Wednesday, October 4, 2017


A while before the book sale brought a whole slew of new books into my life, something had inspired me to get back to a few school stories. Since I know some of you are fans of the genre, I thought I'd mention them here in brief (or as brief as I ever get). The first is by one of the lesser-known (and non-prolific) practitioners of the genre, while the others form a late trilogy from one of its best-known authors. I bet some of you are familiar with both.

DOROTHY SMITH, Those Greylands Girls (1944)

Everyone is undoubtedly sick of hearing about my Oxfam shopping on our U.K. trip last October, but despite that I have to note that this was one of my acquisitions there. Along with several other school stories and one or two family adventures, this one was added to my overloaded suitcase at the lovely Oxfam in York with its luscious bookcase full of (mostly dustjacketed) children's titles at bargain prices. And I have to also give credit where credit is due: I would almost certainly have left this one on the shelf if it hadn't been for a morsel of praise given it by Sue Sims and Hilary Clare in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories. Somehow, that fact stuck in my brain enough for the title to ring a bell when I came across it, and it has turned out to be one of the most entertaining school stories I've come across.

Someone at Nelson
wasn't doing their
job--Greylands is
missing its "s"

The story takes place at Greylands Orphanage, though it's a bit unclear to me what exactly "orphanage" means in the context of a school where only one girl, main character Millicent Lane, has no home to go to during the holidays. Did the word have a different meaning in those days? And if so, what meaning could it have had to differentiate it from a standard boarding-school?

The illustrations by Newton Whitaker are striking

At any rate, Greylands has a rather depressing atmosphere—the girls consider it a matter of principle to dislike the staff (i.e. the "Frightful Foursome") and to obstruct any attempt to improve morale, and therefore remain discontented and unstimulated by their studies. The stage is therefore perfectly set for a transformation tale, but this one is handled in a relatively realistic way, involving a new girl, Pamela Bellamy, who transfers from a more traditional school complete with prefects and games and house cups, and a cheerful new mistress, Miss Fraser, who determines that the surly girls will not get her down. Pamela's welcome is not a warm one, due to a false rumour that she is a relative of the Head, and Miss Fraser's is not warm because, well, because she's staff. But of course things warm up in due course.

The somewhat less realistic part of the school's transformation stems from the school's neighbor, nick-named Mrs Bluebeard, who has often complained of the girls' behavior, but who is suddenly charmed by Millicent when she comes to the rescue of some kittens in her garden. It emerges that not only does Millicent remind Mrs Bluebeard of her long-estranged son, but that Mrs Bluebeard is actually well-known to the girls for her day job. She ends up becoming quite a Lady Bountiful for the school.

If the plotlines are all predictable enough, they only occasionally enter the realm of ridiculousness, and even when they do it's all quite entertaining. What stood out for me was Smith's occasional rather biting humor. We glimpse it during this exchange between two of the staff just before the Christmas holidays:

"They're making an unholy row out there," Miss Sinclair said, after a visit to the playroom," but somehow one doesn't seem inclined to do anything about it. For one thing, I suppose it's a treat to see them looking and behaving naturally for once."

"Or else," said Miss Mercer, "their impending departure makes us view them more benignly. The fact that I shan't see or hear them for fifteen whole days makes me almost like them. What on earth should we do without holidays to look forward to, I wonder?"

And we see it again later on, when Mrs Bluebeard, already conquered by Millicent, offers a bit of "acid" sarcasm when rescuing the school play from drab costumes made from "winceyette nightgowns" (what on earth, pray tell, is winceyette?):

"This," she said, shaking out the silken folds, "was my great-grandmother's wedding dress. It's a crinoline actually, and belongs to a later period than your Quality Street. How will that do for one of your ball dresses?"

She held it out for inspection, and wide-eyed, Millicent gazed at it—a lovely blue taffeta, shot with rose, with great true-lovers' knots embroidered on the skirt.

"You're offering to lend us this gorgeous thing?" Millicent said in awestruck tones.

"No, of course not," was the acid reply. "I'm just showing it to you to reconcile you to the winceyette nightdresses."

This kind of humor only pops up occasionally, but it makes me wonder even more at Smith's real identity. Those Greylands Girls is the only book published under the name Dorothy Smith, and we've never been able to trace her real identity. Could it have been the pseudonym of an author who wrote other books? There is a bit of a polish about it that makes this not entirely implausible, but of course there are plenty of talented authors who only produce a single book. Or perhaps it's a real name, as turned out to be the case with Dorothy Evelyn Smith (who was, in keeping with her predilection for common names, née Jones, no less!). With a name so common, it is sadly likely that we'll never know her real identity, unless a child or grandchild or great-niece happens to recall hearing that her relative once wrote a girls' school story…

JOSEPHINE ELDER, Exile for Annis (1938), Cherry Tree Perch (1939), and Strangers at the Farm School (1940)

I'll bet a few of you who are fans of school stories will have read this trilogy set at the idyllic Farm School. These three books, written just on the cusp of World War II, were nearly the last children's titles written by Josephine Elder, best known for her acclaimed 1929 school story Evelyn Finds Herself (1929), widely considered a classic of the genre. In 1946, she published one final school story, Barbara at School, but then turned to writing four adult novels to supplement the two she had written in the early 1930s. I've written about her two or three times before—see here.

