I was totally going to start doing the “two chapters at once” thing a while back, but then I hit a really long chapter or something. Who knows? Anyway!
Chapter 11: The Spider Affair
We left Gwendoline plotting to bring about the downfall of her enemies by (a) feigning friendship with Mary-Lou whilst (b) torturing her and (c) letting Darrell and Alicia take the blame for said torture.
Draco Malfoy got nothing on Gwendoline Mary Lacey.
It’s a hot afternoon and no one’s very keen on the lesson, least of all Mam’zelle Dupont. (She’s plump, so she doesn’t deal well with heat — and I totally sympathise, so there’s no eyerolling at Blyton’s stereotypes from me here!)
Finally, following a mix-up with her grammar books, Mary-Lou finds the spider.
Mary-Lou stuffed her English grammar into the back of her desk and pulled out the French one. The spider, feeling itself dislodged by the book, ran out in a fright. It ran almost up to Mary-Lou before she saw it. She let the desk-lid drop with a terrific bang and gave a heart-rending scream.
I realise that by saying this I’m destroying all kinds of Australian stereotypes, but I TOTALLY SYMPATHISE, MARY-LOU. Once I went to school with an odd lump in my shoe, and when I got home it turned out to be a dead huntsman spider. I STILL HAVE CHILLS.
Mam’zelle is less sympathetic, what with how the first form haven’t exactly been models of propriety over the last few weeks. Though you’d think she’d know that Mary-Lou wouldn’t say boo to a goose.
So Mam’zelle goes searching through the desk, and naturally the spider is initially terrified but then comes out charging. Right up Mam’zelle’s arm.
Mam’zelle stared at the enormous thing as if she really could not believe her eyes. She gave a shriek even louder than Mary-Lou had given! She too was scared of spiders, and here was a giant specimen running over her person!
‘Ah, where is it, the monster? Girls, girls, can you see it?’ wailed Mam’zelle.
‘It’s here,’ said wicked Alicia and ran a light finger down Mam’zelle’s spine.
THESE ARE THE WORST PEOPLE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.
Miss Potts, taking the second form in the next room — interesting how in this school the teachers move around, rather than the students, as we’d expect from a modern school — and hears the noise.
‘Girls!’ she said, but her voice went unheard. ‘GIRLS!’ Irene suddenly saw her and started to nudge everyone. ‘Look out here’s Potty,’ she hissed.
The girls flowed back from Mam’zelle as if they were water!
I like that water comparison; less keen on the entirely unnecessary exclamation mark.
The conversation between Miss Potts and Mam’zelle is long, but hilarious, so I’m going to reproduce all of it:
‘Mam’zelle, really!’ said Miss Potts, almost forgetting the rule the staff had of never finding fault with one another before the girls. ‘ I simply cannot think what happens to this class when you take it!’
Mam’zelle blinked at Miss Potts. ‘It was a spider,’ she explained, looking up and down herself. ‘Ah, Miss Potts, but a MONSTER of a spider. It ran up my arm and disappeared. Ah-h-h-h-h! I seem to feel it everywhere.’
‘A spider won’t hurt you,’ said Miss Potts, coldly and unfeelingly. ‘Would you like to go and recover yourself, Mam’zelle, and let me deal with the first form?’
‘Ah non!’ said Mam’zelle, indignantly. ‘The class, it is good—the girls, they came to help me to get this monster of a spider. So big it was, Miss Potts!’
Miss Potts looked so disbelieving that Mam’zelle exaggerated the size of the spider, and held out her hands to show Miss Potts that it was at least as big as fair-sized frog.
In addition to being really funny, this is something we don’t often get to see in Blyton’s novels: a conversation between two adults who have forgotten there are children present.
The girls are as entertained as I am:
The girls had enjoyed everything immensely. What a French lesson! Gwendoline had enjoyed it too, especially as she was the cause of it, though nobody knew that, of course. She sat demurely in her desk, watching the two mistresses closely.
