Apart from my recent post showing some of the Mabel Esther Allan dustjackets kindly shared with me by F.G., I haven't posted a lot about "girls'" fiction lately. It's funny how my reading of certain types of books ebbs and flows a bit during the course of the year. I've sometimes wondered if it's related to weather or hours of daylight or something strange like that, but it probably just my weirdly varying moods.
For whatever reason, over the past month or so I've spent some wonderful weekends and/or happy bedtime reading delving into some particularly good titles originally marketed for teenage girls. Maybe my moon's in Aquarius or some such thing…
|All dustjacket images courtesy of F.G. (of course!)|
The first title to talk about is one more title that can now be crossed off of my recent Hopeless Wish List, thanks to Constance of the wonderful Staircase Wit blog. After I noted on my list that a copy of GWENDOLINE COURTNEY's A Coronet for Cathie (1950)—even the Girls Gone By reprint from a few years back—would cost a bit more than the average flat in London, Constance jumped in and saved the day, and it wasn't long before my eagerness overcame all the other titles on my TBR list and I dived in. (I should also note that Constance reviewed the book herself soon after, and her review here likely sums things up better than I could ever do).
For those unfamiliar with the story (i.e. if you don't have an original copy treasured from your childhood, and missed the Girls Gone By reprint, and don't want to sell your cozy Bloomsbury flat to buy a copy now), it's the charming if implausible story of sickly 15-year-old Catherine Sidney, an orphan raised with limited means by a loving aunt, who discovers that, following a striking series of tragedies in a hitherto unknown branch of her family tree, she is now the unfathomably wealthy Duchess of Montfort. We should all have such problems.
Cathie ventures to Devon with her Aunt Bet, where she briefly meets the dying elderly Duke, as well as her gruff but kindly new guardian, Colonel Rushton, and the colonel's three lively and likeable children. (One might expect that some of these other members of the family might be a bit saddened by the truly alarming body count among the Duke's heirs of late, but little mention is made of all the corpses beyond their beneficial impact on Cathie's social status.)
A bit of sarcasm aside, though, and with all its implausibilities, Coronet is a lovely fun tale. It started out just a bit bumpy for me as it is for all intents and purposes a Ruritanian tale despite being set in England, and Ruritania has never been my favorite country to visit. Then, too, as Constance also points out in her review, Cathie's completely ludicrous fragility for much of the story (being carried up and down stairs by her own personal footman—I mean, I wouldn't mind having a footman, but if I get to the point of making him carry me around I hope someone stages an intervention) makes her not a terribly dynamic heroine. Plus, she at times is so idealized, so much adored by all who meet her, that a couple of times I found myself perversely wanting to press her nose into her crumpets just a bit.
Later in the story, however, when Cathie is no longer decrepit and is able to head off to day school with her considerably more dynamic cousins—and even take up horseback riding!—things do liven up, and the whole premise of her as a kind, unselfish, down-to-earth squire for her vast estate begins to pay off. (Though, as much as I comprehend that any large landowner with lots of tenants has some real social responsibilities to shoulder, the way Cathie's estate is described feels a bit too feudal for the 1950s!)
None of those details matter much in the end, however, as realism is hardly the point of the story. A Coronet for Cathie is not my absolute favorite of Courtney's work—Sally’s Family will always retain that title, I think, and Girls of Friar’s Rise and Stepmother are also faves, all with their more domestic concerns. But Coronet is still great fun, with memorable characters and a nice message about "people who are worth knowing" and those who aren't. Thank you again to Constance for making it possible for me to read it. I highly recommend it—particularly if you were thinking of selling that flat anyway…
From there, I confess I was instantly and irrevocably seduced by the cover art of JANE SHAW's Anything Can Happen (1964), which happily came into my collection courtesy of the wonderful F.G. I was just at the point where one look at the girls with adorable Sixties hair browsing the bookstalls by the Seine with Notre Dame in all its unsinged glory behind them was all it took. I immediately started reading, and it proved to be every bit as charming and compulsively readable as it looked.
I read a couple of Jane Shaw books years ago and enjoyed them but never became obsessed. Well, I'm afraid obsession is in the cards now, so it's just as well that Girls Gone By announced, while I was reading this book, that they're beginning to reprint several of Shaw's books.
The premise is a classic wish fulfillment fantasy—Alison and her cousin Elizabeth (nicknamed Dizzy due to her reputation for nonlinear thinking, not to mention seeing criminal activity everywhere she looks) are sent to visit their Aunt Sophie in Paris. Poor things. And Aunt Sophie, a crime writer who tends to get obsessed with her work, is not exactly a strict or attentive guardian, so they practically have the run of the city. They quickly make friends with handsome young Pierre, his brother Alain, and their two adventurous little sisters Régine and Danielle.
