Archive for ‘school story’

April 19, 2019

Swapna Dutta, Juneli’s First Term, Juneli at Avila’s, An Exciting Term

(I wrote most of this last year and for some reason abandoned it in draft form. Recently I read another series of girls’ school stories from India, and thought that before I wrote about them I should probably finish this. Expect that other piece soon or, judging by my current form, within the next year or so.)

 

We moved to Delhi (from a village in the north of England) when I was ten, and I lost a number of my old books in the move. I was, however, allowed a new book each weekend (which seemed riches at the time, even though I generally finished them in a couple of hours on the Saturday), and usually this was whichever (Armada edition) Chalet School story I could find in the local bookshop. Some adults would hear that I liked school stories and ask me if I’d read the Juneli stories, which had been serialised in Children’s World in the ’70s and ’80s. I hadn’t, and at this point in the mid-’90s they were out of print (in recent years they’ve become available as ebooks); and in any case, though I wouldn’t have articulated it that way at the time, I was a bit suspicious of the results of bodily transporting genres across continents. At least some of this was probably a prejudice against Indian fiction in general, coupled with that (by now well-worn) trope of readers brought up with the literature of the global north not thinking books with brown kids in them were quite real.

This was particularly baseless in the context of my own inter-continental move. In England, I’d attended a state school a short walk from my own house, far removed from the sorts of institutions I’d been reading about. In India, I was at a big private school, with much stricter rules about uniforms and an actual house system. Before I left the UK, I’d told a friend (and fellow school story reader) that I was going to a school with prefects, a house system and a head boy and girl and she was as entertained by this as I was—to both of us these seemed concepts out of fiction rather than real life. Because if Indian children of my generation (and that of my parents) and social circumstances (read: class, caste, etc) grew up reading English genre fiction because of the colonial history that made that fiction culturally available to us, we also grew up in educational institutions that were partly modelled on British ones. (And it’s probably irrelevant to this post [but nonetheless true] that those British institutions were themselves created in an imperial context and were shaped by that colonial history and those relations of power.)

The characters in Dutta’s Juneli books have read the same school stories as I have—and of course Dutta has herself. There’s a long tradition in the school story (as with some other forms of particularly trope-y genre fiction; detective fiction often does it too) of continually referring back to the genre within the plot; for example having the new girl, whose point of view the reader is most likely to share, come to boarding school for the first time and compare it to the schools she’s read of in fiction. (Antonia Forest has a particularly good version of this.) Juneli arrives at Avila’s with a head full of the Chalet School and Malory Towers, having inherited a huge trunk of girls’ own fiction from her mother—when she mentions these series titles, her friend Ritu points out the differences between their own setting, Brent-Dyer’s Austrian Tyrol and Blyton’s Cornwall, revealing that she too knows these books well. What the books insist on, however, is a sort of commonality of schoolgirl experience that transcends time and borders–this is something that Dutta herself suggests in the forewords to the ebook editions, claiming that while she based Avila’s on her own school, readers from a variety of backgrounds have found the characters and situations familiar, and “basically people–including schoolgirls–are the same everywhere”. This may well be true, but in this genre it’s particularly hard to disentangle the shared experience from the shared literature. Soon after Juneli joins the school, a classmate neatly maps the major characters from Malory Towers onto their classmates; the one who’s good at drawing (Ina/Belinda), the vain, spoiled one (Balbinder, whose peers even call her Gwendoline Mary after the Blyton character), and so on.

Part of the reason the Juneli books are satisfying as school stories is because they are so familiar, hitting every trope. In the first book there are guides, midnight revelries, a subplot in which Juneli is Falsely Accused, a daring rescue in which our heroine saves the life of another girl, and a version of the plot of (Elsie Oxenham’s) The Girls of the Hamlet Club, in which a group of girls, left out of other school activities, form a club of their own and eventually have to step in and save the school after the cast of the school play falls sick. I’m not accusing Dutta of being derivative here, so much as suggesting that the genre is often built on a series of set pieces that are instantly recognisable to fans. The second book in the series has an undeserving head girl elected on the basis of her popularity–another plotline I’m sure I’ve read before, but the only instance I can remember is in one of the Naughtiest Girl in the School sequels (by Anne Digby), published long after these stories. It’s only through Juneli’s interference that the misguided headgirl doesn’t re-enact another existing plotline (see: EBD’s New Chalet School, EJO’s The Two Form Captains), where the Bad Girl is off doing something fun and disobedient and is thus not on hand to go to the bedside of a dying parent. The third book has the entire school move to an ancient fort at the last minute and thus provides a fantastic setting for an adventure story involving disinherited young women, cryptic directions that lead to treasure, and a gang of thieves. There are even hilarious domestic science mishaps of the sort that, in Brent-Dyer, are inevitably in a chapter titled “A Little Cookery”.

