Welcome back, boys and girls! Are you ready to dive back into the heady world of post-war boarding school? I am. After a short break of reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac and watching the old Olivier version of Pride and Prejudice (which is so bad it’s funny), I am all ready for my next Blyton adventure.
Actually, the second book in the series is more interesting than the first. Once all of the introduction rubbish is out of the way, we are clear to actually get into the story proper, and Enid obliges to the extreme – this book is almost epic in the scope of its action. I would give this book the alternate title of ‘Mary-Lou Finds an Owner!’ or ‘Extreme Sports at Malory Towers’
I do want to note something about the cover - it's meant to be Mary-Lou hanging off a cliff, but she looks like she's had a really bad bleach job done. On my cover her hair looks orange ... and she has one abnormally big hand. This artist is crap!
Claws Come Out
So, we start the story with a good ‘ole bitch-fest. That’s right. Wifeys Darrell and Sally spend the trip to Cornwall discussing and passing judgment on their classmates. Specifically, they discuss who would make a good Head of Form. I understand that this is a very prestigious position: middle management of the school. The teachers can’t really be arsed actually supervising the kiddies all the time, so they deputise loyal adherents to the regime to enforce obedience and general right-thinking. For the adherent, it’s a bit of a power trip – you get to tell the other kiddies when to go to bed, administer punishments (mostly with a hairbrush – I can’t help but think of Sebastian Flyte and Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited:
“What do you suppose Lord Sebastian wanted? A hairbrush for his teddy-bear; it had to have very stiff bristles, not, my Lord Sebastian said, to brush him with, but to threaten him with a spanking when he was sulky.”)
Sally gets this coveted position, bringing about the underlying of tension of the book. Alicia, thinking that she should get the posish as she is just so damn cool, spends the majority of the book sniping at the wifeys for being such goody two shoeses. This situation isn’t helped by Darrell one-upping them in the practical joke department (a most amusing prank involving invisible chalk on teachers' seats). So Alicia spends most of the book being a snarky bitch, until her snarkiness sets off a chain of events that almost gets the class puppy killed. Of course, from this Alicia learns her lesson: snarking at the establishment is not cool – the establishment is there to protect us, we should love the establishment ...
It is interesting to note that Sally and Alicia never really seem to like one another at all until the very end of the series, when they have grown out of their teenage angst to an extent. Until then, it’s all on for young and old between the ‘establishment’, headed by sally, and the ‘rebels’, with Alicia in charge. Of course, in the environment in which the girls live it is impossible that the rebels will ever win, so of course Alicia ‘learns her lessons’ and is finally brought into line. It’s a shame really: the death of the individual at the hands of the ‘man’. Damn the man.
How much is that Doggy in the Window?
Anyway, on to Mary-Lou’s new owner. After trotting faithfully at Sally and Darrell’s heels for the past few terms, this term Mary-Lou is captivated by the new girl Daphne. Daphne is pretty (although her eyes are too close together, and we all know that that is a very clear indication of character), is friends with Gwendoline (red flag number 2) and claims to have heaps of money. After using Mary-Lou all term, copying her homework and having her run errands, Daphne finds herself in a spot of bother (having stolen possessions off most of her classmates, Daphne decides she has to get rid of the evidence for fear that the police will come looking for fingerprints) which leads to Mary-Lou being blown over a cliff (I wouldn't be surprised if she jumped). Daphne fortuitously finds the dangling damsel and manages to save Mary-Lou (in a highly dramatic scene, Daphne knots her two belts together and lowers it to Mary-Lou – Enid seems to have a great deal of faith in the strength of both the belts and Mary-Lou’s upper body, as they manage to hang in position for roughly half an hour ...)and earn everyone’s favourite puppy’s eternal gratitude.
Of course, the responsibility of having a pet opens Daphne’s eyes to the fact that she would have to give up her wicked ways or spend her days in prison – and who would look after the puppy? All the girls forgive her for stealing their stuff because she was so damn brave about saving Mary-Lou, and she magically becomes a better person immediately, despite being aspiteful cow the entire book (in addition to the stealing). Can anyone tell me what a deus ex machina is?
The ‘Right Sort’
While on the subject of Mary-Lou, this throwaway comment really got to me:
Mary-Lou had become exceedingly good at French, for her mother had had a French girl in to look after her in the holidays for the past year.
Where to start?
Mary-lou’s mother. Hires. a maid. To look after her during the holidays.
I just wanted to make sure we all understood that (I was tempted to ask why she didn’t just send ML to a kennel, but that would just be too easy). I’m going to repeat this again: Mary Lou’s parents, who send her away for months at a time, hire someone to look after her for the few weeks a year that she is home, because they don’t want to interrupt their life for the annoyance of a child coming home to visit.
