Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Review: The Twins at St Clare's (St Clare's #1, Enid Blyton)

This is one of the ur-series to me. With my self-imposed exile from the Chalet School and lack of Trebizon or Kingscote in my local library, the St Clare’s and Malory Towers books were the two series I read over and over as a kid; it’s the latter that seems to have made a bigger impact on me (having a bash at writing an original girls school story recently, I realised after a bit that the school I was describing was Malory Towers), probably because Darrell has more of a personality than the O’Sullivan twins. When your sole, shared trait is ‘truculent because Mummy and Daddy wouldn’t send me to the school I wanted’, and that gets resolved in the first book, there’s nowhere much to go. Still, the series isn’t about those two so much as its an ensemble school piece, so the wallpaper-quality of the supposed twin leads didn’t bother me too much on my rereading binge. I hugely enjoyed this series, and any snarking below should be assumed to have an undercurrent of affection, like a class trick on an excitable French mistress.

The first book gets going with identical twins and prep-school queen bees Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan having a snobby whinge about not going to the same school as their chums, who are off to a school for “girls of rich parents, very well-bred”:

“We are going to St. Clare's, where anybody can go, and the dormitories take six or eight girls and aren't nearly as nicely furnished as the maids' bedrooms are at home!”

Ask not for whom the world’s tiniest violin plays, Pat. It plays for thee.

With Mummy and Daddy insisting that they need to rough it with the plebs to stop them getting so spoilt and snobby (and a hurried-over hint that the family’s lost a lot of money recently), the twins decide they’re going to be Thoroughly Bad Eggs at St Clare’s. This was published only a year after The Naughtiest Girl in the School – same plot, only one girl – but I suppose if I had 800 books to write I’d reuse material like mad too.

"How horrid of Daddy to say we are conceited! We're not a bit. We can't help knowing that we're good at nearly everything, besides being pretty and quite amusing."

I wish Pat had stayed like this a bit longer. I know ‘spoiled new girl bucks up and learns to play the game’ is a solid trope of the genre and that she might get unbearable over the whole series, but she’s much more entertaining as Cordelia Chase in a gymslip.

Incidentally, something I failed to notice as a child is that the O’Sullivan twins are Irish (I know the name ought to have been a clue, but living in Northern Ireland I assumed every class of schoolchildren in the world had dozens of O’ and Mc names). It disappoints me that this is brought up on page 1, in a mention of their ‘Irish lilts’, and never touched on again. Since they go to school in England, live within driving distance of London and don’t have any Irish speech patterns, it’s not surprising I didn’t pick up on it, but it’d be nice to get a mention now and then. On the other hand, Angela Brazil tried that once with Honor Fitzgerald, the titular New Girl at St Chad’s, who calls people ‘mavoureen’ and decorates her school uniform with shamrocks:

”St. Patrick for ever! I made up my mind before I started that I'd keep up the credit of the shamrock on this side of the water, and I've done my best. Hurrah for old Ireland!" Then, as if her feelings were absolutely too much for her, she took her skirt in her hands, and began to dance an old-fashioned Kerry hornpipe.

I hope it doesn’t spoil the St Clare’s series too much if I say that at no point are either of the O’Sullivan twins so overwhelmed by their own Irishness that they break into a spontaneous Kerry hornpipe. Alas.

Arriving at their new school – described in a single line, one of the reasons I think I remembered Malory Towers more vividly – Pat and Isabel find themselves almost bottom of the form and, worse, realise that first-years have to dance attendance on the sixth-formers. Anyone who’s read Roald Dahl’s or Stephen Fry’s autobiographies will know that this practice is called ‘fagging’, but it seems it wasn’t called the same in girls’ schools, nor are there scenes of the twins being told to warm up toilet seats before the senior girls use them. Maybe St Clare’s has central heating. Anyway, Isabel knuckles down and learns how to make toast and polish boots, while Pat flounces around the place until the sports captain puts her on the team for a lacrosse match – “How decent of Belinda!” – and she nobly owns up to not doing her share of the work, knowing it might get her punted off the team again. It’s chapter two and already the place is eroding her entertaining bitchiness.

