New Term at Malory Towers by Pamela Cox

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I approached this book with a fair bit of suspicion, as I would a cover version of an iconic song (I’ve never quite forgiven Atomic Kitten for murdering “Eternal Flame”) or a remake of an iconic film. It just couldn’t be the same as the “real” Malory Towers books which I and some of the other girls in my class at primary school first read way back when, could it? Well, no, it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a midnight feast. The pool barely featured; and Susan wasn’t accused of being “frightfully pi” even once. But I think I quite like this gentler version of Malory Towers. As a kid, I used to think, as you do, that I’d have been well in there with the MT in-crowd. Now, I don’t even want to think about what Alicia and Betty would have done to a swotty fat girl with zero self-confidence and a Northern accent: I’d probably have run away after a week! But I think I might have stayed in this form, with Felicity Rivers and her friends.

Obviously I knew Felicity, Susan and June from the original books.  All the teachers were there too, but, apart from the two Mam’zelles, they didn’t feature much, though. We didn’t see Miss Grayling welcoming any of the new girls to the school. I was slightly put out when I arrived for my first day at secondary school – along with around 110 other first years – and found that we weren’t each going to get an individual pep talk from the headmistress about how the school would turn us all into strong, capable women 🙂 . And, although Darrell and Sally made a brief appearance in the first chapter, and Bill and Clarissa’s riding school was mentioned (sadly without any clarification as to whether Bill and Clarissa were together or whether they were just good friends), none of the old gang were there, apart from Amanda who featured as the Games Prefect.

I always felt sorry for Amanda. GO authors do like to punish characters who break their rules, but it always felt very harsh that Amanda should lose her chance of being an Olympic swimmer and Mavis her chance of a singing career just because they showed off a bit. I’ve also got a weird recollection of, at the age of about eight, telling my grandad about Amanda. Why I thought a 68-year-old man would be interested in Malory Towers, I have no idea – poor Grandad!!

Anyway. The old characters didn’t feature much, but the new girls, and the girls we already knew, were quite well-drawn.  You don’t expect a Malory Towers book to go too deeply into people’s personalities, and this didn’t, but they all seemed quite realistic.

There wasn’t much actual action. Apart from Felicity worrying about whether or not she was doing a good job as head of the form, it was all about who wanted to be friends with whom. Even the tricks, which were, as ever, played on Mam’zelle Dupont, were about trying to impress other people rather than just for fun. Veronica wanted to be friends with Amy, Freddie wanted to be friends with June, Bonnie (were any teenagers in the 1950s actually called Bonnie?!) wanted to be friends with Felicity.  Felicity and Susan tried to get Bonnie to be friends with Amy to get her away with Veronica and to get her off their own backs, people kept overhearing things and getting upset, people were jealous of other people’s friendships … it actually wasn’t a bad reflection of what a group of 13-year-old girls can be like!!  But it was made clear that no-one was all bad or all good. And, in a way more reminiscent of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, people did genuinely try to be nice to all the other girls, even those who’d behaved badly. No-one was sent to Coventry. No-one was the victim of a group bullying campaign.

I don’t think that writing a book like this about the original characters would have worked.  Darrell persuanding everyone to give Gwendoline Mary a chance, or Alicia realising that she’d been behaving like a bitch, just wouldn’t have rung true.  But, because it was a different group of girls, it worked OK.  I’m not sure that it really felt like Malory Towers, though.  Maybe it needed a midnight feast by the seawater swimming pool …  😉

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The Chalet School and Cornelia by Katherine Bruce

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There are a lot of things about Cornelia Flower, one of the most memorable characters in the Chalet School series, which are never satisfactorily explained. Notably, how she was suddenly transformed from being a lying, cheating bully, breaching the Chalet School code of honour in pretty much every way, in her first few weeks at the school to being naughty but nice thereafter, and how she came to have such a close relationship with Mademoiselle Lepattre. This book covers the second half of the term which Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) described in The Head Girl of the Chalet School, which, as the foreword explains, was very eventful but rather rushed through, and answers some of the questions. I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers remaining, though – maybe they could be answered in a sequel at some future date 🙂 ?

It can’t be easy trying to make sense of the contradictions in someone else’s work – and, as is often said in discussions in the Chalet School magazines, Facebook groups and internet fora, the books were written for children and EBD can’t possibly have expected them to be analysed in quite as much detail as they are now. I like to think that she’d be very pleased to think that there was so much interest in and discussion about the Chalet School books, nearly a century after the first one was written, though. It’s a great testament to how well-loved the books are.

