The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

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Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three.   And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening.  Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.

The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in.  It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint.  The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them.  It’s good to have so much included here.  Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.

Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote.  And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers.  Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux.  Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this).  I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!

A gripe.  It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”.  I am a pedantic historian.   I always pick up on that.  Moan over!

Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job.  But, again, never mind!    Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.

It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that.  Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy –  notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings.  It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing.  I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects.  She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications!  She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.

As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general.  They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.

Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School.  Why would he?  He’s got more than enough to do with the San.  And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school.  Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge.   And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot!   Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law.  It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.

Anyway.   In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead.  It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together.  But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.

Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion.  It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating –  a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.

And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School.  Presumably she was, but we’re never told.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.

This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time.  We know what lay ahead.  EBD didn’t.  And the characters didn’t.  What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey?  We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it.  And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.

 

Ballet for Drina by Jean Estoril

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This is my first Drina book: I read a lot of ballet books as a kid, but these somehow passed me by.  Then I found this one going cheap the other week, and decided to give it a go.  It’s fairly formulaic, and the big secret’s obvious from very early on, but it’s a well-written children’s book and I enjoyed it.

Lorna Hill’s dancers are usually very nice, and Noel Streatfeild’s are usually very annoying: Drina is more of a Lorna Hill type, and is very appealing.  The one thing that slightly annoys me is that the author’s rather sarcastic about other ballet books and their ridiculous ballet teachers.  OK, to be fair, has anyone ever met anyone who talks like Madame Wakulski-Viret?!   But this is a very standard ballet book too.  Drina has a slightly exotic background, family don’t want her dance for unrevealed mysterious reasons, she misses out on a show due to sudden illness, circumstances prevent her from having more lessons but she’s determined to become a dancer anyway, she gets her chance when someone else gets injured at the last minute, the big secret is revealed, and you know that she’s going to become a prima ballerina.  Fairly clichéd ballet book stuff, but it *is* well-written.  And all the characters are very believable.

I did actually have ballet/dance lessons for a while.  I was never going to be Veronica Weston or Posy Fossil, but I was genuinely quite enthusiastic to start off with.  Unfortunately, useless fat kids like me were made to stand at the back of the class, and weren’t allowed to do anything other than chanting “Good toes, naughty toes” whilst sitting on the floor and waggling their toes, and doing a few basic movements whilst walking in a straight line.  It was very demoralising – and it was really rather mean of the teacher to treat hopeful little kids like that.  She could at least have let us have a go at doing something else!  I gave up after a year or so.  But I still liked the books!

I think the main reason that useless fat kids were only allowed to walk in a straight line was so that they didn’t take up too much of the hall.  This left plenty of room for the favoured kids to do the polka.  I desperately wanted to be allowed to do the polka.  I can still hear the teacher chanting “Hop, polka, drop”.  I practised it on my own.  Assiduously.  I really, really wanted to whirl around the room as if I were in a mid 19th century ballroom.  No.  I was never allowed out of that back row.

Not that I’m bitter about it or anything.  Much.  I mean, she could at least have let us try.  Our mums and dads were actually paying the same for the lessons as those of the favoured polka cohort.  Er, as I said, not that I’m bitter or anything … 😉 .

Things like this did not happen to people in books.  OK, Caroline Scott went to the Wells and didn’t do very well there, but then she was swept off her feet by a handsome Spaniard and became a famous Spanish dancer instead, which was way better than doing the polka.

Having said which, this was after she’d magically “lost her puppy fat” when she was about 14.  I waited hopefully for this to happen to me.  I’m still waiting …

Jenny, Drina’s best friend, is also a fat girl and is also useless at ballet, but she’s the one who first introduces Drina to ballet classes.  She’s lovely – so nice to see a positive portrayal of a “plump” girl – and very believable.  All the characters are believable: there are the inevitable nasty girls who are up themselves and think they’re much better dancers than they are, but there’s no-one completely OTT.  The only thing that stretches the imagination is the idea that Drina, an orphan who lives with her maternal grandparents, seems to know next to nothing about her mother and father.  But that’s fairly mild compared to some of the stuff that goes on in ballet books!

So, all in all, this is pretty good, as a children’s ballet book!