campfireUnfortunately, the books inherit some of the less pleasant parts of the genre as well. I have read a lot of British girls’ school stories about the camp fire movement (thanks, Elsie Oxenham), and I’m made really uncomfortable by the romanticised/fetishised version of Native American cultures that seems to underpin them–I don’t know how central this was to the American movement, or if it was exaggerated as an embarrassing side effect of its adoption by British writers. (There’s nothing about British school stories’ portrayal of American history that isn’t bizarre to me–there’s a moment in Brent-Dyer’s Rivals of the Chalet School in which the girls decide to play at being the Ku Klux Klan and somehow fans of the genre have just ignored this and gone about our daily ways.) It’s possible that Dutta’s portrayal (in Juneli at Avila’s) of an episode in which Juneli and her fellow girl guides put on “beads and coloured feathers,” and act out bits of Hiawatha is a nod to that tradition. On the other hand, I know very little about Guides in India in the 70s; it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that they thought dressing up as “Red Indians” and prancing about was a fun way to spend time. I started reading school stories in the early 1990s and at that point (unless my childhood was extremely unusual) the idea that parodying other cultures was in poor taste was pretty mainstream, and it’s even more unpleasant to read now.

In addition, there’s the apparent willingness to mock characters for their weight or lack of athletic ability (in school stories as in life, the two are often unfairly conflated). This is all realistic enough–girls at school are as capable of cruelty and bullying as anyone else–but when in all other respects Juneli herself is treated as ideal (good, honourable, kind, etc), her willingness to participate in things like fat shaming suggests that the book itself endorses (or at least thinks nothing of) this behaviour.

Which is to say, reading these books was like reading any other school story–familiar, entertaining, and often jarring with the reminder that my values are not those of the genre’s earliest authors. In a series so relatively recent, I wish that this were not still the case.

September 18, 2016

Alice Pung, Laurinda

I only discovered a few days ago (when I saw the Reading While White review of the book) that Alice Pung’s Laurinda had been retitled Lucy and Linh in its American edition. My own copy of the book is the Black Inc/Penguin version that was available (in kindle form, at least) in the UK–as ever, I’m unsure whether this means it would have been eligible for the Carnegie award or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this title change, and to talk about my ambivalence I am going to have to give away certain plot elements (I don’t think most people who read this blog care about spoilers, but just in case: Spoiler Warning).

The novel is written in epistolatory form from Lucy Lam to someone named Linh. Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager of Teochew ancestry, and she has grown up in a working class suburb of Melbourne. She has been attending a local Catholic school, but wins a scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an old, exclusive private school. From the beginning, she’s a bit ambivalent about the scholarship, which she really did not expect to win–it may mean a better future, but it also means leaving her friends behind. Linh, we’re given to understand, is one of those friends.

It is probably clear from “we’re given to understand” that this isn’t really true. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that Lucy and Linh have been the same person all along; that the letters are a form of mediation between the two sides of our protagonist’s life.

Which is fine; the trick of allowing your readers to frame the narrative in a particular way and then undermining those assumptions at the end can be really effective–I’m thinking of books like Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, or Gene Kemp’s Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. An attentive reader who has read this sort of thing before and has some sense of what to look for may begin to suspect not very far into the book that there’s a reason we’ve got a much clearer sense of Lucy’s other friends than of Linh (who is seemingly her closest friend). But even for a pretty experienced reader of This Sort of Thing, Laurinda presents a bit of a challenge. An example, from early in the book. Lucy and her friends have come out of the scholarship exam, and are discussing the final essay question:

Suddenly, Tully turned towards you. “What did you write about, Linh?”
You just laughed. “Something stupid.”
[a page or two later]
For some reason, the picture in the exam paper had reminded me of my mother, so I’d written about her. If the other girls had asked, I would have told them. But somehow I did not want to share this with Tully.

