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May 2019



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school stories

Children’s books round up

Chris in Command, Irene Mossop (1930)
Hazel, Head Girl, Nancy Breary (1952)
Margery Merton’s Girlhood, Alice Corkran (1888)
The Exciting Journey, Norman Dale (1947)
Boys of the Valley School, R A H Goodyear (1925)

I’ve read several old children’s books this month, so here’s a little chat about them.

When I read Lois in Charge followed by Chris in Command and Hazel, Head Girl, I was going to say, ‘What a bossy lot!’ It turned out though that Hazel wasn’t bossy at all: in fact, not bossy enough. I must here fess up and say that I don’t much care for Nancy Breary, or find her books hilariously funny. She’s one of several authors about whom I disagree with Sims & Clare, much as I admire their book, kept permanently by my desk. In Hazel, Head Girl, Breary makes use of the well worn plotline of two schools merging, with resultant feuds and jealousies. Mill House and Dewpoint combine to form Hessington. The girls are determined to hate each other and stick to the habits (and uniform) of their old schools. Hazel, from Dewpoint, has been appointed head girl before term starts. Some people think this is because she’s a heroine. (She took over the controls of a plane after the pilot had a heart attack and landed it safely!) Unfortunately for her, Vice Captain Lydia (from Mill House), is determined to oust her and become head girl herself. Hazel doesn’t take a firm enough line over this rebellion and nasty Lydia nearly gets her way. The juniors are fiercely partisan and a bunch of silly little idiots. As so often in school stories, the girls seem to run everything, with teachers and lessons completely ignored. Hazel bravely struggles on, trying to persuade the girls to give their loyalty to their new school and become Hessington girls.

Chris in Command is another story about a school divided, this time into decent types and slackers, with many personal feuds. The decent types are so frightfully keen I was almost rooting for the bad girls. Keith and Rosalie (first time I’ve met a girl called Keith) have to leave their expensive boarding school, live with an uncle and aunt and cousin Nerissa and go to a day school, Starlands, which has only fifty six pupils. They make a very bad first impression on the reader. The snobbish girls now live next door to the large St John family at the rectory, one of whom is Chris, known as St Christine to her enemies because she’s formed a League of people prepared to behave decently at Starlands. This is yet another book where, apart from the Head, the teachers don’t matter at all; the girls even choose their own prefects and the games captain is appointed by the outgoing officer. Chris perseveres with her good deeds and niceness, Keith and Rosalie almost disappear from the story and Nerissa turns out a heroine and Good Schoolgirl. I rather enjoyed this.

Margery Merton’s Girlhood barely qualifies as a school story, except that Margery has some lessons at a convent. My copy of the book is a reprint updated by very attractive colour plates which seem to date from the 1920s. Although English, Margery lives in Paris, where she is brought up by a strict and elderly aunt. Finding that Margery doesn’t respond to her rigid ideas of how a girl should behave, Aunt employs a governess for her, whom Margery calls Mère Louise. She’s the widow of an artist and clings obstinately to his memory although it’s obvious that M. Reveil, an artist and family friend, is in love with her. I found the first part of the book charming, but it changes as Margery gets older. She takes art classes at a convent, and there’s much about convent life, reasons for becoming a nun and Margery’s friend Rose’s belief that she has a vocation. I thought at first that this might be reflecting the great Victorian Protestant fear of young girls being converted to Popery and persuaded into a convent, but it’s too sympathetically written for that. The rest of the book is about Margery’s desire to paint and shenanigans around an art prize she’s after. So, more like two books but I enjoyed it very much.

From girls to boys and Boys of the Valley School. This begins in an episodic, sub-Stalky way but does have a plot: the foolish decision by a group of boys to boycott anything to do with the local squire. This begins with pathetic behaviour like refusing to doff their caps to him and moves to more serious misdemeanors. Meanwhile the hero, Hal, goes his own sweet way. He’s a complex character, a boy who excels at everything without trying very hard or caring about it. An odd type to set up as an example to boys. There are standard set piece chapters about important matches. I enjoyed the cricket one, which surprised me by showing that schoolboys in 1925 engaged in sledging.

The Exciting Journey is the first of three books about Tim. Tim is bored during the summer holidays because his friends are away and his uncle can’t take him to Devon for another couple of weeks. Once you’ve got over a bachelor uncle suggesting to an eleven year old that he cycle from Crystal Palace (South London) to Devon on his own, this is an enjoyable book, full of adventures. I was going to sell this on but I do love 1940s books. Plus, it’s rare to find them with dustwrappers and I like Ley Kenyon’s illustrations.


They all sound interesting even for an adult :)

Are you enjoying the Indian summer we're having?
I find them so but I already have a large collection of such books. Margery Merton is probably the one with most adult appeal.

Isn't it glorious? Just a little too breezy to be really warm but it beats those lowering skies we've had all summer. Hope you're getting an autumn tan :-)
I like the sound of The Exciting Journey!
I'll hang on to it for a while then. Not much in it about Crystal Palace but interesting that the author picked it for uncle's home.
From what I recall, I agree with what you were saying about Margery Merton not being quite the book you'd expect, and changing from part to part.
I'm amazed anyone else has read it!

Considering when it was written, I was pleasantly surprised by its modern ideas.