 

 

 

Midnight on Lundy by Victoria Eveleigh

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This is a children’s book written in the 21st century but set in the 1960s, part pony book, part school story, and part tale of life in a small, close community.  It took me a while to get into it – the style of writing seemed to improve as the book went on – but I rather enjoyed it.  The school story section worked very well: rather than being a member of the in crowd and thinking that school was too marvellous for words, our heroine Jenny took several weeks to settle in, locked herself in the toilets for a bit of peace and privacy, and became part of a quiet group who thought the in crowd were pretty bitchy (as in crowds at schools often are!).  The pony book element was unusual – it wasn’t about a girl and her adored pony, like the Patricia Leitch “Jinny” books which I was very keen on back in the day, but about a notorious, badly-behaved stallion called Midnight and how Jenny kept faith with him and it all worked out well in the end.  And the depiction of life on Lundy, a small island off the coast of Devon, was lovely.  There aren’t too many Girls’ Own books in which everyone spends half their time down the pub!

At the start of the book, Jenny was living on Lundy with her father.  Her mother had died young, and there was a sub-plot about her father meeting someone else and Jenny struggling to come to terms with it.  I loved the depictions of life on Lundy, the landscape, the wildlife, the lighthouse, and everyone being part of a close community.  There does seem to be this nostalgic view of the ’50s and ’60s as a time when everyone was best mates with their neighbours and communities were very close, but there is certainly a lot of truth to it, and that must have applied so particularly on a small island.

Pony books often involve people from very wealthy backgrounds, but, in this case, Jenny was from a fairly ordinary family, and we saw her helping out at a hotel during the busy summer season, and becoming very friendly with a slightly older boy called Ben, who’d got a summer job on the island.  I’d never heard of Lundy ponies before, but apparently there were a lot of wild ponies there between the late 1920s, when the owner of the island began breeding them, and the 1980s – and Midnight was based on a real stallion who was seen as being dangerous and troublesome.

Jenny and Ben tried to tame Midnight by giving him sugar lumps, but it all went wrong when he started chasing tourists and local kids to see if they’d feed him, and he was shipped off to Devon.  Jenny was soon also shipped off to Devon, having won a scholarship to a boarding school there.  Conveniently, Ben lived nearby, and the two of them tracked down Midnight and kept sneaking off together to see him – until one of the bitchy in crowd girls found out and shopped them to the headmistress.  However, hooray, the headmistress was sympathetic, and Jenny became quite a heroine at the school as stories of a boyfriend with his own car and taming a wild horse spread.  Hooray!  I did really like that bit: it can be quite frustrating how school stories focus on the in crowd and the misfits are always the losers, and it was great to see Jenny win out!

She’d hoped to take Midnight back to Lundy with her, but realised that he didn’t want to go.  However, conveniently – this was all a bit too convenient, but never mind – Ben’s auntie had a big estate and lots of ponies, and Midnight was able to go and live there … along with Jenny’s late mother’s pony, whom it turned out was there too!

This wasn’t the best-written school story or pony book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t bad at all.  I love traditional “Girls’ Own” books, but I know that some people struggle with the fact that all the characters are from very privileged backgrounds, and that no-one has boyfriends or girlfriends, or ever needs the toilet!   Like the Anne Digby Trebizon books, this one made a conscious effort to get away from that but without subverting or mocking or generally being negative about GO traditions.  Victoria Eveleigh isn’t Elinor M Brent-Dyer or Enid Blyton or Patricia Leitch, but this isn’t a bad book at all.  And the Kindle version was going free!

 

Party Frock/Party Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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I thought I’d read all the “Shoes” books, but I’d somehow missed this one until now.  It’s not one of Noel Streatfeild’s more interesting stories, being entirely based around preparations for a village pageant, something which wouldn’t merit more than a couple of chapters in any of her other books.  However, the idea of an entire community, plus the American troops based nearby (it’s set in 1945), all getting involved in organising a local event, was rather lovely; and it was all pleasantly devoid of horribly annoying kids or morality-teaching mishaps.

The whole premise was pretty bonkers, though.  Three and a half years into rationing, a young girl received a beautiful party frock as a Christmas present from her godmother in America, and the pageant was organised because she couldn’t wear it for an afternoon party and it wasn’t possible to organise an evening party because there were no night service buses to where the family lived!  So the frock sat in the wardrobe for 9 months, by which time she’d nearly grown out of it.  Whilst one would not wish to turn up at Buckingham Palace or Sandringham House wearing attire unsuitable for the time of day, would anyone really have been that bothered if a girl of about 12 had worn a long party frock for an afternoon party, once they knew that she’d just got it as a present and was dying to wear it?!  And it was a shame that the children’s ideas for the pageant were hijacked by adults, and turned into something completely different.  But still.  It was a very nice, sweet story, the wartime setting worked well, and of course the pageant turned out to be a great success.