The book goes on with the usual episodes – the obligatory midnight feasts, a trick on Mam’zelle, and sneaking out to go to first the cinema and then the circus (it’s a Blyton book, so the girls get a karmic smackdown for this latter minor bit of naughtiness in getting colds and having to miss a form treat). There’s a minor mystery over some money going astray, and general shock and amazement to find it’s a girl in their form who felt left out at not having as much money as the others (you can understand the surprise this time, but it’ll continue to be a shock every time someone does this.) The girls rescue a stray dog and keep it in the attic. One unpleasant girl, Sheila, turns out to have a terrible secret, that her family is – horrors – nouveau riche, her father having started as a shopkeeper:

She shouldn't have boasted and bragged -- but she had only done it because she knew she wasn't as good as the others and she wanted to hide it.

Still, she has an epiphany that ‘money and servants and cars’ don’t matter as much as strength of character, and becomes the prompter and understudy in the school play, which is all a jolly schoolgirl can ask for, though it has to be said that still having the money and servants and cars in the holidays must be nice.

All these larks are good fun, but there’s actually quite an interesting subplot in the tricks played on Miss Kennedy, the history teacher. All of the girls, the characters we’re meant to be sympathising with, join in playing tricks on this poor woman because she can’t control them and is too embarrassed to report them. The mention of her lying awake at night worrying about what a bad job she’s doing, and the girls carrying on like this without it once flitting across their minds that what they’re doing is bullying, make it one of the most engaging and real sections in the book. It’s a shame that it all gets resolved in contrived fashion, with the twins happening to overhear Miss Kennedy helpfully expositioning about her work woes and her ill mother to a friend in the middle of a coffee shop and the whole class writing her a letter of apology. Just in case any child-readers miss that bullying is wrong, Pat spells out that if Miss Kennedy had resigned, her sick mother couldn’t have been nursed back to health. Bullies = murderers of little old ladies, though this doesn’t stop the same class playing tricks on other teachers in every single book.

(This mention of someone dying without money for the treatment, by the way, is just about the only definite time indicator in the whole series; it must be before the formation of the NHS in 1948. Ignoring when they were written, they could fit almost any time between the end of WWI and the 1960s, apart from the Second World War; which must have been a deliberate choice on Blyton’s part, since she was writing them during that war. Maybe she had escapism in mind, or was worried they’d date badly, or just set them in her own school days.)

The book finishes off with the girls putting on a variety show for their parents. Do I even need to say it’s a triumph…? I have the same soft spot for “let’s put the show on right here!” as I do for midnight feasts, so I enjoyed this bit. I enjoyed the whole book, really, though Pat and Isabel are too alike and don’t have enough personality between them for one person, let alone two. Pat, at least, gets off to an interesting if unlikeable start but by the end they both adore St Clare’s and can’t wait to be back after the holidays – so great is their excitement, indeed, that the last 200 words of the book contain eleven exclamation marks. But even then, no Kerry hornpipe.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Some fandom mash-ups should never occur

Last night I finished my reread of the whole St Clare's series - reviews forthcoming - and watched the first part of the new Torchwood, leading to strange two-in-the-morning thoughts (1965 might be a bit late for the St Clare's books, since they were published in the early 40s, but can we really assume they're suppose to be contemporary to their publication when there's no mention of the war? And there's that mysterious skip from second year to fourth. I think I just like the idea of Mam'zelle dragging Miss Roberts from the staffroom because these bad third-formers, they are playing a treek, pretending to be frozen in place, and they've somehow got the whole school in on it...)

I'm two chapters into the first Chalet School book, thankfully one with quite a nice cover, not the grinning Stepford schoolgirl that's posted further down this page. I'm coming stuck on how 'Grizel' is pronounced, but the evil stepmother and Madge's habit of throwing back her head to laugh a merry laugh seem promising so far. I was planning on doing the third Sadler's Wells book instead but since the romantic plotline in the second one made me incandescent with rage I might give it a few days.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Swastikas and cockchafers

I'm idly looking through Angela Brazil's books on Project Gutenberg and goodness, her schoolgirls are an exhausting, alarming, sometimes incomprehensible lot:

"Dona, you're ostriching! For goodness' sake brace up, child, and turn off the water-works! I thought you'd more pluck. If you're going to arrive at Brackenfield with a red nose and your eyes all bunged up, I'll disown you, or lose you on the way. Crystal clear, I will! I'll not let you start in a new school nicknamed 'Niobe', so there! Have a caramel?"

