Saturday, April 18, 2015

ELIZABETH COXHEAD, A Play Toward (1952)

In the past couple of months, I've been—in my chaotic, excruciatingly slow fashion—gradually compiling yet another list, the idea of which I first mentioned here at least six months ago. This is a list of novels written for adults but set in schools, a genre that has been of interest to me ever since I read (and raved about) Mary Bell's only novel, Summer's Day, back in the early days of this blog. I've still not found another title to really compete with Bell's lovely little masterpiece, but I have accumulated a fairly significant list of similarly-themed novels, and lately it seems that I'm dead set on working my way through every title on it. Only recently, I reviewed Eileen Helen Clements' Cherry Harvest, set in an evacuated girls' school during World War II. And in the near future I have reviews of at least two more very, very different novels with similar settings. (Hopefully, at some point I'll actually finish and post the list too...)

When I added Elizabeth Coxhead to my Overwhelming List not long ago, and came across a blurb about A Play Toward describing it as the tale of a grammar school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I knew I would need to check it out. It sounded distinctly odd, and you must know by now that odd is almost always a selling point for me.

Odd it certainly is, though it's also a rather puzzling novel to write about. It has some incredibly lovely moments, rather interesting (if not terribly sympathetic) characters, and intriguing situations. But unlike the production described in the novel, which takes advantage of a lovely setting and some lucky breaks and becomes quite magically successful, the tale of that production never fully came together for me.

It's certainly trying to say something, in its odd, charming way, and surely that something has to do with class and elitism. The focus is on Madeleine Littlejohn—the wife of the grammar school's headmaster and also a former teacher at the school, who was forced to retire when they married but who maintains an interest in the school including, currently, producing the school play—and on her daughter Sophia, who is a bit of a problem child, smart but rather delicate and rather emotionally needy.

Madeleine is hyper-aware of her own social position and those of others, who include the likeable Lady Bannister and her hideous children, who represent the "society" of the village; the hideous social-climbing Mrs. Goadby and her poor inept daughter; Helen Marvin, a schoolteacher with her own distinct brand of elitism; and Lancelot Dixon, another teacher and also a former student of Madeleine's husband, who has now gotten himself tangled in an unhealthy relationship with a distinctly low class unmarried mother. These relationships and their various tensions and entanglings play out against the backdrop of preparations for the school's play, but just what exactly they suggest about class relations overall remains a mystery.

But there are, as I mentioned, some beautiful moments, and these alone may be worth the price of admission. Indeed, the novel's opening made me feel certain I had found a new favorite, and I have to share it with you at some length:

When she lay down in the field, Sophia could only see the delicate fretwork of grasses and cow-parsley, cut out against the hot blue sky. When she raised herself on her elbows, her mother came into view, slender and shadowed in the big garden-hat, her face bent seriously over the copy of the play. And when she sat right up, she could see half the Midlands.

For the field was the brow of Dane's Hill, whence the invaders had looked out from their island fortress of Alney over leagues of swamp and fen. The fen was drained and fertile now, though it only needed a few weeks of winter rain to flood the land between Alney and Midchester and remind the cocky Midlanders how superficial were the changes they had imposed on it through the centuries. Immediately at the hill's foot spread the dark carpet of the Alney Woods, and they were a link with primeval forest; in their recesses lurked the fear and mystery of very ancient things.

All three attitudes gave Sophia an exquisite pleasure. Here she was in a hot summer field, hot suddenly, overnight, for it was early May and had been winter till yesterday. Here she was on a sort of picnic, with pale Shrewsbury biscuits in a little basket, while other children toiled in school. Here she was assisting in the laying of important plans. And she always experienced a sense of release, like the opening of a great window, at finding herself on the Danes' lookout, with that immense coloured pattern of fields and woods spread beneath her. Fourteen church spires there were, visible on a clear day; that was, if you had noble eyesight like her father, and if you hadn't, you pretended.

Endless -bys and -thorpes had the Danes left behind them. First, beyond the band of the woods, came Glooby, then Fenthorpe, with the pimple of a hill that made it easy to pick out; then Winterby; then in a great sweep, Thursby and Knarehampton and Ratburn, where the lunatic asylum was (unfailing source of local witticism) ; and beyond that again the spires that one could only guess at, Petton Parva, and Wentworth Waterless, and, delicious thought, Benenden-in-the-Beans .... Half the Midlands shimmered there, right away to Midchester and beyond. To Sophia all the world was Midland. Her brief outside journeyings were merely pages from a picture book. The true world was made up of stocking factories and high red-brick farmhouses, of curtsying elms and fields broadly pleated with ancient ploughings; and up here on Dane's Hill, it was hers.

Re-reading this passage now, I still find myself sighing at such evocative scene-setting mixed with such a compelling introduction to Sophia, and I wish the rest of the novel had fully lived up to it.

Sophia is on this sort of picnic outing with her mother "while other children toiled in school" because she her parents have been ordered to keep her out of school and away from her compulsive reading for the sake of her health. In lieu of intellectual stimulation, Sophia is ordered to "run wild," which indeed she tries to do at times, but ultimately she always winds up squarely back in the middle of her growing intellectual ferment, as when—shortly after the foregoing—she quotes a passage of poetry for Madeleine and shares what she has learned of it from her father:

"Daddy says that's the most musical line in English poetry," she suddenly announced aggressively.

"M'm," said Madeleine, abstracted.

"He was explaining to me. The way the a-sound in fades is echoed in the 'scape—"

"M'm," agreed Madeleine; and then, attending: "But you know, darling, I believe Gray said -skip." Sophia was disconcerted. That was the worst of belonging to a learned household. People were continually bringing out bits of information which upset your previously formed, and therefore sacred, opinions. Her mother and father ought to agree together beforehand, and not go putting on her the burden of decision between them. Her mother, having launched this phonetic thunderbolt, seemed again to have forgotten her.

