Saturday, January 7, 2017

Playing catch-up (as opposed to ketchup) part 1 (GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, MAUDE S. FORSEY, MABEL ESTHER ALLAN)

I do have some catching up to do on recent reading to mention, and I'm starting off with an unusually cranky post about three children's books I've read in the past few weeks. Oddly, two of them—the ones I'm cranky about—were by authors I have otherwise loved and enjoyed quite a lot, while the third, which I'll place in the middle of my discussion to alleviate the snarkiness, and which proved to be an absolute delight, is by an author I'd never read before (and who, indeed, wrote very little else).

First, GWENDOLINE COURTNEY, author of one of my absolute favorite "children's" books (scare quotes because although it's certainly suitable for children, there's really very little reason adults can't enjoy it just as much), the wonderful postwar Sally's Family (1946), as well as other terrifically enjoyable books like Stepmother (1948, aka Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre, aka Those Verney Girls), Long Barrow (1950, aka The Farm on the Downs), and The Girls of Friar's Rise (1952). I've written about her a couple of times before here.

Now, At School with the Stanhopes (1951) falls right in the middle of those favorites, time-wise, so perhaps I was just generally in a bad mood as I was reading it. It certainly seems to have all the elements of a fun, frivolous, girl-ish read—16-year-old Rosalind is pulled from her classy boarding school and stuck living with her older brother Richard, a stodgy but brilliant historian, and his teenage "factotum" and general housekeeper, Henry (an odd domestic arrangement all around). Richard and Henry are both distinctly anti-girl (no, not in that way—though frankly it might have been more fun if that were the case), and Rosalind is a waifish, insecure girl prone to navel-gazing and moping around such that I would have been even more opposed than Richard and Henry to the thought of her living with me. Ahem.

Fortunately, there's the charming Stanhopes to save the novel from tedium, even if they were unable to save it completely in my eyes. Kate Stanhope is a young mistress from Rosalind's old school, who inherits a property nearby and decides to bring her numerous younger sisters and start a school for them. So it's sort of a school story, though certainly not in any traditional sense, as most events still take place outside of school hours. Rosalind is naturally invited to be a student, and the madcap younger Stanhopes make it their mission to wear down the defenses of Richard and Henry. And to be fair most of their escapades are entertaining enough—Courtney is always on firmest ground when she's writing about feisty families.

Overall, though, it seemed to me that Courtney was struggling to keep the story going, and the plot of Rosalind's meek, cardboard drama queen personality and Richard's obsessive stodginess had already dragged out too long at the end of 50 pages, let alone 200. It was compromised too by Courtney's determination to have it both ways—presenting them both as kind-hearted, smart, and loving, and yet remarkably stunted emotionally when it came to working through conflicts and misunderstandings that should have been resolved in a matter of days. I rather wanted to knock their heads together on more than one occasion.

I also have to say, although I hardly expect girls' stories from the 1950s to be pillars of feminism, one really sees quite clearly here Courtney's rather traditional views of women and their roles. Which is fine, it's just a bit too explicit here for my enjoyment. All of the characters seem to view it as a tremendous victory when Richard deigns to allow Rosalind to begin cooking and cleaning and acting as hostess when he has a guest. Kate Stanhope, head of the school, notes that Rosalind is 16 years old and it is therefore high time that she get used to serving as hostess. Ah, yes, Rosalind clearly has a bright future as some man's doormat ahead of her! Of course, it's all tied up with the ridiculous relationship between brother and sister, and so there is some plot-specific justification for seeing things in this way (by asking her to host a luncheon party, Richard is acknowledging Rosalind's existence and capabilities), but it definitely grated on my nerves.

Sadly, I don't think this particular title from Courtney will ever require a re-reading.

On the other hand, MAUDE S. FORSEY's Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays (1924), also a rather nontraditional school story in its way, I embraced wholeheartedly.

