Malory Towers sequels by Pamela Cox

Standard

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

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

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

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

 

 

Judy, Patrol Leader by Dorothea Moore

Standard

 

On Judy Bethune’s first day at a new school, she catches a burglar at half five in the morning and rescues two girls from certain death by drowning in the afternoon.  A few days later, she rescues two children from a cottage buried under a collapsed cliff.  As you do.  She follows this up by rescuing the local squire when he’s fallen into his lily pond.

Then the train on which she and her friend are travelling breaks down; they have to get off; they head to the nearest post office to wire the friend’s parents to tell them what’s happened; and, as they’re heading back towards the railway line, they find a secret passage down which is hiding a gang of criminals, including a little old lady whom they met on the train, who is actually a smuggler in disguise.  As they try to escape from the tunnel to alert the police, it caves in, and, whilst attempting to dig their way out, they find a load of extremely valuable jewellery which highwaymen stole from one of Judy’s ancestors in 1715.  The smugglers tie them up, but they manage to break the cords and get away, complete with the jewellery, which is then sold to enable Judy’s uncle to give up his job and buy their ancestral home.  Just the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

Yes, all right, it sounds absolutely ridiculous – but the story dates back to the 1930s (although, confusingly, my copy, which is from the 1950s, refers to the Queen rather than the King) and even some of Enid Blyton’s books from the 1950s show the boys at the centre of all the derring-do whilst the girls stay somewhere safe.  So books like this, showing girls being brave and daring and carrying out heroics, are actually a pretty big deal when put into context.  Even if it is so bonkers that it reads like a spoof.

Judy is an orphan, whose guardian is an uncle who teaches classics at a girls’ school somewhere on the English coast … I think it’s meant to be Essex, because the school’s called St Oswyth’s, but it’s not actually specified.  The uncle is given a dog’s life by his pupils.  Judy lives on the Orkney Islands, with Mrs McKay, an old schoolfriend of her late mother’s.  When Mrs McKay has to go abroad due to a family crisis,  Judy takes herself off to live with her uncle, and is enrolled at the school.  There, she hopes to make lots of friends, as she’s previously lived in a tiny fishing village where there were hardly any girls of her own age.  And she wants to start a Guide pack, as she was a very keen Guide in the Orkneys – although, as we’ve already been told that there were hardly any teenage girls there, this doesn’t make a lot of sense – and learnt all her rescuing skills that way.

However, most of the nasty cliquey girls at the school, as well as making poor old Mr Bethune’s life a misery, aren’t keen on either Judy or the idea of Guides.  But Judy’s heroics win them over, and a Guide pack is started.  And they go on a jolly camp – once the local squire grants them permission to camp on his land, after Judy’s rescued him from a  lily pond.  Then she and her friend head off by train to spend the holidays with the friend’s parents, and all these adventures happen.   OK, you get adventures in most books in this sort of genre, but I think that that was the most far-fetched series of events I’ve ever come across.

Absolutely bonkers, but very readable!   It certainly wasn’t boring 🙂 .

How To Be Brave by Daisy May Johnson

Standard

This book, written by Daisy May Johnson of Didyoueverstoptothink,  talks a lot about a) scones and b) the Chalet School, which is good.  Obviously.  It even makes the excellent point that school maths lessons might actually be useful if they focused on how to calculate the best jam to cream ratio for putting on your scones.   It’s partly a traditional boarding school story – new girl goes to boarding school, makes friends and enemies, etc – albeit over two generations, the first part being about the mother and the second part about the daughter.  But in general it’s more akin to something like The Demon Headmaster, as the baddie who was the mother’s school nemesis becomes an evil headmistress in the daughter’s day, responsible for everything from making kids eat sprout cakes to kidnapping.

The mum becomes an absent-minded scientist, which got me thinking that there are several absent-minded scientists in the traditional GO genre, but that they’re all dads.  I’m thinking in particular of Professor Richardson in the Chalet School books and Quentin Kirrin in the Famous Five books.   So we’re striking a blow for feminism in this book 🙂 .  The said mum is obsessed with ducks.  There’s a strong duck theme in the book!

If you’re looking for a traditional boarding school book, this isn’t it, as I’ve said; but it’s certainly got elements of one, as the girls bond together to overcome the baddie.  And there’s also quite a bit of Blytonesque code-breaking, mystery solving and adventure, which isn’t traditional school story stuff but is definitely traditional Girls’ Own stuff.   There’s also a lot of involvement from the narrator, including numerous footnotes in every chapter, which won’t be to everyone’s taste but is quite amusing and made me laugh.

I’m totally out of touch with what young girls read these days, but I’m pretty sure that I’d have loved this when I was 7 or 8.  Congratulations to Daisy May Johnson on having her first book included on the list of nominations for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, alongside the likes of Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, Hilary McKay and Benjamin Zephaniah, and thanks for a very entertaining read.

 

 

A Guernsey Girl at the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher

Standard

This is an excellent wartime-era Chalet School “fill-in”.  As much as I love the Chalet School books, I *am* sometimes to be found grumbling in discussion groups about the characters not really “doing their bit”.  So I’m delighted to see Amy Fletcher addressing that issue in this book, set in the spring term of 1945, in which we see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the local community and some of the adult female characters without jobs doing important voluntary work with the Red Cross.

It’s very much a Chalet School book, though, with weather-related mishaps, plans for a Sale, prefects’ meetings, and ridiculously unlikely coincidences.  Oh, and there’s a parrot, which is a bit more Blyton or Ransome than Brent-Dyer, but it’s a very cool parrot.  However, it’s specifically a wartime Chalet School book, and it’s obvious that a vast amount of research has gone into it.