The idea for the story came from Noel Streatfeild’s niece receiving a party frock as a present from America during the war, and not having an occasion on which to wear it.  In the book, Selina, the recipient of the dress, was living with her auntie, uncle and six cousins.  Her parents, who’d been based in the Far East, had been taken prisoner by the Japanese, but we heard at the end of the book that they were safe and well.  The uncle was a doctor, and probably over military age anyway, but I’m not sure why there seemed to be so many other men around, unless it was because it was a rural area and some of them were exempt due to being needed for farm work.  All the references to clothes rationing and food rationing were interesting, though, and it was nice to see the community marking VE Day and VJ Day.  It was rather sad, though when the children reflected that there’d been nothing to celebrate since the Coronation (in May 1937), when the younger ones hadn’t even been born and the older ones hadn’t been old enough to remember much.

It was classic Streatfeild in that the family claimed to be so poor that Phoebe, the youngest daughter (and the one likely to turn into a Lydia Robinson or Nicky Heath, although she was quite sweet as she was) had to wear clothes that barely covered her backside … and yet they could afford to send John, the eldest son, to Marlborough.  Oh, pull the other one!  But the fact this was set in a rural area meant that the entire social spectrum could be included.  The pageant was performed in the grounds of the local stately home, a former abbey known as, er, the Abbey, owned by Squadron Leader and Mrs Day, who were shortly to sell up after it’d been in the Day family since the Dissolution.  And all the kids from the village school (not, naturally, attended by Selina and her cousins) took part, as well as the family’s own friends.  The idea of it, everyone getting involved, really was nice.  Although the kids came up with the idea as an opportunity for Selina to wear her frock, they gave the profits to charity.

Selina’s cousins were all supposed to write scenes for the play.  Well, four of them were: the other two were too young.  Phoebe was very into poetry, and Sally, the other daughter, was very into ballet  Selina herself was sidelined almost from the start.  She was the stage manager and ran errands, and generally did a lot of work, but without getting much credit or attention.  Then the Days’ nephew Philip, who was staying with them whilst he recovered from injuries sustained in the war, and had some experience in theatre, got involved, and took over, and, before long, the little pageant had become an enormous event involving hundreds of people.

Phoebe’s scene, which she’d put a lot of effort into, was scrapped completely, and replaced by something Philip had thought up, and Sally’s scene was taken over and reworked by the local ballet school.  Whilst the kids did seem upset about this, the narrative was clearly in favour of it, and didn’t show the kids much sympathy.  Yes, it all ended up being far better than anything that young children could have written and produced by themselves, and Sally was offered a place at a posh ballet school, and it was good that so many people got involved, but it was a shame that the children’s enthusiasm and the work they’d put in seemed to count for nothing.

That’s very Streatfeild, though.  My all-time favourite Streatfeilds are the Gemma books, but I always feel sorry for Dulcie, the leading light of the local university drama society, when she’s deprived of the chance to play Juliet because Gemma, who isn’t even a student at the university, is parachuted into the role.  The narrative shows no sympathy at all for Dulcie and her supporters, stressing that Gemma is the better actress.  Again, the production was much better than it would have been without outside involvement, but I do feel sorry for the people who are pushed out.

Towards the end, the Abbey caught fire, and Selina heroically helped to put out the flames, thus proving what a heroine she was, even though everyone seemed to have forgotten that the pageant was originally meant to be about her and her party frock.  That wasn’t very Streatfeild at all: it was the sort of thing that’d happen in an Enid Blyton book, or maybe an Elinor M Brent-Dyer book.  But at least Selina got a bit of glory.

The pageant was a huge success on the day, and Philip Day – on whom I think Selina had a bit of a crush – made a point of saying what a great job Selina had done as stage manager.  It still seemed a shame that the children’s own ideas had been taken over and turned into something else, though, and even more of a shame that Selina only got to wear the dress once, and said that it was getting tight so she was going to pass it on to Phoebe.

But it was all good fun, and everyone enjoyed themselves!  No-one got conceited about their part and was punished by fate by breaking their leg just before the pageant, or annoyed everyone else by thinking that they were the most important person in it.  And, hey, the American soldiers bought the Abbey to use as a youth hostel for American children wanting to holiday in post-war Britain – er, as armies do – so the Days were able to stay put.  Happy endings all round.  It wasn’t a very memorable book, but it was nice.

