EDITH MILES, The Girl Chums of Norland Road (1930)
Barbara at Call Me Madam noted in a comment on one of my earlier posts on girls' school story authors that this book was well worth reading, and I have to thank her for that. When I finally had a chance to grab an inexpensive copy, I remembered her recommendation and indeed it turned out to be great fun, even while it's possibly the least eventful school story I've read. If you like fires and near-drownings and spies and smugglers and mudslides by the dozen in your school stories, then I'd think twice about this one, but if you enjoy quiet, uneventful tales that present a relatively realistic, only somewhat idealized view of what school life must have been like for many girls, then Girl Chums might be for you.
Sims and Clare note that Miles has a tendency to go "over the top" with her madcap characters, but that doesn't seem to be the case in this book. The story opens with Doris Endell (who is certainly not a madcap) arriving in London to stay with her aunt and uncle and to attend a girls' day school. Her parents—unlike those of so many school story main characters—are not in fact dead, or even in India or Burma or Africa, but have merely sent her to this school to give her the opportunity of experiencing London and of preparing for her scholarship exam at the end of the year.
Doris is placed initially in a class with other girls the headmistress is considering shifting to other forms, including some of the most difficult or lazy, and Doris alienates these girls with her shyness and intelligence. The rest of the story follows Doris's eventual move to another class, her success in making two good friends (no idea why the book's cover shows only two girls, when they are firmly a trio throughout), and such major events as preparation for the scholarship exam and Doris's efforts to learn to swim. Her uncle provides comic relief with his kidding of the girls and his tales of his own exploits.
And that's it really. That's the novel's plot. But I have a high tolerance, as you all must know by now, for novels that are light on plot, and this one is so charmingly written that I didn't mind at all the focus on mundane day-to-day events. In addition, as Barbara had mentioned in her comment, The Girls of Norland Road is relatively unique in its urban setting and the fact that the girls attend a state-run school and are clearly middle-class. There is no excess of wealth here—no princesses in disguise or daughters of aristocratic families whose homes are now tragically owned by the National Trust—and the story is all the more interesting for that.
It is true enough, by the way, that one of Doris's friends, Ethel, might be seen as something of a madcap, but only in a fairly muted way, and if anything in Miles's tale is over the top, it is merely that problems are solved more neatly and conveniently than in real life, but then this is hardly an unusual characteristic of school stories or even of other fiction more generally. Presumably, Miles went a bit more berserk in some of her other books, but this one struck me as a charming, quiet little story with likeable girls and interesting, ordinary activities. Has anyone read any of Miles's other work?
MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Here We Go Round (1954)
I've written before about my fondness for Allan's books, and I knew I had to pick this one up right away when Girls Gone By reprinted it. It's a girls' career story, about being a nursery school teacher, which in itself appealed to my interest in school stories written from the perspective of teachers and other adults as well as the students.
But what made the novel completely irresistible is that it is also based on Allan's own wartime experiences as a nursery helper. Clarissa Cridland's introduction to the Girls Gone By edition includes a fairly lengthy quotation from Allan's late self-published memoir To Be an Author (1982) about the book's genesis. Here's a snippet:
I was at [Bromborough Preparatory School] for over a year then the war caught up with me again, and I wasn't allowed to stay there. I was directed to become a Nursery Warden and was sent to Bolton in Lancashire for training. I was billetted in Ivy Road and had to share a bedroom with three strangers.
I finished my training in Liverpool and was then sent to be in charge of the nursery at Gwladys Street School in Walton, close to Anfield Cemetery and Stanley Park. It was a dreadful journey in the early morning, the last part in a rocking, overcrowded, highly smelling tram. It went along Scotland Road, of blessed memory to some. The long thoroughfare, very badly bombed, had a raw and brave life, but its inhabitants were hard to stomach early on a winter's morning.
The quotation goes on to describe in more detail her real life experiences, but I don't want to spoil the novel itself by sharing too much. It is surely the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel, however, that lends it its diary-like quality and makes it seem so vividly real. In this sense, it seems quite distinct from the other Allan novels I've read, as good as those have been.
In short, the story (recast into the postwar years, sadly—one wonders just how many other novels of the late 1940s and 1950s, some of which we may know and love, were rewritten to excise the wartime content they originally contained?) follows Mary McBride as she spends a year in a nursery (presumably in or around Liverpool?—I was a bit vague on the exact spot, if indeed Allan ever mentioned it) before going for additional training to become a nursery school teacher. The neighborhood of the nursery, wherever it may be, is certainly urban and poor, and one of the great strengths of Allan's tale is that she is completely realistic about the problems of neglected and poorly-cared-for children, and her story doesn't offer any idealized solutions to those problems. The nursery helpers and the teachers of the attached school try to do their best for the children's health and education, but are sadly aware that they can only do so much to combat the conditions of their daily lives.
Allan always excels at descriptions and at making her readers feel that they are experiencing the action of her novels, but this novel is rather different. Here, it's not so much a sense of a storyteller—even an excellent one—weaving a tale, but rather a friend telling one of her experiences, in fascinating detail but without all of the bells and whistles of trying to make a dramatic tale of it. It's possible that, for readers expecting a tidy tale with a comfortable happy ending, this characteristic could prove slightly disappointing, but for me it was a huge plus.
