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!