The Crew of the Belinda by Jane Shaw

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  This is the last of the three Girls’ Own books which I got cheap the other week.  It’s quite entertaining, but it’s just ridiculously silly.  We’ve got a fairly typical GO scenario in which the children’s mum died when they were young, their dad is an absent-minded professor who’s decided at the last minute to spend the school summer holidays on some work thing, and the children have been dumped on a relative.  In this case, it’s a rather prissy auntie, who’s going to come and stay.  The children, three girls, aren’t keen on this idea, so the two youngest – aged not, say, 7 and 8, but 14 and almost 16 – decide to burn the house down to keep the auntie out.  As you would.  They actually get as far as pouring paraffin over everything before they’re stopped.

After this, they decide to rent the house out (presumably having got rid of the smell of paraffin).  This idea works.  But then, whoops, they’ve got nowhere to live.  Never thought of that.  But then, wa-hay, the eldest remembers a houseboat on Loch Lomond, which an uncle who’s gone away to sea said was theirs to use any time.  Hurrah!   Oh, but they haven’t got any money, because the absent-minded dad forgot to make any financial arrangements and the tenants aren’t paying up front.  Never mind.  They can make money by charging people to borrow their books.  Sorted.

So off they go.  After this, the auntie is barely mentioned again.  Presumably she arrived, found that the house was occupied by complete strangers and her nieces had vanished without trace, shrugged her shoulders, and went home.  The housekeeper, who knew about the paraffin and the letting, has left the girls to it and gone ahead with her plans to spend the summer with her own family.  Good for her!   Most GO housekeepers would have felt obliged to take the girls with them, to stay with an apple-cheeked sister or cousin who would ply them with vast amounts of food for which no payment was expected.

They then arrive at the boat, and get caught up in a forgery plot which involves people hiding counterfeit £5 notes inside books on boats and tins in the loch, and leaving caviar pots lying about.  This last is a red herring.  The caviar pots do not, in fact, belong to the local squire, but to someone who works for him.  And then their dad turns up.   Oh, and there’s a cat.  And a friend from school.  And her brother, who keeps playing tricks on them because he’s narked that they’re using their own houseboat, which he wanted to pretend was a Viking longship.  And an incident in which they go to church, pretend to put money in the collection bag, and one of them gets her hand stuck in it.

I’m still wondering what happened to the auntie.  And why they didn’t just tell her that they’d been invited to stay with friends for the holidays.

Oh well.  It was so utterly ridiculous that it made me laugh.  So it gets marks for that.  But it doesn’t really get marks for anything else!

 

 

The Chalet School Returns to the Alps by Lisa Townsend

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  This, the latest Chalet School “fill-in”, is a lovely book.  It covers three topics within the series which I’ve always felt merited more attention – Nancy Wilmot’s apparent personality transplant between her schooldays and her teaching days; the story of Sue Meadows, who’s in a rather Victorian position as “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob; and, albeit briefly, Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard.  The characters are true to how they appear in the “canon” books, the style is very much like Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s, yet it avoids those traits of Elinor’s which grate on people slightly – Joey Maynard is helpful rather than overbearing, nobody preaches, and there are very few references to Nancy’s weight!   My only gripe is with the rather odd cover picture.

However, this is yet another “fill-in” which, rather than filling in, runs parallel to an existing book – in this case, The Chalet School and Barbara.  Several of the scenes are those already seen, just told from a different viewpoint.  I’m not criticising the fill-in authors in any way, but wouldn’t their talents be put to better use in writing more original stories?  There’s all sorts of scope for spin-off books about a number of characters, or for sequels to the La Rochelle books.  Or, if GGBP want to stick to school stories, how about a book set at the Carnbach branch of the school?

That’s not to take anything away from this book, which is highly recommended if you are a fan of the Chalet School fill-ins.

The original series is rather prone to inconsistencies, affectionately known as “EBD-isms”, and one of the many is that Nancy Wilmot, who as a schoolgirl was described as lazy and had a particular dislike of maths, returns as a maths mistress, and is so efficient and hard-working that, by the end of the series, she looks set to become the next headmistress.  The obvious explanation is that, like so many people of her generation, she was changed by her experiences during the war, and that’s what Lisa Townsend shows here.  We also see Nancy’s close friendship with Hilary Graves, nee Burn, which, although it is mentioned in The Chalet School and Barbara, seems to be forgotten thereafter – rather like Peggy Burnett and Rosalie Dene being cousins, and Phoebe Peters being Reg Entwistle’s childhood mentor!

One of the biggest strengths of the Chalet School series is that we see the viewpoint of the staff as well as the girls, and we see Nancy having some issues fitting in, and being concerned that she’s not seen as a “proper” Old Girl because she’d been at St Scholastika’s.  The issues arising from the merger of the two schools were an issue in The New Chalet School, but the series jumped two or three years so they were never mentioned again.

There’s a vast amount of fanfic about Nancy, but most of that centres on her relationship with Kathie Ferrars.  As this book’s set long before Kathie arrived at the school, that obviously doesn’t come into it, but it’s good to see more attention being paid to someone who becomes such an important character.

The other main character in the book is Sue Meadows.  I’ve always found Sue’s story interesting – she’s in Switzerland as a “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob, and her fees are being paid by Leila’s mother, who seems concerned only about Leila and not about Sue.   It’s something different, but it’s never really explored.  Also interesting is Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard, who sadly gets very few storylines.  Even with that one, we get Con being summoned to the San, and a lot of talk about how it might affect her, but  it then all seems to be forgotten, and we never hear of the two girls seeing each other again!  The friendship isn’t really gone into here, but we do see the triplets getting to know Sue and then getting to know Leila.  Sue’s story is gone into in far more detail – we learn that her parents are in America due to her dad’s job; and we see what a complex situation it is, with both Mrs Elstob and Sue genuinely frightened by Leila’s medical condition but Sue’s needs being neglected as a result.

