Begin at the beginning, right? Although I must confess that the first Malory Towers book I read was Upper Fourth, sitting in the bedroom of my friends down the road. I was nine, and my parents, who were trying to wean me off Enid Blyton, were not too pleased when I came home with a whole new obsession.
The series opens with protagonist Darrell studying herself in the mirror:
Darrell Rivers looked at herself in the glass. It was almost time to start for the train, but there was just a minute to see how she looked in her new school uniform.
‘It’s jolly nice,’ said Darrell, turning herself about. ‘Brown coat, brown hat, orange ribbon, and a brown tunic underneath with an orange belt. I like it.’
Two things that jump out:
- Normally this would be a handy chance for the author to slip in a description of her main character, but instead we only know what Darrell is wearing. The school is as much a character as any of the girls, and this is essentially what all the characters will be wearing most of the time. Blyton, in general, doesn’t describe the physical appearances of her main characters — I think we do eventually learn that Darrell is tanned, with short dark hair and bright eyes, and in the Famous Five series we know that George is … also tanned, with short dark hair and bright eyes, and looks like a boy. But other aspects of her main characters’ appearances are often conveyed only through the illustrations — Anne’s perennial golden bob and headband, for example.
- My inner Nancy Mitford compels me to point out that Blyton uses the upper middle-class “glass” instead of the decidedly non-U “mirror”.
- Dear God, that uniform sounds hideous. Though I generally agree with Mai from Avatar: the Last Airbender: “Orange is such an awful colour.”
Darrell felt excited. She was going to boarding school for the first time. Malory Towers did not take children younger than twelve, so Darrell would be one of the youngest there. She looked forward to many terms of fun and friendship, work and play.
‘What will it be like?’ she kept wondering. ‘I’ve read lots of school stories, but I expect it won’t be quite the same at Malory Towers. Every school is different. I do hope I make some friends there.’
HINT: Darrell’s quest for a friend is the main emotional theme of this novel! TRY TO KEEP UP.
A character who’s very important to Darrell, and the book, is her father, so it’s quite odd that he doesn’t actually appear here. Instead, we get a brief flashback:
She had already said good-bye to her father, who had driven off to his work that morning. He had squeezed her hard and said, ‘Good-bye and good luck, Darrell. You’ll get a lot out of Malory Towers, because it’s a fine school. Be sure you give them a lot back!’
Darrell’s father, like Blyton’s second husband (for whom Darrell herself was named), is a surgeon. Blyton’s father characters are generally cranky types who occasionally appear from out behind a newspaper to lay down the law, but Mr Rivers is unexpectedly vivid. And whatever you think of the psychology of portraying your new husband as your self-insert’s father, Blyton’s affection and admiration for the man is obvious.
We’re off to London to catch the school train. It’s a scene that will be familiar to anyone who’s read Harry Potter (so, everyone): a dedicated train, a platform crowded with students who all seem to know each other, and one rather lost newbie. The Malory Towers train, though, is divided into four carriages, one for each house. Sadly, students aren’t assigned to their houses by singing haberdashery, but stay tuned for a few chapters and I’ll get around to talking about how Blyton is Team Hufflepuff all the way.
‘I shall never know all these girls!’ she thought, as she stared round. ‘Gracious, what big ones some of them are! They look quite grown-up. I shall be terrified of them.’
‘Hallo, Lottie! Hallo, Mary! I say, there’s Penelope! Hi, Penny, come over here. Hilda, you never wrote to me in the hols, you mean pig! Jean, come into our carriage!’
Have to say, just from her vocab there, Darrell seems a million years older than the senior students. “Gracious!”
Darrell looked for her mother. Ah, there she was, talking to a keen-faced mistress. That must be Miss Potts. Darrell stared at her. Yes, she liked her—she liked the way her eyes twinkled—but there was something very determined about her mouth. It wouldn’t do to get into her bad books.
Re-reading a few months ago, I was struck by just how likable a character Miss Potts, Darrell’s house-mistress, is, and also how much she’s basically Minerva McGonagall. JK Rowling owes such a debt to these books — and I mean that in the best possible way — that I’m really surprised no canny US publisher has bothered to release them over there.
Miss Potts introduces Darrell to classmate Alicia, who has bright, twinkling eyes and no other physical characteristics. Alicia is downright, sensible and likeable, and she and Darrell promptly bond through the mockery of another student:
‘I say—look over there. Picture of How Not to Say Good-bye to your Darling Daughter!’
