Okay, I’m only doing one chapter here because a lot happens in the next one, and also I got about five hours’ sleep last night, and concentrating isn’t really happening. STAY TUNED.
I don’t, for the record, hate Alicia. She’s a charismatic character, and the text isn’t always on her side. And, at times, she’s genuinely funny.
I just don’t love the way she targets her pranks at Mam’zelle, Wacky Foreigner, or teachers who can’t fight back. People talk a lot about the Weasley twins as bullies, but while some of their pranks go too far, generally they’re targeted at either their peers, or adult authority figures who are generally so humourless as to be ridiculous, or who have enough sense of humour to appreciate the absurdity, even as they’re taking house points.
Not so with Alicia! To be honest there comes a point where I don’t understand why Mam’zelle Dupont hasn’t had a nervous breakdown, or at least gone off with Mam’zelle Rougier and the St Clare’s French teacher and formed an Angry Frenchwomen Union.
Darrell had good brains and she had been taught how to use them. She soon found that she could easily do the work of her class, and in such things as composition was ahead of most of the others. She felt pleased.
‘I thought I’d have to work much much harder than at my old school,’ she thought to herself. ‘But I shan’t! It’s only maths I’m not so good at. I wish I was as good as Irene at maths. She does things in her head that I can’t even do on paper.’
So, after the first week or two, Darrell relaxed a little, and did not worry herself too much about her work. She began to enjoy amusing the class a little, just as Alicia did.
You can imagine Miss Potts’ joy at this development. DARRELL, YOU ARE SO MUCH BETTER THAN THIS.
Meanwhile, the money Darrell’s parents are spending on this education: KIND OF POINTLESS, I GUESS.
Betty Hill went much further than Alicia. Darrell sometimes wondered if there was anything she would stop at. There were two mistresses that Betty and Alicia played up to. One was Mam’zelle Dupont, the other was a quiet, gentle mistress who took needlework, and sometimes took prep, time at night. Miss Davies never seemed to realize that Alicia and Betty could play tricks on her. Mam’zelle did realize it, but was taken in all the same.
So basically these girls are sociopaths. Then we get a highly amusing story about a time Alicia managed to torture Mam’zelle AND a mouse AT THE SAME TIME!
Darrell, being a good lackey, encourages Alicia to perform some kind of hilarious prank. Alicia draws inspiration from her brothers:
‘Roger pretended to be deaf,’ said Alicia. ‘And everything old Toggles asked him he pretended to hear wrong. When Toggles said “Johns, sit still in your chair!” Roger said “Give you a cheer, sir? Certainly! Hip, hip, hip, hurrah!”‘
See, just pretending to have blocked ears, that’s kind of eh. Impromptu wordplay? That, I can get behind. Usual Alicia-related caveats applying.
Mam’zelle. all unsuspicious of this deep-laid plot, entered the first-form classroom smiling brightly the next morning. It was a beautiful summer day. She had had two letters from home, giving her the news that she had a new little nephew. She had on a new brooch, and had washed her hair the night before. She was feeling in a very good temper.
She beamed round at the class. ‘Ah, my dear girls!” she said. ‘We are going to do some very very good French today, n’est ce pas? We are going to be better than the second form! Even Gwendoline will be able to say her verbs to me without one, single, mistake!’
It’s not specifically mentioned, but I can only assume that this is Monday morning. Because damn, Mamzelle’s day is about to go downhill!
For starters, her expectations of Gwendoline are way too high.
Gwendoline looked doubtful. Since she had been at Malory Towers her opinion of her governess at home had gone down. Miss Winter didn’t seem to have taught her half the things she ought to have known! On the other hand, thought Gwendoline, she had raved over her hair and blue eyes, she had praised the sweetness of Gwendoline’s temper, and said how graceful she was in all she did. That kind of thing was most enjoyable to a person like Gwendoline. But a little more learning would have been very useful to her at Malory Towers.
I’m not actually convinced of the sweetness of Gwendoline’s temper, but I’m going to assume Miss Winter was well-paid for saying so.
Luckily for Gwen, Alicia’s cue comes up.
‘Alicia! What is wrong with you?’ cried Mam’zelle. ‘Can you not hear?’
‘What do I fear? Why, nothing, Mam’zelle,’ said Alicia, looking slightly surprised. Somebody giggled and then smothered it quickly.
‘Mam’zelle said “Can you not hear?”‘ repeated Betty in a loud voice to Alicia.
‘Beer?’ said Alicia, more astonished, apparently, then ever.
I really do love that whole exchange. IT GOES ON!
‘Tell me, have you a cold?”
‘No, I’ve no gold, only a ten-shilling note,’ answered Alicia, much to Mam’zelle’s mystification.
‘Mam’zelle said COLD not GOLD,’ explained Darrell at the top of her voice.
‘You know—COLD, the opposite of HOT,” went on Betty, helpfully. ‘Have you a COLD?’
‘HAVE YOU A COLD?’ roared the class, coming in like a well-trained chorus.
‘Oh, COLD! Why don’t you speak clearly, then I should hear you,” said Alica. ‘Yes—I’ve had a cold, of course.’
‘Ah—then it has affected your poor ears.’ said Mam’zelle.
‘How long ago was this cold. Alicia?”
Darrell repeated this question at the top of her voice, followed by Betty.
‘Oh—when did I have it? About two years ago,’ said Alicia.
Sadly, though, Malory Towers’ classrooms aren’t soundproofed, and Miss Potts, taking maths in the room next door, is unmoved by Alicia’s affliction and punishment is threatened.
