First Term at Malory Towers – Chapter 2: Malory Towers

Hilariously generic 1960s Dutch (I think) cover.
I found the cover to this (presumably) Dutch edition on LibraryThing, and am utterly charmed by its inappropriateness.

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.

First Term at Malory Towers – Chapter 1: Off to Boarding School

1988 cover art for First Term.
The cover of the 1988 edition – the one I owned!

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!


Something of interest

An adult man reads a Malory Towers book for the very first time.  Starting with the final one, no less!

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. 

Sometimes you need a writing bully

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!

Needed: Time Turner.

These points of data make a beautiful line

FACT: upon making a shiny new grown-up real-name professional-type blog, the blogger will immediately get sucked into a time-consuming obsession that is much more important than keeping said blog updated.

Portal, man!  I’m not a gamer, but the first Portal was free in Steam’s summer sale last year, and lots of my friends recommended it, so I downloaded it.

Then it took me a full year to complete, because I’m not very good at puzzles, and my laptop didn’t have the RAM it needed, and then I got stuck in testing chamber 15 for months.  By which I mean, “I’d play for half an hour, get nowhere, then close the game and do something else for a few weeks before eventually trying again.”

Finally, I upgraded my RAM — all by myself, LIKE A RAM-UPGRADING CHAMPION! — and, inspired by  L M Myles’ enthusiasm, had a go at finishing the game.  This was clearly the right thing to do, because just as I arrived at the very final challenge, Portal 2 was reduced to US$4.99 in this year’s Steam summer sale.

Chell: pretty much my hero(ine).

Some justifications for abandoning blogging (and writing, reading, housework and human contact) in favour of the Portalverse:

– Puzzles!  Which I’m not very good at, but that just sweetens the sense of victory when I solve them.  Even if I need a walkthrough.  Which is often.

– The setting!  I really like stories that are set in a wider universe, and Portal, being a spin-off of Half-Life, has that.  Even though it takes place entirely within the Aperture Science Enrichment Centre, there are hints of the wider universe, a sense that other things are happening.  It doesn’t even matter that I’ve never played Half-Life and probably never will, and that my entire understanding of said wider universe comes from Wikipedia.

– The characters.  Portal features Chell (young human female, possibly of Asian descent, stubborn and mute and very clever — well, she’s meant to be very clever, and I often felt like I should apologise to her for being so rubbish, but anyway) and GLaDOS (a passive-aggressive, murderous AI who has all the best lines).  Portal 2 adds in Wheatley, who is basically the Doctor in AI form, what with having an English accent and telling Chell to run a lot, but he’s also not very bright.  So not much at all like the Doctor, then.  Anyway, I find myself fascinated by Chell.  Her background is murky — GLaDOS claims she was abandoned by her parents and adopted, not that GLaDOS is a reliable source — and she never speaks, but she’s desperately tenacious and brave.  I’d read a whole novel about Chell, though for some reason most Portal fanfic tends to erase her muteness, which makes her a bit generic.

– The script.  Portal is massively quotable!  It’s the source of the whole “the cake is a lie” meme.  “Remember, the Aperture Science Bring Your Daughter To Work Day is the perfect time to have her tested” is a line that stuck in my head for ages, because it’s both absurd and terrifying, and hints a little at Chell’s background and just why it is that a young woman would be in this vast, deserted facility.

–  The music.  At the end of the first game there’s a brilliant encapsulation of GLaDOS’ personality in song, which has gone from nowhere to a high position in my iPod’s top 25 most played list.  And the instrumental track “4000 Degrees Kelvin” is my new “I’M RUNNING FOR THE TRAIN AND HOW IS IT THAT I’M IN A RUSH LIKE THIS EVERY. SINGLE. MORNING?” tune.  Portal 2 has “Cara Mio Addio“, also known as the Turret Opera.  I’m not even up to that part of the game yet, but I saw it suggested as walking-down-the-aisle music for the geeky bride and had to check it out.  Also for Portal 2, The National wrote a song which appears in one test chamber.  Then Valve held a competition for fans to make a video.  ALL THE MUSIC IS ALL FOR ME.

So, in conclusion, Portal is great.  In fact, because I’ve done something to my back which has left me lying in bed, high on Panadeine Forte, I’m going to go play now.