The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.