Friday, March 20, 2015

ELIZABETH LAKE, The First Rebellion (1952)

When I was an unhappy, dysfunctional high school senior, I was inspired to initiate my first (and probably only, until a normal life in the big city had thoroughly overhauled my outlook on life) rebellion against official injustice—or what I felt at the time was injustice. I had a truly terrible geometry class with a truly terrible teacher (I probably would have hated geometry whatever the circumstance, but honestly this teacher would have made Euclid himself look for greener pastures). It wasn't a difficult class, mind you. On the contrary, had it been remotely challenging, I might approached each session with less dread.

According to the class syllabus, the grade was determined by several factors. I can't recall the exact percentages, except that the homework assignments made up 20% of the grade. As the grading scale was a flat 90% or above = A, 80-89% = B, 70-79% = C, etc., I decided that I was perfectly happy with a C from the class, and since I scored 100% or close to it on all the exams, I could easily have earned that without benefit of the homework. Shocking, right? Some kids were smoking marijuana or having sex behind the bleachers—I was rebelling against geometry.

But after a couple of weeks of this, Mrs. Terrible sent me for a visit to the principal (who is quite possibly in the Guiness Book of World Records for his impeccable and effortless imitation of one of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, of which he never seemed to tire). Mr. Waxwork promptly threatened to have me expelled and prevent me from graduating. Perhaps a wee bit of an overreaction, all things considered, and perhaps a missed opportunity for something more constructive in face of a smart teenager who was bored out of his mind? 

But I caved, of course, because there was certainly nothing I wanted less than to remain in that school for a second longer than I must. I felt it as a profound injustice, however, a kind of tyranny, that the teacher was effectively changing the standards set out in the syllabus. I suppose, reflecting on it now, that she was merely attempting, in her rather ineffectual way, to enforce discipline where she had failed to ignite interest, but at the time I felt that she was simply angry that I found her chosen subject not only so easy as to require no effort at all, but also so without value that I didn't want to waste on it even the few minutes the homework required.

I hadn't given any thought to this shameful remnant of my disgruntled past in quite a few years, but reading Elizabeth Lake's The First Rebellion brought it vividly back. And you may be able to tell from the above that I find myself still unable to be objective about my silly protest against geometry, because however wrong I may have been, the protest and the cold injustice of the reaction somehow seem to have tapped into many other factors in my life at the time, causing them to take on a far more urgent significance than was warranted.

Which is all quite appropriate for discussing Lake's novel, so I'm rather glad my flighty memory finally yielded up something useful. Because The First Rebellion, set in a strict convent school for girls, is itself very much concerned with injustice and tyranny and the ways in which they connect up with other elements in the girls' lives and invest their rebellions—both against the nuns directly and against Christianity as a whole—with deeper meanings than they might otherwise hold.

The main focus of the novel is Peggy, a sensitive, insecure girl in her mid-teens who feels constantly self-conscious about the fact that her working mother pays only reduced fees for her education. She is convinced that the nuns, particularly the cruel Sister Gabriel, look down on her and single her out for punishment. As the novel opens, she is returning to the convent after the summer holidays, and the sense of dread she feels is palpable—a dread that is only heightened by discovering that the old headmistress has left and Sister Gabriel has been moved up into her place. Of course, in this development we can see the echo of similar plot twists in numerous school stories for girls, but Lake approaches it with tremendous attention to detail and to the personalities of her characters and transforms it into something surprisingly subtle and powerful.

While Peggy's dread of her arch-nemesis may be the most intense, it's made clear, in Lake's observant, quietly humorous prose, that the other girls are miserable too (and I can vividly recall feeling more or less the same whenever a new school year began, even though mine was a nunless experience):

It took time for you to realize completely that you were shut away from the world once more and nothing, nothing could be done about it. They were realizing it now, no longer in words but in the bottoms of their throats and the pits of their stomachs. Madeleine, probably the nicest girl in the Sixth, had a look of despair so faint as to be almost expressionless, so delicate in its blankness that Peggy, when she looked at her, felt chilled and alone. Even Cynthia was gloomily apathetic. Patsy wore a stagey look of stoicism like an early Christian as the lions approached.

