The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce


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


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


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!



Dilly Goes To Ambergate by Margaret Biggs



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!

Bobby at Hill House by Margaret Biggs


This is another one-off school story from Margaret Biggs.  It’s a collection of tropes of the genre; but they’re put together very well, and the characters all come across very well.

We’ve got:

  1. The girl who’s known by a boyish “short” – our heroine is Bobby, short for Roberta.
  2.  The girl who’s sent away to school due to a change of circumstances at home – Bobby’s guardian gets married, and his wife decides that she can’t cope with looking after a teenage girl.   Unusually, with fictional boarding schools usually being in the countryside, Bobby is sent from Cornwall to London: Hill House is in Highgate.
  3.  The new headmistress who shakes things up – Miss Bennett relaxes a lot of rules and gives the girls more choices in what they do.
  4. The girl who thinks she’s a cut above the others – Julia’s family have been involved with Hill House from the start, and she isn’t impressed by the changes.
  5. The girl from a poor background who thinks that others will judge her as a result – this is Stephanie, known (see plot point 1) as Steve rather than as Steph or Stephie.  Mind you  Stevie Nicks isn’t Steph or Stephie either, but the book predates Fleetwood Mac!
  6.  The girl with no confidence, who turns out to be absolutely brilliant at something  – this is Davida, known (see plot point 1 again!) as Davey, who turns out to be a brilliant pianist.
  7. The unexpected long-lost eelationship – it turns out that Miss Bennett and Bobby’s guardian’s wife are old schoolfriends who have lost touch.
  8. The nasty teacher – Miss Merton, who eventually leaves.
  9. The teacher who marries a pupil’s widowed father – Miss Bennett gets together with Julia’s dad.
  10. The childhood sweetheart – it’s hinted that Bobby will eventually marry Flip (Philip), John’s other ward … which is a bit icky because, although there’s no blood relationship, they’ve grown up together as siblings.
  11. The happy ending – everyone starts to get on.

That sounds as if I’m being sarcastic.  I’m really not.  It’s a lovely book, and the tropes are all fairly realistic ones – no-one turns out to be a princess in disguise, or runs away and falls over a cliff, or anything like that!    Not bad at all.



Terry’s Best Term by Evelyn Smith



This is a gentle school story from the 1920s, in which not much actually happens … but, somehow, it doesn’t need to happen.   None of the pupils turn out to be the long-lost daughters of dukes, no-one gets caught in a blizzard, and no-one even scores a dramatic last minute winner in a lacrosse match.  In fact, there aren’t any sports events.  Or concerts.  And there aren’t really many lessons.

The main point of the story is that Terry (Teresa) wants to make friends with Julia, the new girl who’s moved in next door and who also attends the same school as her.  Terry’s family live in the Square House and Julia’s family live in the Round House, which sounds like something out of Play School, but never mind.  There’s a fruit sale, and there are a few incidents with Julia’s horse.  And Terry, Julia and Julia’s brother all save up to buy a car together.  As you do.  The two girls are as interested in the mechanics as the boy is, and no-one finds that odd – which is quite impressive, considering that it was deemed a huge big deal in the mid-1980s when Kylie Minogue played a female car mechanic in Neighbours!  Oh, and, at the end, there are some burglaries, but the police rapidly apprehend the burglar, and all his victims are immediately reunited with their stuff.

It sounds boring, but somehow it isn’t.  It’s just nice and gentle.


Malory Towers sequels by Pamela Cox


I’ve now read all six of these, having read the first one a while back.   They’re readable, but I’m not overly impressed.  I’m not sure that Malory Towers particularly lends itself to sequels, because its “world” just isn’t big enough.  We only know the basics about the girls’ home lives, and the action all takes place on or near the school premises.  There aren’t even any school trips.  Pamela Cox does try to address that issue by placing Bill and Clarissa’s riding school close to Malory Towers and showing the girls spending time there, but it hardly compares to the Chalet School girls’ walks in the mountains or even the Kingscote Guide walks.

The books are about Felicity Rivers and her friends, although Daphne Hope also features in the later ones.   There are midnight feasts, “treeks” being played on Mam’zelle Dupont and various sagas about nasty new girls and mysteries over who’s responsible for things disappearing, plus plenty of tennis and lacrosse matches, but where Malory Towers scores is its realism in showing that people are actually having to work and pass exams, and there’s none of that in these books.  Incidentally, has anyone ever understood the form system at Malory Towers?  It should be either I, II, III etc or Upper III, Lower IV, Upper IV etc, and it seems to be a weird hybrid!

Some of the storyline are OK, but some of them are plain silly.  Gwendoline Lacey returns, to teach deportment and other finishing school type stuff.  Excuse me?   Malory Towers wasn’t into that sort of thing.  Girls were there to have fun and learn to be strong, reliable women etc, but they were also there to work and pass exams, not to learn to be debutantes.   Even worse, Jo Jones returns, using her middle name and her mother’s maiden name, and none of her old classmates recognise her because she’s lost weight and is wearing glasses!    There’s also a story about a long-lost grandma, which is more Angela Brazil than Enid Blyton.  And a teacher who is spying on the girls, and blackmails someone who was expelled from a school at which she taught previously into telling her what’s going on.  Why would a teacher want to spy on pupils?   It’s hardly as if they’re concealing state secrets!