“If the other girls had asked” is doing some good work here–allowing for both “the other girls in Lucy’s group,” and “the other girls, except Tully, with whom she does not want to share this.”

Moments like this are really cleverly done–at other points, it’s still not clear to me to what extent Lucy is imagining herself as separate from Linh; whether some of the difficulty in working it out is from inconsistency rather than skillful elision. But I think the concealment of Linh’s identity does add something to the book– and it’s something quite disconcerting. For much of the book Lucy is talking about the split in her life between her working class suburb and family, and Laurinda’s posh whiteness, and the level of performance that survival at the school entails. It’s all too easy to map this split onto Lucy and Linh, but then we’re left with the possibility that Lucy, with whom we’ve spent the duration of the book, is only half of the complete person we’ve let ourselves think we’re seeing; that we are part of the audience to whom she must perform. And you then go back through the book, wondering to what extent things are being framed to suit our expectations of the narrative (and you remind yourself that voices aren’t that neatly split across people, and whether it’s possible to write as Linh at all without some Lucy slipping in). I wonder to what extent the reframing caused by changing the title then changes this experience–if by giving Linh equal weight in the title, the reader is led to focus more on her role, and what that does to the book’s playing around with the reader’s assumptions. (I also don’t know if the book has been edited and/or changed in other ways for its American edition, so this speculation may be meaningless.)

But my other reservation about the changed title is a personal one–that it shifts the focus from the school.

I became interested in reading Laurinda because it was a school story. (Pause for regular readers of this blog to roll their eyes.) It’s a school story because it’s set in a school and is about a student’s experiences of that school, but I don’t know if Pung is a fan of the school story genre; Laurinda doesn’t obviously position itself in dialogue with that tradition (in the way that, say, Robin Stevens’s books do), but that needn’t mean she isn’t familiar with it.

Here are some tropes of the school story: the new student who comes to the school and has to familiarise herself with its structure and ethos; the scholarship student who, despite being poorer than the rest, shows herself to be as worthy as them and triumphs in the end; the bad prefects who are exposed so that things are put right. Intentional or not (perhaps some of these tropes are just inherent to the setting), Laurinda ends up negotiating exactly these situations, but in complex, and (if you’re already interested in school stories) fascinating ways. Arriving at the school, Lucy finds that her background has not made it that easy for her to prove her worth–there are things that are taught differently, or better, here than in her old school; there are cultural shibboleths that will continuously mark her as an outsider. More, her outsiderness itself will be weaponised in ways she hadn’t anticipated–by the well-meaning white woman who wants her for a protégée, the popular kids, and most importantly, by the institution itself. She learns that she is expected to perform her role as (poor, ethnic minority) scholarship student in ways that are sufficiently palatable to those around her as well as making the institution look good. The book’s big climatic moment is not the one where Lucy and Linh finally merge to tell the powerful girls of the Cabinet to fuck off, it’s later, when Lucy gives a speech that proves that she’s finally understood her place in this system, has understood how far she can go without being crushed by the institution; how to accept that she is being manipulated and to manipulate it right back.

Because throughout her year at the school, both in her interactions with the principal and with the Cabinet, Lucy has been receiving an education in power. The Cabinet, whose mastery over the student body means that they can hurt others for fun and escape any consequences (“Because Amber was crying so much, Gina could not” is one of the most succinct descriptions of a particular sort of power play as you’re ever likely to see), befriend Lucy because she makes them look better, discard her when she is insufficiently teachable, and attempt to co-opt her once more when she has learnt to play the game. But the Cabinet become negligible as Lucy begins to understand their role in the institution as a whole. In the traditional school story, morality emanates from the institution itself, and the head of the school is unfailingly good. It’s Mrs Grey, the principal, whom Lucy “finally [accords] the respect she was due,” and who is in a position to see that Lucy has become “this true Laurindan who now layered her words with care and cunning.” Mrs Grey and Lucy understand Laurinda (and the world of which it is a part) and are in that sense allies–but this isn’t a happy ending. The corrupt prefects (the Cabinet come as close to this as anything) will not be reformed, and Lucy will not triumph, because they are part of a system that is already working as it is intended to.