 

 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I’ve no idea why I’d never read this before.  I’m always 🙂 reminding people that Frances Hodgson Burnett was originally from Cheetham Hill, and that her family lost their money in the Cotton Famine; and I read “The Secret Garden” when I was 8.  Oh well, better late than never.  What a lovely book!  I was half-expecting it to be one of those awful Victorian stories in which the heroine’s either too good to be true or bursts into tears every five minutes, or both, but it isn’t like that at all.  Sara Crewe is very sweet, but in an appealing and believable way, and I genuinely liked her.  And, hooray, she’s best friends with the fat girl!   Being the fat girl at school is not easy, and (the unfortunately-named) Ermengarde is lacking in both friends and self-confidence until Sara turns up, but Sara genuinely isn’t bothered about what she looks like.  The book would be worth reading for that sub-plot alone, but it’s just a really nice book all round.

OK, the ending isn’t particularly realistic, but a) it’s a children’s book and b) the sudden rescue from poverty is very typical of Victorian books – think of how things turn out for Oliver Twist, or even for Jane Eyre.  Overall, I was very impressed with this.  And a book about trying to make the best of a difficult situation, using your imagination to help you cope if need be, is definitely not a bad thing to be reading as we head towards our eighth week of lockdown.  #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with it all!

Sara Crewe is the seven-year-old only child of a young widower living and working in India.  He brings her home to England and leaves her at a London boarding school run by a Miss Minchin – one of those small “seminary” type places, like the one Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley went to in Vanity Fair 65 years earlier (this was published in 1888).   As Captain Crewe is rolling in it, Sara is a “parlour boarder” – she gets her own suite of rooms and a maid to look after her, and wears much fancier clothes than anyone else.   I think Harriet Smith in Emma was also a parlour boarder, but we never actually see her in that setting, and it’s very interesting to think how this would have worked, with one pupil being so differentiated from the others.

Some of the girls are jealous, and sarcastically nickname Sara “Princess Sara”, but she’s so nice to everyone that it becomes a term of endearment.  She picks up all the waifs and strays – Ermengarde, a very young girl called Lottie, and the put-upon skivvy, Becky.  And she’s good at her lessons.  And Miss Minchin quite likes being able to show off by having this pupil who’s dripping in furs and jewels and so on.

Then, news comes that Captain Crewe has dropped dead, having first lost all his money, persuaded by an old friend to invest in a diamond mine which turned out to be a disaster.  So Sara is destitute, and apparently has no other relatives or family friends.  Miss Minchin can’t chuck her out on the street because it’d look bad, so Sara has to become a servant, living up in the attic in the room next to Becky’s, running errands (she doesn’t seem to do any actual cooking, cleaning, washing, etc!) and hardly getting anything too eat.  Miss Minchin is a Very Nasty Person.

Sara, who’s always been very imaginative – a bit like Anne Shirley was to be, later on – copes with it by pretending that she and Becky are prisoners in the Bastille, and, when Ermengarde sneaks up to visit and brings a hamper of goodies, pretending that they’re having a court banquet.  But Miss Minchin catches Ermengarde, and stops her and Lottie from seeing Sara 😦 .  It does all get a bit pantomime/fairy story-ish, with Miss Minchin as the wicked witch, when Sara gets nothing to eat on some days.  She (Sara) does find a coin in the street, and buys some buns with it … but gives most of them away to someone even worse off than she is.  But she keeps her spirits up, and is always unfailingly polite to everyone.

Then a man who’s recently returned from India, after a serious illness, moves in next door.  And, whaddaya know, he’s the friend who persuaded Sara’s dad to invest in the mines – and the mines are now producing loads of diamonds.  He feels terrible about everything that’s happened, and is desperate to find Sara so that he can become her legal guardian and give her all the zillions of pounds that are now hers.  Unfortunately, he thinks she was sent to school in Paris and has been adopted by a family who are now in Russia, so he sends his solicitor there to look for her.  Despite the size of Alexander III’s Russian Empire, the solicitor soon finds the girl they thought was Sara, only to find that she’s someone else.

Meanwhile, the man’s Indian manservant’s monkey (it’s a Victorian book, OK!) gets into Sara’s attic through a skylight.  The manservant rescues him, is very impressed by Sara, feels sorry for her, and reports back to his master.  From then on, he keeps sneaking through the skylight to light the fire and leave loads of food and other stuff for Sara, and they also have two parcels of fancy clothes delivered to her!   Eventually, of course, it comes out that Sara is the girl they’ve been looking for, her dad’s friend becomes her guardian and she goes to live with him, and Becky becomes her lady’s maid, hooray!  And, just to make sure that we don’t forget how nice she is, she insists on giving money to the woman at the bakery where she got the buns, so that buns can be provided for the needy.