- A Patriotic Schoolgirl

"You've got to reckon with me if you spoil the play, so there! Don't be a silly cockchafer!"

- The Princess of the School

"O Sophonisba!" ejaculated Raymonde.

- The Madcap of the School

"I drew a tiny little swastika inside the envelope, and I made three crosses over it with my right forefinger," confessed Hilary.

- A Harum-Scarum Schoolgirl

Annie really played up magnificently. None of the girls had known before that she could act so well. She threw such fervour into her love-making that Mrs. Morrison, who was among the spectators, gave a warning cough.

- A Patriotic Schoolgirl

"I didn't mind a bit after my 'first mad' cooled off. Sorry if I was a bear. No, I won't take your lucky hunchback. Must I? Well, you're a dear! I'd adore to have it. I felt absolutely green when I saw you buy it. I'll hang him on a chain and wear him round my neck, and I expect I'll just be a whiz at tennis to-morrow. Oh, isn't he funny? Thanks ever so! I shall keep him eternally as a memory of this ripping day up old Vesuvius."

- The Jolliest School of All

I'd love to know the origins of 'cockchafer' (and what it's meant to mean, other than the obvious) but I'm reluctant to go a-googling since I'm guessing that most of the results won't be innocent pre-WWI schoolgirl larks.

Review: Gemma, Noel Streatfeild

To state my biases up front; I love Noel Streatfeild. Ballet Shoes remains one of the most sublime children’s books I’ve ever read. When I applied to go on Mastermind (in a fit of madness – the hardest quiz on telly, no prize if you win, eternal humiliation if you fail), one of the four specialist subjects I stuck on my form was ‘the books of Noel Streatfeild’. It was a year before they called me back for a second audition, at which point I came to my senses and faked swine flu down the phone, but I still reckon that was a decent choice of subject; if you’re going to be stuck swotting up on someone’s book, they’d better be good ones.

So if even I think Gemma’s a terrible book…

That’s unfair of me. It’s not terrible by any means. Good God, it’s not Twilight. It’s just a bit of a mess compared to her other books, and in places seems to have been written by cutting bits out of them and sticking them together regardless of how well they match.

It starts off in promising Streatfeildian fashion, with the father of the central family, the Robinsons, having to give up his job as a concert musician. Suddenly there’s no money for ‘extras’ – which means bratty youngest child Lydia will have to give up her ballet lessons. Excellent! Now we’re into prime ballet story territory; plucky ambitious youngsters and their siblings secretly raising money so that they can pay for… no, wait, Lydia decides to go and have a chat with her teacher and ask if she can be taught for nothing. The teacher says yes. Mum and Dad are pleased things have worked out. “Everything’s really wrapped up nicely,” as Homer Simpson once said, “and much quicker than usual.” It’s only chapter two. Something is terribly wrong here, not least the fact that I only read this two days ago and am having to sneak looks at Wikipedia because I can’t remember the names of any characters.

It’s hard to see why Lydia’s trouble over her lessons is in the book at all, since it’s resolved instantly and has no impact on the rest of the plot – the family’s money problems are mostly over from this point on, because Mrs Robinson’s film star sister offers to fork over piles of cash if they’ll take her 11-year-old daughter Gemma off her hands while she goes to Hollywood. Gemma, a child star herself, is less than thrilled at the idea of moving in with relatives she’s never met and slumming it at the local comprehensive. Horrible, conceited cousins are another Streatfeild Staple, and it looks at first like Gemma’s going to be another Dulcie from Wintle’s Wonders/Dancing Shoes when she sneers at the house and insults oldest sister Ann to her face. It’s too good to last. Ann slaps her; Gemma admits she’s being horrible because she feels unhappy; apologies all round; Gemma’s reformed, getting on beautifully with her aunt and uncles and cousins from this point on. She’s been in the house an hour.

