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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Secrets at St Bride’s by Debbie Young

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I honestly don’t know whether this was meant to be a spoof or taken seriously.  I was expecting it to be an ordinary, if modern, boarding school story told from the point of view of a teacher.  Then, instead, it initially seemed to be a chicklit book about a woman making a new start after leaving her controlling boyfriend.  But then we got into the school stuff, and quite a few tropes came out, but I really wasn’t sure whether they were meant to be laughed at or not.  Some of it was just mad – the all-girls’ school had a handsome Alpha Male PE teacher (why was this not the case at my school?!) but, because the parents were meant to think that the staff were all female, he was listed in the prospectus as a woman, and the girls called him “Miss”.  It was like one of those TV programmes which you watch and think “Is it just me?” about, because you’re not quite getting it.  Or maybe I just overthink things.  The good news is that it was quite entertaining, and, if the sequel – coming out on July – turns up on the Kindle special offer list, I’ll be giving it a go.

Gemma has recently left her horrible boyfriend, and taken a job as a teacher at St Bride’s, a boarding school for girls.  She’s a qualified teacher but hasn’t had any experience, but the headmistress says that academic work isn’t everything and that what matters is being kind and caring, etc etc … very Miss Grayling.   The headmistress is called Miss Harnett, so everyone refers to her as “Miss Hairnet”, and all the rooms and houses at the school have nicknames, e.g. the dining room is known as “The Trough”.  OK, that’s all good tropey stuff, all good fun.

But then there’s the weird thing with the PE teacher.  And we’re told that most of the girls are motherless, because the person who left the money to found the school specified that it should try to help motherless girls.  Girls having lost one or both parents is another school story trope, very Chalet School, and it could have been done in a compassionate way, teachers in loco parentis etc … but, instead, the storyline’s there so that one of the teachers could keep trying to bag a rich widowed dad.  Which is quite funny, it its way.  So is the book meant to be a spoof after all?  Especially as there’s also a weird thing about a security guard with a network of hidden tunnels, a plot point which seems to have escaped into school story land from one of Enid Blyton’s mystery/adventure books!

One of the teachers turns out to be another teacher’s secret daughter.  OK, another classic school story thing – although, in traditional school stories, it’s always a pupil who’s a secret daughter, and the mum is always a respectable widow rather than someone who had an affair with one of the governors.  The bursar (now there’s a character always missing from traditional school stories) seems to be a weird stalker, but it turns out that it’s all completely innocent.  And someone’s stealing books from the library.

Then the dodgy ex-boyfriend turns up and tries to strangle the rich-dad-chasing, secret daughter teacher, having mistaken her for Gemma, with the rubber from one of the tyres from the Alpha Male woman-impersonating PE teacher’s bike.

What??

But then is it all meant to be taken seriously after all?  The poor little, far-from-home motherless juniors want someone to read them a story at bedtime.  And Gemma realises that she needs to reconnect with her own parents, with whom she fell out because they didn’t approve of the dodgy ex-boyfriend.

I really have no idea what was going on here!   But, as I said, I did quite enjoy it!

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!

 

Tolkien

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This film’s had poor reviews, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Dead Poets Society (well, sort of) in an English provincial city grammar/high school, with everyone drinking lots of tea. Sounds like heaven!   There are very few books or films set in the sort of school I went to.  Schools in industrial towns and cities tend to lack romantic mountain backgrounds, or seawater-fed swimming pools.  And pupils are expected to do quite a lot of, you know, work, and passing exams, that kind of thing, which authors tend not to go for – The History Boys being the notable exception.  But here’s a film set in a school with which I can actually identify – although, obviously, mine was a girls’ school, and I wasn’t there in Edwardian times!  Don’t get me wrong, I love boarding school books, but the idea of secret tea parties in the library (people in books very rarely even set foot in school libraries, and get made fun of if they do) at a school like mine, or discussion groups meeting up in nearby tea rooms … ah, bliss!

The school in this case was King Edward’s, Birmingham.  Shame it wasn’t a school in Manchester 🙂 , but, having been to university in Birmingham, I do know King Edward’s.  I don’t know JRR Tolkien’s books, though.  They’re just not my thing.  A teacher at primary school tried to get us all into The Hobbit, but it really didn’t hold any appeal for me.  So I think I probably missed a lot of the references in this film – I could see that they related to his books, but I didn’t quite get how.  And I think some people have got annoyed because they thought it was overplayed, that every incident in the film was shown as foreshadowing something in the books.  But, because I didn’t get them, I didn’t get annoyed by them!