All right, it’s a bit clichéd, but it really is a lovely book.  Sara isn’t sickly-sweet.  She isn’t too good to be true.  She gets angry with Miss Minchin, but realises that showing that isn’t going to help.  There’s never any mention of the need for obedience, or accepting the Lord’s will, or the School of Love, or anything like that.  She’s just a genuinely nice person who tries to cope with a very difficult situation as best she can.  And that’s something we’re all having to try to do at the moment. As I said, #BeMoreSaraCrewe – maybe that could be a good slogan for coping with lockdown!

 

Malory Towers – BBC iPlayer

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What brilliant fun this is!   It’s clearly aimed at a young audience, but, especially as we’re confined to barracks at present, I suspect that a lot of “grown-ups” will be having a cracking nostalgia-fest with it.  They really have done an excellent job with a limited and mostly very young cast.  The main characters are all in there, and we’ve got midnight feasts (although I can’t say that I ever envisioned them involving china cups and teapots), lacrosse practice and tricks being played on teachers.  Am I the only person who’s ever tried to make a lacrosse stick by attaching a piece of wood to a bin?  OK, don’t answer that. I was only about 7 at the time, to be fair.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who was obsessed with the idea of midnight feasts, though.

And they’re swimming in a seawater cove.  I assume that the pool in the books was actually a proper pool, just somehow fed by seawater, but this is way better.  The moral lessons, which aren’t overly preachy in Blyton books, are in there, and a bit of feminist debate’s been chucked in too, with Darrell doing a lot of talking about careers for women, and Gwen only wanting to bag a husband.   Some of the storylines from the first book are there, and the actual characters of the girls are true to the books.  There are several plots which definitely aren’t in the books – one of them’s been half-inched from “Theodora and the Chalet School”, and I’m not sure how a ghost story got in there – so purists may have a few issues with it, but it’s nice, clean fun, and I’m sure we could all do with some of that at the moment.

Alicia has somehow become American, which completely confused me because I thought at first that she must be Sadie, and then remembered that Sadie was at St Clare’s, not Malory Towers, and got even more confused!  [ETA – oops, sorry, she’s Canadian!] I’m glad that they’re pronouncing it A-LISS-ee-a, by the way, because that’s how I’ve always pronounced it, but the name now seems to have become A-leesh-a.  The colour blind casting is great, but the American accent did confuse me a bit.  Mamzelle (Rougier, but a combination of Rougier and Dupont) has been made very chic, but I suppose the idea of the stupid Frenchwoman might not work so well now.  The same with the famous slapping scene – that definitely doesn’t feature. [ ETA – a-ha, yes it does, it’s in the 4th episode, and I’d only watched the first three when I wrote this!!]  Miss Potts is also rather elegant, and no-one’s yet referred to her as “Potty”.  Matron is now the comedy figure.  Miss Grayling is suitably wise and inspirational, although sadly we didn’t get her famous speech welcoming Darrell to Malory Towers.

As far as Darrell starting at the school goes, it’s been explained that she and some of the others have changed schools.  It never did make sense how they arrived for the first year but some of the girls had already been there a while, so that sorts it!

And I’m very glad that it’s been left in the 1940s, where it’s meant to be.  The books don’t actually say anything to set it in a particular time, but this showed a soldier and a sailor on the platform at the station, and reference was made to Darrell’s mum and others being traumatised by the events of the war.  The uniforms are utterly vile, though.  Couldn’t they have dressed them in brown gymslips?

Don’t be expecting the story to be faithful to the books, because it isn’t, but I really am enjoying it.  In these strange times, something safe and familiar from childhood days is very welcome.  And there are 13 episodes, so, if you’re in a country with access to BBC iPlayer and you haven’t done so already, get watching 🙂 !

 

Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, revisited

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I’ve read this umpteen times, and the first time was over 35 years ago; but this is the first time that I’ve ever read the uncut edition, and I’m now thinking that some wonderful potential plotlines got missed there.   For a kick-off, we’ve got the 17th century pirates, Dai Lloyd and his unnamed ship’s mate/”boon companion” who, having disposed of the rest of their crew, moved in together and lived happily ever after with all their ill-gotten treasure.  Hey, was this Elinor (EBD) wanting to make a stand against stereotyping and write a gay pirate romance, 60 years before the genre became a thing?  Posh pirates, of course, this being Chalet School land.  They lived in a stately home.  With extensive grounds.  All the better for burying your treasure in.