I was prepared to be disappointed by Laurinda because so many of its early scenes document the sort of racist microaggressions that are designed to make white readers go “oh wow I never thought of that before!” and move on; the sort of thing that already feels like a cliché (though now that I’ve come around to the book, I want to defend these moments by pointing out that its young adult readers may not have reached the point of thinking these clichéd yet). I’m glad that the book turned out to be so much more, that its depictions of power and its workings are this incisive and this ruthless. And I’m still going to read it as a school story.

 

March 1, 2016

Bhimrao Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why/The Strange Haunting of Model High School/On the tip of a pin was …

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why

This was one of the picture books on the Hindu/Goodbooks shortlist, and has text by Sowmya Rajendran, who’s generally reliable.

20160301_232322-1I think, considering the title, that it’s interesting that at no point during the book is Ambedkar shown to ask “why”. In fact, apart from asking his parents when he can go to school, at the beginning of the book, and telling a station master that he and his siblings are Mahars somewhere in the middle, he doesn’t speak at all. I don’t (I think) mean to suggest that the book silences him—no one else speaks either, and the whole thing feels more reported than anything else. I don’t know what the effects of this might be. But if Ambedkar isn’t shown asking the question, the book itself does—at various points as the text and art (by Gade) depicts a bad situation in its protagonist’s life, there’s a big “WHY?” across the page. I wonder if, going by the title, you could make a case that the book’s identification with Ambedkar is so complete that its whys are his own. (I’m reasonably sure you could not.)

I like to think of children who are learning to read being exposed early on to an abridged life of Ambedkar, but I’m not sure this is the best or most artistically interesting of those I’ve seen. But then, I don’t really know how to talk about picture books, so it’s possible that I’m missing obvious, wonderful things.

 

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School (illustrations by Svabhu Kohli)

[Full disclosure: the publishers are my former employers; I don't know who the editors were but it's possible that they're friends and former colleagues.]

I had a gleeful yay school story! moment when I started reading this one. I know Jai liked it, and I mostly do too—it’s set in a well-regarded girls’ school in Bombay, and features a production of Annie, ghosts, attractive boys from the school next door, and an evil teacher scheming to take over from the current principal. There are annoyances—one of the protagonists tends to burst into song at random (like Lord of the Rings, it’s usually best to skip over these moments); there’s a class Fat Girl; some of the prose is questionable (emotions “slosh” around the insides of the characters; and why is everyone wearing multiple leotards?). But then there’s Mrs Rangachari.

Mrs Rangachari is both fantastic in her own right and a general symbol of what this book does particularly well. She’s larger than life and evil, in the way that, say, Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull is evil (and without the underlying gendered badness of that depiction). She hates happiness, she’s greedy and vindictive and power hungry, she’s willing to scheme and indulge in ridiculous, over the top plots to get what she wants (power). And yet, her evil is expressed in familiar, knowable ways—the excuses she finds for her anger are based in class (how dare Lara be poor and clever and successful) and Indian Culture (the delighted horror at the girls she wants to get in trouble befriending boys). (Tangentially, you should read Amulya Gopalakrishnan on auntyhood.) And the (or one) result of this is to remind you that this is a school where, as is true of so many well-regarded schools in Indian metropolises, skirts and tunics “must be worn three fingers below the knee” (true of my own old school, before it was decided that skirts of any length were too dangerous to our morals) , fraternising with boys is strictly discouraged, and everyone but Lara is rich.

There’s a moment early on, immediately after we’ve learnt about the skirt length rule, when we learn that “Monitors can conduct the finger test at all times”. Probably any connection between this three finger test and the much more notorious two finger test is a bit of a stretch,  and I don’t (entirely) mean to suggest that the book is a scathing indictment of the ways in which culture and tradition and class are used in schools to target girls and systemically harass, slut shame, and generally make the world a lot worse, but more than in most books set in schools I think those ideas are present.

 

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …

Not really that recent—the first edition of this picture book was published in 2009. But it describes itself on the back as “sci-fi”, and I was never not going to read it. Like How to Weigh an Elephant (also by Dharmarajan, also published by Katha) it ends with a child-friendly description of the science involved.

