Archive for ‘girls own’

February 2, 2017

scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day

My access to O. Douglas/ Anna Masterton Buchan has been restricted to what’s in the public domain, and so I’d only read three of her books before. The impression I’ve had of her based on these, and seeing other people discuss her (see also), is of a sort of Scottish L.M. Montgomery. Recently, however, I ended up reading The Setons, about a vicar’s daughter and her family, and members of her father’s church in Glasgow. It is exactly what you expect it to be–the Setons are bookish and generous and religious and Not Vulgar; Elizabeth is beautiful and natural and has a nice singing voice; a young man from London visits and is charmed and falls in love. It’s funny, and comforting, and utterly predictable. Then, just as we’re nearing the end, there’s this:

 

You know, of course, Gentle Reader, that there can be no end to this little chronicle?

You know that when a story begins in 1913, 1914 will follow, and that in that year certainty came to an end, plans ceased to come to fruition—that, in fact, the lives of all of us cracked across.

Personally, I detest tales that end in the air. I like all the strings gathered up tidily in the last chapter and tied neatly into nuptial knots; so I should have liked to be able to tell you that Elizabeth became a “grateful” wife, and that she and Arthur Townshend lived happily and, in fairy-tale parlance, never drank out of an empty cup; and that Stewart Stevenson ceased to think of Elizabeth (whom he never really approved of) and fell in love with Jessie Thomson, and married her one fine day in “Seton’s kirk,” and that all Jessie’s aspirations after refinement and late dinner were amply fulfilled.

But, alas! as I write (May 1917) the guns still boom continuously out there in France, and there is scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds that obscure the day.

 

The Setons is Douglas/Buchan’s second novel, and she’ll go on, after the war, to write more of the sort of books I associate her with, their strings “gathered up tidily” and happily (in nuptial knots)–reading her years later and out of order, as I’m doing, imposes a false chronology, and perhaps makes this departure from a pattern she hasn’t even set yet seem a bigger deal than it is. And the book will go on to in some measure gather up those strings in any case–characters we’ve known and liked are reported on, and some of them are reported dead. There’s some form of closure, because there has to be, even if the closing image of the book is a family praying before sending another young man off to war. the-seton

Chronology feels significant here– if that “You know, Gentle Reader” is addressed to me, then yes I do know. A century later not only am I aware of the dates of the war, but I’m used to reading fiction that treats the period leading up to it as the last golden summer, I’m used to foreshadowing; from the moment a character in The Setons casually reveals that he’s living in the winter of 1913 I’m on my guard. But I also know when the war ends–my version of this story isn’t “in the air”. The gentle readers of 1917 may not yet be used to having the summer of three years ago turned into myth, or to reading clues to it into their literature; their relationship to the thing that is actually happening to/around them is probably very different. A few years ago I wrote of Penny Plain that the effects of the war were all over the book. But that book too is written after the war. In The Setons the war isn’t merely a tragic event but a genuine shock that tears through the book itself. We know what sort of book this is–until it isn’t. In 1917, with scarce a rift to be seen in the war-clouds etc., the shape of this narrative is impossible. At particular moments, particular sorts of stories become unthinkable.

We know this, we all did a Modernism module at some point. I don’t know, though, that I’ve ever felt it this cataclysmic within the text. I don’t know what I make of the fact that by 1920 (when Penny Plain is written) for Douglas this story has become possible again, and I don’t know if it’s possible to find comfort in that fact.

 

July 7, 2014

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

So, Jean of Storms (the subject of last weekend’s column) is really weird.

I’ve been skim-reading a couple of the Chalet School books this last few days, as you do when you have deadlines to meet, and before I’d always laughed a bit at how many near-death experiences the characters seem to have. But after Chalet School Reunion in particular, I’m now completely sold on the idea of these books as a form of horror narrative in which the landscape itself is hostile to the characters. As they’re being shown the local sights, one of the guests at the reunion laughingly asks why all the stories associated with these spots are near death experiences. Shortly afterwards, they all nearly die when the bit of land they’re standing on falls into a glacier moments after they have left it. In a couple of chapters, a cliff will crumble while a character is on it. Naturally there’s a nature-related near-death experience in Jean of Storms as well, but more important is the way in which this revelation makes the insertion of stock horror characters into the lives of healthy-minded schoolgirls make perfect sense. Nature herself is trying to kill these people; it’s only sensible to read their stories as horror.

