14 May 2010

Gwendoline Mary - a Heroine of Our Time

Let’s talk about Gwendoline Mary. I really want to talk about Gwendoline Mary. I have been restraining myself over the past two books, knowing that I have a good one or two thousand words to say on the girl. I’ve been waiting to tell you my revelations about the Draco Malfoy prototype. Yes that’s right, Gwendoline Mary is the original Draco Malfoy (more of that later).

I have to admit, on re-reading this series, particularly after discovering the manipulation by Blyton of the reader, I have come to see Gwendoline in an entirely new light. I don’t love her, but I certainly identify with her a whole lot more than I thought I did (in fact, I see a bit of my teenage self in her, something I would never have admitted when I first read this series – I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread). And I certainly have a lot of sympathy for a girl who is really given no chance to fit into the school, but who is constantly bullied and ostracised for no reason other than the fact that she is different.

Why you don’t like Gwendoline

Gwendoline is sulky, she’s lazy, she has a high opinion of herself, she’s catty, and she doesn’t play well with others. The others don’t like her, and by extension you the reader don’t like her (you little conformist). You even think that it’s fine to not like her. But there are two things you have to remember about darling Gwen when you are disliking her:

1) Gwen might have all of these bad qualities, but so do the other girls. EB just doesn’t dwell on them. Alicia is catty and has a high opinion of herself, Belinda is lazy, Darrell doesn’t play well with others. You see this, but it does not register through the EB glasses. The others fit EB’s idea of the perfect child, so the imperfections are seen as only further perfection. To EB, these girls sweat champagne and flush little nuggets of gold down the toilet every day.

Reality is not so simple. Teenage girls are complex creatures. Not quite children, not quite grown up, they are often very insecure. At the same time, there is this enormous amount of excitement that the future is coming for them and that they are going to be BIG. So you get this situation where all these children are starting to see themselves as superior beings, yet having a pressing need to shore up that opinion of themselves with the good opinion of others. That combination of mental workings can turn female adolescence into a nightmare of cats and claws. (I was going to say that all teenage girls are bitches, but I know a couple of my readers are teenage girls. Of course I’m not referring to you, dear reader. You are an amazing, wonderful person – but please, do come back and re-read this description in a decade or so …)

Malory Towers positively seethes with this tension – the girls have no reprieve from one another. They eat, sleep, study and relax within metres of each other. Do you honestly think that there are girls who are immune to the pull of raging hormones? So why is Gwendoline singled out?

2) You don’t like Gwendoline because you ARE Gwen. Don’t deny it. As a teenager reading the books you secretly identify most with Gwen’s antics and attitudes. You may like to think that you are Darrell, but you know that you are Gwen. This scares you, as you want to be friends with the popular girls. So you pretend that you are like them, become complicit in the bullying of little Gwen, and hope against hope that they don’t realise what you are really like.

Just like real life.

Essentially, this is high school idealised – a world in which you can become one of the popular crowd by being ostensibly individual, but essentially conformative. Giving up cozy little bitch-fests with Gwen is a small price to pay for popularity in your imagination …


Malfoy?

This is just a side-note, but anyway …

I know there are a couple of you desperate to know what Gwendoline and Draco could possibly have in common, apart from being the designated baddies of their respective series. There has to be a ‘baddie’, but really, neither of them are in the true sense. They are really just people that the ‘goodie’ doesn’t’ like.

It’s actually that ‘baddie’ designation that is part of the similarity of the characters. From the very start, we know that they are the baddies because of who they are. They are the children of their parents, and as such, they are judged before given a real chance to show themselves. Of course, as children of their parents, they are influenced by the example shown them by said parents, and act in accordance with that example as young children. Malfoy’s parents were the magical equivalent of Nazis. Gwen has a dim, superficial mother and an absentee father from whom she learnt her values. Both children display those values early on, but later do try to reform a bit (with varying levels of success – we’ll talk about Gwen’s transformation later). Neither will ever be completely accepted by the mainstream, but you do tend to like them better as adults.

… And that’s enough Harry Potter for one day.

Treatment

From the beginning, the regime doesn’t like Gwendoline, and sets out to break her. Unfortunately, the regime is a self-glorifying and stupid beast; in its wisdom, it decides that negative reinforcement is necessary to cure her 'bad' character.

Looking at the facts:

• she is an only child,
• she has been homeschooled (presumably in the country – you can’t be proper aristo without a country manor),
• she hasn’t really had that much interaction with children her own age, and
• her chief companions are her mother and governess.