It all fits together very well, along with a sub-plot about Mary Woodley, the girl who bullies Barbara Chester.  It really is a very good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I just think that, now that most of the “missing” terms have been “filled”, it might be better for GGBP and the authors to go in the direction of writing about something new, rather than writing about events which EBD’s already written about.  But that’s in no way a criticism of either this author or this book – it really is a lovely book.

 

All Change at Blainstock Stables by Jemma Spark (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Oh dear.  Note to author – stop overthinking things so much, please.  Just write your story.  It’d be much better that way.  If you want to write a book about a girl who lives in a Scottish castle and rides ponies, just do so.  It’s fine.  There really is no law against either living in a castle or riding ponies.

I’m not sure quite what went on with this book, but it felt as if the author was stressing about being attacked by virtue signallers, for writing something as innocent as a children’s pony book.  So she’d shoved in some completely irrelevant conversations about, for example, the protests about Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War – which, given that the book was set two years before Australia really *got* involved in the Vietnam War, made even less sense than it would have done otherwise.  And claimed that the castle stables would be “a new social order”. ( The characters were opening a riding school/livery yard, not storming the Winter Palace).

Then she’d shown her main character writing books about her life and saying that it was very unfair of people to have a go at her just because she lived in a castle, thus proving the point that … , er there wasn’t a point to prove anyway, so maybe she’d have done better just to have stuck to the pony story.  And, to cap it all, shown the said main character of her book criticising the readers of *her* own book for over-analysing children’s books.  It all just seemed to get tied in knots.  Do we have to do this?   As I said, it really isn’t a crime to live in a castle or to ride a pony.

Now, despite never having ridden a pony in my life (unless donkeys on Blackpool beach count), I always rather liked pony books as a kid.  Newsflash – most kids do actually like books about people whose lifestyles are not identical to their own.  So I thought that this would be good fun.  We’ve got a girl who lives in a Scottish castle, where there is a cook (in the 1960s), the family have “a private income”, there are lots of ponies, and people go off to gymkhanas etc.  But, shock horror, a lot of the family’s money is stolen by an evil agent who runs off to South America.  So our girl Jill has to start running a riding school/stables business.  So far, so good – surprisingly traditional GO stuff for something published in 2021 and set in 1963/64.

Unfortunately, the author seems to have got a bit panicky that she was going to be accused of writing about “privileged, entitled people” living in their own little world, which is apparently now regarded as a heinous crime.  To be fair, even when I was a kid, teachers used to go mad about us reading “Girls’ Own” books.  One of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I read too many Enid Blyton books.  I was known from a very early age as the class bookworm, but apparently that was no good unless I was reading the “right” sort of books.  I ignored her.  Incidentally, I also watched Grange Hill, but no-one ever complained that that didn’t include anyone who lived in a stately home.

So, at one, rather random point, the book completely diverges from the main plot, and wanders off down Virtue-Signalling Avenue.  We are informed that the stables are going to be a “new social order” in which servants are not treated as servants.  Were people still referring to “servants” in the 1960s, incidentally?   We also get the characters, out of nowhere, discussing veganism, animal welfare, Stalinism (in 1963/4?), the Bristol Bus Boycott, Aboriginal rights and demonstrating against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.  Given that Australia didn’t really get involved with the Vietnam War until 1965, this was remarkably prescient of them: however, it’s rather odd that they didn’t appear to notice that President Kennedy had been assassinated.  Or did the author deliberately omit that because she thought she’d be “cancelled” for showing people expressing sadness over the death of a white male from a well-to-do family?  And we are informed that our castle-dwelling heroine Jill is a member of CND.

I’m not saying that any of this stuff is unimportant.  But it had absolutely nothing to do with the story.  Lorna Hill’s Annette Dancy trying to sabotage a fox hunt, when she lives in a community in which hunting is part of the way of life, or Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Verity-Anne Carey being reminded that not all Germans were Nazis, in a multinational school in 1947, works very well.  But, in this book, it all just seems to have been shoved in as some kind of virtue-signalling to placate people who think that living in a castle and owning ponies is some sort of sin.  It isn’t.

What’s even stranger is that the author obviously completely gets that.  Because (keep up, folks!) Jill is, in the middle of everything else, writing books about her own life, and is finding that people have turned nasty when they learn that she’s moved into a castle (which has only happened fairly recently, as it belongs to her new stepfather) and has joined the privileged classes.  She suspects that they will be actually be pleased to learn about the absconding agent.  We are reminded that there is nothing wrong with belonging to the privileged classes, and that all that matters is being a good person.  Yes.  We know that.  Why not just stick to the stables story?

And, just to confuse things even further, there are a few sarcastic comments about old and middle-aged ladies who over-analyse children’s pony books.  What, like me?!

Oh, and then, at the end, the author finally seemed to remember that it was supposed to be a pony story, and wrote a very long and detailed description of a children’s riding competition, involving a load of children whom we’d never met before.

Seriously, this would have been a lot better if the author had just stuck to writing the story about Jill and her friends/business partners setting up their business!  That was what I was expecting. The idea of this month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book about someone going into business, and I got this one on a 99p Kindle download because I didn’t want to spend a lot.  It’s part of a series, and it would probably have been better if I’d read the other books in the series first, but I don’t think I’ll be bothering.

It’s a 120-page book, presumably aimed at kids, but the author just seems to have tied herself in knots over it all – which is a shame, because the characters were quite attractive, and the idea of setting up the riding business at the castle was a good one.  Next time, just ignore the virtue signallers and write your pony book, eh?!  If people don’t like it, they are quite at liberty to read something else.

 

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!