Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Catching up with Mabel Esther Allan (part 2)

A week or so ago, I posted about my recent reading of two of Mabel Esther Allan's mystery novels and one of her girls' stories (though not a school story). I got so excited about them that I didn't have room for the last of the books by Allan that I've read lately.

If I was just a bit luke-warm on those books, happily I can express whole-hearted enthusiasm this time around. Chiltern School (written 1950, but not published until Allan self-published it in the 1990s) is quite possibly my favorite girls' school story so far. 

I've been reading a fair amount of school stories over the past few months, interspersed with other kinds of fiction for variety, and I've been enjoying it all quite a lot. But as soon as I started Chiltern School, I had a sense of real depth in Rose Lesslyn that I realized is not usually present in other school stories (though there are exceptions):

Life, which had for so long been dull and uneventful, was suddenly altering unbelievably. Rose had often felt a sort of surging rebellion deep in her heart, a feeling that she had pushed down so deeply that most of the time she scarcely knew that it was there. But, though she had longed for a change, now she felt that she could not face Sherlenden House.

We don't really know until the end of the story what might explain this surging rebellion, but when we do it makes perfect sense and is completely logical from a psychological perspective. In the meantime, it gives Rose a subtlely that makes her more than just an entertaining, gung-ho schoolgirl. Even when she is a bit schoolgirlishly shallow and insecure, it was hard for me not to sympathize and relate to her:

When she was ready to leave Rose looked at herself with a sinking heart, for the coat was too roomy and too long and made her look dowdy. Even the beret was slightly too large and had a tendency to tip over her nose.

"Children oughtn't to be ... victimised over their clothes," she thought gloomily. "When I'm grown up I'll always wear the loveliest clothes, fitting perfectly." She did her best to hitch up the coat, but her grandmother pounced on her and pulled it down again, saying that it was in a "bunch".

The long and short of the story is that Rose's mother has died several years earlier, and her father, devastated at the loss, has effectively abandoned her to her emotionally cool, distant, and rather conservative grandparents, running off to the U.S. to hide from his sorrow. But now he has been touched by the listlessness of Rose's letters and has decided she should be in boarding school.

He sends her to Sherlenden House, a progressive school recommended by a friend whose daughter attends the school. The school itself might be just a wee bit too good to be true ("the prospectus says that no emphasis is laid on games, and girls are expected to be sensible and self-reliant"), but Rose's anxieties about fitting in are again presented with subtlety, and at the same time it doesn't seem out of the question that Allan is having some fun now and then with the stereotypes of school stories. For example, her first encounter with a real live Sherlenden House schoolgirl could hardly be more typical—it's rather as though an Angela Brazil heroine has just breezed into Allan's novel by mistake:

Almost certainly she would have jumped out and found herself left on the platform at Marylebone, for she had seized her suitcase and was fumbling frantically with the door, when there was an excited shout outside and a porter appeared, carrying two suitcases. The door was dragged open and Rose and her own suitcase were pushed unceremoniously aside. The porter dumped his two cases on the seat and turned to haul in a laughing, panting girl. He leaped down as the train began to move and the girl almost threw a coin after him.

"Thank you very much! I'm glad I've caught it. It was a rush!"

She collapsed on the seat opposite to Rose, who had sunk down again, out of the way. She wore the uniform of Sherlenden House, and was quite the prettiest and most animated girl Rose had ever seen.

The stranger shoved her suitcases into the rack, drew a big breath and remarked: "Well, here we are! Back to Bucks! And I was never so glad in my life."

I won't say much in the way of specifics about the plot, or about how Rose (of course) manages to distinguish herself and win over the girls of Sherlenden House without ever turning into a stereotype or being completely predictable (a little predictable certainly, but not completely so). Suffice it to say that it all gave me a renewed enthusiasm for school stories in general—even if most of them don't offer all the depth that Allan does—and for Allan's other school stories in particular. Would that they weren't so difficult to track down!

But one other thing did strike me, having read several of Allan's books in a fairly short time. Here again, just as in Margaret Finds a Future and Catrin in Wales, there is a big, beautiful, historical house. Rose's classmate, Ann St. Cloud-Lacey, and her family live in one wing of their house, making do with one servant (poor things!), because the house now belongs to the National Trust and the rest of the house is kept preserved for tourists.