 

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As a child I was expected to prepare for family holidays by doing research into the history (and culture, and art, and literature) of every new destination. As I grew older that research morphed into reading fiction around a place. I’m less diligent about it than I was at the age of eight, but it still gives me a thrill.

If I think of reading fiction about a place as the same sort of thing as reading fact, it’s because it’s not so much that a sense of the territory makes a book more real as it is the other way around. Fiction can be a lens through which to read a place, and when there’s a vast body of work set in a particular place those stories can layer themselves one atop the other. But we all know those places—the Londons and New Yorks of the world are so deeply embedded in literature, and literature is so deeply embedded in them, that switching between the ‘real’ and fictional city is easy and natural.

It’s the less used settings that interest me more, particularly when there are only a few competing narratives to clash with one another. One of my favourite examples of weird, almost diametrically opposite books coming out of the same place is Arundel Castle in England; it inspired the home of the sunny, folk-dancing-obsessed Earl and Countess of Kentisbury in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books for girls, and the heavy, gothic, over the top setting of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Recently I discovered that I now live near the home of another major author of books for girls; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, best known as the author of the Chalet School series, a staple of my childhood. Brent-Dyer spent most of her life in the North of England but never wrote about it—or so it was thought until 1995, when a fan discovered Jean of Storms, a serialised novel for adults set outside Newcastle and published in the Shields Gazette in 1930.

A romance for adults, Jean of Storms contains within it a weird clash of genres that is particularly fascinating to a reader familiar with her larger body of work. The title character is a young woman of twenty-three who becomes the guardian of her niece from India when her sister-in-law dies. This is all very Secret Garden-ish; the child spoilt but goodhearted, the Indian ayah who cannot stop fussing about her “Missy-baba”. There are elements, also, of the school stories for which Brent-Dyer was already gaining a reputation when this serial was published—the dramatic sequence in a cave on the cliffs, the relationships with doctors and curates for which Jean and her friend Mollie are thoroughly unprepared (“as fresh-minded on such subjects as they had been as school girls of fourteen”, Brent-Dyer informs us, as if emotional immaturity were a desirable thing), the strong community of women.

But underneath all of this is something more sinister, that belongs to a different genre altogether, and that manifests itself in the form of Morag, Jean’s terrifying Calvinist cook-housekeeper, and in Mollie’s obsessive, malevolent housekeeper. These characters seem to have wandered in from a gothic novel; as has the landscape, all treacherous rocks and dramatic waves crashing against cliffs. The book’s cover, in its Bettany Press edition, reflects this weird mix of genres—it bears a photograph of country-dancers, but of the old, black-and-white sort, where everyone looks wary of the camera.

Above, I spoke of having multiple, conflicting literary lenses through which to view a place. Jean of Storms contains those conflicting lenses within it; school story, imperial children’s tale, gothic romance. It makes for an uncomfortable and genuinely weird read, but perhaps more importantly, it has made the nice seaside town I’m familiar with into something more akin to Wuthering Heights.

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August 21, 2012

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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January 10, 2012

O. Douglas, Penny Plain

For the out of copyright books column I do for Kindle magazine, I chose last month to write about O. Douglas’ Penny-Plain. Douglas gets rather overlooked despite (or because of?) being John Buchan’s sister – her writing is never spectacular, but it’s charming, and gentle, and generous. I’d previously mentioned on this blog her Olivia in India – remarkable for being set in India, written during the Raj and still not annoying.

 

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Anna Masterton Buchan was the sister of the author John Buchan, who was famous for his adventure tales, particularly The Thirty-Nine Steps. His sister was considerably less famous, but published a number of books as O. Douglas, most of them novels of life between the wars.

Penny-Plain is her third book, set in a small town in Scotland. The Jardine family are well-educated but very poor. They live in a house filled with books, offer hospitality to anyone who looks like they’d enjoy it, and are all that is good and saintly within this tradition of novels. The head of the family (the parents are dead) is the oldest sister, Jean, who is also (predictably) unusual and attractive.