On a different note, we could have had Elfie Woodward making it to college via night school classes, which played a very important role in both Britain and America in the late 1940s and 1950s … except that, only eight weeks or so after leaving boarding school, she’s back.  At least it’s now accepted that a girl’s education and future plans do now matter, though.  Or we could have had Emerence pioneering demands for a vegetarian option at school dinnertimes –  but the issue of vegetarianism ismentioned once and never again.  Oh, all right, all right, I’m not really suggesting that any of these storylines would really have appeared in a Chalet School book (although it would certainly have been fun if they had), but there are all fascinating side roads down which the books, especially in their unabridged versions, send your mind wandering.  It says a lot about just how good they are.

Why on earth do pirates and buried treasure, from the 17th century or otherwise, feature in a girls’ boarding school story, we may ask ourselves.  Had EBD had noted the popularity of Enid Blyton’s adventure books in the 1940s, and decided to try to shoehorn something adventure-story-ish into one of her books?  17th century pirates are more GA Henty than Blyton, though … and Henty would never have let pirates (sorry, “freebooters”) who deliberately sank their own ship, killing all those on board, get away with the treasure!  Anyway, whatever the reason, after a teacher falls into a disused well, a pupil nearly drowns in dense mud and parts of the grounds are flooded, we get this story about how the landlord (and father of three of the pupils) had an ancestor who was a “freebooter”, and blocked up part of the natural drainage system, inadvertently creating miasmic swamps leading to deaths from mysterious fevers (EBD really did get a bit carried away with this) because he’d hidden treasure there.

The basic story’s in the abridged version, but most of the detail’s cut out – including the bit about how Dai Lloyd The Pirate’s ship’s mate moved into “The Big House” with Dai, and the two of them lived happily ever after.  Dai never married and or had children: the estate passed to his great-great-nephew.  This has got to be a gay pirate romance, hasn’t it?!

Well, OK, we can’t possibly know if that’s what was intended or not. EBD probably just wanted to find a companion for Dai to live with, and, as the storyline required him to be childless so that the estate would pass to a relative whom he’d never met and who therefore didn’t know about the treasure, it worked better for that to be another man!  But I do rather like the gay pirate romance idea.  And, in all seriousness, in recent years a lot of attention has been paid to possible same sex relationships in school stories written at a time when authors couldn’t openly refer to the two characters concerned as anything more than “close friends” or, in this case, “boon companions”.

In later Chalet School books, Nancy Wilmot and Kathie Ferrars are always together, even buying a car together, and a pupil notices “what is between” them when Kathie collapses with appendicitis and Nancy cries out “Kathie, darling”.  At this, earlier, stage of the series, Nell Wilson, whom many readers think is the partner, as well as the best friend and co-headmistress, of Hilda Annersley (and, before Hilda, of Con Stewart, with whom she turns up at a party hand-in-hand), has been dispatched to run the new finishing branch, and there’s been a bit of speculation that that was because the editors thought that Nell and Hilda were getting too close.  Happily, they are reunited later on!  And what’s great is that neither of these couples are in any way stereotyped, unlike Boyish Bill and Glamorous (once she’s taken her glasses and braces off and sorted out her hair) Clarissa in the Malory Towers books.

So, is it possible that hink that EBD was cocking a snook at both stereotyping and at any negative comments that might have been made about Hilda and Nell’s relationship, by hinting at a gay pirate romance? I believe that this genre is now rather popular, so, if she was, then she was way ahead of her time!  Well, OK, probably not.  But it’d make a great story, wouldn’t it?

Moving on to Elfie Woodward’s storyline, the “needed at home” plot had been used before, notably when Mary Burnett left school suddenly, clearing the way for Jo Bettany to become Head Girl. In this case, Elfie leaves school to keep house for her father and two young brothers following the death of her stepmother. It doesn’t actually seem to serve much purpose, other than her best friend Bride Bettany finding things strange without her – and, then, just after half term, Elfie reappears, and we’re told that a distant and hitherto unmentioned cousin has appeared from nowhere and will take over the role instead. Even more pointlessly, the storyline’s repeated in the very next book, when Bride’s sister Peggy decides to drop out of finishing school to care for their mother, who’s been ill … and, again, hey presto, a hitherto unmentioned relative appears from nowhere and … you get the idea.

However, ignoring the way it turns out, and ignoring Peggy, who was only planning to “go home” after school anyway, it’s interesting because of the contrast in reactions to Mary’s news and Elfie’s. No-one has anything at all to say about the fact that Mary, who had always wanted to go to university and then vote her life to teaching/academia, is having to abandon her plans … although she does later turn up at the school as a teacher, so maybe a long-lost relative intervened in her case too! But everyone comments on the effect that having to leave school early is going to have on Elfie, who’d hoped to train as a PE teacher. Attitudes towards middle-class girls’ education and post-school plans have really changed.