The GGB intro also made me hunger for another of Allan's early titles, of which I had already tried to track down an affordable copy (and failed). The quoted passage from Allan's memoir begins with what is obviously the end of her discussion of another book:
I had a brilliant idea ... I still had the manuscript of the Land Army book, Room for the Cuckoo. Why not turn part of it into a book for girls? Cut out the war, of course, and just make the heroine be doing a year of practical farming before going to an Agricultural College. I was wildly excited and soon set to work.
I did make a story of it, but it was basically some sections of the same book. Whole cobs of my farming experience were almost unaltered, but I had to shape a plot and introduce a hero. I used for the most part my life on a mid-Cheshire farm, disguised somewhat by moving the great salt flash I had actually known months later at a farm near Sandbach.
Although I might vehemently wish that Allan's original manuscript for her wartime Land Army book—minus the hero and the shaped plot—still existed and might be published, I'll still happily take a copy of the revamped version, and I hope that this little teaser for it means that Room for the Cuckoo might also be on Girls Gone By's reprint radar.
MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, Swiss Holiday (1956, aka The Vine-Clad Hill)
I keep swearing that I'm going to stop writing so much about Allan here, because I figure that some of you might be getting pretty bored with hearing about her now. Plus, I've been on a bit of an Allan kick lately, and considering that she published nearly 200 books in all, I'm in some danger of turning this blog into The Mabel Esther Allan Show if I keep mentioning everything of hers that I read. I had no intention of discussing this one, which I picked up during a little gift card buying spree at Amazon, but as it has now become one of my favorites of Allan's novels, I can't resist just mentioning why.
Allan seems to have run the gamut from writing for relatively young children to writing for teenagers and on to writing for girls who are just on the cusp of adulthood. She wrote several school stories, which aren't always thought of in relation to the school story genre as a whole (they are somewhat atypical, with highly progressive schools and a focus on individual development and realistic action over sports and school life as a whole), but she also wrote various family stories and holiday tales. Swiss Holiday, the American edition of her novel The Vine-Clad Hill (I came this close to buying copies under each title before I read that they were one and the same book), is one of her holiday stories, but, like Margaret Finds a Future, which I briefly discussed here, it's also really a coming-of-age story, and (as I also mentioned in relation to her excellent early novel The Return to the West, which Greyladies reprinted) Allan handles that sense of being partly still a child and partly a young woman extraordinarily well.
|Front flap of my copy of Swiss Holiday|
In this case, the young woman in question is Philippa (who prefers to go by Philip, though her aunt irritatingly calls her Pippa), who is spending one final summer before beginning school work at Cambridge in the fall. Her family is distinctly middle-class, and she has planned to work as a waitress for the summer to make money for new school clothes. However, her rather wealthier and more pretentious Aunt Millicent offers her the opportunity of traveling to Switzerland with her and her family, in order to take care of her two spoiled rotten younger children, Gay and Gordon, and serve as a kind of companion to her older daughter, Tilda, an awkward, dreamy girl who has always suffered by comparison to her grown sister Clemency.
Of course, Philip will ultimately prove herself invaluable, and happy endings will be found for all, but it's told so skillfully and in such a low-key way that somehow it feels completely realistic, and as always Allan's descriptive abilities, which make the reader feel they are right there with the characters in the towns and sites described, are in full flower here. But what really makes this a stand-out among books about young women is Allan's subtlety in presenting Philip's increasing maturity and her dawning awareness of both her competence and abilities and her attractiveness to men. I'll just share one passage which helps to demonstrate the latter:
I stood there dreamily, clutching the flowers, knowing that I was going to love Bellinzona, and sure, even before I had seen Lugano, that I would not for worlds have found myself in any crowded vacation spot.
But time was passing, and perhaps Aunt Millicent was lying on her bed, longing for the solace of aspirin and cologne, though I told myself that she had probably fallen asleep long ago.
I turned and passed the big, silent building again, and I was suddenly much disconcerted to see that someone was standing halfway down the staircase, leaning on the balustrade and staring at me. I stopped for a second and stared back, perhaps hypnotized by that handsome face. For it was a young man in a white silk shirt. His brown arms lay along the stone, and his sun-tanned face was startlingly good-looking.
He smiled, and something in his expression made me feel shy and awkward. As he said something in Italian and began to descend the stairs, I made hurriedly for the door by which I had entered. For some reason, though, I couldn't help looking back as I reached it, and he was standing on the bottom stair, staring after me, and there was no mistaking the fact that his eyes held-well, appreciation, admiration.
Then I was out in the street again and hurrying back toward the druggist in the Viale Stazione.
"I don't think you were trespassing, but you've been out long enough, my girl," I told myself. "And as for that young man-he probably looks at every girl like that." But all the same, it was the first time that anyone had shown such interest in me, and the experience was oddly heartening.
From reviews and mentions online, it seems that I'm not the only one who sees this as one of Allan's best novels. If you're interested in travel-oriented novels with strong characters and a hint of romance, it's really worth tracking down, and indeed I hope that Girls Gone By or another publisher will consider reprinting it. GGB has just in the past week or two reprinted another Allan title with a similar setting, Three Go to Switzerland, written two or three years before this one, so perhaps this would make a good companion-piece?
|Back flap of my copy of Swiss|
Holiday, with author bio
I have about six more Mabel Esther Allan titles on my TBR shelves. Which one will I choose next (and will I be able to resist telling you about it)?