These chapters are so short, I’m going to take them two at a time from now on.
Chapter 4: Miss Potts’ Form
All the school met each morning for prayers.
I’m pretty sure this is the only time that’s mentioned, and it’s the only hint that Malory Towers is anything other than a secular school.
Darrell is amazed that her class is so big it contains 25 or 30 girls! Contemporary school teachers, this is your queue to laugh/sigh.
We catch a glimpse of the other French mistress, Mam’zelle Rougier:
She was skinny, tall and bony. Her hair too was done up in a little bun, but at the back instead of on top. Darrell thought she looked bad-tempered.
In the classroom, Gwen commits yet another faux pas:
‘Bags I [a desk] by the window!’ said a fat girl and plumped herself down there.
‘Bags I one too,’ said Gwendoline. But the fat girl stared in surprise.
‘You’re new aren’t you? Well, you can’t choose your own seat, then. New girls have to take the desks left over when the old girls have chosen the ones they want.’
GOD, GWENDOLINE, WHY CAN’T YOU FOLLOW THE ARBITRARY AND UNWRITTEN STUDENT-ENFORCED SOCIAL RULES YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT UNTIL NOW? WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?
Darrell hangs back like the good social conformist she is, and gets a seat with Alicia and Alicia’s BFF/partner-in-crime, Betty. Betty is from West Tower. I’m pretty sure there’s a line in a future book about the school’s firm refusal to transfer her to North Tower, on the grounds that the school would fall into anarchy. Anyway, this is the only cross-house friendship we see.
Betty and Alicia are kind of the Fred and George Weasley of the series, only less funny.
Miss Potts lays down the law:
‘Last term there were one or two girls who seemed to like to be bottom every week,’ she said. ‘Leave that place to the new girls, please, and go up a few places! I never expect much of new girls their first term – but I shall expect quite a lot of you.”
A few girls went red. Miss Potts went on talking. ‘I don’t really think I’ve any brainless girls this term,’ she said, “though I don’t know much about the new girls, of course. If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course—but if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.’
If Professor McGonagall was the head of Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor, she’d be Miss Potts.
To modern eyes it seems strange that students as young as twelve are being ranked like this, and weekly. When I was at school, rankings like that didn’t appear until the second semester of year 12, when they were linked to university placements. (If anyone cares, I was in the top five for all my subjects except maths. And that’s genuinely impressive, since I had surgery and missed a long stretch of school! But I think I was, like, third from the bottom in maths, and that was in a cohort of a couple of hundred. GO TEAM ALGEBRAICALLY CHALLENGED!)
Miss Potts is predictably unimpressed with Gwendoline’s hair, which spills all over her desk as she grapples with some maths problems. She has to plait it … or get her mother to have it cut short in the school holidays.
“AS IF!” says Gwen.
Well, actually she thinks, “As if Mother would dream of cutting off her beautiful fine sheet of hair.” But wouldn’t the series be great if Gwen was actually Cher Horowitz? (SPOILERS! A spoilt, superficial but basically good-natured American girl does come to Malory Towers in the third book! Sadly, she learns an important lesson about Being More English, and at no point is accused of being a virgin who can’t drive.)
Among Gwen’s many failings, she can’t plait.
This was another thing that puzzled me as a kid, because for the longest time I couldn’t plait either. My mum was raised by her dad, so certain feminine skills like plaiting and braiding just passed her by. In the end, I sat down with my Barbie one Saturday morning and taught myself how to make a plait. And that was only because the other girls at school would come in with very elaborate braids, and I wanted to learn how to do that. (I never did figure out braiding!)
Gwen’s basically home-schooled, and her education didn’t include hairstyles. Seems a bit rough to judge her on that, but then, I save most of my judgement for her mother and governess, who seem to have been so busy weeping over the imminent separation that they didn’t tell Gwen that a neat ponytail will suffice for school.
Meanwhile, Darrell is attempting to befriend Sally:
Sally Hope was sitting on the grass alone, no expression at all on her closed-up face. Darrell went over to her. ‘What do you think of Malory Towers?’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine.’
Sally looked up primly. ‘It’s not bad,’ she said.
‘Were you sorry to leave your other school?’ asked Darrell. ‘I wanted to come to Malory, of course, but I hated leaving all my friends. Didn’t you hate leaving all your friends too?’
‘I don’t think I had any, really,’ said Sally, considering. Darrell thought that was queer. It was hard to get anything out of Sally. She was polite and answered questions, but she didn’t ask any in return.
“Ambiguity” isn’t something one really associates with Enid Blyton’s writing, but I’m always intrigued by Sally’s declaration that she had no friends at her old school. Is she saying she was a complete loner who despised human company? Or, perhaps, did she have a circle of friends, but they all drifted away when she entered what’s obviously a difficult phase of her life, and now she wonders whether they were truly friends at all?
Darrell plaits Gwen’s hair for her, and gets NO THANKS WHATSOEVER in return. Oh, Gwen, social skills aren’t actually beneath you.
Chapter 5: The First Week Goes By
We belatedly meet some more of Darrell’s schoolmates, including Mary-Lou, the class scaredycat:
Mary-Lou was a scared mouse of a girl. She was frightened of mice, beetles, thunderstorms, noises at night, the dark, and a hundred other things. Poor Mary-Lou. No wonder she had big scared eyes. Darrell, not easily scared of anything, laughed when she saw poor Mary-Lou rush to the other side of the dormy because she saw an earwig on the floor.
THAT’S NOT VERY NICE, DARRELL. Also, after all these years I finally googled “earwig”, and they look like this:
And, okay, I can think of more hideous insects, but ew.