The plot is rather incoherent—there20160301_231951-1-1‘s a village on the tip of a pin (Pintipur, obviously), populated by children, and also by a group of animals. All of the animals have their faults, but worm, for reasons that are unclear, is the worst. She “had races with herself to see if she could dig the deepest, the longest, the straightest holes … across the village and over the moon and the stars and the sun and the clouds”. And so she keeps disappearing in space and time and annoying everyone. Until they discover the village on the head of the pin (Pintopur), and learn that wormholes mean travel to other worlds, which is cool. Then everyone has space adventures.

I don’t know if any scientists were involved in the making of On the tip of a pin was …, and I don’t know that it’s so much SF as it is surreal. Which is fine, probably—adventures in time and space should be weird and incoherent and fractured and disproportionately sized (Goat, one of the animals, seems to cause solar and lunar eclipses on a regular basis because he’s so large) and it all feels perfectly reasonable and a far better explanation for wormholes than the explanation at the end.

July 31, 2014

Robin Stevens, Murder Most Unladylike

I bought Stevens’ book about ten minutes after I’d discovered its existence (via Daisy Johnson and Farah Mendlesohn, who both had good-to-gleeful things to say about it). So obvious was it that it was for me that a friend asked if I was sure I hadn’t written it myself. I hadn’t, I’m not good at fiction.

Part of the reason this was such a wonderful discovery is that I’ve been in a school story murder mystery mood for a few months now. I reread the Blake and Crispin books mentioned below, two Gladys Mitchell books (I discuss Tom Brown’s Body below. Laurels Are Poison does not have a non-white student; it does have an Amusing Black Servant. Fun times!), and Gaudy Night. And earlier this year I read Missee Lee, which is not a murder mystery or a school story, but which also has that incongruous figure, the brown student who worships everything English and tries so hard. And I cringed a bit when Hazel speaks about her family’s obsession with England; it’s heavy and unsubtle and one of the few places the book slips up for me. But for the rest of the book, the ways in which Hazel does not fit that stock character type came as such a relief.

Plus, how nice to have a prominent character (okay, the murder victim, but she wasn’t murdered for this reason at least?) be bisexual, and have no one within the book’s universe be surprised or puzzled.

From this weekend’s column.

 

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I am a very limited crime fiction reader, and I know what I like. Amateur detectives, not much gore, a focus instead on the web of individual human dramas that make up the small community (golden age detective fiction is very fond of small communities) and a comparatively low stakes (though not for the victims, presumably) approach to murder. There’s a reason they call more modern iterations of this genre “cosy crime”. It’s soup on a cold day, or an airconditioned room in summer; at least as far as any of these comforting things can be built upon violent death.

For the lover of school stories (and readers of this column know that I am one), the detective novel set in a school or college is particularly magical. And so much great crime fiction has this setting. There’s Edmund Crispin’s wonderful Love Lies Bleeding (which combines crime, a school setting and Shakespeare and therefore almost deserves a genre of its own); Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. John Le Carré ventures partway into the genre with A Murder of Quality. The first of Cecil Day-Lewis’ Nigel Strangeways novels, A Question of Proof, has a school setting as well. And I have a fondness for Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons and Val McDermid’s Report For Murder, even if neither of these is an example of either author’s best work.

But most of these authors belong to an earlier time, and reading them today it’s hard not to notice that it was apparently a time in which casual racism was acceptable, the working classes are fundamentally slack-jawed and superstitious, and if occasionally a character is not upper-class or white, the reader is very quickly made to wish they were. I recently read some of Gladys Mitchell’s classic crime novels; the “African prince” in Tom Brown’s Body has an unfortunate habit of biting opposing footballers due to his ancestry.

And then there’s Murder Most Unladylike, the first in a modern series of crime novels for younger readers by Robin Stevens. Set in 1934 (but published in 2014), it follows the adventures of thirteen year old boarding school detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, after Hazel finds the body of one of their teachers in (where else?) the gymnasium. Both Stevens and her characters are very genre-conscious; early in the book we learn that the girls have been reading Agatha Christie and Margery Allingham, and we will discover that Hazel is a school story reader as well. The whole thing opens with one of those terribly useful floor plans, and we have all the school politics and crushes and annoying juniors of an Angela Brazil book. The references to earlier literature are sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle enough to be in-jokes. More than once I laughed out loud in recognition.