Two important people visit the town (on, predictably, the same train). The first is a rich, jaded old man with a terminal illness. Having spent his life accumulating wealth, he now realises that is has no one to whom to leave it. He resolves that it should go to the first person to unselfishly do him a good turn. He meets the Jardines – and then disappears for a good chunk of the book. Anyone who has ever read a book knows where this is going.

The second visitor is the Honourable Pamela Renton who, sick of town life, has taken lodgings in the cottage next door. Naturally she befriends Jean. Matters follow their natural course – Pamela’s titled brother falls in love with Jean, who nobly rejects him because of the disparity in wealth. The old man dies and Jean inherits his fortune; her suitor convinces her that he still loves her, and everything ends happily.

What makes Penny-Plain enjoyable is not its mundane plot, but the sheer warmth of the book. Only a few of Douglas’ works are in the public domain (her Olivia in India, an epistolatory novel, is particularly good) but in those that are accessible, no amount of cliché is enough to stop them from being likeable. She reminds me of no one more than L. M. Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables) for her quiet humour and her feel for the intersecting lives of characters in a small community. And where even Montgomery could be cruel (see The Tangled Web, for example), Douglas is always charitable. Even the loud, annoying woman with vulgar tastes, who comes closer than anyone to being the villain of the piece, is rendered sympathetic.

Penny-Plain may on the whole seem completely apolitical, but the war is all over the book. Written in 1920, it is presumably set around the same time. This is made clear by the many characters who have lost someone – a husband, a son. Characters frequently discuss how the war has changed their lives and the ways in which they think, act, even the ways in which they read certain books. There may not be much space given to European power games, but the idea of how personhood itself is affected by an event so epochal is as least as worthy. Douglas is a marvellous writer, and it’s surprising that she should be so obscure.

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November 27, 2011

End of Term (AF 4)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

My first Forest book, as I mentioned in the introduction linked to above. It is also the best school story ever written.

In terms of plot, very little happens in End of Term, and most of it is linked to the school play at the end of the year. Nicola befriends a new girl, falls foul of the sports prefect and unwittingly finds herself cast in the role that Lawrie wants in the play. Lawrie is educated about Christianity and calls on higher powers to do her will. Sprog the comically inept merlin kills a sparrow. But plot is unimportant here.

End of Term is the book that introduces the theme of religion to the series, and it remains there (though as less of a main subject) in the later books. People talk about religious belief throughout. So we know that Ann Marlow believes strongly enough to find her sisters’ joking about the hymns upsetting; that Rowan sometimes believes and sometimes not; that Lawrie is amazed to discover that anyone believes at all. We discover that Miranda is Jewish but not particularly so, and that a minor character comes from a more orthodox Jewish family and is therefore unable to watch the Christmas play. The Merrick family are revealed to be Catholic, and while Nicola Marlow doesn’t seem to quite know what she believes yet, there are the first stirrings of her attraction to the idea of Catholicism. In Nicola’s interest in the Catholic church, in Miranda’s fascination with the Christmas play, and her half-told stories of discrimination and being outside the cultural mainstream, Forest is also portraying religion as a thing that functions socially, that exists in the world, as separate from religious belief. And belief or lack thereof isn’t seen as relevant to the basic decency (or lack of it) in any character.

By the standards of girls school stories, all this is rather astonishing. End of Term was published in 1959, rather later than most of the genre, but this needn’t mean anything. Consider Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books (the school stories I’m most familiar with)which continued until 1970. In this series, the entire range of human belief is represented by the fact that some students are protestant and others catholic – and the only implication this difference has is that they have to take prayers separately. In 1958 (the year before End of Term was published), Brent-Dyer’s Trials for the Chalet School came out. It featured a character who did not believe in god -but still blamed him for all her woes- and her very existence shocked the other characters. The book contains the immortal line “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

Forest herself was from a Jewish family and converted to Catholicism. Which may explain away the presentation of those two faiths – it does not do so for the entirely sensible treatment of atheists and agnostics.