We meet Irene, who is an absent-minded genius. Notably she’s a mathematical and musical genius — two fields are related, but the maths is not exactly traditionally feminine.
There’s also Emily, who sews, and … well, she sews. She’s sew great. And there’s Jean, who is Scottish and therefore good with money.
Mam’zelle disliked Jean because Jean was scornful of Mam’zelle’s enthusiasms and emotions. Jean herself never went into ecstasies about anything.
Welp, that’s the Scottish taken care of!
And there’s Violet, the most pointless character ever created:
Violet, a shy. colourless child, very much left out of things because she never seemed to take any interest in them. Half the form never even noticed whether Violet was with them or not.
THEN WHAT IS SHE HERE FOR, ENID? Aside from presumably making up the numbers in the dorm. You know that episode of Buffy where a girl is ignored so hard she becomes invisible? That’s Violet. I don’t think she’s ever mentioned again in the series.
But maybe Violet is secretly a ninja assassin, and Darrell just doesn’t notice because she’s too busy nursing an epic girl-crush on Alicia:
She knew a great deal about Alicia, but then, so did everyone, for Alicia poured out everything that came into her head, she chattered about her brothers, her mother and father, her dogs, her work, her play, her knitting, her opinion of everything and everybody under the sun.
Alicia had no time at all for airs and graces, pretences, sighs, moans or affectations. She was as downright as Darrell, but not so kind. She was scornful and biting when it pleased her, so that girls like Gwendoline hated her, and those like scared Mary-Lou feared her. Darrell liked her immensely.
‘She’s so lively,’ she thought to herself. ‘Nobody could be dull with Alicia. I wish I was as interesting as she is. Everyone listens when Alicia speaks, even when she says something unkind. But nobody pays much attention when I want to say something. I do really like Alicia, and I wish she hadn’t got Betty for a friend. She’s just the one I would have chosen.’
I actually like that Darrell spends much of this book kind of failing at everything. Blyton’s school story heroines either come in with a terrible attitude and Learn A Valuable Lesson, or they come in with a good attitude and Succeed. So it’s nice that Darrell’s success isn’t instant, even though it means lots of paragraphs about how great Alicia is, and how she smells like Christmas, and she does joke shop commercials … in Japan, and one time she punched Gwen in the face. And it was awesome.
(I have made a TERRIBLE DISCOVERY! Whilst searching the internet for a picture appropriate for a Mean Girls macro, I realised that I’m doing this BACKWARDS! The St Clare’s books were published from 1941-45, and THEN Malory Towers appeared!)
One interesting bit:
No one seemed to like two girls called Doris and Fanny. ‘Too spiteful for words.’ said Alicia, who of course, could always give an opinion immediately about anyone or anything from Winston Churchill down to the little boy belonging to the Tower House cook. ‘They’re frightfully pi.’
‘What do you mean, pi?’ said Gwendoline, who hadn’t apparently heard that word before.
‘Golly—what an ignoramus you are!’ said Alicia. ‘Pi means pious. Religious in the wrong way. Thinking they’re wonderful and nobody else is. Trying to stop people’s pleasure. They’re a sickening pair. Always on the prowl and on the snoop.’
It’s good to see the Christian Right was around and doing its thing in the mid-1940s. I’m sorry, however, that we don’t get to hear Alicia’s opinion on Winston Churchill.
One of the tropes Blyton loves in her school stories is the class prankster, who plays increasingly elaborate jokes on teachers and, occasionally, fellow students. The Fred and George type. Alicia is the prank player, Darrell is the egger-onnerer:
‘If they try any tricks on me, I’ll try a few on them!”
‘Oh, do, do,’ begged Darrell, who had a great weakness for jokes and tricks. She didn’t always dare to do them herself, but she was always ready to back up any one else who did.
One of the most memorable features of Malory Towers is its swimming pool:
One of the things that Darrell liked best of all was the big swimming-pool down by the sea. This had been hollowed out of a stretch of rocks, so that it had a nice rocky, uneven bottom. Seaweed grew at the sides, and sometimes the rocky bed of the pool felt a iittle slimy. But the sea swept into the big natural pool each day, filled it, and made lovely waves all across it. It was a sheer delight to bathe there.
The coast itself was too dangerous for bathing. The tides were so strong, and no giri was allowed to swim in the open sea. But anyone was safe in the pool. One end was quite deep, and here there were diving-boards and a chute, and a fine spring-board for running dives.
So the first week passes, and Darrell is the most popular of the North Tower new girls. But the chapter ends with FORESHADOWING!
‘Oh, my.’ said Darrell. ‘I love it. If every term is as nice as this, I shall be thrilled!’
‘Ah, you wait,’ said Alicia. ‘Everything’s always all right at first -but when you’ve had a wigging or two from Mam’zelle, and been dosed by Matron, and kept in by Potty, and slated by Miss Remmington, and ticked off by one of the older girls and…!’
‘Oh stop!’ cried Darrell. ‘Nothing like that will happen, Alicia. Don’t try and frighten me!’
But Alicia was right, of course. Things were not going to be quite so smooth and easy as Darrell thought!
Um, Miss Blyton? I think you’re working too hard on your chapter titles. I don’t want you to strain something there.
We have a brief description of the dormitory, where the girls all have different-coloured eiderdowns on their bed, and the sound of the ocean can be heard from the window. And, luxury of luxuries, the wash basins have cold and hot water! (No mention is made of actual bathrooms. Do students at boarding schools not bathe? BECAUSE THESE GIRLS SWIM IN SALT WATER! Is this where that stereotype about the British having terrible hygiene comes from?