The whole book goes on in that vein, introducing potentially interesting plot points and then resolving them right away with the minimum amount of fuss. Gemma doesn’t want anyone at school to know she’s famous; change your name, suggests your aunt. She does. Nobody finds out her secret. Gemma’s misbehaving in school; the teacher tells her to stop it and work hard. So she does. Gemma wants to get into the drama class, but the English teacher thinks she’s too young, so Gemma decides that the headmaster will intervene on her behalf if she asks him. He does. The children’s gran takes against Gemma for stealing the limelight from her precious darlings; Gemma shrugs it off and Gran gets over it. The school pageant, taken wholesale from Party Frock, goes off without a hitch, or even a hint of a hitch, which takes the shine off Gemma’s performance a bit – when there’s never a suggestion that she’ll be anything less than brilliant, it’s hard to care when she is.

It seems likely that some of the problems of the book are because it’s the first in a series. It means that large plot points are never resolved – Gemma’s mother doesn’t reappear at the end to see her daughter’s performance, as I’d expected – and subplots like Robin’s choristry and Lydia’s dancing seem irrelevant. But there’s an awkwardness about the book too, as if Noel Streatfeild’s not completely at home writing about comps and pop groups instead of audition pieces and getting licenses from the council and cosy live-in nannies giving stern but sensible advice. I’m probably going to read the rest of the series anyway, because I bought the lot together in Oxfam and I might as well, but unlike her other books I doubt I’ll keep them. And I wish I had access to a scanner because the pink-swirly-sixties-chic cover above doesn’t have the hilarity value of mine, where a grinning blonde child plays the banjo like Deliverance of the Children of the Damned. Worth the 50p for that alone, really.

Friday, 3 July 2009

My secret shame

It's embarrassing - I might go so far as to say jolly embarrassing - when someone realises you like school stories and instantly launches into an account of their favourite Chalet School stories.

Because I haven't read them. Never picked up a single one as a child, even while I was devouring other school stories like they were made of Smarties full of crack cocaine. I've read a grand total of one Brent-Dyer book; Eustacia at the Chalet School, which I bought in a charity shop a couple of months ago. It's got a sulky new girl who has to be saved from a mountain flood and is completely redeemed by the experience, so it was a thumbs up from me, but why hadn't I read them before? My local library was crammed with Jo and chums' adventures. I have an uncomfortable idea that I did start one and promptly stopped reading once I twigged it wasn't set in England. Boarding school stories, as far as I was concerned, were English. Setting them in the Alps was cheating.

God knows where I got that from. It's not as if I'm even English. I'm sure I didn't have this mental block for any other genre, happily hoovering up Babysitter's Club and Point Horror and the many adventures of the Sweet Valley twins and their shiny blonde hair and perfect size 6 figures (a series banned in my school by English teachers who didn't seem to realise that this just made them far more attractive)

Still, the good thing about the popularity of the Chalet School is that the books are more easily available than, say, Dimsie Goes to School, even if I've been warned off the Armada paperbacks because of egregious edits. So there's now a good-size pile on my bedside table; my only worry is that I'm going to end up reading the whole lot in one months-long binge, as I've done with Poirot and the Doctor Who novels and other long series. If I haven't emerged by Christmas, send help.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Bowdlerised Blyton

I'm reading Claudine at St Clare's and came across this exchange:

"If I wasn't in the fourth form I'd give you the biggest scolding you've ever had in your life, Angela. A good scolding would be the best thing you could have."

"Nobody has ever raised their voice to me in my life."

What a rubbish threat, especially from Carlotta The Wild Ex-Circus Girl. And one that doesn't even make sense; what, fourth-formers are too old to scold someone? Do the prefects and teachers at St Clare's waft along the corridors smiling serenely at the misbehaving youngsters? It's such a jarring passage that I decided it must have been changed, and chased down an (almost unreadable) online copy to check -

"If I wasn't in the fourth form I'd give you the hardest spanking you've ever had in your life, Angela. A good spanking would be the best thing you could have."

"Nobody has ever laid a finger on me in my life."

