Friday, November 9, 2018

My first book introduction!: MABEL ESTHER ALLAN, In Pursuit of Clarinda (1966) (and some other recent MEA reading)

The lovely cover of the new Greyladies
edition of In Pursuit of Clarinda

A few weeks ago, I was delighted (and a bit anxious) to receive an email from Shirley Neilson at Greyladies asking if I would write an introduction to her new edition of this romantic suspense novel by one of my favorite authors, Mabel Esther Allan. (I've written about Allan several times before—see here.) I initially hedged, noting that while a fan I'm hardly an expert on Allan and couldn't speak with any authority about her. Shirley quickly assured me that authority wasn't what she wanted at all, but rather something more quirky and idiosyncratic. I considered this, agonized a bit, and then told myself that if there's anything I can do (and perhaps can't avoid doing), it's being quirky and idiosyncratic. So that was that. A few hours later I had a PDF of the book on my Kindle and was eagerly diving in.

And the book's original cover

And now I'm excited to say that the book is being released (complete with quirky, idiosyncratic intro), and Allan fans should be quite excited. Not about my intro (though of course you'll be excited about that too), but because In Pursuit of Clarinda is one of the rarest of Allan's titles—at the time of this writing, not a single copy is available on Abe Books for love nor money—and it's also one of her most entertaining and satisfying.

Allan wastes no time at all diving into her story. Eighteen-year-old Lucy Bucknall has been staying alone in London for a week while her parents are away visiting her elderly grandmother who has been ill. She's been enjoying herself, but now her friend Sally has gone on holiday and the joys of solitude are wearing thin. Staring idly out the window, she sees her handsome neighbor William Drake and resolves to go out in order to just happen to run into him (mmm-hmmm).

But William has disappeared from sight and Lucy strolls on into nearby Hyde Park, where she encounters instead a charming, slightly disabled, jumpy young girl named Clarinda, who after brief small talk about the relatives with whom she's staying, tells Lucy, 'I expect you’ll think I’m mad, but I have to tell someone and you’re so nice. I think they’re planning to kill me.' She elaborates on a hard-to-believe tale about the inheritance she will come into in a matter of days—if she's still alive—her fiancé who is recovering from a motor accident in far-off Scotland, and the diabolical uncles and aunts with whom she's trapped without any evidence of their evil intent except for a near miss with a gas fire, which they blamed on her own absentmindedness. In a few days, her relatives are planning to take her first to a remote farm in Wales and then on to the National Trust house where her Aunt Ann is a caretaker—complete with an ominous moat into which Clarinda imagines she might, because of her disability, just happen to tragically fall.

It's a far-fetched tale, but Lucy agrees to contact a friend of Clarinda's and help her go to stay with her until after her pivotal 21st birthday. The next day, however, when Lucy asks for Clarinda at her hotel, she finds that she and her relatives have suddenly cleared out, though a hotel maid gives her a clue Clarinda has left for her. And from there, with the help of William (whom she really does run into by chance this time) and William's gung-ho sister Della, she's off on a chase across England and into Wales.

It's an irresistible, fun, and page-turning plot, very tightly plotted and entertaining. I wrote before about another of MEA's romantic suspense novels, A Summer at Sea, in which the heroine, another eighteen-year-old named Gillian, was such a mopey, navel-gazing drip that I quite wished she would be washed overboard. But although Lucy has one or two moments of playing the dim-witted damsel (would any Brit for even a moment imagine that a scrawled clue from Clarinda, in which can be made out "Buck", was an attempt to write "Bucknall" rather than the obvious abbreviation for Buckinghamshire? even I, a dim-witted American, knew better), she is more often brave and resourceful and practical, and the new challenges she's facing (as well as the possibility of romance with William) make this a highly enjoyable "widening world" novel as well.

The book also bears the imprint of Allan's tendency to include excellent armchair travel in her fiction. In my intro to the book, I pick out some of the references along the way that would make it possible to pretty precisely recreate the journey Lucy and her friends make, and there are lovely details along the way. 

