The Woods of Windri by Violet Needham

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I’m not usually that keen on Ruritanian novels, but I loved this one!   Windri, which unusually for a Ruritanian country hasn’t got a name ending in “ia”, is a small state in the marches of an unnamed empire.  The woods suggest somewhere in northern or central Germany, but being on the marches of the Holy Roman Empire would suggest somewhere further south, especially as the neighbouring state of Monte Lucio sounds like it’s in Italy … er, and probably central Italy, as it’s got olive groves … and then the other neighbouring state, Maupuis, sounds French.  Oh well, never mind.  It’s somewhere!   And some time: the book was published in the early 1950s, the language used sounds Georgian, and I think it’s actually meant to be set in the Middle Ages, judging from the clothes and the lack of any transport other than horses.

It’s aimed at primary school children, but the story’s actually quite complex.  The Lord of Windri’s got two daughters, and the elder daughter, Phillippa, has been betrothed to the Count of Monte Lucio.  She isn’t very happy, because she’s fallen in love with the mysterious, handsome, gallant and charming Knight of the Golden Feather, whom she and her sister Magdalen met whilst walking through the woods.  Of course, it turns out that the said knight is none other than the Count of Monte Lucio.  Hurrah!

However, there’s also quite a convoluted storyline involving a young boy called Theo, who’s run away from the wicked Abbot of Windri.  It transpires that the lord of Maupuis was dispossessed by a relative, and that he and his infant son were both presumed dead, but that rumour has it that they are both actually alive, and that the child was sent to live at a monastery.   I’m sure you can work out for yourselves whom Theo turns out to be.

But there’s a lot of evil plotting afoot, with Theo, his father (now living as a hermit) and the Count of Monte Lucio all in danger.  Of course, it all turns out all right in the end, and we’re told that Theo and Magdalen will eventually marry.  It’s a bit annoying that Theo gets to have all the adventures, whilst Magdalen’s only slightly involved: people used to Enid Blyton books, in which the girls are generally in on it all, might well find that rather frustrating.   But, in general, I did thoroughly enjoy it.

A Pony To Jump by Patricia Leitch

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  I read all Patricia Leitch’s Jinny/Shantih books in the 1980s, but I’d outgrown them by the time that the Kestrels series, of which this is the second, came out.   This is along similar lines -pony book, lower middle class families rather than the upper class/upper middle class families usually found in pony books, slight touch of mysticism.

The two main characters actually rather annoyed me.  One of them had a badly behaved dog which caused havoc everywhere.  Think Bruno Maynard in the Chalet School books.  There are few things which I dislike more than badly behaved dogs.  The other one called her grandmother “Narg” because it was “Gran” spelt backwards.  Why??!  Why not just call her “Gran”?

However, as a short pony book for a child of primary school age, it’s quite entertaining – there’s a bit about learning to jump, as the title suggests, and some drama with feuds at the riding school, a charity pageant, a famous showjumper turning up and a horse being stolen.   I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, but, if I’d read this when I was 8 or 9, I’m sure I would have done.

 

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels by Antonia Forest

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These two books, set in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, feature Nicholas Marlow, an ancestor of the Marlow family of the Kingscote books, as a young man running away from home and joining a group of theatrical players.  The final chapter shows him going away to sea, which if I recall correctly is mentioned in one of the Kingscote books, but the rest of the story shows him as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a friend of William Shakespeare, an acquaintance of Walter Raleigh, and an associate of the Earls of Essex and Southampton.

This, of course, is the period of Essex’s Rebellion.  I’m afraid that I’ll always associate it primarily with Essex barging in on Elizabeth before she’d put her make up on, but obviously the fact that he did actually plan to seize control of London and force the Queen to dismiss Cecil was rather more serious than that.  Well, probably.  I hate to be seen with no make up on.   There’s so much focus on the events of the late 1580s, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the defining moments in English history, that the period from 1588 to 1603 tends to be rather neglected, so it was an interesting idea to set the books at this time.   And it’s rather convenient that Christopher Marlowe’s surname was very close to that of the Marlows, and that Essex’s steward shared the surname of Merrick with the Marlow’s neighbours.

There genuinely was a link between the theatre and the rebellion, and that’s what we see in these books.  The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing an anointed monarch being deposed, did cause a fair amount of controversy.