It’s certainly very strange that Cornelia is described as a liar and a cheat, i.e. dishonourable, just about the worst thing that a Chalet School girl could be, shortly after arriving at school, and is so unpleasant that she not only reduces Simone to tears but also nearly comes to blows with peaceful Frieda … and then she becomes a perfectly nice girl without any sort of explanation/drama! The series is full of girls who, one way or another, are brought to see the error of their ways, but we normally at least see some sort of showdown scene, usually with one of the major characters involved. And there’s hardly anyone who’s as bad as Cornelia seemingly is to start with; and, when a new girl is difficult in any way, there’s usually something in her background that explains it, which there isn’t in Cornelia’s case.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery, especially as we’re never even told what she lied about or how she cheated – although, to be fair, Cornelia appears during only the fourth book in the series, when both EBD and the Chalet School were still finding their way. The explanation given here, that she never actually did lie or cheat and it was all a misunderstanding, and also that she’d clashed with Jo because Jo had been in a bad mood due to her worry about Madge following the birth of David, makes a lot of sense. I’m assuming that anyone reading this, if anyone at all actually is reading it, is familiar with the Chalet School books and knows who all these characters are, by the way!

And there are several one-to-one scenes with Mademoiselle Lepattre which show how their relationship develops. I think Mlle deserves that as much as Cornelia does, because, whilst she always comes across as a lovely person, she seems like a very weak headmistress when handling Eustacia and the feud with St Scholastika’s.  Her handling of Thekla’s behaviour is also poor, and asking the prefects to decide about Biddy’s future is just bizarre. Madge is shown as becoming a mother figure to Juliet, Robin and to some extent Grizel in the early books, and it makes sense that Mlle, the next person in charge of the school, would have come to fulfil that role for Cornelia, whose mother has died and who doesn’t seem to have any grandmothers, aunts, older female cousins or other mother-figures in her life, but we never actually get to see it happening. It’s great to have that gap filled in.

It’s also nice to see Mlle commenting that no-one minds the odd practical joke, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s one of the joys of the Tyrolean era – no-one objects to a bit of harmless mischief. Compare that with, for example, the Middles in Peggy of the Chalet School having to endure an all-day punishment for using Regency language.

The book does cover a term that’s already covered in “canon”, and so, inevitably, there’s a certain amount of repetition of scenes and events that we already know. It’s the third recent fill-in book to cover a term that EBD wrote about herself, and, much as I’ve enjoyed reading them all and much as I love the Tyrolean era, I’m hoping to see future fill-ins covering areas in the chronology where there are gaps. The gap in the middle of The Chalet School in Exile is crying out to be filled, as are various parts of the wartime years.

We do see the revisited scenes from a different angle, generally Cornelia’s point of view, though. The rescue scene at the end is the obvious one, and another is Marie and Andreas’s wedding – one of my favourite parts of the entire series. I love the insight into the local culture, and I love the fact that the servants/domestic staff are treated as people with their own lives, not just ciphers who are there to serve the other characters. EBD wrote a lovely scene, sadly cut by Armada, in which Jem says how pleased he is that Marie and Andreas have got together; and the Pfeifens are as much a part of the early books as the Mensches or the Maranis are. Sadly, that doesn’t survive the Tyrolean era. By the end of the Swiss books, Rosli has worked for the Maynards for eight years without the reader even being told her surname!

There’s not really anything new in those scenes, though, but we do get to see a lot of other things which EBD either skipped over or only mentioned retrospectively; and I really enjoyed seeing those. During the Tyrolean era, the books aren’t “just” school stories in the way that they are later: the family lives of major characters form a big part of them, and a whole world develops, with many Old Girls living nearby. As time went on, and the average age of readers got younger, it probably made sense to focus more on the school and on schoolgirls, but, now that most readers are “grown-ups” (am I a grown-up?!), I think there’s room for hearing more about events out of school.

Madge having such a difficult time giving birth to David is one such instance of an important event only being touched on by EBD. When Jack Maynard turns up and tells Jo that she’s got to come to the Sonnalpe at once, and is quite brusque with his own sister, who’s clearly shocked and upset, it’s clear that Madge is in a bad way; but EBD couldn’t say much more because some of her young 1920s readers might well have been thinking that babies were found behind a gooseberry bush or brought by a stork. She’s often criticised for unrealistically suggesting that Jo gives birth to triplets with very little effort, and is winning swimming races against super-fit Roger Richardson shortly after giving birth to twins; but what happens with Madge reminds us that she was well aware that childbirth could be dangerous. Madge’s gynaecological history is quite interesting, with both Sybil and Ailie arriving well before they were expected, come to think of it!  Anyway.