I’ve only read Forest’s work as an agnostic or an atheist. Yet despite the flippancy of the characters when it comes to discussing Things That Matter, she comes closer than most, for me, to getting at the intangible aspects of faith. Nicola is the lead soloist in the play and “Nick makes me feel like cold water down my back” (later, “a little shudder of pleasure shivered like cold water down Patrick’s spine”). And

The organ stopped, which was her cue. She looked ahead to the West Door, past the watching eyes, and took a long breath, as if she were about to dive (which was rather how she felt). ‘Try to sing it with regret,’ Dr. Herrick had said. ‘”Once in Royal David’s City.”‘ Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.’
She had never been able to do it to his entire satisfaction, rehearsing at school, but at this moment, with the storied centuries of the Minster about her, and the play, complete and entire behind her, she thought, suddenly, she might manage it.

 

I mention above the flippancy with which the characters choose to treat big issues, and their discomfort with discussing religion (which they end up doing anyway) comes in part out of this. There’s a moment where Nicola gets into theological debate with the choirmaster at the local cathedral:

…for surely in the Middle Ages, when people believed properly,they’d have brought their hawks into the Minister with them -

She said something of this, in a rather muddled way, to Dr Herrick, who looked first taken aback, and then amused, and then said that though Nicola might find it hard to believe, there were people who now believed ‘properly’, as she put it, though perhaps a better way of putting it would be ‘without reservation’: didn’t Nicola think so?

and this acknowledgement of self-consciousness/awareness that what one says is mediated by the world around one and not a form of spontaneous expression, is one of the things that so attracted me to the books as a child. I’m reminded of this quote of Umberto Eco’s , though I’m not sure how Forest would feel if I called her a postmodernist writer. Patrick thinks “only the older carols…managed to mean what they said without being embarrassing”. After Nicola, Patrick is the character given the most interiority in this book, and he seems both aware of how he edits his own words, and how others do the same in their heads. “He would – no, he would not tease her about it, come the holidays: it would be fatuous and obvious, quite apart from being unkind; and though, like anyone else, he could be unkind on occasion, he did not care to be fatuous.” and (with regard to Lois Sanger) “How queer. I wonder how she thinks about it?…Well – what does she tell herself? I mean – how does she make it alright for herself? Or doesn’t she? Does she think she’s a heel too?”

Since this post has mostly dealt with Forest’s treatment of belief systems, at this point it seems appropriate to talk about Lawrie. Lawrie does not believe in the Christian religion as it is presented to her, shocking her family with her amazement that people treat it as if it happened rather than as they would treat, say, Norse gods. But she does believe in something, as we learn when she pretends to be Nicola in order to let her twin play in an important netball match.

There were three things she was thinking. The first, the easy one, was what fun it would be for Nick to play, and how nice of Lawrie to let her. The second, less disinterested , one was, that if she let Nick play, Someone would arrange, as a reward, that Somehow, when it came to the performance, Lawrie would play the Shepherd Boy.

And later, “‘I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy -’ [...] ‘Except for one thing, Lawrence. With whom did you make this bargain?’ ‘Who with?’ Lawrie looked surprised and waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling. ‘Well – you know – Them.’”

I find myself wondering if, in the absence of a religion to believe in, what Lawrie is putting her faith in is what Terry Pratchett would call Narrativium – the force that has events go the way they ought to in a story. It would certainly tie into Forest’s genre-awareness (see the Autumn Term post for more on this). And it seems entirely fitting for these books that a character should make bizarre, Faustian bargains with the book itself.

 

 

[The next Forest post will be a while coming. It’s on Peter’s Room, a book that stems from the Brontes’ stories of Angria and Gondal. So I’m hoping to read this book simultaneously, and with that and work deadlines I suspect writing about the book will have to wait a week or so.]

November 12, 2011

Autumn Term (AF 1)

(Part of my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

Autumn Term is the first of the Marlow books, and one of Forest’s school stories. It was published in 1948 and in some ways follows the traditional school story plot: girls go to school for the first time, they meet their future classmates on the train (cf Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and all the St. Clares books among others), they get into trouble in various ways, they triumph at the end. However.

My copy of Falconer’s Lure (the third Marlow book) has a foreword by Forest in which she describes some of how Autumn Term was conceived.