Now, first of all, just as in Margaret Finds a Future and Catrin in Wales, Allan's description of the house is vivid and mouth-watering:

The girls spread out all over the lawn, laughing and talking. Most of them had brought cameras and a few were already in action. Rose, often solitary still, sometimes by taste and habit, stood against the sun-warmed wall at the side of the terrace and stared entranced. All the differently coloured dresses made a moving pattern. She looked to the woods and downs beyond the lawn, and then up at the house. From here it was for a moment hard to remember its tremendous size, that it held a ballroom and great dining and drawing rooms that she had not yet seen, as well as that wonderful Tudor banqueting hall. Vast bedrooms, no doubt, and little rooms on top floors that had once held an army of servants.

This part of the house was all uneven levels and rooflines, with ancient chimneys. She craned her neck to look up. Oh, Summerdowns House, so full of atmosphere still, in spite of the tourists clutching two shilling tickets to see the grounds, the maze and orangery, and four shilling tickets if they wanted to see inside the house as well. Not all the tourists in the world could really destroy it. Sometimes, especially perhaps in the dark, it would revert to itself.

Lovely, eh? But I finally noticed, on giving it a bit of thought, that this is one of several spots in the novel (and there are other examples in Margaret and Catrin as well) that Rose thinks about how sad it is that aristocratic families are no longer able to maintain these houses for themselves and that tourists are compromising the pristine beauty of the house and grounds. Fair enough, really—especially the latter. I've certainly had similar feelings on a few occasions. I used to commute to a job right on the National Mall in Washington DC, and I can tell you my thoughts about the swarms of tourists were not always entirely kind and understanding. (Undoubtedly, Romans trying to get to work were similarly irritated by Andy and I standing gaping on their sidewalks and trying to get the perfect photo, so it all evens out—the cycle of irritation, one might call it.)

But I knew a fair number of people in grad school who would undoubtedly have been incensed and inspired to lengthy and tedious pontification about all the sympathizing Allan's characters do with the fallen ruling classes. And, really, I should agree with them—after all, at any point in history to which I might be transported, it's statistically likely that I would be indubitably, non-negotiably, irretrievably "downstairs," scrubbing pots or carrying trays, or else farming or laboring in some other way that likewise sounds far more strenuous and stressful than my current desk job. I'll stay where I am, thank you, even if it means that lovely country estates are packed with loud, uncouth American tourists in sweatpants.

Despite the fact that I've given a fair amount of thought to issues of class and inequality, it's sad to say that it seems to have taken Downtown Abbey to really make me think about the whole upstairs/downstairs divide in greater depth. I've spent much of my life more or less unquestioningly reading about people and settings that are thoroughly "above my station," and about the pursuit of beauty which is so often linked to large, ostentatious displays of wealth. And it's certainly true that the economics underlying an ivy-covered medieval manor house and it's pristinely manicured grounds don't take away from the fact that they are indeed beautiful.

But Downton Abbey may have made more inescapable to me the ways in which my affection for such places and my perception of their beauty are tied up with a subliminal fantasy about how lovely it must have been to be one of the 1% who luxuriated in such places. Is it just the physical beauty that attracts me, or is it vicariously picturing myself wandering the corridors freely and cavorting in the lush garden?

None of which has all that much to do with Allan's novel, of course, and none of which takes away at all from my enjoyment of her wonderful story. In fact, it is surely to Allan's credit that reading one of her school stories got me thinking about class issues and sympathies in the first place. Although her characters may bemoan the philistines trudging through aristocratic mansions, it's also true that even just by choosing to portray the phenomenon of families unable to maintain their ancestral homes—rather than presenting a glowing fantasy of a wealthy family untroubled by the shifting economic sands and living as if it's 1912, as some writers have certainly done—Allan is providing her readers with some of the complexity of the real social realities at work. 

1 comment:

  1. I want to read her so badly - alas, she is proving elusive (and I am being gentle when I write "elusive!") BUT - I persevere!


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