Peggy has made particular friends with Elinor, an apparently more confident girl (but perhaps not really?) who enjoys stirring things up. Together, the two have attempted to resist the many smothering, petty restrictions of the convent, and their "Doubts," which they have thoroughly analyzed and discussed during their few hours of freedom, might, Lake seems to suggest, be a further attempt at resistance, though one of Lake's great strengths as an author is that she is subtle enough to make clear that the doubts are no less deeply felt for having perhaps been spawned by the cruelty and manipulation of some of the nuns:

Elinor had made those days happy. Meetings with Elinor had been delightful with sacrilegious talk. Lapsing from Mother Church had exhilarated them with a sense of their daring and wickedness and reason and uniqueness. They had voiced, interrupting each other, with a rush all the new theories and arguments which had occurred to them during the day. The half-lapsed or lapsing state had had a richness which the fully lapsed state lacked. They had been indignant at the injustice and barbarity of Hell. 'Well if it's true, it's absolutely beastly.' They had laughed at the population of Heaven, deciding that you were as old there as when you died, so that it would be filled with rather elderly and not many young people, all Catholics except for a few Jews from the Old Testament who were remarkable for being 'gathered up' and one or two primitive Heathens, black-skinned and from jungle places who had, by some miracle, made the perfect baptism of desire, plus of course the Apostles and Disciples and the known people. 'But mostly Irish, very old Irish!' they had decided.

Once Sister Gabriel settles into her new position, and once the girls begin to rebel against her harshness, there are no holds barred, and Sister Gabriel could easily have turned into a caricature of all the bad headmistresses in the school story genre (though she is, playing very much against type, both young and beautiful). I was afraid this was going to happen, it even seemed to be happening, but then I realized that Lake was, in her subtle way, dropping hints that force not only the reader, but Peggy herself, to feel a bit of sympathy for Sister Gabriel—if only because she has made such a miserable failure of what must have been, or seemed at some point to be, her calling. In the following quote, the girls are staging a rebellion against extra choir practices, and the end of the quote displays how wonderfully Lake can occasionally relieve the tension of her rather dark tale with a burst of hilarity:

'Very well', she said at last, and even then she was still trying to gain time, 'very well'. She made them turn towards her so that she could frown at them darkly and give them to understand that she had a hundred possible solutions in her head. But when she spoke again it seemed that they were back at the beginning. 'Do you mean to say you refuse to sing when a Sister tells you?'

Gabriel stood still and straight. She believed she had a commanding presence. Her brow was at its most covered to-day, her eyebrows forced down by the stiff white stuff above and therefore bristly looking and thick. By contrast her chin was not so covered and her jaw looked square and heavy. Her white skin was marred by faint blotches on the cheeks and spots on the chin. She looked plainer and more soldier-like than usual. And her brilliant, expressive eyes had been too expressive for too long and over such little things, so that unless they had started right out of their sockets or rolled round and round there was no way of making them relatively adequate to the situation.

The First Rebellion is a serious novel, and one that presents some rather dark and unsympathetic—as well as, at times, ridiculous—nuns (and other religious figures). But I think that Lake's focus here is something much more subtle than a condemnation of the convent or the Catholic Church—although she may certainly be mocking cruel and ineffectual teachers. For just as the girls' pitched battles with Sister Gabriel are looking bleak and hopeless, the situation in the convent changes again. I won't spoil the effect by revealing too much (on the off chance that anyone is able to track down a copy for themselves), but the ongoing evolution of Peggy's beliefs, both about the Church and about her position in the world and her future, is, I thought, beautifully delineated and not at all predictable. In fact, it's not so much a novel about religion as it is about how our core beliefs and view of the world are impacted by the people and situations around us at crucial times in our lives.

It might also be of interest to note that Lake dedicates her novel "WITH LOVE AND RESPECT to the memory of SISTER M.X."