So I decided on a school story, which, while not being dead dull, would have some contact with real life. No tomboys, no midnight feasts, no life-and-death adventures, no marvellously popular young headmistress, no wise and over-responsible head girl, “beloved of the juniors,” on whom the Headmistress relied. In short, it would be much more like school as I remembered it.

This is an interesting statement to keep in mind as one reads. Because despite Autumn Term‘s adherance to the structure of many other school stories it does feel truer to life. The authorities are fallible, the main characters are flawed, justice is not always done. But far more interesting to me is the undercurrent of self-reflexivity about the genre that runs through the book and (to a lesser extent, perhaps?) Forest’s other books set in Kingscote. It’s not unusual for characters in school stories to talk about the difference between ‘real life’ and ‘school stories’ – in this genre the characters are often readers of books within the genre. But the constant shifting of register between “if this were a school story, X would happen” and the world that the characters live in is, I think, unusual. Take this moment when Nicola, new to the school, encounters Unsporting Behaviour of the sort that would be condemned in many school stories.

It didn’t matter so fearfully, thought Nicola, arguing with herself all down the flights of stairs. Sometimes if you were asked unexpectedly you couldn’t be absolutely truthful; and over a thing like this it would sound so silly to say, Oh, I forgot, actually I picked them in Aunt Edith’s garden. Besides, it wasn’t as though someone were being Falsely Accused… Because of course, if it should become important to know who had picked the pears…then, of course, thought Nicola in relief, then of course Tim would get up and say: I did it. Feeling positively light-hearted Nicola skipped down the rest of the stairs.

Nicola reacts by recasting Tim’s lie in terms that would be acceptable in a traditional school story. Only once she has done this is she able to feel okay about it. Tim herself is dismissive of the school story – of her father’s friendship with Mr Todd she says that “One fagged for the other, or they blacked each other’s eyes or something equally touching”.

And then there’s Lois Sanger (who would be the villain of the piece except that her thought processes as depicted by Forest are so believable) who casts herself within the school story narrative and manages to believe the stories she tells.

‘Before every match, she jumps the last three steps and pretends to sprain her ankle. Then if she plays badly she can say she wasn’t feeling up to it, and we’re all expected to say: Awfully sportin’ of you, old girl, to make the effort.’

(Author’s note: I also have a dodgy ankle, and in the past if I’ve tripped or stumbled embarrassingly I’ve blamed it on the ankle to save face. Not quite the same thing, but once you admit that an acknowledged injury can get you out of awkward situations…)

Then there’s the joy of characters who read. I’ll be talking about this more in the later books, but I love that even Lawrie (the rather ditzy, self-absorbed Marlow sister) is a reader – it’s she who suggests that their guide patrol should be called The Scarlet Pimpernels. Tim quotes Macbeth as if this were the sort of thing that people normally did, though we know the Marlow twins have not read it (“Nicola and Lawrie were vague on this point but they looked as intelligent as possible”).

Then there’s the fact that Forest sees it as quite acceptable to slip Latin into things. “The day itself. ‘Dies ipse,’ thought Tim, hoping it might sound less ominous in Latin, but finding that it only sounded uncomfortably like ‘dies irae,’ so…” I suspect in 1948 this was a bit less alien than it is now – though learning Latin at school would, I assume, be a marker of class? I did not learn Latin at school and I think when I came across it in books as a child I just skipped over it.

One last thing about Autumn Term; an exchange between Lois and Tim towards the end. Tim has asked Lois (who is a senior) to be the narrator for a play the Third Remove are doing; in the course of the conversation she reveals that she thinks the involvement of a senior will keep the staff from interfering. Lois “thought, with a faintly uneasy twitch of nerves, that Tim’s mental processes and her own were not unalike. And it was disconcerting and not too pleasant to hear it done aloud.” My reaction to this is purely personal – and perhaps Forest would think I was a young criminal – but I’ve always felt rather pleased to hear it done aloud.

