  Madge’s words about being brave look like they’re going to be sorely needed over the next few weeks, and probably months.

6. Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey.  Being quarantined with Mr Darcy sounds rather nice, but he’d probably do your head in after a few days of being together 24/7 with no-one else around.  Henry Tilney, on the other hand, would make you laugh and keep your spirits up.

7. Charlotte, Duchess of Southport from the Morland Dynasty books, who sets up her own hospital.  OK, she was well able to afford it, but not everyone was so philanthropic and so concerned for other people’s well-being.  If you can help in any way, please do so.

8. Tatiana Metanova from The Bronze Horseman, who survives the Siege of Leningrad, works as a wartime nurse, donates her own blood to save her husband’s life, drives to the Finnish border despite being shot, and persuades the US authorities to let her into America.  As you do.  She copes with any sort of crisis!

9. Katy Carr from the What Katy Did books.  For a start, she’d tidy everything up if you didn’t feel up to doing it, as she did for Miss Jane. She’d look after the kids if the schools were closed.   And she wouldn’t mind her holiday plans falling through, seeing as she seems to hate everywhere she visits anyway.  When you got all upset over your holiday of a lifetime being kyboshed, she’d just tell you that you didn’t really want to go there anyway, because the weather was horrible and so was the food.

10. Gilbert Blythe, from the Anne of Green Gables books.  Well, the list has to include a doctor, and it may as well be one who can double as a romantic hero.  I would obviously prefer Guy Charlton from the Lorna Hill books, but I’m not sure people’d really want to be treated by a vet.

If anyone’s reading this, hope that you and yours are OK in these difficult times, and, if there are any book characters you’d particularly like to have around at the moment, please share ideas!!

Things we did because of children’s books …

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Making everyone in my primary school class sign my autograph album, sticking “Bold Bad Girl” notices on other kids’ backs in the playground, trying to make invisible ink with orange juice, tying “wings” on an armchair to see if it’d fly (it didn’t), telling myself that I liked Turkish Delight (I don’t), trying to write a pantomime (starring my dolls), insisting on having waffles on my first visit to America, hiding food to keep for midnight feasts and, to cap it all, insisting that my dad make up stories about Amelia Jane because Enid Blyton hadn’t written enough of them (sorry, Dad).  And even going to Oberammergau in 2010.  “Things we did because of children’s books” have come up in a few people’s blog posts recently, so I thought I’d write a couple of top ten lists.  And I think part of the reason I’m so keen on writing things in list form anyway is because Judy does it in Daddy -Long -Legs.

It was mostly Enid Blyton books. Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that teachers in the late ’70s and early ’80s had an absolute down on Enid Blyton, and were always telling us not to read her books, I adored them and so did a lot of the other kids in my class at primary school. We used to plot to sneak out of our respective homes at night, meet up and go off on adventures. We never did (and I’m not sure that there were that many adventures to be had – we lived on housing estates in North Manchester, not in smugglers’ coves or anywhere with stately homes haunted by banshees), but it sounded good. But here’s a list of ten things that I/we did do:

1. Sticking notices on other kids’ backs, like in The Naughtiest Girl in the School. This was actually the brainwave of another girl in my class – she and I were a very bad influence on each other! Unfortunately, they just fell off after a minute. How did they get them to work at Whyteleafe?! They must have used pins, but surely you’d feel it if someone was pinning something to your back!

2. Trying to make invisible ink with orange juice – thank you, the Five Find-Outers. It sort of works …

3. Tying wings (I think they might have been luggage labels) on to a big armchair that we used to have at home, to see if it’d fly like the Wishing Chair did. It didn’t. Very disappointing.

4. Hiding food from tea (including carrots, for some bizarre reason), so that my sister and I could have a midnight feast. But we were only little kids at the time, and we always fell asleep before midnight. And it wouldn’t have been quite the same as getting the whole class together round the Malory Towers swimming pool anyway.

5. Getting my dad (who is very good at making up stories for little kids) to come up with new stories about Amelia Jane, because I was put out that Enid Blyton hadn’t written more of them. Poor Dad!!

6. Writing a pantomime, like Darrell Rivers did. However, whilst Darrell had the whole of her class at Malory Towers to take the parts, I only had my dolls and teddy bears, which was a bit of a problem as (unlike Amelia Jane) they couldn’t actually talk.