It's been a while since I've mentioned my purely self-indulgent fantasy publishing venture, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, but I think I can safely say that a new imaginary title has been added to the FMB catalog. If you are interested in grownup novels set in schools, or in convent novels specifically (First Rebellion might be a worthy companion-piece to Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices and Antonia White's Frost in May, for example), it's well worth initiating a search for Lake's novel. Mine came courtesy of the SF Public Library Interlibrary Loan department and the University of Pennsylvania, which proved willing to loan their rare copy.

And to show that the novel is not all injustice and tyranny, I have to leave you with a passage, describing a retreat the girls are more or less forced to attend, which not only shows Lake's sharp sense of humor, but also her extraordinary ability to extract meaning from the simplest details:

A tall Dominican preached the Retreat.

On the first day striding vigorously up the aisle, he banged his poor bald head against the twisted brass ring which hung below the holy oil lamp and by which the lamp could be lowered. Forgetting himself for a moment, he stopped abruptly and put his hand over his head. Dazed, he made his way to the altar steps, and there he flung himself down on his knees as though hurled there by his own holiness, and he prayed aloud, saying several Hail Marys and impromptu prayers in which he mentioned the Retreat and dedicated it, all so wildly and in his own way that the girls couldn't tell if responses were expected of them in some of the pauses or not. But even after all that time, when he rose from his knees the lamp was still swaying and creaking. Sitting in his chair, his eyes cast down, he waited in patience until the lamp was silent. He looked strained but not exactly embarrassed; he displayed from the very first a complete indifference to how he might appear to others, and resignation to small continual trials.

They also followed all his movements with great interest and excitement. When he walked down the aisle he kept carefully to one side of the lamp—which had now been placed as high as it would go. He also moved away the table placed near his elbow; with his foot he pushed away the footstool which the nuns had provided for his comfort. Inanimate objects seemed forever in his way, banging into him or dropping out of his long restless fingers with a clatter, trying in vain to bring him back to the things of this world. And when, because it had to be done, he picked them up or edged them back into position they seemed to shrink in size and have no business to be there.

If it's true that we are molded by those who impact us for better or worse at turning points in our lives, perhaps I should actually thank Mrs. Terrible and Mr. Waxwork for their part in making me who I am today?

But, I don't think I will.


  1. The plot of this book sounds quite like the plot for the movie "The Trouble with Angels." If that's the case, then I know how the book ends. By the way, I love that movie and loved Rosalind Russell as the Mother Superior. The sequel, "Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows", not so much.


    1. There certainly are some similarities with the movie, Betty, but I don't think they're directly related. The movie is much lighter-hearted!

    2. The movies are based on books by Jane Traherne, try reading them - the first book followed them closely, the second not so much, as you noted.

    3. Furrowed: oh well, I thought that I might have guessed the ending, but maybe not.

      GSGreatEscaper: Thank you for letting me know who author of the 'Angels' books/movies. I'll make it a point of looking for them.


  2. I've never read a school story, but this one sounds very appealing.

    "I felt it as a profound injustice, however, a kind of tyranny, that the teacher was effectively changing the standards set out in the syllabus."

    Completely agree. Having been the victim of petty tyranny myself, I have strong feelings on the subject. When my feathers ruffle at the recollection of old injustices (and when I'm beset with new ones), I find Miss Cholmondeley's observation to be soothing, for it places the tyrant in a rather ridiculous light.


    "... those who have a great love of power and little scope for it must necessarily exercise it in trivial matters."
    — Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage (1899)

    1. Thanks for your understanding, Jane. Funny how these old injustices have a lingering power, and I do love the Red Pottage quote. It did feel good sharing the story with my friends here though--a healing confession!

  3. Oh, my goodness, Scott. Tenth grade and poor Brother Raphael. My drawings were the models for the rest of the class, but I had no idea what I was doing,, and for some reason, I decided I would NOT learn those damned theorems. Needless to say, he only passed me, because he was the only geometry teacher in the school, and he didn't want me back the following term! Thanks for bringing back memories (I guess!)

    1. Glad to know I'm not the only one to have revolted against geometry, Tom! I wonder if I would have liked it with a proper teacher. Oddly I did love algebra...


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