I sound as if I’m being very critical.  I don’t mean to be: it’s just that Malory Towers is a bit of a cultural icon, and it’s strange reading these books which aren’t quite Blyton’s Malory Towers.  They’re not a bad read, but they’re not super-wonderful either.



The Ballet Twins by Jean Estoril


 I said that I wasn’t going to read anything else by Jean Estoril/Mabel Esther Allan because of her sarky remarks about women from Lancashire being fat … but I just felt like reading a ballet book.  This reads as if it ought to be the first in a series, but she seems to have lost interest in the Darke twins after reading this book, and written her Wood Street series instead.  That’s a shame, because it wasn’t bad.  Girls’ own authors tend to love to write about twins, so it’s really rather surprising that there aren’t more books about twins at ballet schools or theatre schools!

They aren’t identical twins – it’s not that tropey!  In fact, the whole point of the book is that they’re very different in both looks and personality.  The book’s written in the first person, from the viewpoint of Dorrie (Doria), who’s far more thoughtful and less confident than her non-identical twin Debbie (Deborah).  Both girls, aged 13, win scholarships to a ballet school in London, and move there from their home in Birkenhead, living with an auntie and attending the school every day.

There are some things which seem to have been pretty much copied out of the author’s Drina books, such as Debbie’s photo appearing in a newspaper; and not an awful lot actually happens.  There are no big dramas.  Dorrie runs off when she mistakenly thinks she’s failed to get a part in the end-of-term ballet, but she comes back safely, in a taxi rather being carried by a hero or picked up by the police, and, although she’s hurt her ankle slightly, she hasn’t been run over by a car like Lydia Robinson of the Gemma books, rescued from a Scottish mountain on New Year’s Eve like Jane Foster of the Wells books (lucky Jane) or had to ride a horse through the fog like Veronica Weston of the Wells books.

It was just a nice, easy read.  It wasn’t very likely that the twins would both win scholarships, but, OK, it was necessary for plot purposes!   And everything else was interesting enough but never unrealistic.   I was just surprised to find out that there weren’t any sequels, because it felt as if we were being set up for a whole series about the girls’ careers.   Oh well!


Pippa in Switzerland by E E Ohlson


You’re spending your school holidays (the school isn’t named, but, as we keep being told that it’s near Brighton, it’s presumably Roedean) in the Bernese Oberland, where, having sorted out your sister’s love life (after her estranged boyfriend just happened to show up in the same place) and some random woman’s marriage, you climb a glacier – wearing your Guide uniform, as you never wear anything else.  You and your friend get lost in the fog, and take shelter in one of those huts which are always so conveniently placed in Switzerland and Austria, but two lads are in there already.  Are they Swiss?  No.  They’re two Etonians on holiday, and the uncle of one of them is mates with your sister’s new fiance.  Of course.  Luckily, you and your friend are carrying a huge picnic basket, so you share all the food.  Then, when the fog clears, you carry on climbing.  That’s just one part of the book, but you get the general idea.

I think that we’re *meant* to find the “irrepressible” Pippa irritating, with her constant minding of other people’s business, her complete failure to see her faults as pointed out by other people and her bizarre insistence on wearing her Guide uniform wherever she goes, but the book was actually very entertaining in a totally OTT jolly spiffing sort of way!   And it only cost me £1, and it was certainly worth £1.


The School Knight-Errant by Sibyl B Owsley


This, published in 1933, started off seeming like one of those books which poke gentle fun at their own genre.  Vivian, a boarding school pupil and Guide, was an avid reader of schoolgirl magazines, always convinced that the gardener’s boy is a duke in disguise and that two innocent people having a chat are plotting dastardly deeds.  I thought it was all going to be a series of adventures which weren’t adventures, but then, unusually for a Girls’ Own or Boys’ Own book, we went off into the story of Betty, one of the school maids – not a sycophantic cipher, but the daughter of an intelligent, hard-working skilled craftsman who was out of work due to the effects of the Depression.  Betty, also a Guide, and Vivian became friends, and no-one seemed to find that odd.

There was then an admittedly rather far-fetched plot in which Betty’s sister bought a second-hand book which turned out to be worth a fortune and saved the family’s bacon, and then a slightly less far-fetched plot in which Vivian, after wandering off from a Guide camp in search of a Scout camp involving one of Betty’s brothers, had her bike damaged by horses and then came across an invalid girl who wanted to be a “Post Guide” – I never knew that you could be a Guide or Scout by post if you couldn’t actually join a company, but what a nice idea.

So it was all rather an odd mix of genres – the valuable book plot was more than worthy of one of Angela Brazil’s less likely novels, but the bringing into a GO story of Betty’s family, and the showing of how the Depression pushed a lot of hard-working people into poverty, and how Betty and her family were no different to the boarding school girls and their families, just born under an unluckier financial star, was unusual and very laudable.  An interesting book.