Exile for Annis by Josephine Elder

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This was a very enjoyable pre-war (published in the late 1930s) school story centred on an issue covered in several “Girls’ Own” books – big schools versus small schools.  Our heroine, Annis, a very realistic and very well-characterised girl in her mid-teens, was removed from her London high school due to needing “country air” after an illness, and sent to the sort of small private school on which she’d always looked down, and a “crank school” – run by a farming couple, on their farm – at that.

The conclusion eventually drawn by Annis, and presumably by the author, was that it was good to start off at a big school and learn discipline, but that you were then better off at a small school where you were treated as more of an individual.  The author did cheat a bit, though, because the small school conveniently had all sorts of neighbours who were experts in particular subjects and just happened to have the spare time in which to teach at the school, and nearby local sports clubs which were happy to let the kids use their facilities for PE lessons.  In reality, most of the very small private schools, which don’t really exist any more, were run by people who had little specialist knowledge of any subject or close contact with the wider educational system.

That’s not a criticism: they were mainly single women who needed to earn a living and for whom there weren’t many other options.  And people living in rural areas wouldn’t necessarily have had the same access to a high school education as someone like Annis, who’d been living in a big city, and then there was, of course, the issue of money; so the choices weren’t always there.  But, anyway, it was a well-written book.  The school stuff was nicely done, and we also saw Annis becoming friendly with Kitty, one of the numerous offspring of the couple who ran the school.  No preaching, no major morality lessons, no-one having to suffer in order to see the error of their ways!

A sub-plot was that Ruth, one of Kitty’s numerous siblings, didn’t seem to like Annis being around, and insisted that Annis not be invited to accompany the family on holiday, even though Annis hadn’t done anything to earn her enmity.  It turned out that Ruth had a twin brother who’d suffered some sort of brain damage at birth and was physically and mentally disabled, and that the family kept him hidden away and, following a bad experience with a friend some years earlier, Ruth was frightened of Annis finding out about him and thinking that the family were all weird.

That was quite a challenging subject for a pre-war children’s book.  There are, of course, all sorts of true stories, although more with the upper-classes than the middle-classes, about ideas of “taints in the blood”, and people being forbidden to marry a partner who had a mentally disabled or mentally ill relative.  The language used would seem a bit odd today, but it was quite well-handled, with Kitty explaining that her brother’s condition didn’t affect any of the others, and Annis getting on well with him and not being at all fazed by his disabilities.

Another issue was that this was a mixed gender school, and had a fairly equal mix of male and female teachers – very unusual in school stories.  It wasn’t really much of an issue, though.  Everyone seemed to get on fine.  It was pointed out that not many girls took advanced science, but no-one seemed to have a problem with Annis doing so.

Then there was the issue of bullying.  Everyone picked on a fat kid called Peter.  I felt extremely sorry for him – I know all about being picked on for being a fat kid.  Anyway, Annis told him to smile a bit more and only eat three sweets a day, and, hey presto, suddenly no-one was picking on him any more and everyone was mates with him.  Not exactly very realistic, but it was nice to see an author showing sympathy for a fat kid.  There was also an unpleasant girl called Sheila, who started off being horrible to everyone, then had everyone being horrible to her, then conveniently left.

There were also a lot of dogs and horses.  I don’t mind horses, as long as I don’t have to get too close to them.  However, if I’d had to live with someone who had dogs, or go to a school where there were dogs around, I would have run away and refused to come back.  But, at one point, when nasty Sheila’s big dog attacked one of Annis’s hosts’ small dogs, the small dog (who was rescued and seemed absolutely fine by the next chapter) was descrived as “cheerful, cheeky little …” … which made him sound quite cute and lovable.  But then I thought about how even cheerful, cheeky, little dogs bark, yap, snap and generally disturb everyone, so I’m sticking to what I said about running away!

All in all, this was a bit simplistic but generally very enjoyable.