But it’s unfair to Stevens to treat this merely as a pastiche of two genres, and it’s where she deviates from them that Murder Most Unladylike is at its best. Because Hazel, our narrator, is from Hong Kong (she is, as far as we can tell, the only non-white pupil at Deepdean school); she’s clever and pretends not to be; she has a complicated relationship with her overbearing, popular best friend. This is about as far as it’s possible to be from Gladys Mitchell’s African prince, or the Hurree Jamset Ram Singh of the Billy Bunter books—or even Christie’s precocious Princess Shaista. Stevens’s depiction of Hazel’s cultural background is sometimes clumsy, but it always acknowledges her as more than a stock character, and depicts a world in which casual racism exists and affects those who are its targets. It’s unlikely that most of the target audience for this book will recognise these deviations from a pattern with which they are not yet familiar, but they mattered to me. In more ways than one, Murder Most Unladylike felt like being given a place in a genre (two genres) that I love.

 

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Apparently Stevens’ next book in the series is a country house murder. Which, as far as I’m concerned, just proves that she is writing for me.

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 30, 2012

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

I tend to think I’m not harsh enough on most things I review, but have recently been made aware that this is not an opinion shared by everyone. So for last week’s column I went with a book I could gush about – either from laziness or from a sort of see? see? I don’t hate everything! instinct.

 

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Perhaps there’s nothing quite as tedious as the enthusiast. I have pressed Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies into the hands of friends, accosted them and demanded to read bits out to them, and generally conducted myself in a way that would alarm anyone. Some of them eventually read it, cowed into submission, and have admitted that it is marvellous. But this is not enough. I still mutter angrily about its inexcusable exclusion from the Booker shortlist in the year in which it was published (it did make the longlist) and its failure to win the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize for comic writing. It’s just not right.

During a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht, Daniel “Skippy” Juster falls to the restaurant floor. He manages to write his last words (“tell Lori”) on the floor, using jam from a doughnut, before he dies.

The title of Paul Murray’s book reads like a massive plot spoiler (Skippy dies, Bruce Willis is a ghost, Darth Vader is Luke’s father) but the death that gives Skippy Dies its name takes place at the very beginning of the story.

Skippy and Ruprecht are students at Dublin’s prestigious Seabrook College school. Ruprecht’s main interest is science; Skippy’s is Lori, a beautiful, unattainable girl from a nearby school. Murray takes us through the last weeks of Skippy’s life and the fallout of his death. The book is divided into three volumes – Hopeland and Heartland focus on Skippy and on another character, the colourless history teacher Howard “the Coward”. Ghostland, the final volume, takes place entirely after Skippy’s death and focuses on Ruprecht’s attempts at dealing with the loss of his best friend. Skippy Dies is a school story (at least it draws on the genre) and a tragedy, but it’s something else as well;  a vast, weird story that brings together such disparate elements as string theory, druids, action figures, pop music and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

It seems odd that a book about a death should have been nominated for a comic writing prize. But Murray delights in language and takes a particularly Wodehousean joy in metaphor. So we have Father Green (once known to his French –learning students as “Pere Vert”) who travels about with “two or three bodies’ worth of empty space around him, as if …accompanied by pitchfork wielding goblins”. As his title character lies dying, Murray tells us that “Doughnuts scatter the ground like little candied wreaths”.

There’s much about Skippy Dies that is joyful – the sex-obsessed schoolboys and the frequently-dreadful puns, and a masterful account of a school concert that literally brings the roof down.

And yet the book never forgets that it is about the death of a child. “The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.”  Murray’s finest achievement is in how he balances the humour and the exuberant language with the tragedy of the horrifying incident that underlies the whole book. Often he shifts swiftly between the two registers, but he’s at his best when he somehow manages to access both at the same time.  An early example of this is a scene in Father Green’s French class in which a student is called upon to explain to the priest some explicit rap lyrics.  This ought to be hilarious and it is, for a while, until it dawns upon us that this boy is breaking down in front of us. Skippy Dies is brutal but never cruel – the concerns of these characters can be trivial or clichéd (Lori’s refuge in sugary pop music; Skippy’s dying wish to tell a girl he barely knows that he loves her) but they are always treated with respect.  We’re not allowed to dismiss these characters. It is this more than anything else that makes the novel emotionally exhausting – it’s also what makes it brilliant.