The GGBP editions of these two books have a number of forewords, one of which was written by the late Joy Wotton.  I was fortunate enough to know Joy via Facebook, and to meet her at the Harrogate Book Fair a few years ago.  She was a lovely person, and it was quite poignant for me to read her words.  Hilary Clare’s foreword points out that Antonia Forest got some of the historical details, notably the relations between different social classes, wrong, but that she got the actual course of events spot on.   What we don’t know is where Shakespeare actually was during the 1590s.  I go with the idea that he was at Hoghton Tower – OK, OK, spot the Lancastrian! – but we don’t know, and he may well have been with a group of players.

I can’t say that these are the greatest historical novels that I’ve ever read, and I doubt if I’d have read them had it not been for the Marlow connection, but they’re not bad at all, especially bearing in mind that they were meant for children/young adults; and, as I’ve said, this period of Elizabeth I’s reign tends to be neglected.   Nicholas came across very well, and the lives of real people and fictional people were interwoven pretty much seamlessly.   They also give a fascinating picture of theatrical life at a crucial time in the development of English theatre.  I rather enjoyed them!

A Free Man on Sunday by Fay Sampson

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We all know see that the title of this book comes from “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl, right?   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  In addition to being a singer-songwriter from Lower Broughton, and the father of the late, great Kirsty MacColl, Ewan MacColl was one of the leaders of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass, the 90th anniversary of which will be marked on Sunday, April 24th.  Anyone who’s ever felt trapped in a workplace, especially in a densely-populated urban area, and especially if they’ve ever suffered from mental health problems, will be able to identify with that feeling … and that’s partly why a group of mainly working-class people from Manchester and Sheffield, largely organised by Benny Rothman from Cheetham Hill (let me get the North Manchester bit in there!) campaigned so hard for walkers in England and Wales to be given access to the countryside.  As they put it, it was a “working class struggle for the right to roam versus the rights of the wealthy to have exclusive use of moorlands for grouse shooting”.

Opinions on the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass vary.  Some people think that it was a big turning point as regards public access to the countryside, and was what led to the creation of the Countryside Code and the National Parks.  Some people think that it wasn’t a big deal.  A lot of people admire the Trespassers, but some people from landowning backgrounds point out that trespassing is inappropriate – five of the trespassers were jailed for public order offences – and say that mass trespasses hindered the movement towards greater access.  I’m from North Manchester, OK.  My paternal grandfather was the same age as Benny Rothman and grew up in the same part of town as he did.  Maybe they even knew each other. In fact they may well have gone to the same primary school, maybe been in the same class.  I love North Manchester, but it’s a very built-up, densely populated area, and it’s extremely important for me to be able to get out into the countryside for some “green therapy”.  So I was always going to identify with the Trespassers:  I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased about any of this!

During lockdown, there were a lot of pictures in the papers of crowded public parks in Manchester and other cities, and tut-tutting about the number of people there.  Well, that was because we weren’t allowed out of our local areas and, wonderful as our parks are, there are a lot of us living near them.  For the number of people, we don’t have a lot of green space.  And we need it, especially during tough times – and 1932, in the middle of the Depression, was a very tough time, just as lockdown was.  We need access to the countryside.  Thank you again to all those who helped to win it for us.

And I was hoping to be able to say that I loved this book.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good.  But it tried.

It’s a children’s book.  It says that it’s aimed at children aged between 10 and 13.  Our heroine is Edie Ramsden, who lives in a fictional town called “Oldway”.  I tried to work out where it was meant to be, but I couldn’t.  The surnames are all very Lancastrian, and yet there’s a mention of someone having worked at the Yorkshire Evening Post, and there’s also reference to the best-known climbers in Derbyshire and being on the other side of “the county”, so maybe the author was trying to show that this was a joint effort.  Or maybe the author, who comes from Devon, doesn’t actually know that much about Northern England, and I’m totally overthinking things!  TBH, that’s probably accurate.  Everyone works in a cotton mill and goes to chapel.  I was just waiting for the cloth caps and whippets.  Oh, and apparently they can see both Kinder Scout and the Mersey from Oldway, which is, er, interesting.  It really does read like a book written by a Southerner!   But never mind.