It's a very quiet, sweet little story, refreshingly free of near-drownings, avalanches, bear attacks, sniper fire, or any of the other melodrama that school stories sometimes resort to (okay, maybe the last two are exaggerations—or are they?). Schooldays focuses on ordinary, mundane school life, beginning with the charming, gently troublemaking Mollie's first arrival at school and continuing until her schooldays are complete. Some of the big dramas include Mollie and chums learning to ride a bicycle, planning an entertainment for girls from another school, and producing a school magazine—generally quite plausible and unsensational, though with an occasional schoolgirl silliness that made me giggle more than once. Two of my particular favorites to share—first, the girls mockingly bringing the slightly dim Leah Sheepwash to her senses over her collection of fraudulent and far-fetched supposed historical items, by sharing with her a few relics of their own:

"You wouldn't sell me that quill, I suppose?" she hazarded doubtfully, looking at the treasure with longing eyes.

"Sell the Langton heritage?" exclaimed Alice dramatically. "No—not for Venice!" Wrapping the feather in pink tissue paper, she replaced it in her box, and held up the next—a dried piece of orange peel. "Now, Leah, you've no doubt heard of the downfall of Napoleon?"

"Oh yes, of course," agreed Leah.

"Well, this is what he fell on."

"I didn't think it meant an actual downfall," put in Leah doubtfully.

"This was the cause of his second downfall, and was picked up on the island of St. Helena, and handed to a sailor ancestor of mine, a certain Jack Langton, by the great Bonaparte…"

Purely silly, but I dare you not to grin a little at Leah's gullibility. I also loved, later on, Mollie's defense of her controversial ending to the potboiler the girls have been writing in installments for the school magazine, alternating chapters between them:

"What made you so cruel as to send the dear young man with the copper-coloured hair to prison, Mollie Hazeldene, and to marry the heroine to a perfect stranger?" demanded Jessie.

"Considering he had shot two villains in Chapters VI. and VII., and made off with a bag of gold in Chapter VIII., I thought it was about time,'' I announced. "Any stranger was better than that hero. Besides, only a stranger would ever marry the heroine. No one who knew her would take her on."

Not exactly riotous humor, admittedly, but so genuine and energetic I couldn't resist it. Unlike many of the school stories I've read, this one will certainly make for an occasional cheerful, comforting re-read.

Of course, if you prefer your schoolgirls defeating smugglers, crawling out of the chimney of a burning room, or sliding down a glacial crevasse to their almost-certain doom, Mollie Hazeldene's Schooldays isn't the place to look. But for a really gentle, charming look at more or less realistic school life in the early years of the 20th century, you could hardly do better.

Oddly, after publishing Schooldays in 1924, Forsey doesn't seem to have published again until one more school story, Norah O'Flanigan, Prefect, in 1937. An earlier book, Jack and Me, appears to be for younger children (though a contemporary review praises it for some of the same strengths I mention above, so it might be worth checking out, given a chance), and several other titles listed in the British Library, mostly in the years 1937 and 1938, appear to be the short plays for children which Sims and Clare mention. From what researcher John Herrington was able to discover, it appears that Forsey had been a schoolteacher for some time before her marriage in 1925 (the year after Schooldays appeared, so perhaps we have a reason for the long delay of her next book after all?). She would have been 40 years of age when she married (born August 30, 1885), and she lived on until 1971. If only she had found time for more writing!

From that high point, it's back to another low point. If At School with the Stanhopes was the least of my Gwendoline Courtney reading, then A Summer at Sea (1965) is surely the dregs of the MABEL ESTHER ALLAN reading I've done.

As many of you already know, I am ordinarily an enthusiastic fan of Allan's work, especially those novels focused on teenage girls just on the verge of adulthood, which I think she does especially well. I've previously written about her several times—you can click here if you want a trip down memory lane—but this one just didn't quite work for me.

