Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

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The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

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“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

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Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

Three go to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Three Go to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #24)Three Go to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favourite films is Stagecoach, which stars John Wayne. There’s a shot in this film (which you can see here) that makes John Wayne a star. The camera swings into him with such exuberance, and then when it meets him, it keeps going and ends up framed on that face. This is a director making a star, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I reread Three Go To The Chalet School. This is a book where several big characters debut: Mary-Lou Trelawney, Verity-Ann Carey and Clem Barras, and it’s a book which features several of the landmark incidents of the series. You know the sorts of incidents I mean; they’re the ones that somebody indirectly mentions thirty seven books later and everyone laughs, and you’ve not actually read the book that the original incident occurs in, so you’re just all well whatever …

I’m digressing. Three Go To The Chalet School’s a well told book, and it’s purposeful and direct. A lot of it takes place outside of the school and I rather love that. Much of that also speaks to the calibre of the new characters we’re about to meet; the new girl usually gets a bit of backstory, but that backstory halts when they get to school. This time it doesn’t, and the adults remain constantly present throughout. I rather love that. The more I read these books, the more I start to realise that perhaps the great longevity of them is precisely that constant adult presence. It’s in the way that we see inside the staffroom (was it just me who was fascinated with what went on in there?) and become party to adult discussions. These are school stories, yes, but there’s a whole world in there. But then, isn’t that the girls’ school story genre in a nutshell? That expression of femine power and absolute strength, wielded in a constructed and fiercely delineated space of gender parity and uniquely formed ideology?

The school is the world, always.

One other thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School is how Brent-Dyer handles Joey. Joey, at this point, had undergone something of an awkward transition. Still at school, but not. Mother, lover, schoolgirl, adult, writer. And here, Brent-Dyer sort of manages to relax with her and step away from that awkward effort to pigeonhole a character who denies such easy categorisation. Joey Maynard climbs trees and then goes inside and darns socks. She helps people through deep, lasting trauma and she plays slides on the drawing room floor. It’s rather delightful because it’s so unforced and through that lack of concern, she becomes intensely real.

I lied. There is a final, final thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School and it is a moment right at the end of the book with Clem and Tony Barrass. I won’t outline the situation, just in case you’ve not read in it, but there is a line here that makes me cry, every time. It’s a line borne out of life and living and of hurting, I think, and it reminds me how good Brent-Dyer really really could be.

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Happy birthday Enid Blyton!

Enid Blyton was born on this day in 1897. Happy birthday Enid!

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by Blyton the more I’ve worked on the second chapter of my thesis. I’m considering the changing relationship of children’s literature with landscape; the Arcadian idyll of the Victorian period shifting through to the movements of the post-war period where boundaries were able to be transgressed and challenged … and Enid forms a big part of this discussion.

The more I’ve worked on Malory Towers and St Clare’s, the more I’ve become convinced that Blyton’s texts work in a unique liminality; they talk back to the patriarchal dominance of the age but also, quite subversively, present alternative modes of female existence. Choice, really. And that’s quite the thing to find in an author who is, so often, read as a bastion of gendered problematics. I’m not denying the existence of these problematics but rather asking us to read beyond them in a way…

So happy birthday Enid and, in a slightly Pythonesque manner, here’s a list of facts and other things …

  • Enid Blyton is the fourth most translated author in the world. The three authors above her? Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. (Unesco, 2015).
  • Enid Blyton had 762 books published. Just. Let. That. Sink. In.
  • I suspect popular children’s fiction would be in a very different state today were it not for Blyton. You know those Daisy Meadows books? And similar? Consider what they’d be without the nature of Blyton and the way she showed the voracious appetites of what readers could be….
  • She gave us the Malory Towers swimming pool. Still possibly the best swimming pool in the entirety of children’s fiction. And yes, this is niche, but I’m willing to argue at length about this.
  • The house she once lived in is fabulously surreal.
  • She wrote the weirdest, cagiest, and possibly best author autobiography I’ve ever read.
  • She gave us Anne; one of the most complex and misunderstood female characters ever.
  • She practically defined the idea of ferociously readable writing. Yes, this may have come at the expense of a myriad of other factors, but the woman could write. I don’t think I know of a more determined writer.
  • She wrote some of the most definitive school stories out there. The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books are woefully undercritiqued and yet, there they are, immensely and perpetually popular and also subtly promoting a whole host of diverse representations of girlhood.
  • Ginger beer. Never had some. Not sure I want to, because I think it might ruin the mystique…

 

So here’s to you Enid, and your crazy, readable ways. You’re not the most run of the mill person, nor are you infallible, and I’m fairly sure I will never write a sentence about you that doesn’t involve the word ‘complicated’, but I am very sure that you are unique. Happy birthday!