I loved this portrayal of a youngster trying to shore up her knowledge. Later, Sophia is scolded by her father yet again for reading when she is supposed to be running wild, and she defends herself by noting that she is not reading trash but rather an article by Arthur Conan Doyle about the true existence of fairies (if you follow this link, be sure to check out the clip from Antiques Roadshow with the daughter of one of the young girls' who originally faked the photos). 

Fairies at the bottom of the garden indeed!

Although in retrospect there were earlier clues to which I was oblivious, this was the point at which I frowned and noted that, however subtly revealed, the novel was clearly not set in the 1950s but in the years immediately after World War I. The fact that Coxhead allows her novel to go on for quite some time with only subtle clues to the time period before finally—nearly halfway through her tale—spelling out its historical setting explicitly, is one of the things I found most interesting here, though again I can't quite explain the purpose of such subtlety to the larger themes she's tackling.

Ultimately, the novel did, for me, get a bit bogged down in the melodrama of Helen's tormented romantic urges and Lancelot's sordid past and relationship, especially since neither of those characters ever seemed to come fully alive in the way that Sophia did. For it was Sophia—even as much of a problem child as she is when being brutally ill-tempered toward her younger brother—who made the novel worthwhile for me, and surely, too, her willingness to eschew the class distinctions her mother takes so seriously plays into Coxhead's themes, as when she tells kind Lady Bannister exactly what she thinks of her daughter:

"Your daughter's in the play, isn't she, Mrs.Goadby?" Lady Bannister said. "I hear she has a lovely dress. I'd hoped to bring my Lorna, but I'm afraid she's at the stage when her pony means more to her than Shakespeare.''

"She's my age," observed Sophia bluntly, right across Mrs. Goadby. "It's nothing to do with her age that she doesn't like Shakespeare. It's because she's awful. I can't think how such a nice person as you comes to have such an awful child, Lady B." Really, there was no knowing what these Littlejohn children would say next! A nice advertisement for the School!

Lady Bannister, however, took it in good part, and merely expressed the hope that Sophia and her daughter would be better friends as they grew older.

"Much worse, I'm certain," said Sophia darkly. "I can imagine Lorna grown-up—" Mrs. Goadby fortunately remembered she had bought some chocolates at the sweet-stall, and produced them now in an effort to stem so unsuitable a conversation.

If A Play Toward, despite such memorable scenes, is unlikely to become a favorite, it was still interesting enough to make me rather intrigued by Elizabeth Coxhead. Coxhead's earlier novel, One Green Bottle, is discussed here, and it may just have to go onto my TBR list, if only out of curiosity as to what she might make of such a different kind of plot.

And of course, there are still quite a number of other school stories for adults left to explore. Perhaps there's still one out there to give Mary Bell a run for her money...


  1. This sounds like an interesting book, but I can understand the issues you had with it also.

    Stories for adults set in/about a school: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell, and perhaps The Heasmistress also by Thirkell. Of course, you know Cat Among the Pigeons by Christie. Summerhills, by D.E. Stevenson is largely about the creation of a school. And Charlotte Fairlie (alt titles Blow the Wind Southerly and The Enchanted Isle) also by D. E. Stevenson has about half set in a girls school, Charlotte is headmistress. Crooked Adam,also by DES starts out in a boy's school, but then action moves away fairly soon, so that one probably doesn't count. I feel as if I ought to know of more, but can't think of any more at the moment.


    1. Thanks, Jerri! I'll add Summerhills to the list--I haven't read that one, so hadn't added it. I've been going back and forth on Charlotte Fairlie, since school isn't really the main theme, but I'll certainly mention it. I really have to get back to work on the list!

  2. Was it really only about 10 months ago that you SCOTT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Yes, you - mentioned "Cat Among the Pigeons" and got me onto reading lots and lots of murder mysteries set in English girls' schools?
    Alas, now I can only recall one by Elizabeth LeMarchand, but they comprised quite an enjoyable genre! Perhaps ANOTHER list???

    1. I've come across quite a few more mysteries as well, Tom. Stay tuned!

    2. Oh, dear, soon I may have my own overwhelming list(s)!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Check out Winifred Peck's Winding Ways. It is set in a girls' school and covers basically one day in the life of a school about to undergo some changes as its headmistress prepares to retire. I know you love Winifred Peck, as I do, so if you haven't read this one you should!

    1. Oh, this is exciting! I hadn't got round to Winding Ways yet, but now it is certainly moved up my TBR list--one of my favorite authors tackling a favorite theme. Thanks for letting me know!

  4. Elizabeth Coxhead certainly knew about schools, as she was brought up in Hinckley Grammar School, where her father was the headmaster. The village names are barely disguised. Real villages nearby - Barton in the Beans, Groby, Willoughby Waterleys, Ratby and Peatling Parva - immediately spring to mind. HJ Hall still make socks in Hinckley - probably the last of many. Elizabeth suggested the title "Cold Comfort Farm" to her friend and colleague Stella Gibbons as the real farm of that name -just north of Hinckley - belonged to the Grammar School. Coxhill's novel "The Midlanders" is also set in Hinckley. The works of both authors are amazingly varied.

    1. A belated thank you for this comment and the additional information about Elizabeth Coxhead. Like many other authors, I keep meaning to get back to reading more of her work, but haven't yet. Thanks for reminding me of her!

  5. I read "The Midlanders" first, and only later found it was the sequel to "A Play Toward". Being local, I found them both fascinating, and they are now on my favoutites list.

    1. And I didn't know there was a sequel, so thanks very much for letting me know! I've been slowly tracking down other books by Coxhead, but The Midlanders is still on my list.


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