I've had Evelyn on my TBR shelf for ages, but something made me pick these up recently instead. I have a feeling, from what I've heard of the earlier book, that it has a bit more realism about it than the Farm School trilogy, but for the most part I found these to be great fun anyway.

The books focus mainly on Annis Best, who in the first book is transferred to the Farm School against her will following a bout of whooping cough. She is horrified to leave the games and structure of her London school for the laid-back, rule-free environment of the small school run by the large Forester family from their working farm. Annis becomes fast friends with Kitty Forester, whom she helps to draw out of her shell, and comes to enjoy the farmwork and learning the practical skills such work teaches. She learns to ride, works with Kitty to create a canoe from a giant log, and uncovers the Foresters' family secret which has threatened to keep her friendship with Kitty from developing. Of course, by the end of it all Annis decides that the Farm School is the perfect place for her after all, setting up the two sequels, in which Annis learns, with considerable difficulty, to drive a car, is made jealous of a slovenly neighbor woman who captures Kitty's affections, and, in the final volume, helps two Jewish refugees from Germany—the strangers of the title—adapt to their new lives in England.

For the most part, it's all great fun and enjoyable reading. The first book in particular is a fun school story with an enjoyable cast of characters. The other two were also quite pleasant to read, though I have to admit that at times the idealized operations of the Farm School, and the sometimes extended explanations of why everything is so perfect there, did begin to grate on my nerves. The last book, in particular, seemed to focus as much on describing the wonderful school and its policies as on the characters.

Moreover, I can't remember now who of you it was (or perhaps it was a fellow blogger) who mentioned their dislike of Elder's work, but in these books I got a glimpse of one possible reason that might be. When we first meet Annis, we learn that "[s]he disliked on sight all people who were not just like the majority of other people." Presumably, we are to believe that the Farm School has taught her that variety is indeed the spice of life, in people as well as in activities, but there remains a certain intolerance for people with less ambition or self-discipline than she has. In the first book, she and Kitty set about to reform spoiled, fat, gluttonous Peter, helping him get better at sports and become more popular, as well as slimming down and controlling his appetite. All very well, and undoubtedly we see him much happier by the book's end, but some part of me (probably the part that was a fat kid hopelessly bad at—and utterly uninterested in—sports) did cringe a bit at Annis's certainty that she knew best for him.

I also marked this passage from Cherry Tree Perch, which shows Annis's sharp edges:

Annis put Kitty and her doings right out of her head and did her weighing all over again. It came right this time. It wasn't any good letting people and the muddles they made get mixed up with your work.

In many ways, I think I quite agree with Annis here. I've always found that some folks do rather enjoy their muddles, even as they bemoan them, and ensure that the muddles go on and become ever more complicated. (Perhaps that's how some people pass the time we spend on reading?!) However, in this case, the muddled person Annis is thinking of is her best friend, and not at all the sort of person who regularly creates muddles and drags others into them, so Annis's attitude, self-protective as it is in the circumstance, didn't particularly endear her to me.

On the other hand, Elder's work remains one of the only places in early and mid-20th century fiction where one can consistently find smart, motivated, career-minded girls and women who value their education and work and professional goals as highly as men routinely do. In her adult novels, her women professionals mostly end by compromising their careers for romance and motherhood. But in her school stories—even in these idealized late books—her girls are able to eschew romance and retain their ambitions. Even if the girls are occasionally a bit prickly, I can't help loving Elder's works for that reason. If the Farm School trilogy isn't necessarily her best work, it still made for some very pleasant bedtime reading.


  1. Ooooh I do love a good school story and I have never heard of the first one you wrote about. I will have to scour e-bay. I've read the first two of the Josephine Elders but I stalled about a third of the way through the last one. Maybe I should give it another try. I never really warmed to the main characters in the series.

  2. Ah winceyette. It brings back childhood in the 1960s. Winceyette is a type of lightweight flannel used for pyjamas and nightdresses and, I think, bedlinen. No pretension to style or elegance, but quite comforting on cold nights.

  3. Yes, ah, winceyette indeed. A sort of brushed cotton and still going strong in the 1970s!

  4. Trying to comment again, the system seems to have lost my first attempt.

    Another fun post, and as usual some lovely/fun dust jackets! I had read about "winceyette", but somehow imagined it as a sort of poor person's seersucker. No idea how that image came into my mind. Always something to learn from your blog.

    Also, did you receive my off blog email of a few days ago?


  5. comment from Barbara:

    Another interesting post from you about school stories.

    It may have been me who commented on my blog that Elder was a cold fish and hard hearted. See the comment in the Farm School series that it was a good thing the boy with learning difficulties had died!

    I think winceyette is a kind of brushed cotton, which is warm. In the UK it was also used for sheets. Necessary in a cold climate in the days of no central heating.


NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!