Now, we get to see Jo’s anxious questioning of Jack as they head up to the Sonnalpe, and the conversations between her and first Jem and then Madge when she arrives. We also get to see the new parents and the new auntie with David. His arrival’s a really big thing for the school – it’s a real community at that point, and the girls get busy making toys for him, and scrap over who’s going to get to hold him when Madge visits. Later books say that David looks like Madge, but it’s nice to see Jem trying to claim that he looks like his own side of the family (as people tend to do with new babies!), and mentioning his sister Margot, to whom EBD doesn’t refer at all until later in the series.

A lot of events that are referred to but never actually shown at all are worked into the book, as well. Gisela’s wedding. Wanda’s wedding. Three weddings in one book does sound a bit more Hello! than Chalet School, but they’re all very different, with Wanda’s wedding involving a trip to Vienna, somewhere we never see the girls visit in the original books. Joey’s climb up the rocks, which she refers to in The Coming of Age of the Chalet School. I’m never entirely convinced by EBD’s insistence that so many people invited the entire school to their weddings, and I’m even less convinced by the idea of Wanda and Friedel interrupting their honeymoon in order to attend a school concert, but fill-in authors obviously have to work with what EBD tells us! Poor Friedel!!

Much of the plot of The Head Girl of the Chalet School is a bit bonkers, really! I always cringe a bit over Herr Arnolfi being referred to as a “madman” and a “lunatic”, but, OK, EBD was writing over ninety years ago. The whole story reads very uncomfortably to modern sensibilities – man holds young girls prisoner – but it was written in very different times. There’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian Gothic about it, in a lot of ways. And it’s early in the series, and EBD does try out a lot of different ideas early on – Eustacia’s accident is very reminiscent of What Katy Did. It certainly is different, as opposed to all the avalanches and blizzards we get in the Swiss books!

The idea of the salt caves was great, but is never really followed up on, so it was lovely to see the girls getting to visit the caves, and hear about local businesses preparing hopefully for an influx of visitors. And I really liked Katherine’s explanation that Herr Arnolfi had been a professional museum and that his illness was the result of the stress and pressure of his career: I thought that worked very well. There are so many minor characters in the Tyrolean books, and in The Head Girl of the Chalet School in particular, some recurring, some only appearing in one book, and I always want to know more about them! And I think he deserved a background story. Tales of someone living alone in a remote area, with local people saying they’re the devil or whatever, belong more to times well before the 1920s, but they certainly exist. It’s a sad story, and his life deserved that extra information.

In a different way, I’m not comfortable with Jo referring to Sophie Hamel as “Fatty” and making spiteful remarks about how a boat she was in would have capsized had Sophie been one of the party; but it does tie in with something she says in Two Sams at the Chalet School, and also with her nasty comments about Frau Berlin’s weight in The School at the Chalet. Considering that personal remarks are supposedly considered “ill-bred” in Chalet School land, there are an awful lot of digs about people’s weight all through the series. Three cheers for Jem Russell for telling Madge (in Joey & Co in Tyrol) that she looks fine as she is and doesn’t need to go on a diet! I enjoyed seeing the boat/rock-climbing incident, too. It’s so frustrating when EBD refers to something in a later book, and you think you must have missed it, or forgotten it, or that it’s been cut out of a paperback edition, and then you find out that, no, it’s just not there at all!

There’s also quite a lot of Austrian history in this. Good good! My personal specialisms are British, Russian and American history, but one of my best marks at university (apologies for “bucking”, as Grizel would say) was for an essay on Austrian history, and the tutor involved really couldn’t understand why I insisted on going for Austrian history rather than something more obvious such as the French Revolution. I would have explained, but I didn’t think he’d understand 🙂 . It’s told in a way that should appeal even to readers who aren’t historians, rather than sounding like something copied out of a textbook as it has to be admitted that some passages in the Swiss books do!