Edie’s dad is very involved with rambling, but they are a chapel-going family, and her mum and their friends are rather shocked by the idea both of rambling on a Sunday and of the involvement of the Young Communists in the rambling/trespassing movement.  That’s obviously a perfectly valid viewpoint, but I found it a bit odd.  The whole point of being “A Free Man on Sunday” (and the author does acknowledge that the song hadn’t actually been written at the time of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass) is that you can do what you want on a Sunday.  Sabbatarianism doesn’t really mesh with that, other than not actually doing your job of work.  A lot of the people involved were communists, and or Jewish, and the others presumably weren’t bothered about either attending Sunday morning services or strict Sunday observance in general, or they wouldn’t have been going on long Sunday rambles.  I’m not quite sure why the author chose to bring Methodist sabbatarianism into it.  I’m not criticising it, I just don’t really think it fits with the main plotline, i.e. the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.

OK, enough moaning.  On the positive side, the book makes a big effort to emphasise how important access to the land is to working-class people.  And it points out that a lot of the ramblers were women: it wasn’t just a male thing.  It also makes the point – and this is something which came up a lot in 2020 and 2021, with so many people “staycationing” – that visitors to the countryside need to respect it.  It doesn’t belong to anyone: it belongs to everyone.  No swinging on gates and possibly breaking them.  And, although the book didn’t mention either of these issues, no dropping litter and no letting horrible dogs attack sheep.  But it also shows that the Trespassers were treated very harshly by gamekeepers.

Edie’s dad goes off to join the Trespass.  Edie decides to follow him.  She has a problem with the wheel of her bike.  Two men stop to help her – and they’re none other than Benny Rothman and his mate Wolfie Winnick.  They all reach the top of Kinder Scout … and Edie’s dad is one of those arrested.  The book ends with him being one of those jailed for public order offences, and Edie dreaming of the day that he’s free again and they’re all free to climb Kinder Scout.

It wasn’t the greatest of books, as I’ve said, but very few books do address this important event in the history of the British countryside, so I’m grateful to Fay Sampson for doing so.   Thank you to her, but, most of all, thank you again to all of those who fought for the right of the public in England and Wales to enjoy the countryside.   It’s a very important right, and may it never be taken away.

The Swallows’ Flight by Hilary McKay

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This is a companion novel to The Skylarks’ War, but could also be read as a stand-alone book.  It’s written for young children, and isn’t even as deep as The Skylarks’ War is, but it’s not bad.  It’s set just before and during the Second World War, and there are two sets of main characters – Clarry’s goddaughters Kate (daughter of Vanessa and Peter) and Ruby, and two German boys who become Luftwaffe pilots, Erik and Hans.   Clarry and Rupert also feature.  And there’s a grandfather.  And a dog.

It’s nice to read a book featuring evacuees who actually *aren’t* from London: Ruby is evacuated from Plymouth.  Three cheers for the scriptrwriters of the new Railway Children film – the evacuees in the said film are from Salford.  Ruby and Kate, although from different backgrounds, end up becoming best friends, and their world collides with the world of the two German lads when, somewhat unconvincingly, both German lads crash-land in the English countryside and meet up with the girls.

The book tries to show that not all Germans are Nazis and that Erik and Hans don’t want to be fighting for the Third Reich.  It also touches on the Holocaust, although not particularly convincingly, and I found it odd that Hilary McKay said that that wasn’t her story to tell because she wasn’t Jewish.  It’s everyone’s story to tell, surely?

All in all, I didn’t think that it was as good as the first book, but it wasn’t bad, and the first book was so popular that I’m sure that this’ll have plenty of readers.

 

St Clare’s fill-ins/sequels by Pamela Cox

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Oh dear, I was no more impressed by these than I was by the Pamela Cox Malory Towers books.  Maybe I’d have loved them if I’d read them when I was about 7, but I’m not convinced.  Alison O’Sullivan (whom I always liked) being followed about by a girl from a lower form, OK, and an aristocratic girl pretending to be a commoner, OK, but an Irish girl turning up at the school, talking in a comedy Irish accent and bringing her pet goat with her was a step too far!   Seriously, a pet goat?  I suppose we should be relieved that it wasn’t a pet pig.  And as if Miss Theobald would have allowed someone to bring a goat to school.