Tolkien’s early life, the subject of this film, was fascinating.  He sadly lost his father at an early age, and he, his mother and brother moved to a small house, supported financially by relatives until they fell out over religion.  His mother then also died, and a priest arranged for him (his brother didn’t feature much) to attend King Edward’s, and for the two boys to live at a boarding house – where they met Edith Bratt, JRR Tolkien’s future wife.

Edith, also an orphan, was a few years older than Tolkien, but, as scriptwriters don’t like girlfriends to be older than boyfriends, in this they seemed the same age.  Edith, brilliantly played by Mimi Keene from EastEnders, spoke about how scholarships at schools and universities were arranged for middle-class boys who’d fallen on hard times, but, as a girl, she was stuck acting as a companion to a boring old woman.  It was a very interesting point.

At school, Tolkien palled up with three other boys, and they formed the Tea Club and Barrovian Society, meeting up in the school library and in the nearby Barrow’s Stores tearoom, talking about arty stuff – as opposed to the down to earth, job-related subjects on which they were meant to be concentrating.  There was a definite feeling of Dead Poets Society there – and this was a true story, 80 years before Dead Poets Society!

The film did actually start with the Great War, though, and jumped backwards and forwards, showing Tolkien at the front during the Battle of the Somme, then going back to his schooldays and, to a lesser extent, his university days at Oxford.  He was in the Lancashire Fusiliers, interestingly.  The university days and his experiences during the war weren’t done as well as his schooldays, unfortunately.  We just saw that he broke things off with Edith because he was pressurised into concentrating on his work and because the priest didn’t approve of her.  It was also suggested that he got into trouble and nearly had to leave due to losing his scholarship: I’m not sure how true that’s is, but I don’t see why they’d have made it up.  And we didn’t see much of his Army life apart from him sitting in a trench and, later, lying in a hospital bed.  The school stuff was definitely the attraction of this film.

Tolkien and Edith got back together, got married, had four children and lived happily ever after, but, sadly, two of his three schoolfriends were killed in the war.  The effect that that must have had on him didn’t come across brilliantly – the film didn’t quite seem to know what to do with itself after he left school.  It didn’t do particularly well at the box office, and the Tolkien Estate’s made it clear that it doesn’t endorse it.

But, for all that, I really liked it.  I don’t know that much about Tolkien, and, as I’ve said, I’m not into his books.  And, if there are historical inaccuracies about his life in this, then that’s not good.  But, as a film about a group of boys at a grammar school in an English provincial city, and as a romance between two people who’d both had difficult starts in life, which was what much of it was about, it worked very well, and I enjoyed it.

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!

 

The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s by Talbot Baines Reed (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hadn’t particularly expected to.  I thought that, being a Victorian (it was published in 1881) boys’ school story, it’d be full of preaching and violent bullying, but there was no preaching, and the bullying was no worse than it is in most later school stories.  It was really good fun!

There are three main characters, and three main storylines.  Oliver Greenfield, a Fifth Former, is wrongly accused of cheating in a scholarship exam, but the other boys eventually realise that they’ve got it wrong and that Oliver is actually a jolly good fellow.  Stephen Greenfield, Oliver’s little brother, is a new boy finding his way in one of the junior forms.  I love the relationship between the two brothers.  The masters barely get involved at all, even when there’s obviously something serious going on, but Oliver steps in when he sees Stephen being attacked by bullies, and Stephen rallies his crowd of juniors in Oliver’s defence when the rest of the school unjustly sends him to Coventry.  Then there’s Edward Loman, a Sixth Former, the real cheat, who lets Oliver take the blame, falls into drinking and gambling, gets into debt with a local publican, and – the end’s a bit tropey! – runs away, gets caught in a storm, and is rescued by, of course, Oliver … but sees the error of his ways, as bad boys/girls in school stories always do!

The idea of the challenge was to read a book about a pupil writing a book/play/newspaper/magazine, and, although it’s a minor storyline, one of the other Fifth Formers in this produces a newspaper called “The Dominican” – which sounds more like Punch than the usual type of school magazine, being full of sarcastic articles about other forms and other pupils!  Only one copy, so it goes in a wooden frame, and somehow survives without being torn or otherwise damaged.