Everywhere they turn in Paris, they find mysterious happenings, which Alison sometimes puts down to Dizzy's flair for intrigue but which finally become all too real. They encounter suspicious behavior in a jewellery shop, get followed by "the Man in the Grey Suit," and come to believe that Alison's mother's old governess Madame Bertholet, whom they solemnly promised to visit, is the victim of some diabolical intrigue at the hands of her housekeeper. In the course of their adventures, they find plenty of time to visit Montmartre, stop in to Deux Magots, climb the Eiffel Tower, and stroll through the Louvre.
It's all silly and implausible, but I found it absolutely addictive and delightful. I didn't want it to end. As I was reading, I recalled that Sue Sims and Hilary Clare, in their Encyclopaedia of Girls' School Stories, suggested that Shaw could most closely be compared with P. G. Wodehouse, and although that sounds like an odd link, the kinship is clearly on display in Anything Could Happen, which sparkles with wit and charm throughout. I'm assuming there are other Shaw fans among readers of this blog?
And finally, just two weekends ago, I was needing something light and cheerful to blot out the general sluggishness resulting from antibiotics for a sinus infection (yuck), and picked up SUSAN WYCHWOOD's French Leave (1936). I've had this school story for ages, since I bought it based on Sims and Clare's description of it, and it's turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, down-to-earth school stories I've read.
It centers around Avalon Grey, who is sent to boarding school in France because her widowed father, a retired general, can't bear her resemblance to her dead mother and to her older brother, who ran away from home years before when he was just about Avalon's age. For the most part, the plot is realistic, with lots of humorous but entirely plausible scenes between girls and mistresses, including mild culture clashes between French and English ways of doing things (Avalon is the only "Eengleesh mees" at the school, though a new English mistress does arrive partway through the school year). The French provincial town where the school is located is pleasantly described, and contains excitement only in the form of a local regiment of Spahi soldiers (recruits from Algeria serving their required time in the French army—no postcolonial concerns here!). The staff and fellow boarders are mostly kind and eager to please their English classmate, though there is a requisite troublemaker, Denise, who resents the attention Avalon receives and seeks to bring her down a notch or two.
There are a few gentle adventures of the traditional school story sort, but even there the book manages to stay fairly plausible—there's no climbing out the chimney of a burning room or singlehandedly taking down a ring of spies in Wychwood's tale. Instead, there's a very modest buried treasure left over from World War I (with some interesting discussion of the impacts of war), the discovery and rescue of an injured Spahi colonel in a forest, a near-miss with a wild boar during a walk through the forest, and a Spahi lieutenant who takes a mysterious interest in Avalon. Somehow, it's all very sweet-natured but without being cloying or sentimental, spirited and entertaining without being frenetic, and manages to give one a feel for the rhythms of day-to-day school life. Sims and Clare noted that "[t]he details ring completely true, and one cannot doubt that the author is drawing on her own experiences or those of someone close to her."
Sadly, the identity of Wychwood herself remains shrouded in mystery. Even the brilliant John Herrington was unable to trace her. Sadder still, this was apparently the only book she published. I for one would have loved it if she'd written 20 or 30 more.
To give you a taste, since this book is also a bit of a challenge to track down at reasonable prices, some of my favorite passages in the book relate to the determined belief in the minds of the French that England is perpetually shrouded in fog. Early in the book Avalon discusses it with her classmates:
"Is it true," asked Louise, "that in England there is always a fog, especially in London?"
"Oh, no," laughed Avalon, "we have them sometimes, of course, in the winter, and now and then there are some very dense ones in London, but not always!"
"One hears it said," muttered Denise darkly.
"Yes," said Avalon, "I have heard it said too, but no one in her senses could believe any country to be permanently wrapped in fog."
"Is your King married yet?" asked Jeanne hastily, to change the subject.
"I saw him once in Paris. He is handsome, your King," said Marie-Therese.
"Yes, isn't he splendid?" glowed Avalon. "I've seen him once, in London."
"Which she couldn't have done in a fog," put in Antoinette soberly.
And that passage links up nicely, later in the book, with a scene in which Avalon and the new English mistress toy with the assumptions of a Frenchwoman on the train to Paris:
"You have fogs in England?" she added hopefully.
"Occasionally," agreed Miss Field. "I remember one five years ago—or was it six? Do you know, Avalon? Or perhaps you would have been too small at the time to appreciate it."
"But I have seen a fog," claimed Avalon.
"Indeed?" said Miss Field, turning to her with well-acted eagerness. "When? Where? You have never mentioned it to me before."
"It was about a year ago," said Avalon. "It was quite thick—one could only just see the top of the church steeple at the end of the street. What a pity you missed it!"