DORITA FAIRLIE BRUCE, Nancy in the Sixth (1935)
The combined influence of my return to the Chalet School books (despite my glacial progression through the series) and my enjoyment of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Colmskirk novels surely influenced my decision to grab an affordable copy of the out-of-print Girls Gone By edition of this earlier Bruce title when it popped up on Abe Books recently.
Although Bruce is one of the biggest names in the genre of girls' school stories, and although, as you all know, I've been having a lot of fun with that genre in the past year or so, I also had a bit of a resistance to Bruce's school stories. I've read that even some school story fans find Nancy a bit too much of a goody-two-shoes, and my only other experience with one of Bruce's series characters was Toby at Tibbs Cross, the wartime entry in her Toby series, which follows Toby into adulthood in the midst of the war (and is therefore likely to be rather different from the Toby school stories). I found that book just a bit too much on the Christian inspirational side for my own tastes. Perhaps the wartime setting and efforts to keep up the morale of her readers' had something to do with that as well.
But although I must admit there were times in reading Nancy in the Sixth that I could have dunked Nancy's head in a bucket of ice water for her ridiculous standards of behavior, including refusing to "sneak" (i.e. tell the truth about another student's bad behavior) even when it created chaos and inconvenience for the entire school she purports to care so much about, I still had a rollicking good time with the book overall. And it would take a gruffer reader than myself to not fall in love with the charming Bianca Jane (aka Bija), a junior whose efforts at training herself for a future as a biographer, not to mention her common sense and openness which highlight how silly Nancy's own standards are, play a pivotal role in the book's plot:
"And what's your name?"
"I told you—Bijah Allen. I wasn't christened that, of course; I've got another, but Nancy Caird says it's not to be used, and if any one says it by mistake they're to be fined a halfpenny. I expect she meant me too—anyhow, I daren't risk it, because I'm rather hard-up at present, and a halfpenny's a halfpenny."
Clemency looked at her hard. "I wonder," she mused, "if you're a little mental—not quite right in your head, you know."
Bijah's keen sense of humour accepted this as an excellent joke.
"It's just my newness," she explained cheerfully. "I've never been to school before, and at first the Lower Third thought I must be a bit dotty too, but they soon saw that was a mistake."
As for the central conflict, the bitter conflict between Nancy and the Clemency, it's patently clear from page 1 that Nancy will come out on top, but that doesn't make the various twists and Clemency's deviousness any less enjoyable.
I have to confess that I've already placed an order for another of Girls Gone By's Nancy titles, and while I was at it came across an earlier Toby title as well and with an "in for a penny, in for a pound" kind of resignedness, ordered that one too. So it looks like I'll be learning more about Bruce's school stories in the near future.
WINIFRED DARCH, The New School and Hilary (1926) & Alison Temple—Prefect (1938)
I'm not sure that I really have the credentials to claim that a girls' school story author is criminally neglected. I've probably read a grand total of 25 or 30 school stories so far, out of many hundreds (or even thousands?) that true experts in the field would be familiar with. But I feel a bit inclined to make just such a claim of Winifred Darch.
I seem to get some support for such a claim from Sue Sims & Hilary Clare, who note in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories that:
Darch forges compelling and utterly credible plots with attractive characters; these, mixed with an English teacher's eye for precisely the right phrase, and a delightful sense of irony, make Darch's books among the best school stories ever written.
Despite this, however, only one of Darch's novels has been reprinted in recent decades, by (of course) Girls Gone By, and that edition—of The New School and Hilary—is now long out-of-print again, though fortunately not terribly difficult to track down. This lack of attention is hard to understand, though in a short intro to the GGB edition of Hilary Mary Cadogan suggests that her decision to write only stand-alone novels, instead of focusing on the same schools and characters for a series of novels, might be to blame. But it's certainly unfortunate, since The New School and Hilary, at least, is a very strikingly realistic portrayal of school life that almost warrants being included on my grownup school story list. Although it certainly was written for girls and not primarily for grownups, it nevertheless reminded me of Mary Bell's Summer's Day at times, which as you all must surely know by now is, for me, a sort of high-water mark in the genre.
In part, this is because the novel's focus shifts occasionally from the traditional perspective of a schoolgirl—in this case the titular Hilary, who at the novel's beginning makes the move from a posh boarding school to a local high school which has only just been opened—to the perspective of a young teacher, Judith Wingfield, who also attended Hilary's old school and is remembered by Hilary as a much-admired senior when she herself was only 12 years old. This lends the novel a very nearly adult perspective when it comes, for example, to the confrontation between Judith's idealism about negotiating class differences and the harsher realities of her new position:
The landlady no doubt meant to be very kind and Judith had come to Uffington with a firm resolve that she was going to help to break down the foolish barriers which still divided class from class. Still, mixing with all sorts of children and helping to raise their ideals was different from taking a bath in your landlady's kitchen!