And the climax of the novel takes place in a fictional National Trust house called Brynteryn Manor which is brought to life so vividly that I thought it simply had to be based on a real house. And indeed, as Shirley figured out from some savvy googling, it turns out that MEA gave a pretty clear clue as to the house's true identity. At one point, she describes the house as "very like" Old Moreton Hall in Cheshire (now more commonly called Little Moreton Hall, though "little" isn't a term most would use to describe the house, if you look at some of the photos and videos to be found online). Indeed, Allan's descriptions of the house make it quite clear that she has merely lifted that house, Wizard of Oz style, and dropped it into Wales.

All in all, the book is great fun, and I'm thankful to Shirley for putting it on my radar—and for thinking of me for the introduction! (I should also mention, by the way, that I also make a special appearance in the newest issue of The Scribbler, which Shirley also publishes. I just received my copy yesterday and have barely been able to restrain myself from reading it in one sitting.)

As it happens, Shirley's timing was excellent, as I had just been reading a lot of MEA, and have continued to do so since finishing Clarinda. Allan wrote billions of books (really a bit less than 200 in all, but you have to admit that's quite a lot), so happily I'm in no danger of running out. I thought I'd use this opportunity to catch you up a bit.

Now easily my favorite of the MEA school stories I've read—and nearly up there with all-time MEA favorites like Changes for the Challoner and The Vine-Clad Hill—is School Under Snowdon (1950), which has been on my TBR shelves forever and turned out to be really wonderful. I've read some of Allan's other school stories, and was particularly fond of Chiltern School, but there's something about the charming characters, the interesting progressive school portrayed, and the way Snowdon rollicks along hardly giving the reader time for a deep breath.

An unhappy orphan is sent to a new school in Wales (three guesses what mountain is nearby), where she makes trouble alongside Gwenllian, another mysteriously discontented girl. The school features climbing as a popular extracurricular activity, and there are conflicts over the rules (Gwenllian is in fact an experienced climber, but is deemed too young for the challenging climbs). There's a particularly snowy winter, and a dramatic rescue is needed... The adventurous scenes are entertaining, but it's really the likable characters, the humor, and the scenery that makes the book. I loved it right from the first page, and wished—as many other MEA fans have before—that Allan had tried her hand at writing a school series, because I'd love to spend some more time with Verity and Gwenllian.

On the other hand, I was terribly excited a while back when a copy of Allan's Room for the Cuckoo (1953) came up at World of Rare Books for not such an exorbitant price, but this one proved a little disappointing. I'd been yearning for it ever since reading that Allan's first version of the book was actually a non-fiction memoir of her time in the Women's Land Army during World War II, subsequently revised into a girls' career story about farming because publishers were no longer interested in wartime memoirs. I can't help feeling that this is a tragic loss, and I still wish it were possible to read Allan's original version, because Room for the Cuckoo turned out to be a rather lackluster read. I'm sure some of the details about farm life were from Allan's actual experiences, but without the wartime background, and without any of the armchair travel or armchair adventuring that her books so often provide, it was all a bit drab. My little Dent copy of the book, with dustjacket, is nice to look at though...

I read MEA's The Ballet Family (1963) several years ago, but inexplicably only got round to the sequel, The Ballet Family Again (1964), very recently. It reminded me just how good the first book was, and also how extraordinarily good MEA can be at family stories. Each character has a distinct personality, distinct interests, and each is therefore likeable in his or her own way. And it's all making me think it may be time to finally sample MEA's Drina stories, written as Jean Estoril. I don't have any particular interest in ballet, but the Ballet Family books are making me think that’s not a prerequisite for enjoying well-done ballet stories.

Strangers in Skye (1958) is another of MEA's widening world novels, as 17-year-old Elizabeth Falcon, who has been a bit too obsessively studying and preparing for university, unwillingly arrives in Skye to spend a summer of rest and outdoor life. Her brother John is managing a fledgling youth hostel there, and facing some resistance from the locals. Of course, Elizabeth discovers a love for the outdoors, makes friends, and finds romance, as one would readily expect, but it's quite enjoyable and one can practically feel the brisk air of Skye in one's hair while reading it.

MEA obviously liked the sickly heroine plot device quite a lot, as it's also what gets Flora of Flora at Kilroinn (1956) to the Western Highlands for the summer after suffering from colds, measles, and mumps all in the course of one school year. (Why can't I get a doctor to send me to the Highlands for a couple of months, dammit?) This is another perfectly enjoyable story, but unfortunately far shorter than most of MEA's books (less than 100 pages), so it never seemed to be able to quite spread its wings. I wonder if it was written as a longer book and then harshly edited by the publisher?