Then there’s this amazing piece of writing:
The girls were busy unpacking their small bags. Darrell opened hers. She shook out her night-dress. She took her face-flannel, her tooth-brush and paste.
Dear Miss Blyton, I really do think it would have been okay to have a longer sentence in the middle there.
On the other hand, repetition is supposed to be a useful tool for children learning to read, so maybe Enid knew what she was doing. Kind of awkward, though.
Gwendoline is still experiencing culture shock:
One of the girls looked at her watch. ‘Get into bed, everyone!’ she ordered. She was a tall, dark girl, quiet in her manner. Everyone but Gwendoline scrambled into bed. Gwendoline was still brushing out her fine golden hair. She was counting as she brushed it.
‘Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six
‘Hey, you new girl—what’s your name—get into bed!’ ordered the tall dark girl again.
‘I’ve got to brush my hair a hundred times each night,’ protested Gwendoline. ‘Now I’ve forgotten what number I got to!’
‘Shut up and get into bed, Gwendoline Mary,’ said Alicia, who was next to Gwendoline. ‘Katherine is the head of our dormy. You’ve got to do what she says.’
Gwendoline starts to cry, and Alicia threatens to spank her with a hairbrush. Occasionally people claim that there are actual spankings in Blyton’s school series, but for the record, there are only ever threats. (There’s one exception, in this very book, but it’s debatable whether it’s a “spanking”. More like an outright assault. No hairbrushes are involved, anyway.)
There was silence in the room. Sally Hope gave a little sigh. Darrell wondered if she was asleep. The curtains between her bed and Sally’s were pulled back. No, Sally was not asleep. She lay with her eyes wide open. There were no tears in them, but her face looked sad.
‘Perhaps she’s homesick,’ thought Darrell, and thought of her home too. But she was too sensible to be silly about it, and too excited to be at Malory Towers to miss her home. After all, she had badly wanted to come, and here she was— and she meant to be very happy and have a lot of fun.
I really like Darrell, and I like her attitude, and the way this foreshadows that prioritising fun is going to be a problem for Darrell soon — but Sally is a million times more interesting as a character.
Gwendoline was the only one who tried to keep awake. What had Mother said to her? ‘You’ll feel dreadful tonight, I know, darling, but be brave, won’t you?’
So Gwendoline was determined to lie awake and feel dreadful. But her eyes wouldn’t keep open! They shut and soon Gwendoline was as fast asleep as the others. And at home her mother was dabbing her eyes, and saying, ‘Poor little Gwen! I shouldn’t have sent her away from me! 1 feel she’s awake and crying her heart out!’
But Gwendoline was giving little contented snores, dreaming happily of how she would queen it over the girls here, be top of her form, and best at all games.
Gwen and her mother really are terribly annoying in their perpetually-victimised-drama-queen roles, and I’ve met and disliked women like that in real life too. But I’m not convinced that Gwen’s dreams of success, however self-serving and unrealistic, make her a bad person.
Morning comes — no insomniacs in this dorm, apparently! — and Darrell is “proud to put on her brown tunic with its brown-orange belt, just like all the other girls wore. She brushed her hair back and put in two slides to keep it tidy.”
This raises the question, so why do we have all these years and years of covers depicting Darrell with very short hair?
Alicia has very short hair — as Gwen is about to point out:
Gwendoline left her hair loose over her shoulders.
‘You can’t have it like that,’ said Alicia. ‘Not in school, Gwendoline!’
‘I’ve always had it like this,’ said Gwendoline, an obstinate look coming over her pretty, silly little face.
‘Well, it looks awful,’ said Alicia.
‘It does not!’ said Gwendoline. ‘You only say that because your hair is short and coarse.’
In fairness, loose hair was always a big no-no when I was at school. I doubt head lice are much of a problem at Malory Towers — Matron would never stand for it — but this is a pretty common rule. (Which I just typed as “rool”, because apparently it’s past time for lunch around here! #sugarlow)
Alicia is unfazed by Gwen’s hair critique:
Alicia winked at Katherine, who was coming up. ‘Better let dear Gwendoline show offher long, fine-as-silk hair, don’t you think so?’ she said, in a bland voice. ‘Miss Potts might be delighted to see it like that.’
‘My governess, Miss Winter, always liked it like this,’ said Gwendoline, looking pleased.
‘Oh—haven’t you been to a school before? Have you just had a governess?’ asked Alicia. ‘That explains a lot.’
Spoilt AND unsocialised! And completely lacking in sarcasm-detection!
‘Ready, Darrell? That’s the breakfast gong. Tuck your sheet in well. That’s right. Gwendoline, fold up your nighty. Look at Sally—there’s a new girl for you! Everything done to time, nobody’s got to chivvy her round!’
Sally gave a little smile. She hardly said a word. She did not seem in the least shy, but she was so quiet and self- possessed that Darrell could hardly believe she was a new girl. She always seemed to know exactly what to do.
SALLY, YOU GUYS! *hearts in eyes*
Also, here we have a rare instance of Alicia saying something nice to Gwen. I think that’s the first time so far.
In the dining hall we meet another significant teacher:
‘That’s Mam’zelle Dupont,’ whispered Alicia. ‘We’ve got two French mistresses at Malory Towers. One’s fat and jolly and the other’s thin and sour. We’ve got the fat and jolly one this term. They’ve both got simply awful tempers, so I hope you’re pretty good at French.’