And we’re then told that this will only be a short-term thing, until Elfie’s youngest half-brother is old enough for boarding school, and that, in the meantime, she’ll be able to continue her education at night The idea of night school as a way for people to continue their education and or learn new skills after leaving school goes back to Victorian times, initially mainly for men but, especially as time went on, for women too. Helen Forrester, in her biographical novels set in the 1930s, writes about how it completely changed her life. In the late 1940s and 1950s, it played a crucial role in filling post-war skills shortages. It wasn’t generally associated with people from well-to-do backgrounds, though, and it’s rare for it to be mentioned in Girls’ Own or Boys’ Own books. It very much goes back to the 19th century idea of self-help and working to improve your status in life, and Chalet School land is not big on that. Girls whose fathers are self-made men are inevitably Very Bad Indeed – Elma Conroy’s got a boyfriend (the horror!), and Vera Smithers and Diana Skelton both end up being expelled/removed.

So I really like the idea of Elfie writing to tell Bride that she’s going to night school, meeting lots of people from different backgrounds, and that she’s passed her exams, applied for college and got in (CS characters always just get into the further education institutions of their choice, applications and exams and interviews apparently unnecessary).   It would have been something very different, and it would have been very 1950s: I’m genuinely not putting a modern slant on this bit.  But, instead, Elfie just comes back to the Chalet School.  I think that the night school version would have been much more interesting!

The brief reference to night school is in the abridged version, but somehow I never seem to have picked up on it before.  The mention of the Hope family being vegetarians is cut out, though. The hardback version says that the Hopes are complete cranks, with Mr and Mrs Hope thinking that children should be able to do whatever they want. Being vegetarians appears to prove that they’re cranks, rather like Eustace Scrubb’s family in the Narnia books. I don’t know whether Armada cut that bit just to save space, or whether they felt that suggesting that vegetarians were cranks was no longer acceptable by the 1970s (the book was originally published in 1952). Then it’s never mentioned again. Presumably EBD, if she thought about it at all, assumed that Emerence would just eat whatever she was given.

Even when I was at primary school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you just got what you were given, no choice (although, if you had school dinners at secondary school, a choice was provided there). So I do get that the idea of offering a zillion different alternatives is pretty new: I’m really not saying that the Chalet School should have done Meat Free Mondays!  Rationing was still in force when this book was published, apart from anything else.  Going back to my primary school days, we got utterly vile soya meat substitutes, to avoid any issues over religious dietary laws, but I think our school was unusual in that. But, if you were at a day school and there were genuine religious or ethical reasons why you couldn’t eat the meals provided, presumably arrangements could be made for you to go home for dinner, if practical, or to take your own food; but what would have happened at a boarding school if someone had insisted that they couldn’t eat the meals?  Is it ever mentioned anywhere?  Or is it one of those situations that we just assume would never have occurred?  And wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to have had Emerence staging a rebellion over school dinners, rather than refusing to use the back stairs?!

So there we go.  Three new thoughts on a book I thought I knew so well.

The book is basically bonkers, incidentally!  Loveday Perowne is told, in front of all the other prefects, that she’s only been appointed Head Girl because she’s a few months older than the three other candidates.  Well, that can’t have made either her or the other three feel very good, can it?  There are some irritating inconsistencies with form names and with Michael Christy’s title.  Jo writes to tell the staff that she’s had another boy, before she’s even given birth. Why??  Jack tells Hilda and Rosalie that the Maynards and the Russells will pay for them to go to Canada, as a Christmas present.  What?? The prefects steal the mistresses’ underwear, to use in a game.  Is it me, or is that a bit weird?  And the “final, delightful shock” (per the blurb on the back cover) is Jo turning up at the Christmas play, which is a bit of an anti-climax!

But it’s a nice book.  All the characters are likeable – “bad girl” Emerence is wayward and cheeky, but she’d never deliberately hurt another girl either physically or psychologically, unlike some of the bullies in other school stories – but none of them are prissy or preachy.  There’s no one dominant character at this stage of the series, and that works well.  Rosalie Dene, the school’s overworked secretary, actually gets a plotline, even if it is only going to the foot of our stairs … sorry, sitting at the foot of the stairs.  And we get to see Madge Russell, which happens all too infrequently after the Tyrolean era.