Works cited:-

UNESCO (2015) Index Translationum : Top 50 Most Translated Authors http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=5&nTyp=min&topN=50 [accessed 06/07/2015]

 

A Leader in the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Leader in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #49)A Leader in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two Chalet School reviews in a row! I imagine you can guess that I am in a mood for comfort reads at the moment; I want fat, luscious, clean reads that I can just sink into and enjoy. Perhaps it is a reaction to finishing a draft of my thesis. I rather suspect it is.

I have enjoyed revisiting these later Chalet School books more than I thought I would. A Leader In The Chalet School is one that is more workmanlike than most of the ones around this point in the series, but somehow it is strangely appealing. There are moments of EBD at her best – “and her French was weird and wonderful” – and there are moments of EBD at her worst – writing a tear-filled confession with copious ‘wa-ahh-ahh’ is never a good idea. Consider that my first and best writing tip. Never write ‘wa-ahh-ahh’. Or else I will glare at you.

So; Jack Lambert’s first term. She’s destined to be Head Girl isn’t she? But fanfics aside, this is the traditional ‘new girl encounters hijinks and ultimately gets all sorted out by the end of it’ formula. It is, as I mentioned, workmanlike, but it works. it really does. It’s briskly told and well told, if a little basically at times (there’s a delicious moment where somebody says something to somebody else off the page as it were, and the text just goes ‘well, whatever she said, clearly worked’. Lol. A thousand times lol.).

What makes A Leader distinct is that I think it’s the first time Len really becomes centred in her own right as an Important Person. She’s left the rampant character assassination of Theodora and the Chalet School (Len’s treatment in this book utterly fascinates and confuses me), and she’s now Somebody. And she’s not hideous. She’s really rather lovely and real. The dynamic between her and Jack is delightful and it’s understandable. And that’s what drives this book; it’s about relationships and identity and selfhood and in a way, it’s not really about a school at all.

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Chloe Takes Control : Phyllis Matthewman

Chloe Takes Control (Daneswood, #1)Chloe Takes Control by Phyllis Matthewman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across the name of Matthewman in reading about my beloved Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. In the last years of her life, Brent-Dyer shared a house with Sidney and Phyllis Matthewman. There’s a fairly prevalent theory that Phyllis assisted with the writing of Prefects of the Chalet School. I’m not sure about the last one (and I’m not sure that I want to fully blame Prefects of the Chalet School on one person…).

Phyllis Matthewman was a prolific author in her own right. I’m conscious that framing her in the context of Brent-Dyer does her a disservice and it is one that I will rectify from this point. Chloe Takes Control is a lovely book, vibrant and well told and delightfully character driven. Matthewman pauses every now and then to engage in the genre tropes; the middles are rumbunctious, the headgirl is quietly authoritative, and a middle is Possessed Of Good Things But Doesn’t Quite Know It.

What distinguishes Chloe Takes Control is the complex nature of Chloe herself. She’s not the traditional schoolgirl heroine; she’s reticent, quiet, self-controlled and doesn’t like games. The last is almost unique within the canon and Matthewman earns this accolade with a quietly told, well-judged and understandable back story. Chloe is intensely believable and surprisingly contemporary in tone. It’s just a good, vivid, book. Matthewman writes with intense verve and alacrity. This is my first Matthewman; I hope it’s not my last.

One thing to note is that the edition I read (GGBP) has the phrase ‘working like n-‘ in it. It’s a throwaway moment, and one that very much reflects the context this was originally written in, but it is one instance of vocabulary that may require some clarification with a contemporary audience.

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