Blyton and weight is fascinating. Stay tuned.
Mam’zelle Dupont was short, fat and round. She wore her hair in a little bun on top. Her eyes, black and beady, were never still. She wore a black frock that fitted her perfectly, and well-fitting black shoes on her tiny feet.
She was short-sighted but she would not wear glasses. She had instead a pair of long-handled glasses, called lorgnettes, which she wore dangling on a long black ribbon. These she used when she wanted to see anything at close quarters, holding them to her eyes with her hand.
I could swear there’s a future book that describes Mam’zelle has having large, flat feet, but I might be confusing her with Mam’zelle Rougier, or the Mam’zelle from St Clare’s. There’s a certain amount of interchangeability.
But I really like this character sketch. She’s French, so naturally she’s chic and vain, but it’s nice that the teacher who’s specifically described as fat also seems to be well-dressed and attractive. Though I’m not sure about “beady” eyes, and I spent much of my childhood wondering why so many white people in books had black eyes, when in real life it seemed like only black people and Asians had eyes that dark.
It’s traditional in each book that the new girls visit the headmistress, and she gives them a speech is is repeated or recalled word for word through the whole series. Miss Grayling: not actually that spontaneous.
Miss Grayling asked them their names, and spoke a few words to each girl. Then she addresed them all solemnly.
‘One day you will leave school and go out into the world as young women. You should take with you eager minds, kind hearts, and a will to help. You should take with you a good understanding of many things, and a willingness to accept responsibility and show yourselves as women to be loved and trusted. All these things you will be able to learn at Malory Towers—if you will. I do not count as our successes those who have won scholarships and passed exams, though these are good things to do. I count as our successes those who learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on. Our failures are those who do not learn these things in the years they are here.’
This is a pretty admirable goal for a school, but I find myself curious about the “few words” Grayling speaks to each girl. “Hey, nice brown and orange outfit! Ooh, Gwendoline, I like your hair!”
Then Miss Grayling spoke again, in a lighter tone. ‘You will all get a tremendous lot out of your time at Malory Towers. See that you give a lot back!’
‘Oh!’ said Darrell, surprised and pleased, quite forgetting that she had thought she wouldn’t be able to speak a word, “that’s exactly what my father said to me when he said goodbye, Miss Grayling!’
‘Did he?’ said Miss Grayling, looking with smiling eyes at the eager little girl. ‘Well, as you have parents who think in that way, I imagine you will be one of the lucky ones, and will find that the things I have been speaking of will be easy to learn. Perhaps one day Malory Towers will be proud of you.’
SPOILERS: Malory Towers will be proud of Darrell.
I like the fairly blatant way the text goes, HEY, DARRELL IS GONNA DO PRETTY WELL HERE! HER PARENTS ARE SENSIBLE TYPES WHO DON’T FUSS WHEN THEY ABANDON HER TO STRANGERS! ALSO SHE HAS THE ADVANTAGE OF PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE IN FORMAL EDUCATION!
Whatever they might do, in the years to come at Malory Towers, each girl wanted, at that moment, to do her best. Whether or not that wish would last, depended on the girl.
EVERYTHING EVER IS GWEN’S FAULT, OKAY?
(In fairness, Gwen’s father is a fairly sensible sort, and tries quite hard to rein in her sillier tendencies. Of course these are encouraged by his wife and Gwen’s governess, because women are irrational and don’t know what’s good for them, and Miss Winter is of a lower social class than the Laceys, and you know what those people are like!
But at the same time, there’s a certain amount of deliberate alienation going on, as Gwen’s mother takes sides with her against her father. It becomes really, tragically obvious in the final book, at Gwen’s cost. She doesn’t really come from a functional family by any means — Gwen is like if Lydia Bennett was an only child. In 1946. At a boarding school. That’s not going to end well.)
(Spoilers: Gwen doesn’t elope with anyone. It’s not that kind of series.)
I don’t know how long a train journey to Cornwall would take these days, but in 1946 it apparently took up the better part of a day. On arriving at the station, the girls board coaches — which, as a child, I eventually realised referred to buses — and we have a moment that will be revisited later in the series:
‘Can we see Malory Towers from here?’ asked Darrell, looking all round.
‘No. I’ll tell you when we can. There’s a corner where we suddenly get a glimpse of it,’ said Alicia.
‘Yes. It’s lovely to get that sudden view of it,’ said Pamela, the quiet head-girl of North Tower, who had got into the coach just behind Alicia and Darrell. Her eyes shone as she spoke. ‘I think Malory Towers shows at its best when we come to that corner, especially if the sun is behind it.’
Darrell could feel the warmth in Pamela’s voice as she spoke of the school she loved. She looked at her and liked her.
Pamela saw her look and laughed. ‘You’re lucky, Darrell,’ she said. ‘You’re just beginning at Malory Towers! You’ve got terms and terms before you. I’m just ending. Another term or two, and I shan’t be coming to Malory Towers any more—except as an old girl. You make the most of it while you can.’
And our first glimpse of the school lives up to expectations:
They rounded a corner. Alicia nudged her arm. ‘There you are, look! Over there, on that hill! The sea is behind, far down the cliff, but you can’t see that, of course.’
Darrell looked. She saw a big, square-looking building of soft grey stone standing high up on a hill. The hill was really a cliff, that fell steeply down to the sea. At each end of the gracious building stood rounded towers. Darrell could glimpse two other towers behind as well, making four in all. North Tower, South, East and West.
The windows shone. The green creeper that covered parts of the wall climbed almost to the roof in places. It looked like an old-time castle.