 

 

November 12, 2011

Reading (and rereading) Antonia Forest

 

I don’t remember how old I was (eight or nine, judging from memories of where I read it) when I first found a copy of Antonia Forest’s End of Term. It was secondhand, and the last few pages were missing but it was one of those big childhood literary milestones. Because with Forest I was exposed to a sort of interiority of thought that I’d never seen before – it was a sudden understanding (obviously one already knew this on an intellectual level) of the realness of the insides of other people’s heads. And there were a couple of scenes that I remembered long afterward, when I’d forgotten the title and the author.  My copy of the book disappeared when we moved to India and I would not read it again for many years.

I’d read quite a few of Forest’s books out of libraries but the next time I owned one was in 2009 and it was End of Term again. A friend in Dublin discovered it in a pile of free books. I had to give up a lovely old copy of The Big Sleep in exchange, but it was worth it. A few months afterwards I used my M.Phil as an excuse to buy Autumn Term. Last year my then boyfriend decided to hunt down the books I did not have for my birthday – quite possibly the best present I will ever receive. I now own all of her books except the historicals:

The book which seems to be emitting light of its own accord is _Run Away Home_

(A very fuzzy picture of my Forest books)

Most of Forest’s books (all of those pictured above except for The Thursday Kidnapping) are about the Marlows, a large family composed of mostly girls. The most well-known of these are the four school stories, set at the girls’ school Kingscote. But ten Marlow books has never felt like enough, and while fanfiction has provided some excellent additions to the story, Forest isn’t that widely known an author. So I am both nervous and excited by the publication (by Girls Gone By press, without whom I would never have found affordable copies of some of these books) of Antonia Forest’s Kingscote: Spring Term by Sally Hayward. My copy has just shipped, and I’m taking this opportunity to do something I’ve never done before: in the coming weeks I’ll be reading and writing about all of the Marlow books in order. I hope this will be fun even for those of you who have never read Forest’s work.

I’ll also be linking to the posts here as they are written:

Autumn Term
The Marlows and the Traitor
Falconer’s Lure
End of Term
Peter’s Room
 
 
 
June 19, 2011

Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley Confidential

Somewhere in my blog drafts there exists a post about sequels (particularly when they come a few years later, and/or are by different authors) as a form of literary criticism – in that they generally comment in some way upon the original text. This being my blog I was illustrating this with reference to the Pamela Cox Malory Towers/St Clare’s sequels and fillers. Some day I must see about finishing it. But this is what makes sequels inherently interesting to me (and is also a big reason for my championing fanfiction, but that’s another post).

I’m also deeply fond of the Sweet Valley High books. We have a long history together – I bought my first at the airport when I moved from England to India; I got into trouble at school a couple of years later with a certain teacher who thought she ought to be allowed to dictate what I read; I bonded with wonderful people (like the brilliant Anna) over them.
Recently I reviewed Sweet Valley Confidential, the ten-years-later sequel to the Sweet Valley High books. The review was here in last week’s TSG. The unedited version is below – I did think of putting some of my reactions while reading it up here, but the only point at which they really got funny was my outrage at Lila Fowler’s boob job (should I have put a spoiler warning here?). I will eventually put up a plot synopsis in crayon, though.

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There’s a sense in which all adaptations, sequels, and even fanfiction of a work of literature or film function as a kind of critical appraisal. This is inevitable –each of these requires commentary on and interpretation of the original work. So a “ten years after” sequel to a successful franchise, years after the franchise has run its course, and by the woman who created the characters and setting yet didn’t actually write the books, has the potential to be far more interesting than the book itself would indicate.

The Sweet Valley High series (along with its various spinoffs; Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University, and others) was conceived of by Francine Pascal. At the centre of the series were the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, beautiful and identical but with opposite personalities. The new sequel, Sweet Valley Confidential, revisits the same characters ten years later.

A sequel to the Sweet Valley books was never going to follow any sort of internal consistency. This would be impossible; while the original series allegedly took place when the twins were 16, the books existed in that strange suspended time as do a lot of long series. Multiple birthdays and Christmases passed without aging the characters in the slightest. All this means that Sweet Valley Confidential is able to pick and choose its history and it does so seemingly at random.

In this book the twins are estranged. Elizabeth works as a theatre critic in New York, cut off from her family. After a disastrous marriage to a jealous millionaire, Jessica is engaged to Elizabeth’s former boyfriend Todd.