That's more like it! It's a pain to have to stop reading until I can find a copy that hasn't been fiddled with; I understand getting rid of the blatant racism in Blyton's books, and I can reluctantly concede that having two main characters called Dick and Fanny, or sentences like '"I do feel queer!" Julian ejaculated' add unintentional hilarity to proceedings - though I'd say that's the whole point of reading older kids' stories - but modernising pre-decimal currency or carefully deleting any reference to spanking seems a bit much. The latter must get a bit ridiculous in books where Blyton's somewhat alarming enthusiasm for people getting spanked comes to the fore. Dame Slap from the Faraway Tree series is gone, for a start. (And having checked, it seems she's been rebranded as Dame Snap. The children have to face the dire threat of her... telling them off. It just doesn't work, does it?)

I had a quick look through the ebook to see if anything else has been changed, and lo and behold; another scene with Carlotta threatening to spank Angela (I'm only on chapter five, and already this is a promising theme) has been changed to her threatening to throttle her. Hmm. So it's not the violence that's the problem, it's specifically spanking? This is the problem with going mad on the bowdlerising; when people realise they have to wonder what else you might have cut, and why, and make up a version that's far pervier than the reality. Now I've got to track down an original copy of this book to find out if the latter half morphs into Lesbian Spank Inferno at St Clare's...

In which I am overly susceptible to second-hand bookshops

I went down town with the intention of buying kids' books. I didn't intend to come home with thirty of them, but that's what happens when a cunning second-hand bookshop owner entices you into his shop with a promise of all books at 50p. I came out of there with two giant bags full of Biggles, Worrals, Jennings, Abbey Girls, Cherry Ames and Molesworth (gorgeous hardbacks all), then stopped in at another couple of establishments to stock up on paperbacks; Trebizon, Chalet School, Noel Streatfeild, Flambards, Eva Ibbotson... at this point I could just build myself a little fort out of children's books and sit inside it eating cake and reading the walls.

I've started into Jennings first, because I've somehow never come across that series before - maybe because it's about a boys' school? That said, I read Billy Bunter - and so far the titular character and his best chum have started a newspaper, accidentally acquired some fish and set fire to the school photography lab. Good times all. Obviously I'm far to highminded to snigger at sentences like "Well, you blow my trumpet and I'll blow yours."

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Girls, Girls!

I loved boarding school stories when I was a little girl. I couldn't get enough of tricks on poor Mam'zelle, wronged heroines rescuing their mortal enemies from fire or floods, intense drama over who had (with callous beastliness) written an anonymous letter or spoiled Irene's knitting, the epic hockey or lacrosse match... and of course, midnight feasts. It didn't matter that this sort of stuff was frowned upon by teachers and librarians by the 80s, or that I did actually go to a girls' school and knew full well that I'd throw myself in front of a train if I was compelled to stay there at nights and weekends, or that there are dead penguins who could play a more coordinated game of hockey than me; there was just something glamorous about St Clare's and the rest. And despite those teachers' and librarians' worries about the insidious influence of Blyton, I managed to progress to 'proper' books, got my A-Levels, got my (physics) degree, embarked on a PhD...

...and found that for some reason my new university's library had a large collection of Antonia Forest and Angela Brazil. Childhood nostalgia kicked me in the shins. One bit of light reading couldn't hurt, could it?

After that it was just a sad spiral of addiction and denial. Everybody knows Antonia Forest's quite literary really; I'd definitely sneer at the Blyton stuff if I read it again now. Not even remotely true. I may have wailed aloud at the realisation that Blyton never wrote a Third Form at St Clare's. (You can't skip a year! No, three books about first year doesn't make up for it! Didn't she know the rules? And I'm aware there are fill-ins written by Pamela Cox covering the third and sixth years, but I haven't tracked those down, partly out of an anal sense of canon purity, partly because her existence makes me want to throw a big jealous tantrum at the idea that there's someone in the world whose job is to write St Clare's and Malory Towers books.)

So, this blog's meant to be for me to chunter on about girls' stories - mainly boarding school stories, but I've been finding myself revisiting Noel Streatfeild lately, and that spun me off into reading ballet books, so this might well turn into a catch-all 'person who should be old enough to know better reads slightly old-fashioned stuff for kids' blog. Lashings of ginger beer are almost guaranteed.