‘My school!’ thought Darrell, and a little warm feeling came into her heart. ‘It’s fine. How lucky I am to be having Malory Towers as my school-home for so many years. I shall love it.’
No one would ever mistake Blyton for a great stylist, but I do love her description of the school. I don’t think St Clare’s is such a vivid physical presence in the series.
Needless to say, for Gwendoline, the setting feeds her imagination:
‘It’s just like a castle entrance!’ said Darrell.
‘Yes,’ said Gwendoline, unexpectedly, from behind them. ‘I shall feel like a fairy princess, going up those steps!’ She tossed her loose golden hair back over her shoulders.
Alicia’s typically scornful, and promises that Miss Potts will knock such fancies out of Gwen. Which makes me feel rather bad for her, because at twelve I still nursed secret princess fantasies, and frankly don’t think they ever hurt anyone.
On the other hand, Blyton doesn’t seem to regard this as an expression of imagination from Gwen, more like vanity and self-indulgence. But it’s not as if Alicia’s attitude is going to help Gwen develop as a person.
…also, I suppose, by the time I was twelve, they were secret princess fantasies (and secret starship captain fantasies, and secret superheroine fantasies) for a reason.
Via Alicia, we get a quick tour of the school, which apparently has one science lab but multiple needlework rooms. (Actually, I shouldn’t mock – a sewing room is a hell of a lot easier and cheaper to set up than a lab, especially in a very old building. I did grade 8 at a girls’ school which had been fundraising for years to set up a manual arts block.)
At last, we meet the matron of North Tower. Saving variations required for plot reasons, if you’ve met one of Blyton’s matron’s, you’ve met all of them:
Each of the Tower houses had its own matron, responsible for the girls’ health and well-being. The matron of North Tower was a plump, bustling woman, dressed in starched apron and print frock, very neat and spotless.
Alicia took the new girls to her. ‘Three more for you to dose and scold and ran after!” said Alicia, with a grin.
Darrell looked at Matron, frowning over the long lists in her hand. Her hair was neatly tucked under a pretty cap, tied in a bow under her chin. She looked so spotless that Darrell began to feel very dirty and untidy. She felt a little scared of Matron, and hoped she wouldn’t make her take nasty medicine too often.
Then Matron looked up and smiled, and at once Darrell’s fears fell away. She couldn’t be afraid of a person who smiled like that, with her eyes and her mouth and even her nose too!
By now Alicia basically has it in for Gwen. Earlier she gets a very mild telling off (with twinkly eyes) from Miss Potts for referring to her as “darling Gwendoline”. Now:
‘I’m Gwendoline Mary Lacey,’ said Gwendoline.
‘And don’t forget the Mary,’ said Alicia, pertly. ‘Dear Gwendoline Mary.’
‘That’s enough, Alicia,’ said Matron, ticking away down her list. ‘You’re as bad as your mother used to be. No, worse, I think.’
Legacy student privilege. The old (brown and orange) school tie. I liked Alicia a lot as a kid, but these days I think Gwen isn’t the only one who needs a few lessons in social graces.
The chapter ends with Darrell and her schoolmates going downstairs for supper:
Darrell looked round at the tables. She was sure she would never know all the girls in her house! And she was sure she would never dare to join in their laugh and chatter either.
But she would, of course—and very soon too!
And if you’re thinking this seemed like a very short chapter, you’d be right — I estimate chapter 1 clocked in at about 2200 words; chapter 2 looks like it’s 1800-1900, roughly.
(How to estimate a book’s word count: take a full page of text. Count the words in a full line, multiply that by the number of full lines, and multiply that by the number of pages in the book or chapter. Adjust as needed for half-pages etc. I’ve checked this a few times against DRM-free ebooks — thank you, Baen — and it’s reasonably accurate.)
Now, I’m off to rearrange my room and hopefully create a more congenial space for writing. Provided that I can find my tape measure.
Begin at the beginning, right? Although I must confess that the first Malory Towers book I read was Upper Fourth, sitting in the bedroom of my friends down the road. I was nine, and my parents, who were trying to wean me off Enid Blyton, were not too pleased when I came home with a whole new obsession.
The series opens with protagonist Darrell studying herself in the mirror:
Darrell Rivers looked at herself in the glass. It was almost time to start for the train, but there was just a minute to see how she looked in her new school uniform.
‘It’s jolly nice,’ said Darrell, turning herself about. ‘Brown coat, brown hat, orange ribbon, and a brown tunic underneath with an orange belt. I like it.’
Two things that jump out:
Normally this would be a handy chance for the author to slip in a description of her main character, but instead we only know what Darrell is wearing. The school is as much a character as any of the girls, and this is essentially what all the characters will be wearing most of the time. Blyton, in general, doesn’t describe the physical appearances of her main characters — I think we do eventually learn that Darrell is tanned, with short dark hair and bright eyes, and in the Famous Five series we know that George is … also tanned, with short dark hair and bright eyes, and looks like a boy. But other aspects of her main characters’ appearances are often conveyed only through the illustrations — Anne’s perennial golden bob and headband, for example.
My inner Nancy Mitford compels me to point out that Blyton uses the upper middle-class “glass” instead of the decidedly non-U “mirror”.
Dear God, that uniform sounds hideous. Though I generally agree with Mai from Avatar: the Last Airbender: “Orange is such an awful colour.”
Darrell felt excited. She was going to boarding school for the first time. Malory Towers did not take children younger than twelve, so Darrell would be one of the youngest there. She looked forward to many terms of fun and friendship, work and play.