And they just didn’t sync with the original books.  The books are set in the 1940s.  No-one in Britain in the 1940s went around talking about “the guys at school”, and upper middle class girls in Britain in the 1940s did not refer to their parents as “Mum and Dad”.

Maybe the idea was to make the books “accessible”, but I never get the “accessible” argument.   When I was reading school stories at the age of 8 or so, no-one in my world went to schools like the Chalet School, with its glorious mountain scenery, or Malory Towers, with its seawater-fed swimming pool, or indeed to any boarding school at all, but that was what made the books attractive.  I didn’t want to read about kids like me, living on housing estates, going to schools with gravel playgrounds at the side of busy main roads – I wanted something a lot more exotic!   And what’s “accessible” about inappropriate language?  Would you show characters in a book in the 1940s using mobile phones and watching films on Netflix?!

I didn’t find them very well-written, either.  Everything was just a bit wooden.

On the plus side, they were light reading, and entertaining in their way.  But some fill-ins/sequels written by different authors stand up quite well by comparison to the original books, and these, unfortunately, don’t.  There’s better Enid Blyton fanfic available online.

 

The School on the Moor by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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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!

 

 

Highland Pony Trek by Patricia Leitch

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Despite having no interest at all in ponies, I was very keen on the “Jinny” books in the mid-1980s; but I don’t remember ever coming across any of Patricia Leitch’s one-off books back then.  This is quite a nice, gentle book, with a happy ending.  A widow and her three teenage children face having to sell their Highland home – the sort of home you come across in Lorna Hill books, i.e. a big house with plenty of land attached – as their plan of letting out rooms to guests is not raising enough money to pay their bills, and the only son must of course go to university.  The son then comes up with the idea of setting up a pony trekking business, the running of which falls mainly to Fiona, the elder daughter.

Fiona’s a very believable character – determined to keep their home from sale, but still getting thoroughly fed up with all the hard work and how annoying some of the guests are, and having a strop at her long-suffering admirer, Tom.   There are various traumas with the guests, and then the ponies get out and run riot over land owned by their well-to-do neighbour, who consequently bans them from trekking across his land.  It all turns out well when one of the trekkers accidentally uncovers the local sheep stealer as an ice cream van driver who is stuffing dead sheep in his freezer (as you do), and the neighbour is so grateful that he lets them use his land again.

It’s quite an entertaining book, and makes a change from the usual pony stories about gymkhanas or breaking difficult ponies or not being able to afford a pony.  Finding a dead sheep in an ice cream van’s freezer is certainly an unusual storyline: I don’t think even Enid Blyton ever came up with that one!  Generally a nice book, all in all.

Dilly Goes To Ambergate by Margaret Biggs

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Girl from orphanage (a word which seems a little dated even for the 1950s) is given a scholarship to a posh school by a kind trustee.  This one (and this is another Margaret Biggs one-off book, the third of three which I’ve read close together!) sounds as if it *should* be a GO trope, but it actually isn’t.  The only other book I can think of which uses this storyline, and even then it’s college rather than school, is Daddy Long Legs.  How I adored that book when I was a kid!  Now, I find Jervis Pendleton’s behaviour exceedingly strange and really rather creepy.  But anyway.

I quite enjoyed this book.  Dilly, the main character, was very believable, and so were the other girls, the teachers, and the various other characters such as the kind trustee.  However, the plot was just a bit too twee, for lack of a better word.  Dilly, like Amanda at Malory Towers, went swimming in the sea, nearly drowned, and was rescued by a girl whom she’d previously disliked.  She was wrongly accused of stealing something, and then cleared.  She dramatically scored the winning goal in a lacrosse match, despite having suffered an injury and fainted on the pitch.  Despite never having ridden before, she soon became such a wonderful rider that she almost won a competition, but threw it to allow a friend a longed-for moment of glory.  And, of course, she fell foul of snobs, but won them over.

By the time I got towards the end end, I was starting to feel that the book should have been called Dilly Pulls It Off, because it was starting to feel like a spoof.

And then, at the end, the kind trustee and his wife, whose daughter had become Dilly’s best friend, decided to adopt Dilly and give her a family of her own.  Someone writing in Edwardian times might have got away with it, but it was all just a bit too tropey and predictable for a book written in the 1950s.  Good characterisation, silly plot!