It’s also good to have Mr Flower’s back story filled in: the reference in The Chalet School in Exile to his having spent time in South Africa strongly suggests that his wealth came from some sort of involvement with precious metals or minerals, but we’re never actually told, whereas it’s expanded on here. I love the idea of his father having been a Forty-Niner, and of he himself having travelled the world and taken Cornelia with him.

There’s definitely something of the international man of mystery about him! Not so much at this point, but certainly later on. As I said, I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers! Most of them relate to the period covered by The Chalet School in Exile, set several years later, so obviously they couldn’t be answered in this book, but maybe they could in some future book 🙂 ? Why on earth did Mr Flower buy up the school buildings – what was he planning to do in a fairly remote part of a country that had just been annexed by the Third Reich? And, the following year, what was he doing in Bordeaux, and how come umpteen other characters all ended up there with him?

There’s also a cryptic remark earlier on about Cornelia getting such mothering as not even Mademoiselle Lepattre could provide. I can only assume that EBD intended to provide Cornelia with a stepmother and then forgot about it! Finally, why did the late Mrs Flower give Cornelia two Russian-sounding middle names – Naida (an abbreviation of Nadezhda) and Anastasia? Anastasia is obviously associated with the youngest of the Grand Duchesses, and I’m guessing that Naida was a misspelling of Nada and that EBD got the name from Nada (Nadezhda) Mountbatten, nee Torby, Marchioness of Milford Haven. Maybe she just liked reading royal gossip … or did she have some mysterious link to the Romanovs?!

Anyway! This book does a great job of answering the main questions that arise when we first meet Cornelia, and of describing events which EBD mentions but doesn’t show. There’s the odd EBD-style-ism, notably Friedel von Gluck being described as Bernhilda’s fiancé rather than Wanda’s fiancé, and the odd typo such as Carinthia being spelt “Carinithia”. And I’m fairly sure that Andreas never worked at the school, and that Marie moved to Die Rosen – I gather than the references to “Die Rosen” as “Die Blumen” are genuine EBD-EBD-isms, and have just been replicated here 🙂 – as soon as Madge and Jem got married, rather than after her own wedding, but, hey, no Chalet School book would seem at all authentic without one or two slips.

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I know that an awful lot of Chalet School fans have already bought it and read it. There’s something magical about the Tyrolean era of the Chalet School, and anything that takes me there is incredibly welcome!

Marjorie Dean, High School Freshman by Pauline Lester (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Published in 1917, this is a fairly standard early school story in which there’s a big falling out amongst the members of one form, someone tries to frame someone else for a crime they didn’t commit, and the truth all comes out in the end. However, it’s an American story, and different in several ways from the British school stories I usually read.  Apart from the differences in the actual school system, the girls often refer to each other as “Miss Surname”, and they seem to spend a lot of time going to parties.  There’s a Hallowe’en dance, a Thanksgiving party, a New Year’s Eve party, a post-Easter masquerade ball and a May Day picnic.  And they dance with boys – perish the thought of such a thing happening at the Chalet School or Malory Towers!    As in Daddy Long Legs and What Katy Did At School, there’s a huge amount of snobbery and social division, just as much as there is in many British school stories; and that’s actually the main theme of the book.

I know I sound as if I’m putting a British interpretation on it all – sorry, but I’m used to British school stories 🙂 . This one starts when our heroine, the eponymous Marjorie Dean, has to move from the city of “B” (Boston, maybe?) to the small town of Sanford (Maine?  New York?  Presumably not the one in Florida?) because of her dad’s job.  I think this is the first time I’ve come across an American book which just refers to a town or city by an initial, and it’s rare in any book written in the 20th century.   Charlotte Bronte famously refers to Sheffield as “S”, but I was surprised to find Pauline Lester doing something similar.  Oh well, whatever!

I expected “High School Freshman” to mean someone of around 14, but Marjorie and her classmates are 16, and studying for public exams. They only take a small number of subjects, and gym is not compulsory – hooray!  The book starts with Marjorie saying her sad farewells to her old friends, which is nice – new characters in school stories usually arrive with apparently no existing friendships at all.  Having said which, that’s life, isn’t it?  Or, at least, it was before social media.  I often think about all the people I knew at school, either primary or secondary, and wonder what’s happened to them all.  Anyway.  They present her with a butterfly pin, and we’re told that this is going to cause issues in the future.  There are a lot of comments along the lines of little did she/they know what problems something or other was going to cause in the future!  And a lot of adjectives and adverbs – it reminded me of my primary school headmistress’s obsession with “description”, and how we’d all use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible to try to keep her happy.

