Not Hi Ho Silver! But ‘lone’ like the ‘Lone Guides’ who for some reason were unable to belong to a company. The last time I wrote about Guiding fiction, I said that my favourite author of Guiding stories was Catherine Christian. She used another pen name, Patience Gilmour, to write four books about Rangers. They are:
Three’s a Company, 1935
Seven Wild Swans, 1936
The Quest of the Wild Swans, 1941
The Cygnets Sail Out, 1943
Years I’ve waited to read these books. That’s because I had it on good authority that they were best read in order and the first one is almost impossible to find. At last a copy came up and I read the lot one after the other. Catherine Christian (1901 – 1985) ran several Guide companies herself and from 1939 – 1945 she edited The Guide so she knew what she was writing about. (She’s also yet another author of books for girls who went to my own old school.) The striking thing about the books she wrote as Patience Gilmour is the seriousness, earnestness even, with which the heroines take their Rangering. At the same time they are aware of the pitfalls of having the wrong attitude. In The Cygnets Sail Out, one character says, ‘not in a spirit of “Here come the Girl Guides to put everything right – and how grateful everybody ought to be to them” – but rather in the spirit of learning from the Guides of that country what needed to be done …’ She was talking about the older girls who trained to help with reconstruction in Europe once the war was over.
In Three’s a Company we are introduced to fifteen-year-old Laurie, who has apparently been abandoned by her stepmother in the south of France and is lone in every sense of the word. She meets an older girl, Elspeth, whom she recognizes as a Guide because she’s wearing a trefoil badge. Elspeth tells her, ‘You can be as Lone as you like, it won’t make any difference to the fact that as long as you are a Guide, you belong somewhere in the world.’ The idea (from the Guide Law) that ‘a Guide is a sister to every other Guide’ is a theme throughout these books, the girls even addressing other Guides as ‘sister’ and Scouts as ‘brother’. Laurie meets crippled Ann, paralysed after a hunting accident and cheerful Dorothy, employed as what we would now call her carer. These are the three girls of the title, who go on to be the Wild Swans. By the end of the book Ann has undergone one of those miraculous cures effected by shock, Elspeth marries a chap who turns out to be related to Laurie and everyone’s going back to England, where Ann and Laurie will go to the same school.
Seven Wild Swans seems to have been the most popular book in the series, perhaps on the strength of the misleadingly exciting jacket. It’s certainly the easiest to find. Much longer than Three’s a Company, it’s rather episodic for me, with four more girls being recruited to form the Wild Swan patrol. Ann, whose family have a lovely house in Hampstead (rather similar to the one Patrick Merrick’s family live in) is a successful published author, like her elder sister. Laurie, at twenty, is a medical student. Dorothy has lost her nursemaid’s job and is at a loose end until she finds her niche working in a small orphanage with chirpy cockney Miggs, who is to be number four.
From the start the girls aim high. Ann’s room is to be used as a meeting place and called Joyous Guarde. They will seek adventure but the dragons they find tend to be of the humdrum kind and right on their doorstep.
Next to join is Clare, a trainee beautician who cuts Ann’s hair beautifully. Through her they meet their first ‘dragon’, an unemployed and half-starved dressmaker, and find work for her. Laurie meets Sally, as shown in this frontispiece, when Sally is photographing birds. The girls don’t wear uniform in the book but are more likely to be found in shorts or serviceable tweeds.
Sally adds another skill to the group, as she works at Croydon aerodrome as an apprentice and is training to be a pilot. By the way, how would you fancy driving from Croydon airport (think Purley Way) up to Hampstead just to see a friend for the evening? It was nothing to these girls in the 1930s.
The girls take a great dislike to Elizabeth Craven, BA when they meet her on holiday. Once Ann has saved her life and they find out that she’s made her own way to academic success through scholarships, she’s in. Now they are seven the patrol members decide they’re not really doing anything important. Led by imaginative Ann, they resolve to take King Arthur’s Knights as role models and each seek a quest. The chapter is titled, ‘A boon, Sir King, this quest!’ In the rest of the book they help poor Guides who have no captain, save the life of a boy ‘in central Europe’ (Sally is flying, with Laurie on board) and meet a group of Rover Scouts who will feature more later on. Never satisfied, at the end they still don’t think they are quite ‘qualified to wear the red trefoil’.
The Quest of the Wild Swans does exactly as the title suggests: shows how each of the seven young women tries to follow her own personal quest. Although published in 1941, there is no mention of the war and the book ends with some of the patrol and their Rover friends at a conference in Geneva. While there, they have a mystical experience which suggests they have seen Christ on earth. A Guide promised ‘to do her duty to God and the King’ and Christian precepts were closely tied in with the ideals of Scouting and Guiding. (This was not to the exclusion of other faiths. BP was keen on young people of all races and creeds being able to take part.) ‘Patience Gilmour’ takes this much further than most people would have done, so that her Guides are more like Young Crusaders (do they still exist?) The Wild Swans are helped in their ‘deep thinking’ by Shari, an Indian girl studying medicine with Laurie. They rescue a few more deserving people and help others. Laurie qualifies with distinction and becomes Dr Trevelyan; she turns into a very tough doctor, carrying out research while working in poor areas wherever she’s needed. At the same time, Ann announces her engagement to Bill, one of the Rovers. This upsets Laurie and it’s never made clear if that’s because she sees the group breaking up or because she’s rather in love with Bill herself .There are more marriages before the series ends but no lovey-dovey nonsense, more a comradely good fellowship.
The last book in the series, The Cygnets Sail Out is definitely a war book, with plenty for everyone to do in the way of nursing, fire watching, running canteens etc. By this time the author obviously felt she had gone far enough with the original Swans, so she brings in a new generation. The book starts with a ludicrous plot device. Carol Grey, who is eighteen, has heard of the Wild Swans from a relative and hero-worships them from afar. She then *walks* to London with her dog to seek her fortune and if possible get to know the Swans. By an amazing coincidence she meets Sally in Surrey woodland and, without giving herself away, gets Laurie’s address from her as a person looking for someone to scrub floors. Jubilant, she makes her way to the clinic and finds that she does literally have to scrub floors, while Laurie takes no notice of her. She has obviously passed a test with the strict doctor because she progresses to more congenial work. After that, the rest of the young crew start to appear: Becky, Lalage, Lavender, Mercy, Pauline, Mary Ann from Canada. The book ends with the original Swans (Ann suddenly called Anne) looking after Laurie, injured rescuing someone in the blitz. They are brightened up by a visit from the younger, lively Cygnets and all settle down for a talk. It is then that the Cygnets make their plan to help overseas after the war. This was a genuine scheme which was carried out; volunteers had to be pretty tough and thoroughly trained. ‘We’ll still be seeking other folks’ fortunes’, says Carol.
These books go way beyond most Guiding stories in trying to explain, in a very high minded way, what Guiding was really about. Not just camping, although that’s fun; not “Here come the Girl Guides to put everything right”; certainly not an armful of badges. ‘Patience Gilmour’ saw it as a dedication of oneself to service while at the same time enjoying ‘fun and fellowship’. I’d be interested to know what type and age of girl read these books when they came out. Now, I’d say, they are essential reading for anyone interested in Guiding fiction.