The heroine of A Summer at Sea, 18-year-old Gillian, is sent for a summer on a sort of low-budget small cruise ship, to help out her aunt who runs the ship's shop. In part this is to help her recover from a heartbreak at the hands of an older man, Robin, who has strung her along and then dumped her for someone else. The ship travels to destinations such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bergen, and an unplanned stop on the Scottish isle of Barra. As one would expect, Allan's travel descriptions are a high point—she clearly loved travel herself and here as elsewhere that enthusiasm comes across.

Sadly, however, Gillian, although her emotional state is understandable to an extent, is not a terribly enjoyable character with whom to be sightseeing—whining and moaning and fretting her way along in an apparent determination to wallow in self-pity to the fullest extent possible. Where many of Allan's heroines have a sort of self-possession and quiet dignity that shines through even their natural insecurity at facing the world, Gillian seems peculiarly wet blanket-ish. (Perhaps she and Courtney's Rosalind might profitably have spent some time together, and I would be all in favor of such a therapeutic friendship—as long as I don't have to read about it.) Her anxiety and fear about opening herself to a new romance, too, is comprehensible, but not particularly effective as a plot device. The book is a pleasant enough read, but not a memorable one, and for rereading purposes I'll happily stick with the greater subtlety and polish that The Vine-Clad Hill/Swiss Holiday or Catrin in Wales have to offer.

Bookseller label from my copy of A Summer at Sea

Yikes. As you know, I rarely talk a lot about books I don't like here, as I enjoy focusing on the positive. I also don't like to bash books that others may actually enjoy quite a lot, and so I do wonder what other Courtney and Allan fans think of the books I mention here. But I also have to admit that I have another of these cranky posts gurgling along in my psyche at the moment, that will probably be following soon as part of my attempt to catch up on my recent reading. After that, I promise I'll be back to raving about how wonderful the books I've read have been and dammit, why aren't any of them in print!


  1. I enjoyed this post and I think it's fine to be cranky every now and again - you haven't poured unjustified scorn, but have explained what it was you didn't like about the books.

    Having said that, I got caught out being cranky in a review of a book where I said something about not usually minding when books have errors ... the author commented that they didn't usually mind when bloggers got their name wrong!! Oopsie.

    1. That's funny, Liz. I guess that's one advantage of usually writing about authors who are no longer with us--at least they can't correct me themselves!

  2. I *love* Mollie Hazeldene so I'm glad you liked it. Norah is good, too. They have lovely dustwrappers, if you can find them.

    1. I'm going to have to be on the lookout for Norah. Forsey has such a charming style.

  3. Seeing that label from the old Pickwick chain really brought back some fond memories, and I did actually shop at that Topanga Plaza Branch - what an interesting journey THAT title must have had, Scott!

    1. I always think old bookshop labels are great fun, Tom, though I'm not always organized enough to have a pic of them.

  4. While I have never been in a "Pickwick" book shop, I do love those old book store labels when I come across them in used books. Book plates also, and inscriptions. I know unless by the author or someone famous that any writing or alteration of a book is supposed to lessen the value, most of the time I enjoy them, unless it is very badly done (like the person who crossed out all the "bad words" in an otherwise nice Fontana paperback copy of The English Air by D. E. Stevenson!) But I like to see evidence of people, shops, libraries, and so on that have read and hopefully loved the book before.

    And with my love of period dust jacket art, I would be willing to forgive much of the faults of At School with the Stanhopes for those lovely illustrations.


    1. I agree, Jerri, evidence of previous owners, especially from the more distant past, are always a plus for me. Though I might add that the circled vocabulary words throughout the first third of the Mabel Esther Allan book were slightly distracting. But I only paid $2 for the book, so I can hardly complain.

    2. Bad words in The English Air? Oh Jerri! Really?

      What I find annoying is when I buy an old book on line, and find that someone, probably the vendor, has crossed out the name of the previous owner. Because....? I might be offended to think it belonged to someone else, and fooled by this defacement?


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