Most people know Josephine Elder from the three Farm School books which were reprinted, with very pretty covers, by The Children’s Press. I read these myself as a child but found them hard to understand and certainly wouldn’t have sought out more books by the same author. These days, Josephine Elder is recognised as one of the most interesting writers of school stories. Probably her best book, Evelyn Finds Herself, has been reissued by Girls Gone By Publishers.
I was lucky to find this copy of The Scholarship Girl, as it’s a very scarce title. I read it quickly and enjoyed it. There are so many formulaic scholarship girl stories. The girl from a poor home wins a scholarship to a grand (usually boarding) school. She may be tormented by some awful snobbish girl talking loudly about ‘scholarship brats’ who shouldn’t be allowed at ‘a decent school’. She may feel ashamed of her background and try to cover it up. She may earn the respect of her peers by some heroic deed or by turning out to be ‘somebody’ after all. Elder rejects these clichés.
All Monica Baxter’s problems at Greystones School are caused by her own attitude. She’s been badly advised by the headmistress at her Council school that people like her have no time for games but must work hard all the time in order to gain more scholarships. So, although she enjoys games and likes the games captain, Monica calmly informs her that she won’t be doing games. She’s quite unfazed by her new surroundings and simply refuses to conform or to see why she should do as the prefects tell her. Everything changes when she meets the fairy-like Francesca (Monica is a big girl) and the two become inseparable. Francesca's academic Cambridge family believes in a healthy balance between work and play. Monica learns to enjoy life, especially after a stay with the family (see book cover) and becomes a much happier and nicer person as a result. She and Francesca progress up the school, excelling at both work and games until they are both ready for Cambridge, Monica with a major scholarship. There’s a sequel, The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge, which I’ve never seen.
I said I enjoyed the book. I did, but I find Josephine Elder a very cold fish. She was a doctor and I shouldn’t imagine she was a very sympathetic one. All the chief characters in the books I’ve read are scientists and the author has no time for sentiment. Games are important for instilling the team spirit, the individual is always less important than the school (read, society), as a whole and people’s feelings matter very little. So for me Elder is an author to admire but not to love.