Undoubtedly, as discussed in another introductory article, this one by Sue Sims, the vivid attention to detail of the scenes from Judith's perspective undoubtedly stems in part from the fact that Darch used her own teaching experiences as a model. Darch apparently continued to base many of the events of her stories on real events in her teaching career, and Sims quotes a former student of Darch who says, "We all enjoyed the stories and were great fans of the author. I remember well attempts to divert end-of-term English lessons from the set syllabus to a recounting of the plot of the story then in the press. We were usually successful!"
|Illustration by Gilbert Dunlop,|
from Alison Temple--Prefect
This basis in the realities of school life also makes The New School and Hilary quite interesting from a more historical or sociological perspective. Hilary's new high school brings together girls from very different classes and backgrounds, and the novel attempts to explore those differences a bit, with the result that the story feels grounded by comparison with the unquestioned affluence and zanily unrealistic perils and rescues of many school stories. Darch doesn't offer up any major life-threatening events here, and in fact might even in one scene be making a joke at the expense of such madcap stories:
"You don't mean you like her, Hilary?" demanded Marigold.
"No, I don't. But I've felt so horrid myself this week-end that I've got a sort of fellow feeling for her. I think if we go on being beastly to her she'll naturally be horrid, but if we don't—"
Marigold shrugged her pretty shoulders. "You'd better go and save her life or something, Hilary!"
But her story is no less entertaining for the absence of fires and floods and plagues of locusts (okay, I don't know of any school stories featuring plagues of locusts, but I wouldn't be that surprised if there were some).
I enjoyed The New School and Hilary so much that I promptly spent far too much money buying several more of Darch's novels. I've only read one so far, and that one, Alison Temple—Prefect (1938, reprinted in 1961 as Alison in a Fix), comes from considerably later in Darch's writing career. The GGB intro to New School suggests that Darch's later work suffered as a result of her decision to take early retirement from teaching in order to care for her sick parents. Because the great strength of her earlier works was the inspiration they took from Darch's actual experiences and those of her students, her 1935 retirement may have deprived her work of some of its former immediacy and attention to detail. In fact, Darch published only two more titles after Alison, despite living on into her mid-70s.
|1961 reprint of Alison Temple--Prefect|
Two books isn't enough to judge the career trajectory of an author who published nearly two dozen books in all. I can certainly say that Alison Temple—Prefect is neither as tightly plotted nor as realistic and well-developed from a character standpoint as New School, but I can also say that I had a great time reading it. The main plot here centers around the familiar theme of a much-loved headmistress going on leave and being replaced with a difficult new head who makes life a misery for the school. Darch offers the somewhat unusual twist of having the loved head be a fairly strict disciplinarian who is replaced by a expert on psychology who has newfangled ideas about not repressing girls with rules (but who instead tortures them by passive-aggressive measures far crueler than the rules they replace). The new headmistress, who happens to be Alison's Aunt Lucilla, also causes problems for Alison's sisters, including one who is in her first term as an art mistress at the school. And of course there's a subplot of a bitter rivalry between Alison and another girl, which is worked out tidily in the end.
Naturally, a healthy portion of the book's humor comes from Aunt Lucilla's theories of child psychology. She has considerably more theories than she has sense, as quickly becomes clear. There is humor in the girls' attempting to figure out her ideas:
'Isn't this awful, Clare? And exactly what is it all about? My sister Pamela was right; I ought to have read that book of Aunt—of Miss Bidgood's. I expect it's all in there.'
'W-What?' whispered Eve.
'All about not repressing children,' replied Alison briefly. 'That's chiefly what it comes to, doesn't it, Clare?'
'Yes,' said Clare. 'If children are repressed they either break out or they don't.'
'I should have thought that obvious,' murmured Alison.
'But if they don't they suffer from inferiority complexes, and it leads them to show off or else to—Oh, I can't remember—probably to die of broken hearts,' said Clare.
And then, a few pages later, Alison hilariously uses Aunt Lucilla's own theories against her:
'Would you mind reading a dozen lines from Paradise Lost or any other poem which has moved you deeply?'
Alison had turned very red.
'I couldn't possibly,' she said gruffly and finally.
Miss Bidgood looked disappointed.
'You should try to get over your shyness,' she said.
'Probably I was too much repressed when I was young.'
It's all great good fun, even if it's not up to New School's standards. And I still have two more Darch novels on my TBR shelves, so perhaps you'll hear more about those here in the future.