7. Sending people to Coventry. Ouch. I feel awful about this now! The bitchy girls in the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books were always sending people to Coventry, and I’m afraid that we once decided to do this to someone who’d been causing trouble. We were only about 8 at the time, to be fair, and I don’t think it lasted past one dinnertime, but I do remember doing it.

8. Deciding that the island in Heaton Park lake was a mysterious island with strange things going on on it, like in The Island of Adventure. Highly unlikely. It’s very small, and clearly visible from the café, and somewhat devoid of abandoned mines or secret tunnels.

9. Trying to make a lacrosse stick by tying a piece of wood to a bin.

10. Telling myself that any bit of woodland I went into was the Enchanted Forest. I still kind of do this! I don’t expect to see Silky and Moonface, but being in woodland always makes me think of Enid Blyton books, even now.

And ten things from children’s books by other authors:

1. Getting everyone in my class at primary school to write messages in an autograph album, like Laura Ingalls Wilder did in … was in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years? I think autograph albums were a thing at the time anyway, but I liked the idea of being like Laura. I’ve still got it. One person wrote “Lose weight” – what a horrible thing to do!  Most of the other kids wrote really sweet things, though, or funny things.  Bless them! I wonder what happened to them all.

2. Having ballet lessons, so that I could be a ballerina like … I was going to say like Lydia in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, but, much as I loved those books, I couldn’t actually stand Lydia! Like Veronica or Jane in the Lorna Hill Sadler’s Wells books, then. Preferably Jane, so that I could marry Guy Charlton. This did not end well. Clumsy, unco-ordinated fat kids had to stand in the back row and weren’t allowed to do any proper dancing, just wave their arms about. I packed it in after a couple of years. So much for being a ballerina!

3. Convincing myself that, like Caroline Scott in No Castanets at the Wells, I would magically shed my “puppy fat” and become slim and glamorous once I got to my mid-teens. Thirty years after reaching my mid-teens, I’m still waiting!

4. Insisting on trying waffles almost as soon as I set foot in the United States for the first time, because Lilly Page made such a fuss about them in What Katy Did At School. As I soon found out, they are rather over-rated.

5. So is Turkish delight, as eaten by Edmund in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It tastes like hair lacquer. Why did I keep trying to convince myself that I liked it?!

6. Wanting to live on a boat, like Noel Streatfeild’s Margaret in Thursday’s Child (and also various kids in Enid Blyton books). I mean, why?! I’d get claustrophobic. And what are the sanitary facilities like?!

7. Wanting to own a pony, like Jinny in the Patricia Leitch books. Again, why?! I am scared of getting close to horses! I always think they’re going to bite me.

Interestingly, the “because of children’s books” things that I was still doing even once I was supposedly grown up were mostly from the Chalet School books. That probably says a lot about how good Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing is, certainly in the early part of the series. Mind you, there are also the things I still won’t do – including dyeing my own hair, after L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables dyed hers green by mistake. I even told my hairdresser that. She must have thought I was mad.

8. Telling my bemused modern history professor that, no, I did not want to write an essay about the French Revolution – I wanted to write one about the Austro-Hungarian Empire instead. And I got an A+ for it (apologies for showing off)! I would have explained, but I didn’t think he was really a Chalet School sort of person.

9. Having to have coffee and cream cakes all the time, whenever I’m in Central Europe, despite the fact that I very rarely drink coffee at home (I have umpteen cups of tea a day) and really should not be eating cream cakes. EBD, I blame you for this!

10. Going to the Passion Play in Oberammergau in 2010. Religion isn’t my thing, and I don’t think I’d have thought of going if it hadn’t been for The Chalet School and Jo. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a lovely experience, on a lovely sunny day.

Those are just 20 things. There are millions more.  I still have to remember not to call my best friend from school by the silly nickname we gave her because of a Beverly Cleary book, and which kind of stuck  – and which she prefers to forget about.  Having a February birthday, I used to write “The Secret Diary of [Name] aged x and 3/4” on diaries – thank you, Adrian Mole.  And I still tend to write lists mid-prose, like Judy does in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  

And I’ve still never actually had a midnight feast …