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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
The Thuggery Affair
 
 
 
 
October 15, 2011

Nayana Currimbhoy, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

I wanted very much to like this more but it felt like a bunch of disparate elements thrown together without enough commitment to really explore any of them. Reviewed for TSG here.

 

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Charulata Apte’s most noticeable feature is a prominent, disfiguring “blot” on her face. She’s also from a seemingly-conservative Marathi family, has a strong “vernacular” accent and is the only Hindu on the staff – all qualities that make her something of an outsider at the very English Miss Timmins’ School in Panchgani. She sets herself even further apart from the rest of the staff when she befriends the other outsider in the school, the games teacher Moira Prince and her bohemian friends.

Then one teacher from the school is thrown off a cliff and another disappears, and the residents of Panchgani find themselves drawn into a bizarre murder mystery.

The story is divided into sections narrated by Charu herself and Nandita, a student at Miss Timmins’.  Nandita’s sections have a familiarity to them that suggests that both the author and her narrator have been reading their Enid Blyton. Most of the time this is deftly done – there is breaking out of bounds, forming of clubs, nicknames for teachers; their crime-solving involves a lot of wild theorising and roaming around hunting for clues. This being boarding school, there are also attempts to use planchette to find the real criminal. Yet all of this has the air of something vaguely alien, taken out of books, just as English isn’t really the first language of either of the narrators. So the nicknames for teachers are never quite clever enough to suggest complete control of the language and Nandita in particular is often guilty of awkward phrasing- “Akhila, Ramona, and I, Nandita, decided to skinge together”. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether the awkwardness is that of the characters or that of Currimbhoy herself – but when the author occasionally comes up with the perfect metaphor (“we kissed each other like two penguins”) one must give her the benefit of the doubt.

But there is a lot more going on in the novel than an unsolved crime. Charu discovers unpleasant family secrets – concerning both her own family and those of her fellow teachers. Broken and dysfunctional families are something of a recurring theme here. Upon discovering that the avuncular local police inspector has marital problems of his own, Charu is forced to wonder if there are “deep dark secrets lodged in the laps of all… families”. If the novel is to be believed, there are.

References to Shakespeare’s  Macbeth are another recurring event in the novel. Charulata is teaching the play to her students, and frequently the landscape of Panchgani is compared to the setting of the play, with one particular set of rocks called the “Witches’ Needle”, and lots of suitably eerie dark and stormy nights.

Much is made of the absurdity of Miss Timmins’ School. It is an anachronism in the seventies, with its emphasis on Scottish dancing, elasticated bloomers and correct skirt length, as well as the preoccupation ‘proper’ English. But while this is all true, the incongruity of such a school in such a context is lessened by the book’s need to tell us why it is absurd.

Currimbhoy’s Panchgani is the real star of this book. The town, with its scandals, rivalries, restaurants and local drug dealer, feels far more real than the school itself. Currimbhoy is gently funny in her depiction of the local inhabitants, for example Mr Blind Irani and Mr Dubash, elderly men who have long, polite arguments using the letters page of the Poona Herald as conduit. Or the local entrepreneur who decides to branch out into making honey and spends eight months trying to get an American magazine on the subject. When it arrives, the magazine Honey is not at all what he expects.

Currimbhoy never falls into the trap of making Charu too wide-eyed or innocent; her experiments with drugs are described in a matter-of-fact manner that is a relief. She chooses not to overplay the contrast between Charu’s comparatively sheltered (from sex and drugs, if not from sordid family secrets) background and the world of her new friends. Perhaps the only moment where this portrayal falters is in the moment where she discovers that she is bisexual and rather tediously insists that she must be “a wanton woman”.

Miss Timmins’  School For Girls’ one great failure is that it touches on multiple genres while failing to take advantage of them. Currimbhoy has all the weight of the mystery, the school story and the coming-of-age novel to draw upon. There’s even the considerable power of Macbeth, should she have chosen to strengthen that connection. She does not. The result is a novel that is almost one of many genres, but somehow falls in the middle to be nothing in particular. Currimbhoy is a good writer, and parts of her novel are fantastic. But a boarding school murder mystery with a lesbian love affair should never be in danger of becoming boring, and this oneoccasionally comes close.

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