It’s fun opening up the boxes and being reunited with my books, although I despair rather at finding I still have too many for the space available. For some reason it’s the children’s books which I want to read again. After finishing my Courtney-fest with The Farm on the Downs and Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre I turned to Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. The copy shown here is the GGBP reprint.
EBD, as we affectionately call her, is of course best known for her long series of Chalet School books. The first was published in 1925, the last in 1970 and they are still sought after and read today. She wrote another series, known as the La Rochelle books, plus a number of standalones and historical stories. There are however many connections between the books. Like anyone in love, EBD liked to drop the loved one’s name wherever possible; her favourite Joey features in the Lorna books as the famous author Josephine Bettany.
Lorna Carey is the youngest by far in a long family. At the start of the book she is thirteen, her mother fifty four. She’s been to a tin-pot school where she is by far the cleverest girl and as a result has got rather above herself. To her disappointment she finds that due to straitened family circumstances she is not to board at St Ursula's, like her sisters but will be packed off to live with her mother’s much younger sister, Auntie Kath, and attend Wynyards as a daygirl. This is just the first of many high handed decisions about her own life which poor Lorna has to accept. At Wynyards she gets into trouble and although the headmistress punishes her, dear Mother Carey refuses to let her go home for half term. Later in the book Mr Carey dies and Lorna is informed (by her aunt!) that her mother is selling her house and moving to Madeira to look after her sick, widowed daughter-in-law and grandchildren. No question of Lorna going, nor is she likely to see them for at least four years. EBD goes to great lengths throughout the book to emphasise how much Mrs Carey loves Lorna and that she only behaves as she does for her good but most readers will agree with this one that she has a jolly funny way of showing it.
So why is Lorna at Wynyards one of my favourite EBD titles? For a start it was published in 1947 and I have a thing for 1940s books. Next, I think it shows the kind of writing she was best at: full of detail. Wynyards is an old Cotswold wool town and is so well described you feel you know it. Auntie Kath and Cousin Kit live in a house which is equally satisfyingly pictured. The household is self sufficient and cosy; life there couldn’t be more different from the chilly atmosphere of disapproval Lorna has previously experienced. The Arnolds have regular routines, work is never neglected but they also have fun, something Mrs Carey seems not to have heard of.
Many writers of school stories used the school simply as a means of getting girls together so that they could have fun and adventures with very little intervention from the staff, who count for nothing compared with the prefects. EBD takes us right into the daily routine of a school and, especially, into the classroom (this is one of the good things about the Harry Potter books, too). On Lorna’s first day at school we pass from registration to assembly (reading and hymns specified), through timetables, stationery issue and an introduction to the staff and girls. It’s realistic and surprisingly absorbing. Instead of showing us only Lorna’s form (Upper Third) and their scrapes, EBD takes us into the prefects' room (sounds lovely) to hear their confabs and also into the staffroom. Far from being wild caricatures the mistresses are all seen as individuals with strengths and weaknesses. How fascinating that they address each other by their surnames! We can be sure this was accurate for the period as EBD was a teacher and for a while ran her own school. By the time you've finished this book you know so much about Wynyards you could run it yourself.
Much of this is true of the Chalet School stories as well but there’s only so often you want to read about how the girls made their beds and what they had for Mittagessen; it palls after the first twenty books! Lorna also has the advantage for me of being a home/school book, the kind of school story I most enjoy. You have to sympathise with poor Lorna and feel glad at the end that she will be making her home with her kind aunt and cousin. There is a sequel, Stepsisters for Lorna, which I don't like as much.