At the age of twelve, her father summarily decides that this isolation is a bad idea and ships her off to boarding school, without integrating her into outside interaction with children her age first. Is it any wonder she is socially awkward?

Thrust out of her native surroundings, she begins to behave in a manner that has always been rewarded in the past, yet that only brings down scorn and mockery from her fellow students, tacitly encouraged by Miss Potts, who hears but ignores the malice of the ‘well brought up’ girls. So begins Gwendoline’s induction to Malory Towers. In my reading, I really cannot say that I have come across any instances in which anyone was nice to Gwendoline, yet she is treated as though her lack of friends is her own fault. Darrell is accepted quickly because she has learned the rules to the whole ‘school game’ long before she attended this centre of re-programming. There is no buddy system that would help Gwen acclimate to her surroundings, there is no praise for any good work done (carrot and stick doesn’t work without the carrot) – just because we don’t see her good moments doesn’t mean that Gwen is consistently bad (at one point Gwen starts working hard, but this is really not rewarded by the teacher, so she gives up).

The rest of the girls feel that they are teaching her by giving her harsh treatment, but all they are really doing is replacing one sort of behaviour with another. A pattern is established by which malice is exchanged on both sides, but with unequal power bases it was never going to be a fair fight. Gwendoline, hobbled by the animosity of the author as well as the general unfairness of the situation, retreats from the precepts of the school – she has not benefited from them, she has had no experience of them, therefore she sticks with what she knows – the lessons of her mother, reinforced every holidays. I don’t really blame her – it’s the only positive experience she has during her school years.


Case Study: Daphne

Take as an example the similarities between Gwen and Mary-Lou and their friendship with Daphne in book 2.

Gwen starts out as friends with Daphne, as Gwen sees her as pretty and of a similar social standing to her. With the precepts of her mother drummed into her, she makes friends with the one person who would earn her mother’s praise. Having made the friend, she is happy to be the lesser party in the friendship, listening to Daphne’s stories of her family and wealth, running errands, and generally being something of a slave.

Mary-Lou is captivated by Daphne’s prettiness and sets about becoming something of a dogsbody to her. She is happy to be treated as something like an also-ran to Gwen. She does Daphne’s homework, listens to her long stories, runs errands for her, and generally acts as a slave.

There is very little difference in the two separate friendships. Both are founded on rather superficial facets of Daphne’s make-up. Both are subservient, slavish type roles that leave no room for a friendship based on equality.

YET, Gwen is seen to be rather silly over Daphne, and Mary-Lou a true friend.

Later, when it is revealed that Daphne is not only not rich, but the class thief, Gwen is portrayed as being small minded for not wanting to forgive her straight away. It’s never pointed out that Gwen has been the main victim both of Daphne’s lies and her stealing (Daphne steals money off her and then borrows more from her, which she never pays back), nor is Gwen given any time to digest this information – she is just expected to suck it up and forgive Daphne because she is a hero. Let me be clear: GWEN IS THE WRONGED PARTY. If it were you, you would be quite rightly pissed off. I would want some sort of repercussion. But no – under duress from the rest of the form, particularly knuckle-dragging Darrell, Gwen is forced to capitulate.
(AND Gwen is honest about money – she won’t borrow money of anyone, even when she is short, and is shocked when Daphne wants to share borrowed money with her. I actually rather liked her at that point. It showed that she was taught ethics and follows them, even when she has the opportunity to ignore them.)
Mary-Lou is grateful to Daphne for the whole saving-her-life thing, but is that really enough on which to base a friendship? Daphne is still a rather obnoxious person – and we don’t know if she gets better, as she only turns up from time to time after book two.

I really feel that this skewed perception of Gwendoline is misleading, given her similarity to the rest of the girls.

Gwendolinitis

Book two is not the only book in which people make friends with Gwen, only to dump her at the end. It happens in book three and book four. It is as though friendship with Gwen is an illness that one must be cured. Generally the people friends with Gwen are have a character flaw, usually an ego, and enjoy having Gwen run around after them. When their fault is cured, they automatically dump Gwendoline for some new BFF. Gwen generally hasn’t done anything to warrant such treatment, so I always get annoyed when I get to these parts and find that everyone is happy that another student has been ‘cured’ of Gwen.

It is odd. After Book one, Gwen really doesn’t do anything cruel to the other girls. She’s generally sulky, but fairly innocuous. Even her tricks in book one don’t get any worse than smashing someone’s pen and sneaking a spider into someone’s desk. But there are only a number of second chances that are on offer at MT, and Gwen is always passed over. Bashing up a fellow student – free pass; stealing from your classmates – free pass and a pat on the back; poison pen (this comes later) – a stern talking to , but ultimately reprieve. But being unpopular? You have no chance.