I’m sorry to harp on about this, but I’m somewhat taken aback. Living in the post-war austerity era, these people feel it is still necessary, nay, desirable, to hire a maid to care for their 13-year-old daughter?
Of course this is all perfectly normal. Blyton herself sent her children away to school at a young age so that she could concentrate on her writing. Children can be such a bother, can’t they, young E?
I just find it absurd that this sort of arrangement is considered not in the least unusual. Look at the wording – ‘Mary-Lou’s mother had had a French girl in’ – we are all expected to know what it’s like to have ‘a girl’ in. This subversive snobbery is extremely seductive. When you add up the other little hints that are dropped throughout the series, this series really isn’t about your average group of girls, as it purports to be. Gwendoline’s governess continues to live with Gwen’s family even though little G had gone off to school (I always feel that the governess has something going on with Gwen’s dad ... or perhaps her mum ... I can’t see why she remains with the family throughout Gwen’s entire schooling career). The school must have a pretty big community of servants – maids, kitchen staff, etc – as the girls never do any cleaning, but we never see any of them. They basically do not exist – I mean, they are only servants, after all. Even Darrell has to go around and say goodbye to all of the household servants before.
There seems to be a bit of a theme of the rich/poor divide throughout this book, as shown in the two characters to whom we are introduced. We have Daphne, apparently a spoilt rich girl, and Ellen, a scholarship student. Despite the obvious red flags regarding Daphne, particularly her eyes being too close together (I kid you not – EB is HUGELY into judging books by their cover: Sally is sturdy [sensible], Miss Potts has a firm chin [disciplinarian], tomboys have freckles, sporty girls are tanned, non sporty girls are spotty, the list goes on and on!) when push comes to shove, she is seen as one of the girls while Ellen is not. There is an outbreak of stealing in the form, and the finger is firmly pointed at the scholarship girl (because all poor people steal – it’s just in their nature) rather than her more well off compatriots. It eventually turns out that it was Daphne, whih is incomprehensible until she explains that she wasn’t rich after all, so the world makes sense again! Of course, the effects of this class bias causes Ellen to have a breakdown, but that’s of no real consequence ... she's just a scholarship girl.
Do we have any moments of Darrell’s spectacular murderous rages? But of course!
In this latest instalment, our intrepid and enraged heroine stalks down the stressed-out Ellen, who is going to steal exam papers. In the middle of the night, she tracks down Ellen in a class room and proceeds to beat all kinds of crap out of her. But it’s Ellen’s fault, naturally, because Darrell ‘can’t bear cheats’ (as good a reason as any to give someone a smackdown, I suppose).
Then Darrell lost her temper! She flew at Ellen, shook her fiercely and slapped her hard on the cheek! Ellen fell over the legs of a desk and dragged Darrell down with her. She struggled and Darrell pummelled her well.
‘You wicked girl!’ shouted Darrell.
I have to note that Darrell has a knack for picking out the weak and really going for them. She never dares to attack Alicia, for instance, even though Alicia spends the whole book picking a fight. All of her outbursts are against those weaker than herself: Gendoline, Sally (with appendicitis) and Ellen (who is having some sort of stress episode). The latter two of these attacks exacerbates the victim’s condition to such an extent that they end up in the ‘san’ (today they would be sent to hospital, but the ‘san’ sounds so much less serious). And yet we admire the little shit. She rubs her nose and grimaces, saying ‘Oh dear, I have such a temper. It’s a real fault of mine’ and everything is fine again – hooray!
Maybe … ooooh, I just had an idea … maybe Darrell is a special needs student. I never thought of that possibility. Think about it: even after confessing that she was
a) out after curfew;
b) in a fight with another, sick student; and
c) possibly complicit in an attempt to cheat at an exam ( if you think about it logically, she is either complicit or a vigilante)
The headmistress STILL fails to do anything. There is no punishment. There is no conference with the Form teacher, or the House Mistress. Nothing. Just a bit of tutting and ‘what is the world coming to’ sort of thing.
The only explanation is that Darrell is a special case. There has to be some sort of under-the-table arrangement between Darrell’s parents and Miss Grayling. In lieu of mood suppressants or electro-shock therapy, these stiff upper-lip stalwarts are opting for the more conventional method to deal with Darrell’s mental illness: send the girl to boot camp and keep her in line just until she can be foisted off on some other poor sod. Then when the shit hits the fan, you can blame the poor husband; ‘she was such a good little girl’.
Miss Grayling is nothing if not a savvy business woman. She knows the value of a well bred vigilante, especially one whose parents are prepared to pay her to look the other way every so often …
Midnight wrestling, abseiling ... this school's actually starting to sound fun! But with all of the drama in this book, can the next book pip such gripping chapters as 'Daphne is Annoyed' or 'OY'? Who can say?