Getting back to the more general storyline, there’s very little preaching.  The only time religion really comes up is in a letter from the Greenfield boys’ mother.  The morality’s all about the schoolboy code of behaviour, and school traditions are also a very big thing.  The boys in Oliver’s form all belong to one of two fraternities, the Guinea-Pigs and the Tadpoles, and the big feast they have after a cricket match is an annual tradition, not a spontaneously-planned jolly jape of the sort found in Enid Blyton books.

Sport features a lot, as you would expect.  Annoyingly, “football” is used to mean rugby (I was going to say “rugby union”, but this was pre-split!).  Proper football, which public schoolboys would call “soccer”, isn’t mentioned!  Cricket is also mentioned.  Unusually for a school story, we don’t get one of the heroes scoring the winning try or run – the big rugby match against a county side is lost, and the big cricket match is drawn.  There’s also plenty of fighting, but most of it’s more “boys will be boys” fisticuffs than actual nastiness, apart from one unpleasant incident in which Loman beats up Stephen Greenfield – who is then hailed as a hero by his classmates.

And, of course, there’s the fagging system.  As well as being asked to make tea, polish boots and the usual stuff, the younger boys are sent out on errands into the nearby town.  It’s very different to the mid-20th century girls’ boarding school stories in which no-one’s supposed to leave the premises without permission from a teacher.  The boys even go down the pub … although that’s how Loman gets into bother.  The town’s called Maltby, but I think it’s meant to be a fictional town rather than Maltby near Rotherham.

The masters are just barely involved at all.  One of them steps in when Stephen’s obviously struggling with his work in the early days, but that’s about it.  The headmaster, seeing Stephen’s bruised and battered face after Loman’s beaten him up, realises than an older boy’s attacked a younger one, but does nothing about it.  Even when the boys all show the school up in front of a load of visitors, by hissing when Oliver gets his scholarship prize at Speech Day, nothing’s done.  Nor do the captain and the monitors intervene very much in what’s going on.  It’s not the sort of public school that’s seeking to train boys to run the Empire and sees older boys bossing younger ones about as training for that.  Loman does go to Australia for a while, but it’s as a farmer rather than as an administrator.  Oliver Greenfield becomes a barrister rather than a soldier or a bigwig in the Indian Civil Service, and his best friend Wraysford becomes a Cambridge don.

And they do actually work quite hard!   Getting good marks in exams is not seen as being uncool, and boys who do well are seen as bringing credit to their forms, rather than being sneered at for being swots or geeks.  Where it goes wrong in when part of a scholarship exam paper goes missing, and Oliver, who was seen near the headmaster’s study at the time and later wins the scholarship, is wrongly suspected of taking it.  Everyone turns on Oliver, apart from Stephen and the rest of the Guinea-Pigs, which is really horrible.  OK, it’s not physical violence, but being shunned by everyone else, and accused of something you haven’t done, is probably worse than a smack in the mouth.

Oliver, a bit like Katy Carr, doesn’t seek to prove his innocence, but just lives it down – the difference being that Katy was accused by a teacher and the other girls didn’t believe any of it, whereas poor Oliver is ostracised by his classmates and by most of the other boys as well.  His behaviour’s very noble, and that and his success in another exam persuade the others that they’ve been wrong about him, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  Even more bizarrely, when the missing paper is later found inside one of Loman’s books, by the headmaster, in front of the entire Sixth Form, nearly everyone accepts Loman’s claims that he didn’t take it and had no idea how it got there!

Loman eventually runs away, because of the financial trouble he’s got into, gets caught in a storm, is rescued by Oliver – with a bit of help from Stephen – and becomes seriously ill.  That’s all a bit tropey, as I said, but we do later learn that he’s made a full recovery and is now leading a decent life.  Oliver has become a successful barrister, and Stephen is now the school captain.  Hurrah!

Just a couple of other things.  The forms are very confusing!  Twelve-year-old Stephen is in the Fourth Junior, i.e. the Lower Fourth, which makes sense, but there only seems to be one Fifth Form and one Sixth Form, so the 12-year-olds are only two forms below the 16-year-olds.  On a totally different note, I was quite chuffed to learn that Talbot Baines Read was a cousin of Edward Baines, of History of the Cotton Manufacture fame.  And also that there was a TV adaptation of The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s in the 1960s, with the bloke who played Tom Howard in Howards’ Way playing the headmaster.

All in all, I really enjoyed this!   And it’s available either for 99p on Kindle or free on Project Gutenberg.

Malory Towers – BBC iPlayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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