I was writing recently about Josephine Elder and what a cold fish I found her. When I read that shocking line in The Encircled Heart about the ‘idiot boys’ who wouldn’t die and leave their mother free, I knew there was a similar comment in one of the Farm School books. No amount of flipping through would yield the quote I wanted, so I re-read the whole lot. Not a hardship.
We meet the main character in Exile for Annis. She’s been ill, her parents have to go abroad and, to her horror, she’s told she’s going to what she thinks of as a ‘crank school’ in the country. Until then, Annis has been a High School (GPDST) girl, as Elder herself was. Annis is happy at her big school and never questions its mores. The Farm School is in Kent and run by Mr and Mrs Forester, both academically qualified and combining teaching with farming and raising a large family. The ethos is liberal in that there are no compulsory games or activities but tough in insisting that everyone pulls their weight and always does their best at whatever skill they happen to have. Luckily for Annis, she finds that she loves the country and she quickly becomes friends with Kitty Forester. She’s a quicksilver girl, a brilliant musician and very different from sensible, rational Annis. Interesting that Elder was tiny physically and so often makes her heroines such strapping lasses.
Annis boards with the local doctor and is slightly hurt that she’s not encouraged to spend more time at the farmhouse with her friend. One day she opens the door into a walled garden and meets Kenneth, the ‘idiot boy’. He’s much luckier than Dr Marion’s patients in that his parents can afford care for him and have the space to let him spend most of his time in a garden. Annis takes to him and it’s emphasized that he seems happier than most ‘normal’ people. By the end of the book it’s explained why the Foresters were not keen for Annis to know about him, so that at last she can feel one of the family. When her parents ask her if she’d like to go back to her old school, she begs to be allowed to stay on the farm.
Cherry Tree Perch almost counts as a pony book, there’s so much in it about Annis getting her pony Cherry and learning to ride really well. She becomes jealous of Kitty’s keenness on a woman called Miss de Vipon who comes to live in one of the estate cottages. Kitty finds her fun and interesting and admires her caring for sick animals. Annis can’t bear the disorder around her and the filthy state of the shed where she keeps a cow. Kitty is also difficult about working for a scholarship to the Royal School (of Music) but that gets sorted. Everyone is alarmed by an outbreak of rick fires. Annis discovers that Kenneth is the culprit and is assured by Mrs Forester that he will never be put in a home. Apart from an outbreak of typhoid locally and thrills at the gymkhana, this is a fairly quiet book compared with the next one.
The eponymous Strangers at the Farm School are two German Jewish refugees, one of whom settles quickly at the school and one who takes much longer. There are more strangers, though. Due to the school’s reputation, numbers have increased and suddenly its core values are at risk as a number of new pupils seem discontented. Annis is elected school president and finds that some of the boys won’t accept her authority. Eventually she calls a meeting where the school votes on issues that have been muttered about, like having proper rules and prefects. She wins the day and the only change voted for is that in future games will be compulsory. Now here’s what I was looking for. Quite near the beginning of the book it’s stated that Kenneth died of typhoid two years before. “Annis still missed the queer boy, though her commonsense told her that it was a good thing, really, that his body had not been allowed to grow up while his mind remained, as it always would have done, that of a wayward child.”
Bee-keeping is very important in this book. Annis has become expert (surprise) and it’s what reconciles the refugee boy Hans to the school. The bees become a sort of metaphor for the school and life. Annis, reflecting on the way drones get killed every year, concludes that it’s only fair that if you don’t work you shouldn’t be allowed to live but also that it’s unfair because they’ve been trained to think doing nothing is the way to live. Her ideal is that everyone works together for the good of all: the bees in the hive and the staff and pupils at school. At one point Kitty says to Annis, “You’re an inhuman sort of body…. Because you don’t want praise.” Annis replies that she’d rather just get a job done, without anyone thinking about who had done it. That’s the thing about Annis; several times it’s mentioned that personal feelings, or how you feel about anything simply don’t matter; the important thing is always work and doing it as well as possible.
The book ends with a triumphant concert for Kitty, artistic success for Adrian, one of the new boys and Annis’s friend, while Annis is headed for Cambridge, like most of the female Foresters and Josephine Elder.
These are very interesting books as they are so different from most school stories, whose authors would almost certainly think such a school was cranky. Milking and chemistry? No uniform? Potty. The Farm School is also very different from those in Elder’s other books for girls. Evelyn Finds Herself, for instance, is set in the suburbs at the same sort of school Elder went to, yet here she rhapsodises about country life and the beauties of nature and manages to seem fairly knowledgeable about horses. The books are easy to find and well worth reading.