The original readers of the Sweet Valley High books are all in their twenties and thirties now, and presumably well aware of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series. So, it seems, is Pascal herself. It’s hard to imagine why anyone who hadn’t read the original series would pick this book up, and this knowledge allows Pascal to do more with the book than she could otherwise have done. The book is full of snarky references to the original series. It’s never outright parody, but there’s an arch knowingness to it – a signalling to the readers that both she and they know this is all very silly. A scene in which the twins’ mother is reduced to growling “bring out the fucking cake” is hilarious entirely because of its incongruity with the original series. At times the tone is outright sarcastic:

It was a fun wedding. Not a whole lot different from any Sweet Valley High dance, which, as everyone knows, is not a whole lot different from real life.

The book ends with an epilogue of the “where are they now” variety, in which we are given potted histories of characters who were not mentioned in the book itself. This is blatant fan service, but then, so is the whole book.

At times the mocking allusiveness can be genuinely uncomfortable. In veiled references that would be lost to anyone who didn’t remember the original books, Pascal reminds us of an attempted date rape and a false accusation of sexual assault that took place between couples who (in this book) are now living happily ever after.

The knowing tone is unpleasant, but it is not consistently maintained. At some points this seems a genuinely unironic sequel –the twins are still flawlessly beautiful and talented, fat people are still anathema, and everyone is still the same person he or she was in high school.

Then there’s the sheer badness of it all. Jessica’s ditziness is indicated by the dropping of anachronistic (Sweet) Valley girl “likes” into everything she says. Then there’s the sex; it’s odd enough to see characters from one’s childhood having sex, but Pascal makes it all quite needlessly terrible; in the first chapter Elizabeth’s heartbreak is so profound that “[s]he cried after every orgasm”. Or this, rather happier encounter:

When they made love, it was completely loving, full of such deep tenderness that the passion almost played second to the adoration.

But the passion was there, and once the love had been established, the excitement took over and spun them out into the wild reaches of the glorious.

At last Elizabeth knew the splendid, the marvelous, the amazing, the spectacular!

The over the top!

Over the top indeed.

Read without reference to the rest of the series, Sweet Valley Confidential is merely a bad book. With the knowledge of the context behind it, however, it is awkward, uncomfortable, and depressing. One can only hope that the forthcoming Sweet Valley High movie, to be scripted by Diablo Cody, is less painful.

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I do have questions. With the option of cherrypicking her series history, Pascal could so easily have not included the attempted daterape or the false accusation – just as she chose to ignore Jessica and Todd’s multiple affairs over the course of the series. Things like this make me wonder if the book is more thought out than it appears – which doesn’t stop it from being shite, but still.
May 1, 2011

Jo Walton, Among Others

I mentioned recently that my reading this year had become focused on books about books. One of the reasons (probably the biggest) for this is that I read Jo Walton’s Among Others a couple of months ago. A short review of it appeared here, in yesterday’s Indian Express.

A version of that piece below:

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Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn’t matter.

A teenaged girl with friends among the fairies fights her mother, a powerful and evil witch. Though she triumphs and saves the world, she loses her sister and receives a permanent injury.
But this is not the story of Among Others. When Walton’s book opens, what might in other stories be considered the main action of the plot has already taken place. Mori Phelps has already escaped her mother and faced her sister’s death. She must now find her place among others – her English father’s family (Mori is Welsh) and the girls at her boarding school. Sexual awakening, an increased understanding of gender dynamics and the perils of family are all things she must learn to negotiate.