And finally, I sampled one of MEA's late titles flirting with the supernatural. In A Chill in the Lane (1974), Lyd Allbright arrives in a small village in Cornwall with her adoptive family. The location is idyllic, and of course there's a handsome boy at hand, but Lyd has visions of a tragic scene of violence every time she passes a certain spot in the lane leading to the family's holiday home. It's a very light kind of ghost story, and never more than faintly eerie, with Lyd merely witnessing historic events rather than interacting in any way with ghostly figures, but it was enjoyable enough and all the story's elements link up satisfactorily in the end.

Wow, I really have done a lot of MEA reading lately! And, judging by my TBR shelves, I have more to come (thanks to another recent World of Rare Books sale):

Then there's New Schools for Old (1954), just reprinted by Girls Gone By...


  1. WOW! Tell you what - in your honour, I will buy a copy!

  2. It's not really a series, but the school from 'School under Snowdon' does feature again briefly in 'Margaret Finds a Future', which is another of MEA's books that you might enjoy. It has all of the right elements (dramatically bad weather, slightly eccentric characters, a country house and so on) and is an enjoyable read. I'd also really recommend the Drina books, and her other, standalone ballet novel, 'The Ballet Twins' (originally published as 'We Danced in Bloomsbury Square'). They do have a lot of ballet in them but there's enough of the other things that MEA does well to still make them accessible to anyone. The Drina books especially have almost as much travel in them as dancing - they and the Ballet Family series have long been favourites of mine.

    1. Thanks, Em, I had no idea about the connection with MFAF, which I read a few years ago and liked very much. And I'll definitely have to move on to the Drina books soon!

  3. As a child I enjoyed Black Forest Summer by Mabel Esther Allan. If only I'd known of all the other books she'd written. I knew Enid Blyton wrote lots of books. But maybe that was the only one of hers that the library had on the shelf.

    1. Well, you were ahead of me knowing about any MEA at all as a child. But that means all the more to discover now!

  4. Well done, you, Scott. And how astute of Shirley to think of you as the perfect person to write the intro. Such a combination.

  5. How exciting, both for you and for all of us Greyladies devotees! I've been interested in MEA for a while (thanks to you) but haven't had luck tracking down her books easily. This will certainly help!

    1. Thanks, Claire. Girls Gone By also have a few MEAs in print, available from The Book Depository.

  6. Congratulations, Scott! Exciting news. I just ordered my copy.

  7. Looking forward even more to getting my copy of In Pursuit, which I ordered for another reason altogether, without realising you were involved in the intro!
    [PS The promised delivery of 'Rachel' arrived before 9 this morning, so that and 'Winning Books' will be starting its journey to you some time on Monday.]

    1. Hope you like the intro Ruth. And thanks so much for the books--can't wait to see them!

  8. Happy to see in Scribbler that you'd written the introduction to the latest Greyladies publication.

    Certainly, 'School under Snowdon' isn't part of an actual series, but there are connectors - pupils at Llanrhysydd Castle do appear in other books. Try 'Swiss School', and going on from there, 'Drina Dances in Switzerland' and 'Three Go to Switzerland'. MEA was a massive connecteror, if you see what I mean.

    The only actual school story series (I'm not au fait with a lot of MEA apart from the school and ballet stories) is a trilogy set in Skye: 'Over the Sea to School', 'A School in Danger', and 'At School in Skye'. They were reprinted in an omnibus called 'Schooldays in Skye'.

    1. Thank you Sue! You've inspired me to snag a copy of Schooldays in Skye. I also have Three Go on my TBR shelves, but I'm kicking myself for missing Swiss School when GGB did it. Drat! Thanks for the recommendations!

  9. Congratulations on your introduction! I think I may have read that novel a long time ago, and I'm planning to purchase it, thanks to your remarks here, and will read and or re-read it. On the other hand, I know I've read the Strangers on Skye, as I remember the storyline very well. Now I know the title and author once again and hope I'll come across the book again some day! Thanks, Christie


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