Darrell looked to where Alicia nodded. She saw a girl about her own age, dressed in the same school uniform, but with her hair long and loose down her back. She was clinging to her mother and wailing.
‘Now what that mother should do would be to grin, shove some chocolate at her and go!’ said Alicia. ‘If you’ve got a kid like that, it’s hopeless to do anything else. Poor little mother’s darling!’
The mother was almost as bad as the girl! Tears were running down her face too.
Our adolescent drama queen is Gwendoline Mary Lacey (or, in some books, Lacy). She’s a spoilt, selfish only child who has been sent to boarding school to get some common sense bullied into her. She’s a fairly horrible person, but as a child, the very first fan fiction I ever wrote was redemption fic.
In case it isn’t obvious, Alicia points out the contrast between Mrs Lacey and the mothers of the more sensible girls. Then, to complete the point, we meet Sally, the third new girl for North Tower:
Another girl came up to the carriage, a small, sturdy girl, with a plain face and hair tightly plaited back. ‘Is this Miss Pott’s carriage?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said Alicia. ‘Are you the third new girl? North Tower?’
‘Yes. I’m Sally Hope,’ said the girl.
‘Where’s your mother?’ asked Alicia. ‘She ought to go and deliver you to Miss Potts first, so that you can be crossed off her list.’
‘Oh, Mother didn’t bother to come up with me,’ said Sally. ‘I came by myself.’
‘Gracious!’ said Alicia. ‘Well, mothers are all different. Some come along and smile and say good-bye, and some come along and weep and wail—and some just don’t come at all.’
I’m not going to start taking a shot every time someone says “Gracious!” I promise.
Sally is one of the most interesting characters of the book — though not necessarily the series — but to say more at this point would involve spoilers. AND YES, I’M WORRYING ABOUT SPOILERS FOR A BOOK PUBLISHED IN 1946.
Here’s a nice early glimpse at Alicia’s less charming qualities. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we know that Draco is a nasty little boy because his second attempt at befriending Harry involves insulting Ron’s family. Here, Alicia does the same and it’s presented as amusing, although also quashed flat by Miss Potts. BECAUSE MISS POTTS IS ACTUALLY THE BEST.
More evidence for the POTTS FOR PRESIDENT argument: her appraisal of the new characters:
Miss Potts looked at Gwendoline. She had already sized her up and knew her to be a spoilt, only child, selfish, and difficult to handle at first.
She looked at quiet little Sally Hope. Funny little girl, with her tight plaits and prim, closed-up face. No mother had come to see her off. Did Sally care? Miss Potts couldn’t tell.
Then she looked at Darrell. It was quite easy to read Darrell. She never hid anything, and she said what she thought, though not so bluntly as Alicia did.
‘A nice, straightforward, trustable girl,’ thought Miss Potts. ‘Can be a bit of a monkey, I should think. She looks as if she had good brains. I’ll see that she uses them! I can do with a girl like Darrell in North Tower!’
In conclusion, POTTS. I bet she’s the maiden great aunt of Pepper Potts, and taught her everything about being super-fabulous, organised, smart and BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE IN THE WORLD.
Now we have the train ride o’exposition. The school is situated on a cliff in Cornwall, overlooking the sea. Four towers hold the school houses, but students take lessons together. (There’s not, I should say here, any kind of house cup, though occasionally we get glimpses of some kind of demerit system.)
Gwendoline is not a fan of exposition, on account of how she isn’t the centre of attention. Alicia, who has three older brothers and no tact whatsoever, is less than sympathetic:
‘I feel sick,’ announced Gwendoline at last, quite determined to be in the limelight and get sympathy somehow.
‘You don’t look it,’ said the downright Alicia. ‘Does she, Miss Potts? I always go green when I feel sick.’
Gwendoline wished she could really be sick! That would serve this sharp-tongued girl right. She leaned back against the back of the seat, and murmured faintly. ‘I really do feel sick! Oh, dear, what shall I do?’
‘Here, wait a bit—I’ve got a paper bag,’ said Alicia, and fished a big one out of her bag. ‘I’ve got a brother who’s always sick in a car, so Mother takes paper bags with her wherever she goes, for Sam. I always think it’s funny to see him stick his nose in it, poor Sam like a horse with a nose-bag!’
Gwendoline subsides into silent sulking, musing that Alicia is horrid and unlikeable. Darrell, on the other hand, is nursing a platonic adolescent crush:
But Darrell looked at Alicia with amusement and liking. How she would like her for a friend! What fun they could have together!