‘What will it be like?’ she kept wondering. ‘I’ve read lots of school stories, but I expect it won’t be quite the same at Malory Towers. Every school is different. I do hope I make some friends there.’
HINT: Darrell’s quest for a friend is the main emotional theme of this novel! TRY TO KEEP UP.
A character who’s very important to Darrell, and the book, is her father, so it’s quite odd that he doesn’t actually appear here. Instead, we get a brief flashback:
She had already said good-bye to her father, who had driven off to his work that morning. He had squeezed her hard and said, ‘Good-bye and good luck, Darrell. You’ll get a lot out of Malory Towers, because it’s a fine school. Be sure you give them a lot back!’
Darrell’s father, like Blyton’s second husband (for whom Darrell herself was named), is a surgeon. Blyton’s father characters are generally cranky types who occasionally appear from out behind a newspaper to lay down the law, but Mr Rivers is unexpectedly vivid. And whatever you think of the psychology of portraying your new husband as your self-insert’s father, Blyton’s affection and admiration for the man is obvious.
We’re off to London to catch the school train. It’s a scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Harry Potter (so, everyone): a dedicated train, a platform crowded with students who all seem to know each other, and one rather lost newbie. The Malory Towers train, though, is divided into four carriages, one for each house. Sadly, students aren’t assigned to their houses by singing haberdashery, but stay tuned for a few chapters and I’ll get around to talking about how Blyton is Team Hufflepuff all the way.
‘I shall never know all these girls!’ she thought, as she stared round. ‘Gracious, what big ones some of them are! They look quite grown-up. I shall be terrified of them.’
‘Hallo, Lottie! Hallo, Mary! I say, there’s Penelope! Hi, Penny, come over here. Hilda, you never wrote to me in the hols, you mean pig! Jean, come into our carriage!’
Have to say, just from her vocab there, Darrell seems a million years older than the senior students. “Gracious!”
Darrell looked for her mother. Ah, there she was, talking to a keen-faced mistress. That must be Miss Potts. Darrell stared at her. Yes, she liked her—she liked the way her eyes twinkled—but there was something very determined about her mouth. It wouldn’t do to get into her bad books.
Re-reading a few months ago, I was struck by just how likable a character Miss Potts, Darrell’s house-mistress, is, and also how much she’s basically Minerva McGonagall. JK Rowling owes such a debt to these books — and I mean that in the best possible way — that I’m really surprised no canny US publisher has bothered to release them over there.
Miss Potts introduces Darrell to classmate Alicia, who has bright, twinkling eyes and no other physical characteristics. Alicia is downright, sensible and likeable, and she and Darrell promptly bond through the mockery of another student:
‘I say—look over there. Picture of How Not to Say Good-bye to your Darling Daughter!’
Darrell looked to where Alicia nodded. She saw a girl about her own age, dressed in the same school uniform, but with her hair long and loose down her back. She was clinging to her mother and wailing.
‘Now what that mother should do would be to grin, shove some chocolate at her and go!’ said Alicia. ‘If you’ve got a kid like that, it’s hopeless to do anything else. Poor little mother’s darling!’
The mother was almost as bad as the girl! Tears were running down her face too.
Our adolescent drama queen is Gwendoline Mary Lacey (or, in some books, Lacy). She’s a spoilt, selfish only child who has been sent to boarding school to get some common sense bullied into her. She’s a fairly horrible person, but as a child, the very first fan fiction I ever wrote was redemption fic.
In case it isn’t obvious, Alicia points out the contrast between Mrs Lacey and the mothers of the more sensible girls. Then, to complete the point, we meet Sally, the third new girl for North Tower:
Another girl came up to the carriage, a small, sturdy girl, with a plain face and hair tightly plaited back. ‘Is this Miss Pott’s carriage?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said Alicia. ‘Are you the third new girl? North Tower?’
‘Yes. I’m Sally Hope,’ said the girl.
‘Where’s your mother?’ asked Alicia. ‘She ought to go and deliver you to Miss Potts first, so that you can be crossed off her list.’
‘Oh, Mother didn’t bother to come up with me,’ said Sally. ‘I came by myself.’
‘Gracious!’ said Alicia. ‘Well, mothers are all different. Some come along and smile and say good-bye, and some come along and weep and wail—and some just don’t come at all.’
I’m not going to start taking a shot every time someone says “Gracious!” I promise.
Sally is one of the most interesting characters of the book — though not necessarily the series — but to say more at this point would involve spoilers. AND YES, I’M WORRYING ABOUT SPOILERS FOR A BOOK PUBLISHED IN 1946.
Here’s a nice early glimpse at Alicia’s less charming qualities. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we know that Draco is a nasty little boy because his second attempt at befriending Harry involves insulting Ron’s family. Here, Alicia does the same and it’s presented as amusing, although also quashed flat by Miss Potts. BECAUSE MISS POTTS IS ACTUALLY THE BEST.
More evidence for the POTTS FOR PRESIDENT argument: her appraisal of the new characters:
Miss Potts looked at Gwendoline. She had already sized her up and knew her to be a spoilt, only child, selfish, and difficult to handle at first.
She looked at quiet little Sally Hope. Funny little girl, with her tight plaits and prim, closed-up face. No mother had come to see her off. Did Sally care? Miss Potts couldn’t tell.
Then she looked at Darrell. It was quite easy to read Darrell. She never hid anything, and she said what she thought, though not so bluntly as Alicia did.
‘A nice, straightforward, trustable girl,’ thought Miss Potts. ‘Can be a bit of a monkey, I should think. She looks as if she had good brains. I’ll see that she uses them! I can do with a girl like Darrell in North Tower!’
