Wednesday, 8 July 2009
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.