Ronald Searle, St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business

In last week’s Left of Cool column I talked about school stories. Again.

(I’d apologise to those of you who are sick of hearing me do this, but …no.)

 

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I grew up on tales of English boarding schools, and I don’t regret it. I think this is true for many of us. At the unlikeliest moments casual acquaintances will reveal themselves to have a secret horde of Angela Brazil books or something similar; and recently I read a historical romance novel whose setting the author claimed was directly inspired by Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. This history we have with the school story is probably one of the (many) factors behind the success of the Harry Potter books; if you leave out the wands and the mortal peril (and not necessarily the latter at that) it’s all very familiar.

However much we love it, the school story is often so earnest that it’s just crying out to be mocked. Some of the best writers in the genre are those who poke fun at it gently even as they write within it – P. G. Wodehouse (whose Mike marks the first appearance of the character Psmith) and Antonia Forest are among them. Last year I used this space to talk about Dick Beresford’s The Uncensored Boys’ Own, a parody from the 1990s of boys school stories. Many readers will also hopefully be familiar with Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books, documenting life at St Custard’s school through the unique syntax of young Nigel Molesworth. Molesworth (or a very good imitation of him) is also on twitter, currently providing extensive coverage of the Olympics as @reelmolesworth.

The Molesworth books are certainly among the things for which the artist Ronald Searle is best known. But Searle created another school through his art, and one that is probably a bit more famous: St Trinian’s.

St. Trinian’s is a school for delinquent schoolgirls. Searle’s schoolgirls all carry those markers of the traditional school story heroine – the gym tunic and the hockey stick. But they also look miserably at the broken bottle of whiskey as they unpack their school trunks, they carry concealed weapons (“Some little girl didn’t hear me say ‘unarmed combat’”), and they are willing to put those hockey sticks to far more practical uses.

English schoolgirls are parodied all over literature as overly hearty, humourless and hockey-playing. There’s a lot to be said, though most of it is rather obvious, about the fact that the earnest, humourless schoolgirl rather than the earnest, humourless schoolboy is all over popular culture in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. Naturally, parodies that turned the capable women of less comic literature into sexually precocious, violent criminals were going to be a hit. The first St Trinian’s cartoon was published in 1941 but most came after the war; by 1954 the first film had been made. As of 2012 there have been seven St Trinian’s films. A number of prominent (male) authors got in on the joke – Wyndham Lewis, Robert Graves and Cecil Day-Lewis among them.

But though the popularity of the cartoons and the films has its origin partly in sexism, St Trinian’s has always felt to me like liberation. Searle may have been riffing off a tradition of mocking the schoolgirl, but unlike most parodists he made his characters smart. The St Trinian’s girl doesn’t despise brute force (whether a well-aimed hockey stick or a cannonball), but she’s capable of much more. She will distill her own poisons in the school chemistry lab, or read up on the shrinking of human heads.

Perhaps even more importantly, the school is a safe space for its students. You can be ugly at St Trinian’s, you can be fat, you can be bad at sports, or you can be too interested in boys (or presumably girls, though I don’t think Searle ever made that clear); as long as you’re sufficiently badly-behaved you’ll fit right in. In one cartoon, two members of staff pick their way through a sea of unconscious girls (empty bottles all around them) without batting an eye. For those of us who could in our youths have done with a more tolerant community for imperfect schoolgirls, this is almost a miracle.

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One Comment to “Ronald Searle, St Trinian’s: The Entire Appalling Business

  1. Just to say: it’s worth looking into the circumstances under which Searle created the first St Trinian’s characters. He started drawing them while a POW; a black form of comedy born from a very black situation, inspired by a real-life boarding school which (from memory) his sister and her friends attended. Once he was released from the POW camp and came back to England, he started redrawing the Trinian’s images as a deliberate subversion of the idea of the sweet, ‘English rose’ image of schoolgirls. Having been a fan of the comics since I was about ten, I’ve always taken them in a primarily feminist/equal spirit; and if you haven’t ever read it, I highly recommend laying hands on the novel by Timothy Shy, The Terror of St Trinian’s, which is slightly problematic but extremely good fun.

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