In conclusion, POTTS. I bet she’s the maiden great aunt of Pepper Potts, and taught her everything about being super-fabulous, organised, smart and BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.
Now we have the train ride o’exposition. The school is situated on a cliff in Cornwall, overlooking the sea. Four towers hold the school houses, but students take lessons together. (There’s not, I should say here, any kind of house cup, though occasionally we get glimpses of some kind of demerit system.)
Gwendoline is not a fan of exposition, on account of how she isn’t the centre of attention. Alicia, who has three older brothers and no tact whatsoever, is less than sympathetic:
‘I feel sick,’ announced Gwendoline at last, quite determined to be in the limelight and get sympathy somehow.
‘You don’t look it,’ said the downright Alicia. ‘Does she, Miss Potts? I always go green when I feel sick.’
Gwendoline wished she could really be sick! That would serve this sharp-tongued girl right. She leaned back against the back of the seat, and murmured faintly. ‘I really do feel sick! Oh, dear, what shall I do?’
‘Here, wait a bit—I’ve got a paper bag,’ said Alicia, and fished a big one out of her bag. ‘I’ve got a brother who’s always sick in a car, so Mother takes paper bags with her wherever she goes, for Sam. I always think it’s funny to see him stick his nose in it, poor Sam like a horse with a nose-bag!’
Gwendoline subsides into silent sulking, musing that Alicia is horrid and unlikeable. Darrell, on the other hand, is nursing a platonic adolescent crush:
But Darrell looked at Alicia with amusement and liking. How she would like her for a friend! What fun they could have together!
I like his verdict — after commenting on the, uh, questionable treatment of Mamzelle Dupont and the sad lack of Darrell’s notorious temper in this book, he concludes: I think it does no harm to sample a setting where there are a variety of female role models to choose from.
I also like the commenter who notes that Claudine at St Clare’s is a novel about mothers and daughters. (And not just because her favourite Malory Towers novel is the same as mine!)
That made me think of an earlier idea of mine, to do a chapter-by-chapter reading of the Malory Towers and St Clare books, and possibly also the Naughtiest Girls. I read the first two series just a few months ago, and had a lot of thoughts about the treatment of class (obvious) and fatness (less so), and also the characters in general. Maaaaaaaaaybe as a once-a-week thing? Or, possibly, twice a week, given that I have Wednesdays off. I’ll give it some thought while I do my groceries, and may start later this afternoon.
This week, despite being exhausted and cranky and strongly inclined to keep playing Portal 2, I wrote 2800 words. This is entirely thanks to Amie Kaufman, who BULLIED me into WRITING instead of PLAYING by, um, using words on Twitter. BUT THEY WERE GOOD WORDS! Unlike the 2800 words I wrote, which could do with some fine-turning.
Also achieved this week:
Flush with the success of having finished chapter 4, I hit Scrivener’s compile button and sent the draft to two friends who were keen to see what I was writing, and who I trusted to be kind to its basic first drafty-ness.
Then I realised all the things that were wrong with those four chapters, including some essential background facts which are obvious to me, but which I somehow forgot to explain to the reader. The plan for this weekend is to go back and sort that out, along with adding an important supporting character who really should be introduced early on, and generally fine-tuning.
I did some research on agents who represent YA and MG fiction in Australia. Which is totally premature and self-indulgent, except that I’ve noticed that a lot of local authors are represented by overseas agents, which led me to suspect (correctly, I think) that it’s a very small field in Australia. And if I’m going to be trying to sell this to an international agent, I’d like to know sooner rather than later so I don’t run mad with unexplained Australianisms.
(I threw in gratuitous Colin Thiele and Ruth Park references anyway, because I had a scene that required the protagonist, Olivia, to seek out books from her childhood, books that were already old when she discovered them. And The Sun on the Stubble and Playing Beatie Bow are Australian YA classics that pre-date my birth, but were hugely popular with the readers in the class when I was about ten.)
I finished chapter 5! It’s running a little short, but I can’t see a way to make it longer without adding a lot of unnecessary waffle. But, looking out my rough outline, that means I’ve written a third of a book!
My goal for the next week is to come up with an outline for the next third of the book. In my fifteen years of writing fan fiction, a constant problem I’ve had is that I’m not great at pacing. Set up? Easy! Endings? Writing them is like pulling teeth, but I know how they should go. All the bits in the middle? Um…
So I need to do some work on the events that will take Olivia from where she is now to where I need her to be in five chapters’ time, while also keeping track of day to day school life (NAPLAN testing!) and the Inevitable Sports-Related Sub-plot.
(I had intended to thumb my nose at Enid Blyton by giving Olivia my own hatred of sports. But to my surprise, she turned out to be a runner and a swimmer, although for reasons to do with her recent history she’s out of practice and slightly ambivalent. So there you have it. On the other hand, dorm-mate Alice did pick up my feelings about sports — and then some — and all without warning in the middle of a chapter, so there’s some editing to come. And in an ideal world, where I write a whole book, the second will be about Alice. And not sports.)
My other goal for next week is to keep reading. I’ve been inundated with books this week — first I went to the library, “just to return some things”, and naturally walked out with four books. And then the parcels started coming. Apparently I spent quite a lot of money at Book Depository and Amazon a couple of weeks ago, and now my bookshelves are groaning. Which is wonderful! But also a bit intimidating. And that’s without my discovery that the Naughtiest Girl books are available on Kindle now, and those were the very first boarding school novels I ever read!