All the “Miss”-ing is rather confusing, because it’s sometimes hard to remember which characters were pupils and which were teachers. It happens to some extent in What Katy Did At School, but not to the extent that it does here.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that the school secretary, Marcia, is a similar age to Marjorie, and on the side of the snobby girls in her form.

Anyway! The main storyline of the book is the division amongst the girls in Marjorie’s form.  Marjorie takes a shine to a girl called Constance, but Constance is snubbed by the snob element because her family are poor.  The snobby girls, led by one Mignon, who’s supported by one Muriel (having so many “M” names gets confusing, as well) initially welcome Marjorie, and invite her to join their basketball team, but Marjorie’s friendship with Constance leads to a split in the form, and to Marjorie being pushed out of the team.

I’m not sure how any of them pass their exams, given that they seem to spend all their time going to parties, feuding and playing basketball; but, as characters in books do, they seem to manage quite well without doing much work!   The feuding deepens when Mignon accuses Constance of stealing a bracelet that she’s lost at, you guessed it, a party, and even more so when she fouls another girl during a basketball match, but her opponent is the one blamed for foul play instead.  As they do not have the benefit of VAR, this drags on for a while, before – at yet another party! – one of the older girls comes forward to say that she saw what happened.  The innocent girl is exonerated.  In a lot of books, this would have led to Mignon either being expelled or turning over a new leaf, but, probably more realistically, in this case it just makes her even nastier.

At yet another party, Constance impresses people with her wonderful singing, and it looks as if the tide of school popularity might be turning in her favour.  However, disaster then strikes!   Marjorie loses her butterfly pin, and Constance is seen wearing it.  Some of the girls assume that Marjorie’s given it to her, but Marjorie jumps to the conclusion that Constance has stolen it, and Mignon says that this must prove that Constance stole her bracelet as well.  Surely our heroine cannot have been so wrong about her new best pal?  Surely Constance cannot be a thief?  What can the explanation possibly be?

It transpires that it isn’t actually Marjorie’s pin at all. It’s just one that looks very like it, and has been given to Constance as a present by a hitherto unmentioned rich auntie who has suddenly got back in touch.  Let’s say that this wasn’t the most convincing of storylines!   Mignon found Marjorie’s lost pin and hid it, along with her own bracelet, in the hope of framing Constance – OK, that I could believe, but the rest of it was pushing it!

At the May Day picnic, the last of the many parties/outings, Marcia falls out of a canoe (it sounds like a very eventful picnic!) and is heroically rescued by Marjorie. Marcia and Muriel both acknowledge that they were wrong about both Marjorie and Constance, and everyone (except Mignon) vows to be bosom buddies for ever.  It’s quite strange that the main baddie isn’t actually redeemed, but probably realistic.  In my experience, school bullies do not suddenly turn over a new leaf and become best mates with their erstwhile victims, whatever might happen in some books.

Sorry if I’m sounding sarcastic – I do really love school stories, and it annoys me when people who don’t like them poke fun at them. But I love them, so I’m allowed to point out their foibles 🙂 . The storyline with the two near-identical pins was a bit silly, but the general themes of feuds within a form and, something both Elsie J Oxenham and Angela Brazil are also keen on, the effects of snobbery within a form and the need to try to overcome that, are good ones.  I’ve got an enormous pile of books to read, so I won’t be rushing to read the others in this series; but, should I ever get time (hah!), I certainly wouldn’t mind giving them a go.

 

The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)

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In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.

A Fortunate Term by Angela Brazil (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Angela Brazil very briefly attended my old school, when her family first moved to Manchester.  Her horrified mother withdrew her on discovering that the girls there behaved with “perkiness”, bought sweets from corner shops and even, horror of horrors, ran along the pavements.  There was not one person considered suitable to be asked chez Brazil for tea.  Good job that Mrs Brazil never knew the place in my day, some of the language we used and all the complaints that the bus company made about us!  Dear Angela was consequently sent to a very select establishment, known as a “ladies’ college” rather than anything as plebeian as a “school”.  So I think I can be forgiven for not having the most positive of images of her – but I read this as part of a reading challenge, and I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and there was actually very little snobbishness in it.

