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.

 

Toby at Tibbs Cross by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This book sees Toby, the heroine of The School on the Moor, working as a Land Girl (well, sort of) in 1940.   There are surprisingly few books showing Girls’ Own heroines doing war work, so this one is very welcome.  Toby isn’t with the official Land Army, but is effectively doing the work of a land girl on a farm owned by Charity Sheringham, who features in some of DFB’s other books.  There’s quite a bit of information about farming, but not so much as to be boring, and love interests for both girls, so that all works rather well.

However … in keeping with the the Raiders of the Lost Ark storyline in The School on the Moor, Toby soon finds that a disease killing local farm animals, and which nearly kills her dog – which, incidentally, is referred to as “Master Algy” by Charity’s maid – is being caused by the local vet, who is in the pay of the Nazis and is injecting all the animals with poison.  Right.  And the only person who is able to save the animals is a gipsy horse doctor.   It turns out that, whaddaya know, the gipsy horse doctor is none other than Toby’s admirer in disguise, trying to catch the baddie vet out.

Meanwhile, Charity’s beau has gone missing during the Dunkirk evacuation, but he returns in a German plane, which he was able to nick as its pilots had left it unattended whilst they went to the pub.  As you do.

There’s a dramatic conclusion in which Toby’s admirer is beaten up by the baddie vet, leaving Toby to do the catching and apprehending … and a very sad sub-plot which sees the vet’s disabled niece die.   Both couples get engaged, and presumably live happily ever after – the two men being exempt from further military/police service due to the importance of their farming.

I think it’s important to remember that this was intended as a children’s book.  A lot of children’s books written during both world wars feature spy stories and derring-do, and young readers would probably find a book which was just about farming and romance rather boring.  So, although it seemed rather OTT, it was probably right for the audience for which it was written – and the actual writing was very good.  Now I just need to get hold of the middle book in the “Toby” trilogy!

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!