Of course, this is news to no-one in the real world, but I really object to the Way Blyton dresses it all up. I really object to the idea that being unpopular is the fault of the unpopular, rather than intolerance on the part of the right thinking element.

Conclusion

There is hope for Gwen. There really is. I really feel that she actually comes out the best character in the end (I won’t spoil the story – I know you are all on the edge of your seat, but you have to calm down!). I like her because I get her. And so do you. She is that little ball of insecurities that haunted you during adolescence. She is all those fights you had with friends and former friends. She is how you look back at yourself (if you’re being really honest). Gwendoline is what you see when you take off the rose coloured glasses.

Gwendoline IS adolescence.

13 comments:

  1. It's strange, because I barely remember the character of Gwendoline at all. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about her character and why she was written that way, so much so that I think I need to dig out a copy of the series and read it.

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  2. Gwendoline FTW! I really heart her ... She just seems more real than the ever so obedient main character - no one is as good an egg as Darrell is meant to be!

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  3. Enid Blyton wrote Gwendoline in a really poor manner. She is spoiled, and she has plenty of faults, but is that really a reason for the girls to treat her the way they did? You have to admit that the girls never gave Gwendoline a chance.

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    1. You are a person after my own heart. I hated Gwen when I was young, but she turned out the best of the lot, in my opinion. She actually has a proper problem, and deals with it in a mature, un-whiney fashion. It makes me lover her and rather despise Enid ...

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  4. Reading the books as a fifteen year old, even I have to agree with you here. I relate so much more to her than the other characters. Alicia is like all the popularity in my school put in one shell- she's a bitch, but she's loved. Darrell's violent, but she's loved. Gwen is realistic, and she's hated. It gets to me, and I'm glad I'm not the only one.

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    1. Your first reaction to Gwen is to follow the herd and dismiss her - Enid is a master of peer pressure. And you read the books so quickly that you don't have much time to really think about why you reject her. It's just easier to like Alicia and Darrell and the rest because we're told to.

      I first read the books at the age of 13, when I was desperate to fit in. Hating Gwen made me feel like I was with the in crowd. Now? I'd back Gwen the whole way.

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  5. I love how Enid tries to make the audience forget the glimpses where Gwen is presented as an even slightly favorable person.
    eg. In Second Form at Malory Towers, Mary-Lou tells Gwen she's going out to deliver Daphne's parcel. Gwen (truthfully) tells her Daphne had been bitching about her constantly, in order to stop her from going on the dangerous cliffs.
    Later on the cliff, Daphne says to Mary-Lou: "Gwen told me the beastly things she said. They're not true. I think the world of you, I do really. I've never been fond of anyone before."

    A few pages later, Daphne's a heroine and everyone hates Gwen. Are we just meant to call Gwen 'beastly' and forget that Daphne DID say all those things, and then lie to Mary-Lou yet again? GWEN WAS ESSENTIALLY TRYING TO SAVE MARY-LOU'S LIFE BY TELLING HER THE TRUTH.

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  6. Exactly - but when has Blyton ever been ... well ... fair? Give a dog a name and hang it! That's the way to make society work!

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  7. Very thought provoking. I always thought Alicia was the biggest bitch in the Form and I liked Sally better than Darrell. It all reminds me of the first meeting between PG Wodehouse's Mike and Psmith characters where Psmith asks Mike: "Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School, or the Boy who is Led Astray and takes to Drink in Chapter Sixteen?"

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  8. Gwen is not ALWAYS nasty - in the 3rd book she is not cruel at all, on the contrary, she is the only one who comforts Zerelda after the unfortunate rehearsal.

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  9. Blyton was very nasty in her treatment of the poor governess- Miss Winter, who's clearly imitating Mrs Lacey's treatment of her daughter.That lady probably had to go with the flow to keep her job & a roof above her head-maybe she's a poor relative? Today my pet hate would be Alicia (& to an extent Betty) who has a very cruel side to her.

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  10. After thinking about it, reading this series had led teenage me to believe that someone unfit in the crowd deserves to be ostracized, and it was his/her fault for not fitting in the class. Mallory Towers had a lot to teach about morals and manners, but in the other hand had also mislead so many little girls into peer pressure and conformity.

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  11. Reading the malory Towers books again I think Gwen never had a chance to develop her character like a lot of other girls did.
    She was always looked down on, nobody can cope with treatment like she was given without feeling resentful, as an adult she probably suffered from depression and mental issues.

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