Having said which, I was spitting feathers after reading the first page, which involved a girl who addressed her mum as “Muvvie” (seriously – Muvvie?!) and a lot of negative remarks about the evils of northern industrial landscapes.  Dark satanic mill type stuff.  Ooh!  If there’s one thing I can’t be doing with, it’s people making negative comments about northern industrial landscapes!   OK, there are lots of things I can’t be doing with, but that’s certainly one of them.  It was particularly galling given that Angela Brazil’s dad (or maybe that should be Farvie?) worked in the Lancashire cotton industry, a fact which Angela tended conveniently to ignore.  However, our friend and her sister – Mavis and Merle – didn’t have to stay amongst the dark satanic mills too long, because they were off to stay with their uncle in “Devonshire”, land of witches and pixies.  After that, they pretty much shut up making negative comments about the North.  Hey, they even acknowledged that we have our own mythical creatures – boggarts.

Off to Devon.  It’s interesting how Girls’ Own authors seem to have this idea of the Celtic Fringe (I just mistyped that as “Celtic Fridge”) – yes, I know that Devon isn’t Cornwall and isn’t generally classed as being Celtic, but I’m not sure that Angela Brazil did, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer seemed to think that the two rival counties were actually interchangeable! – as being all fey and mystical.  I suppose it was a combination of the Celtic Revival and the interest in the Scottish Highlands brought about by Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Clotted cream got mentioned several times as well – although it was referred to as “scalded cream”.  I am a big fan of clotted cream, but have my scones the Cornish way, jam first!  And there was a local festival to mark a local saint’s day.

Anyway, off they went to Devon, to stay with the uncle, who, like the dad, was a doctor.  Girls’ Own authors are very keen on doctors.  Darrell’s dad in Malory Towers is a doctor, the eponymous heroine’s husband in the Dimsie books is a doctor, and all good Chalet School girls and mistresses get to marry doctors.  I got a bit annoyed at a snooty comment about “trippers” dropping litter, but it was only the one comment.

Like a lot of Angela Brazil books but unlike a lot of other Girls’ Own books, this one involved a day school, and there were two main storylines – one about the school, and the nasty girl who had the headmistress and the other teacher (the unfortunately named “Miss Fanny”) fooled into thinking that she was all sweetness and light, and one outside school hours, involving a mysterious boy called Bevis, who’d been brought up by foster parents after his mum had dropped dead at a local hotel without leaving any clue as to who she was.  As you do.

Contrary to the image of Angela Brazil books being snobby, it was stressed that Bevis, despite his humble upbringing, was a really nice lad, and that it was fine for the girls to be friends with him.  We were clearly meant to approve of him, but not of the rich boy whose family were renting the local squire’s house (the squire, an elderly man with no heirs, being abroad).  Well, OK, there was some snobbishness there, in that the nouveau riche family were clearly to be detested, and you just knew that the poor-but-noble-minded Bevis was going to turn out to be the scion of some upper-class family, but there certainly wasn’t the sort of snobbishness that you get from, say, Julian in the Famous Five books.

Nor was there any of the gushing that people associate with Angela Brazil books.  None of the girls went around kissing each other, hugging each other, developing grand passions for the prefects, writing soppy notes, bursting into tears every five minutes or anything else along those lines.  Even the language wasn’t that bad.  There was some strange slang, such as “Judkins”, but nothing too daft.  Anyway, all schoolkids use weird slang; and, for some reason, the word for “silly person” (which is what “Judkins” appears to mean) tends to change every term or so.  We went through wally, plonker (thank you, Only Fools and Horses), berk, prat, dork (thank you, Neighbours), derbrain, dweeb, dormant, nob, neb and assorted other terms, none of which were really any worse than “Judkins” 🙂 .  And some of the descriptions of the countryside were extremely well-written and a genuine joy to read.  Someone did get extremely ill from being out in the rain, but even Jane Austen uses that trope.

Needless to say, the nasty girl, one Opal Earnshaw – a very northern-sounding name for a Devonian! – eventually showed her true colours, and the teachers saw her for what she was.  Equally needless to say, it turned out that Bevis was the long-lost heir to the local squire, the house being rented by the nouveau riche types (the son of whom turned over a new leaf and became quite a nice bad) and most of the other land and property in the area.

So it was all a bit cheesy and predictable, but, OK, I wasn’t expecting it to be deep and meaningful.  The main characters were genuinely likeable, and it certainly didn’t fulfil the stereotype of the early school story that gets mercilessly parodied in something like Daisy Pulls It Off.  It’d been a good few years since I last read an Angela Brazil book: I must read a few more of them.