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A pre-Mugabe idyll




All the news coming out of Zimbabwe these days is bad news. What we are never hearing is what a beautiful country it is. I’ve just been reading The House on the Kopje by Mollie Chappell. I was glad to find a cheap copy on eBay as I already had its sequel, The Fortunes of Frick. The House on the Kopje was first published in 1951, when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and Ian Smith and UDI were yet to come. The political history of Rhodesia since 1890 is quite complicated, as any stamp collector knows, so I’ll just say that at the time the book was written it was ‘a new country – with a big future’, as one of the characters says.

The plot is a familiar one to lovers of girls’ fiction: a family of girls struggling to keep their home and make ends meet. Father killed in the war, Mummy worried about money and about to leave for England in search of a cure for Sara’s paralysis, caused by polio. Reliable Jan is left in charge; beautiful, brilliant Frick looks like being awkward. The elder son is away as a student farmer, the twins too young to help. So Jan decides to take in boarders and a cast of charming characters comes into the-house-with-seemingly-expanding walls. The family are third generation Rhodesians and fiercely proud of their country and of what their ancestors have achieved; the book is full of lyrical descriptions of the landscape, flora and fauna of Africa. I loved it. The Fortunes of Frick (1953) follows some of the family to England and is less good, in my opinion.



Rhodesian Adventure (1950) is different from these two in that the family in it leaves England to settle in Rhodesia. Some members go unwillingly but are won over by the beauties and amenities of the place. There is a wonderful scene at the end where they stand in the crowd to see the royal family pass by in a car and wave at the princesses, feeling proud to be British and Rhodesian. (This was the tour Princess Margaret was forced to go on to take her mind off Group Captain Townsend, so if she really looked radiant it was a wonder.) So much optimism! You’re not defending colonialism by feeling sorry for people who gave a life’s work to the land only to have it taken away.



Mollie Chappell is a difficult author to categorise. Most of her books were romantic novels. Many people know her books for younger children: Kit and the Mystery Man, Cat with no Fiddle and The Mystery of the Silver Circle. These three Rhodesian books are not really children’s stories but for ‘older girls’, a group of readers which has probably disappeared. I think they’re very good and for a really cosy treat, try The Sugar and Spice (1952) about a family of girls (surprise!) running a tea shop. Lovely!

Comments

(Anonymous)

The House on the Kopje

My goodness, fancy seeing this delightful book of my childhoon on today's blog! As I write this, I have my copy beside me.
I grew up in my parent's newagent's shop and had as many books as I could read and this was one of them. I lost all my childhood books (a mammoth collection) when we moved and my books were put in the basement of the property my parents bought (and then the basement was flooded ... need I say more?) So, over the years I've searched for copies of the books I could recall and this was one of them. Thanks to www.abebooks.co.uk I was able to locate a mint edition copy with dustwrap!

Re: The House on the Kopje

Glad to give someone a nice surprise! Lucky you, to find a mint copy. The House on the Kopje is the best of the lot IMO and the copy in the photo is the 1953 Seagull edition.
Oh, those childhood losses...

(Anonymous)

Re: The House on the Kopje

Since mentioning my mint copy of House on teh Kopje, I've now bought The Sugar & Spice from www.abebooks.co.uk and am looking forward to its arrival!
Margaret

Re: The House on the Kopje

I'm sure you'll love it!
Given my family history I have mixed feelings about colonialism. It's not something I believe we should do now, but without it I wouldn't be here, so I don't condemn it outright.

I do find some old children's books jarring in their attitudes, but then they're from another time and place, and it's not as though anyone makes me read them!
It's always a tricky one. One winces over the 'piccanin' working in the kitchen but the attitude of all the characters in these books to the 'natives' is entirely benevolent and kindly. Or patronising and paternalistic, depending how you look at it.
I think it's a bit of both, but it's pretty much inevitable to a greater or lesser degree when dominant culture A is writing about subject culture B, whether it's to do with race, religion, gender...

Of course, nowadays the problem is that writers get so keen to be - almost literally - black and white that they miss an awful lot of nuances. It's incredibly frustrating to watch modern documentaries on colonialism and see the mixed-race communities being all but skated over. Often I'd rather read a vintage story than a modern one in a historical setting precisely because there isn't the lecturing or modern polemic. (I'll take Chester Himes over Walter Mosely any day.)
Hello, I found this by Googling Mollie Chappell, and I'm glad I did. I've read most of the books that you introduce so nicely here, and you do them justice. I didn't actually know Chappell was a romantic novelist until I found a copy of a romance by her last week. I can't remember the title 'Youth's something Charm', I think, but I enjoued it, honest! It was quite close in tone to the 'older girls' books' she wrote that you refer to - the heroine was quite young, the hero had a troublesome family, and there were other touches that reminded me of her other books - no Rhodesian connection though.
Hello! How interesting. I've read one of her romances, Valley of Lilacs, set in Wales. Quite enjoyable but I don't remember anything about Rhodesia in it. A playwright, a charming rich widow he falls for and a young girl who falls for him.
The plot sounds similar to Endearing Young Charms, which features a love triangle with a male writer as the focal point and a young girl falling for him while he's in love with someone else.
Uncannily similar!