L.T. Meade, A Modern Tomboy

I cheated a bit over this month’s Kindle Magazine column. The book I discuss in it is one I’ve mentioned on this blog before – but while the last post (which was more quote than commentary) focused on the incredible levels of homoeroticism in the book, this one looks at a couple of other aspects of this very odd book.

 

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It is startling sometimes to realise suddenly how far removed the cultural values of old books are from your own. It’s even more startling to realise how far removed they can be from the cultural values of their own times.

On the surface of it, L.T Meade’s  A Modern Tomboy is a conventional story for girls. Mrs Merriman decides to start a school for girls in order to support her husband, who is a scholar working on a Great Work. Daughter Lucy is jealous, particularly since one of the new girls, Rosamund, is attractive as well as being a born leader. Rosamund befriends Irene Ashleigh, a rich girl who is so spoiled that she is uncontrollable. Rosamund’s influence and the advent of a saintly younger girl play major roles in Irene’s reform.

Thus far we have the school, the pretty, headstrong but basically nice school girl who is the heroine and the wild, antisocial girl who must be taught to fit into society. All seems to be proceeding as you’d expect it to.

But A Modern Tomboy is neither a traditional school story nor a moral tale. As far as I can tell, it appears to be about how charisma is the most important thing in the world, and how those who have it will always get their own way. That, and romance among young girls.

The school story has something of a history with homoeroticism. In part this is a natural result of any stories about people of one sex all cooped up together (rumours about monasteries and nunneries exist for similar reasons), but early authors in the genre did not exactly help things (Angela Brazil infamously – and apparently innocently – called one of her schoolgirl characters Lesbia). The first half of this book is filled with romantic declarations; people breaking into other people’s rooms to get into bed with them, and claiming that they cannot live without them.

But it is the second part of the book that is particularly baffling.

If this book has a heroine it is probably Rosamund. Meade makes sure that we know this character is bossy and used to getting her own way, but she is forgiven much for how attractive she is. Irene is even more beautiful and charismatic, and so characters she has physically injured or threatened with death find it easy to forgive her. Her beauty also causes the infatuation of Agnes Frost, the younger sister of Iren e’s governess. Miss Frost can only watch in alarm as her sister is seduced away, and as her own complicity in the whole thing is bought off with the promise of the good education for her siblings. The text tells us that “[i]t is a curious fact that there are some weak but loving people who are not loved in return”, stating this as obvious fact rather than as a problem that needs fixing.

And this, I think, is what makes A Modern Tomboy so unusual – where most children’s stories of the period moralise, it takes for granted the unfairness of the world, treating it as something so obvious that it needn’t even be commented upon. 

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All this, plus everyone in the book being kind of terrible. Were I looking for this sort of cynical realism in fiction I wouldn’t have expected to find it in an early-twentieth century school story writer, but there you go. A Modern Tomboy is available on Project Gutenberg here.

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