Also, the year group leading the school in this book do mark a turning point in the series, and Elfie’s storyline, showing that it’s no longer considered acceptable in CS land for a girl’s education to be viewed as unimportant, is part of that.  In the year above them, many girls will just be “going home” after school.  In this year, pretty much everyone will be going on to some sort of further education or training.  This is probably the only school series which goes on long enough to show social and cultural shifts, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special.  And, who knows, if it had gone on long enough, maybe we’d have seen Con Maynard writing gay pirate romances.  I do hope so!

 

Curtain Up/Theatre Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

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It’s over 35 years since I last read this book, and I’d forgotten how infuriating Noel Streatfeild’s over-use of Cockney rhyming slang is.  “I’m worn to a shred by the time I’ve laid the Cain and Abel, and when it comes to dishing up I never know how to drag my plates of meat up the apples and pears.”  Seriously?  Not even Mick Carter in EastEnders talks like that.  It sounds like a sketch by The Two Ronnies.  As for “putting your hand in your sky rocket” … don’t even go there.  However, if you can endeavour to ignore that, this is a very good book.  All three of the main characters are genuinely nice – the stock annoying brat, in this case their cousin, is only a minor character – and very realistic.  It’s also interesting because of the wartime setting, which includes the news that Petrova Fossil from Ballet Shoes is helping to build aircraft for the war effort.  Petrova is a star. I remember all the fuss about Charlene in Neighbours being a Girl Mechanic, and that was in the 1980s!  As a kid, I wanted to be Pauline, rather than Petrova, though.  Pauline, or Sorrel, or Gemma.  I can’t sing and I can’t dance, but (in those long-ago days when I actually had the confidence to stand up on a primary school stage) I used to think I could act.   I can’t.  But kids in Streatfeild books are always talented.

Our three kids – Streatfeild likes families with three or four kids – are Sorrel, Mark and Holly Forbes, who have been living a Terribly Respectable life with their vicar grandfather, their mum having died and their sailor dad being missing in action.  When their grandfather dies, they have to go to live with their unknown maternal grandmother, who turns out to be the matriarch of a theatrical dynasty.  The grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins are all fairly stereotypical theatre sorts, but, apart from the grandmother herself, they aren’t too OTT.  One of the cousins is a brat, As I’ve said, but there’s nearly always a brat in a Streatfeild book – think Lydia Robinson, Nicky Heath, etc..

The grandfather had been paying their school fees, and the schools apparently can’t wait until his will’s gone through probate and his funds have been released.  The grandmother, despite living in a large house and employing the rhyming-slang-talking housekeeper, and now the grandfather’s housekeeper as well, is broke.  So the children go to a theatre school run by a friend of hers, Madame Fidolia of Ballet Shoes fame, and receive financial assistance from the Fossils of Ballet Shoes fame (why??).  Sorrel turns out to be good at acting.  Mark is good at singing, but is eventually allowed to return to his original plan of following his dad into the Navy.  Holly is meant to be good at dancing, but turns out to be a comedienne, whilst their nice cousin Miriam, daughter of a comedian, turns out to be a dancer.  The nasty cousin, Miranda, is also an actress, but Sorrel outperforms her in The Tempest – hooray!!  My brain always gets the production of The Tempest in this book mixed up with the one in the Antonia Forest Kingscote books, for some reason.  Maybe it’s because they both involve characters called Miranda.

There’s a lot of whingeing about being poor, but, more interestingly, we see the effect of rationing and wartime shortages on their ability to buy the items required at a theatre school.  That’s surprisingly unusual in GO books.  However, there’s an absolutely cringeworthy scene in which Madame Fidolia tells the other pupils that they should feel sorry for the Forbes kids, because they’ve got no-one at home to see that they look nice (rather insulting to the two faithful family retainers, who bend over backwards to help the kids).  This is apparently meant to be a positive thing, but how mortified would you have been at your whole school being told to feel sorry for you?!  We also see the theatre school kids putting on performance for injured service personnel in hospitals, and for service personnel on leave – a nice wartime touch.

The three children all come across quite well, especially Sorrel.  I always quite like Streatfeild’s responsible older kids, and Sorrel is particularly appealing – sensible and responsible but without having any of Ann Robinson’s prissiness.  Mark refuses to be pushed into a career that he doesn’t want, and Holly is very stoic when told that Posy Fossil’s dancing scholarship is to go to Miriam rather than to her.  Everyone seems fairly realistic, despite the luvvie-ishness (is that a word?) and eccentricities of some of the family members: there’s nothing in the books that really grates.

I don’t know how I missed this one when I did my Streatfeild re-read around 10 years ago, but somehow I did.  Oh well, I’ve re-read it now.  Very good book!  Or do I mean “fish hook” 🙂 ?!