These issues – adolescence, finding a place in the world, learning to engage with others, recognising how the world works, dealing with loss – all seem far removed from the world of epic battles between good and evil. Walton based aspects of Among Others on events from her own life, and it reads as an authentic account of growing up. What makes it unusual is that Mori’s engagement with the world around her comes through books.
Often these are specific books. At the beginning of the book a character expects her own experience with fairy magic to be similar to The Lord of the Rings. When Mori contemplates going to boarding school she wonders if it will be like the novels of Angela Brazil (it is not). A realisation that her parents have read and discussed some of the same books as her is an early recognition of them as real people. Mori’s gradual realisation of how the sexes are treated differently comes through the way female authors are discussed in her book club, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Others is written for people who read; often references are not explained, but assume the knowledge of the reader. Mori joins a science fiction book club (in a nod to Vonnegut she calls this her “karass”) and has a series of discussions about books. Her views on sexual morality come from Robert Heinlein, then Samuel Delany, and she assumes that James Tiptree Jr. is a man. All of this will delight a reader who grew up in the genre – the book is full of these little shibboleths put there to remind a certain sort of reader of a certain shared cultural experience. Often the emotional impact is massive if you know what is happening; when, towards the end of the book, Walton quotes directly from Tolkien (“Huorns will help”) it is overwhelming.
More than just the books, Among Others is clearly a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy reading community as a whole. But a more general love of reading keeps this accessible to even a person who does not pick up on all of Walton’s references, or share her experiences with science fiction fandom. You don’t need to have read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 to understand that not having finished a good book seems a perfectly adequate reason to stay alive.
Despite all of the book discussions (Among Others is a book about books before it is anything else) the epic fantasy plot does continue in the background. Mori’s mother is a constant, lurking threat that surfaces from time to time, trying to break into her new life. If her frequent intrusions seem a bit incidental, this is because they are. Though there is a showdown at the end, it is never really the focus of the book; real living happens in the gaps that big narratives leave, and in the long stretches before and after the main plot, and this too is a comment on literature. (Subtly done but very present is another quest – to save the elms of the world from Dutch Elm disease. Saving trees: Tolkien would have approved.)

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Walton was also kind enough to answer a few questions I had. I’ll be putting that short interview on the blog as well.
April 4, 2011

Susan Coolidge, Clover

Look, I’ve tried. I’ve read the three Katy books, I’ve read Clover, and I just don’t get Susan Coolidge. Clover was my out-of-copyright book for review at the Kindle Magazine this month.

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Most Indian children of my generation grew up reading English children’s books. This has changed to a great extent since. But even back in our time there were a few classics from North America that found their way into our libraries. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Daddy-Long-Legs (discussed last month in these pages) were among them. Also in this little group of recommended classics were Susan Coolidge’s Katy books.

There were three Katy books: What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. I was not a fan of any of them.
What Katy does, if I remember correctly, is to go from being an absolutely normal child to a plaster saint. This is because she injures her back, and over years spent in the “school of pain” and unable to walk learns to be good and virtuous and motherly. When she goes to school in the next book, she continues to be a very good girl, and despite the inclusion of a few amusing side characters (I do not include the excruciatingly whimsical “Rose Red”) it’s all very dull. In the third book she is taken on a trip to Europe where she is once again good and cheerful, nurses a sick child, and attracts a husband by showing herself to be nicer than her more attractive cousin. This would be quite a satisfying story if Katy had any personality at all.
I only learnt recently that there were two more Katy books, Clover and In The High Valley, and that Clover (published in 1888) at least was considered better than the rest. Both were out of print and available for many years. Clover is Katy’s younger sister and the book focuses on her coming to terms with her sister’s marriage. A large chunk of the book is taken up with this wedding, complete with a visit from Rose Red plus one child who lisps in a way that the author probably thought was adorable (I cannot agree). One of Clover’s brothers falls ill and she accompanies him on his convalescence to Colorado where she goes sightseeing in canyons and accumulates suitors.
If Clover is better than the Katy books, the improvement is in the scenery. Coolidge seems to like Colorado, and some of the descriptions of trips are rather lovely. There’s also a strain of humour in the form of the passive-aggressive Mrs Watson who has been invited along to help Clover, yet seems to think things should be the other way around.
Unfortunately, Clover is even less of a person than Katy was. With Katy, one at least had a vague memory of her careless youth; Clover appears to have been saintly throughout. There’s nothing quite as unappealing as a flawless person.
I confess myself defeated where Coolidge is concerned. There must be something about her to make so many people claim to have loved the books in their childhoods, and certainly Clover is considered a particularly good example of her work among those who have read it. Clearly I am missing something, and if so I am missing it in all of Coolidge’s work. I don’t think I will be reading In the High Valley.

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If you’re deeply fond of Coolidge, do feel free to express outrage or explain why.