The “Guernsey girl” – no, not “Jersey girl”! – is Jacqueline Le Pelley, who’s mentioned briefly in two of the “canon” books.  At one time, no-one seemed to talk much about the occupation of the Channel Islands.  It was years before I realised that a lot of children evacuated from the islands had spent the war years in our local area, especially Oldham and Stockport.  However, in recent times, it’s become the subject of a lot of attention; and, without wanting to post any major spoilers, we learn a lot about the experiences of Jacqueline’s family.

This includes her mother’s work with the Red Cross. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I do get rather irritated by aspects of the wartime ones.  In Exile and Goes to It, admittedly, people seem to be trying to do their bit for the war effort, bot not after that: why do we not see Madge getting involved with the WI or the Red Cross, or the Chalet School Guides doing any sort of war work?  And, when people are doing their bit, it doesn’t always make sense.  Why on earth have Shiena MacDonald, primary carer for her two young sisters, and Sylvia Leigh, primary carer for her niece, been directed into the Forces, rather than doing one of the many other forms of war work?  Robin even suggests that Joey, who at the point in question has three children under the age of four, could be conscripted!

It’s at least acknowledged that Sylvia Leigh wasn’t called up until Lavender was fourteen, but Bride Bettany remarks that she was able to “get off” war service until then, and the unknown Jean McKenzie suggests that Joey take in Flora and Fiona to avoid having working-class evacuees from inner city areas billeted on her. And, at one point, someone – Nell Wilson? – even moans about how inconvenient it is that young women are doing war work rather than applying for jobs as Chalet School maids!  Yes, I’m sure that there were people who thought like that, but it hardly fits with the ethos of the Chalet School.   Or, indeed, the general ethos: many women who were exempt as they had children under fourteen volunteered to do their bit anyway.  It was during the Second World War that “school dinners” became a thing, because so many mothers of school age children were out at work during the day.  I wouldn’t particularly expect the mothers of the Chalet School girls to be signing up to work in munitions factories, but I *would* expect them to be doing the sort of voluntary work which Amy shows here.  I like to think that Madge was busy doing all sorts as part of the WI, but, if she was, Elinor M Brent-Dyer never tells us about it!

Elinor’s insistence that every single Austrian and German character is anti-Nazi just isn’t realistic.  Nor is the apparent absence of food shortages.  And don’t get me started on how the main reaction to Bob Maynard being killed in action is a lot of moaning about the inconvenience of Jack inheriting Pretty Maids!

Rant over!  I love the Chalet School books to bits, and I admire Elinor M Brent-Dyer greatly for her brave writing in Exile, highlighting the way in which the Nazis were persecuting Jews such as the Goldmanns and political opponents such as Herr Marani, but aspects of the war books really do get on my nerves!   What we see here is much more how I like to think of the characters of the Chalet School world behaving

We see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the community, and hear quite a lot about the challenges posed by rationing.  There’s also a chapter devoted to the death of Hilary Burn’s fiance.  TBH, I think that EBD just forgot that she’d mentioned that Hilary was engaged: some years after the war, Hilary becomes engaged to and eventually marries Phil Graves, and what happened to the first fiance seemed to be a mystery until a reader actually asked about it!   But his loss is covered here.  We don’t actually see Hilary hearing the news, but we hear some of her thoughts later on.  The stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on response, which sees Hilary returning to work within a few weeks, fits with the times – and also with Hilary’s character, as it’s pointed out that people deal with grief in different ways.

I was sorry not to see more of Grizel in this book, but that’s just my personal feeling.  I was also sorry not see more of Madge.  We see quite a bit of Jo, but much of that’s in the context of Charles Maynard being ill: we don’t see Jo barging into the school uninvited, or being consulted about difficult pupils with whom the staff and prefects are apparently unable to deal without her, which can get rather irritating!  Daisy; who’s one of my favourite characters, is Head Girl in this book and a friend of Jacqueline’s, so she plays a big role.

More typical Chalet School plotlines include a group of girls getting lost in the mist and, you guessed it, finding a hut to shelter in, and work being done for the Sale.  So it is very much a Chalet School book, but it’s a wartime Chalet School book.  The war permeates everything.  And that’s how it would have been.   There can’t have been any pupil who didn’t have friends and relatives on active service, living with the constant fear of hearing bad news, and this book does reflect that, as well as the general effects of was on everyday life.

There’s one other storyline which is specific to the wartime era, and that’s the introduction of Anna Steiner, a young Jewish Austrian girl who’s come to Britain on the Kindertransport.   She isn’t a pupil at the Chalet School.  Hmm, now that’d would have been an interesting storyline.  My old school, along with some others locally, made a number of places available on scholarships to Jewish girls who’d come to Britain as refugees … but I suppose that what worked for a day school in Manchester would probably not have worked quite so well for a boarding school in rural Herefordshire with a strong Christian ethos.  Anyway, Anna is staying with a family in the area, and we see some of the Chalet School girls going round to meet her and to talk to her in her native German.  However, there’s an utterly ridiculous coincidence as it turns out that Anna is from Tyrol and that her elder sister was best friends with the sister of one of the Chalet School characters.  But, hey, those sorts of coincidences happen an awful lot in the Chalet School books, so I suppose it’s authentic from that viewpoint!

Unlikely coincidence aside, the inclusion of the character of Anna Steiner is a lovely idea, and fits in very well with The Chalet School in Exile.  Some of the wartime Chalet School books just don’t: it’s hard to think how you go from the girls rushing to help a defenceless elderly man being attacked by a Nazi mob to talking about “getting off” doing war service.  But everything about this one does.  And yet, although it’s so different to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s wartime books, it always feels like a Chalet School book.  Bravo, Amy!   A very, very good book.

 

 

Exile for Annis by Josephine Elder

Standard

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

Standard

  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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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

Standard

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.