callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

Carol Ann Pearce & St. Kelvern’s

Summer Term Blackie 1951, illustrated by W Spence
We’re in the Sixth! Children’s Press 1960
St. Kelvern’s Launches Out Children’s Press 1962

According to The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories, little is known about Carol Ann Pearce, author of the three St. Kelvern’s stories. Since her death in 2006, her son and daughter-in-law have set up a website here. This gives information about the published works, but no personal biography.

I’d read the Children’s Press books years ago and found them entertaining. Then I discovered that there was another book, the first in the series. Unfortunately, Summer Term is very hard to find. At last a copy came up on abe (‘abe has found the book you want’ and for once they really had) and I was able to read it, after a twenty year search. As you can see from the scan, it’s a very nice copy, much better than I expected from the seller’s unhelpful description. By the way, this was not one of my bargain wonders; I paid real money for it.

The three books follow the school careers of four friends from their fifth year at St. Kelvern’s Bury School to the time when they are planning their futures. Elizabeth is efficient, reliable, good at art and acting. Netta, impulsive and noisy, excels at games. Kate is very musical. Dreamy Len (Helen) wants to write but doesn’t take enough interest in anything else. I love descriptions of cosy studies at a boarding school and as the four girls share a study throughout the series, there’s plenty to please me. After reading Summer Term for the first time I re-read the other two. I was surprised to find that I much preferred the first one. I think this has little to do with the author’s talent and everything to do with changes in publishing at the time. From the 1950s far fewer school stories were published. For example, OUP had published many school stories before the war, including the Dimsie series, but in the fifties they rejected them completely. When you think that their 1950s list included the now classic titles The Eagle of the Ninth, A Swarm in May and Tom’s Midnight Garden, it’s perhaps not surprising. My point is that Blackie gave Carol Pearce more scope to write something good than The Children’s Press did.

The blurb on the dustwrapper flap of Summer Term describes the book as ‘a happy story, with nothing far-fetched or over-drawn, and the four heroines are quite sure to make many friends’. That’s true; there are no villains and no dramatic rescues here, unlike in the other two books. ‘It was the first day of the summer term at Kelvern’s Bury School’, we begin, with the usual bustle of arrivals, matron’s lists and in the case of our heroines, a spring cleaning of their study. One of the things I like about the books is that the staff are seen as human beings. Kate is going in for a music scholarship which will see her through college, and we see the disagreements between her music teacher, the Head and the maths mistress about how much time she should be allowed to spend practising.

Netta is very excited about a proposed tennis match with Raldon, a boys’ school. This leads to a lot of hot feminist discussion about girls being as good as boys, especially when the quartet spend half term with Kate’s family. Kate’s brother has also brought home a friend, a boy so languidly supercilious and superior that the outraged girls call him ‘Abominable Legs’. Needless to say, both boys are at Raldon and change their tune by the end of the book. I took a fancy to Abominable Legs and was sorry that he didn’t reappear in the other books. If I’d been able to read this years ago, I would probably be saying that it’s one of my favourite school stories. The girls are likeable, the writing amusing and the school and events there believable.

The next two books continue the character development of the heroines. We’re in the Sixth! is really Len’s book. Poor old Len doesn’t have a proper family but spends lonely holidays with ‘the General’, who thinks she’s wet because she prefers reading to being outdoors killing things. The autumn term begins with all four girls being appointed prefects, and Len doesn’t feel she’s up to the job. She’s decided she wants to go to Oxford but the General will only agree if she makes a success of being a prefect. To make matters worse, girls from a burned out school are boarded on St Kelvern’s for the term. Most of them are pleasant enough but two turn out to be really nasty and it’s Len’s bad luck that one of them is in the form she’s supposed to supervise. She finds she can’t manage the girls at all and wants to resign as a prefect. She has one lucky break in that some previously unheard-of relatives suddenly take an interest in her and invite her to their London home. Even the General can’t stand up to dynamic Aunt Susan. By the end, Len has completely redeemed herself by, what else, a heroic rescue. While all this has been going on there have been more shenanigans over a special pageant, to be written, performed and organized by the girls alone. Some dirty work here but it all ends up a roaring success.

The title, St Kelvern’s Launches Out refers partly to the girls getting ready for Life and partly to the school’s new sailing club. In this story, the girls get involved with people outside the school, thanks to Miss West, who aims to broaden their minds. As a result, they join the local youth club in order to help the vicar, and meet some teddy boys, who are naturally up to no good. They get friendly with a girl from the local grammar school who seems very talented but whose parents can’t afford any training for her. Aunt Susan comes to the rescue again. Much of this book is about Elizabeth. Everyone else knows what she wants to do after school but Elizabeth is the despair of her parents because she keeps changing her mind. She only has to read a book called Selina Goes Sheep-Farming to decide that she has found her vocation. You can tell from the book title that the running joke of Elizabeth’s future career is quite a good one.

It’s the humour in these books which makes them so attractive. The girls’ conversations are often funny and it’s nice that they all know each other so well and stay good friends in spite of being very different from each other. You can’t help wishing there were more to come.
Tags: carol ann pearce, children's books, school stories
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