BUT WAIT! GWEN IS ABOUT TO COME FACE TO FACE WITH KARMA IN ITS EIGHT-LEGGED FORM!
And then suddenly she felt something running up her leg! She looked down. It was the spider! It had left Mam’zelle a long time ago, and had secreted itself under a desk, afraid of all the trampling feet around. Now, when peace seemed restored, the spider wanted to seek a better hiding-place. It ran over Gwendoline’s shoe, up her stocking and above her knee. She gave a piercing scream.
There are certain scenes which are always illustrated, no matter the edition. Here’s Gwendoline’s comeuppance as it looked in 1963:
And here’s the illustration by Stanley Lloyd in the first edition, way back in 1946:
Note that Lloyd has captured Gwendoline’s long hair in its plaits, and also Mam’zelle’s lorgnettes.
Sadly no illustration can capture Miss Potts’ rage:
‘Gwendoline! Go out of the room! How dare you squeal like that! No, don’t tell me you’ve seen the spider. I’m tired of the spider. I’m ashamed of you all!’
Gwendoline shook herself violently, not daring to scream again, but filled with the utmost horror at the thought of the spider creeping over her.
‘It was the spider!’ she began. ‘It…’
‘GWENDOLINE! What did I tell you! I will NOT hear another word of the wretched spider!’ said Miss Potts, raising her voice angrily. ‘Go out of the room. The whole class can go to bed one hour earlier tonight as a punishment for this shameful behaviour, and you, Gwendoline, can go two hours earlier!’
EXIT GWEN, WEEPING.
Naturally, none of this is Gwen’s fault. How dare the spider go for her! On the other hand, that just makes it EVEN MORE LIKELY it was all Darrell and Alicia’s fault!
Also, check out this super-English sentence:
Now she had got to have double punishment.
Gwen sidles back into the classroom, but Mam’zelle, now rather embarrassed by her behaviour, sends her right out again!
Mary-Lou: 0, Gwen: 0, spider: 1
Chapter 12: Sharp Words
Suffice to say, Spidergate is popular. Mam’zelle Rougier takes the opportunity to defy one of Blyton’s favourite stereotypes:
To think that a Frenchwoman should be so foolish!’ she said. ‘Now I do not mind spiders or earwigs or moths or even snakes! Mam’zelle Dupont should be ashamed to make such an exhibition of herself!’
I’m pretty sure this makes Mam’zelle Rougier the only one of Blyton’s various French characters who isn’t terrified of creepy-crawlies.
The first form, naturally, found the whole incident hilarious:
‘Jolly clever spider! said Irene. ‘It knew the only three people in the form that would be scared of it. I take my hat off to that spider.’
Irene’s very much a secondary character, but all through the series she gets some really amazing lines.
Gwen, in the guise of sympathy, ‘innocently’ suggests that someone put the spider in Mary-Lou’s desk. Until then, everyone had assumed it had just … wandered in. As spiders do.
‘It was a dirty trick to put it into poor Mary-Lou’s desk,’ said Jean. ‘She can’t help being scared of things, I suppose, and she almost jumped out of her skin when she saw it. I should have thought any joker in our form would have been decent enough to have popped it into, say, Alicia’s desk!’
I like Jean’s grudging concession that Mary-Lou’s fear might be involuntary.
‘Not if it happened to be Alicia who popped it in!’ said a sly voice. ‘You do so love playing tricks, don’t you, Alicia? You and Darrell were in the first-form room before afternoon school. And I’m sure we all remember you saying you’d like to put a spider down Mary-Lou’s neck!’
It was Gwendoline speaking.
THANKS, NARRATOR, WE HADN’T GUESSED THAT.
‘Well, I didn’t do it,’ she said. ‘Nor did Darrell. Sorry to disappoint you, darling Gwendoline Mary, but we just didn’t. If it was anyone, I should think it was you!’
‘Mary-Lou is my friend,’ said Gwendoline. I wouldn’t do that to her.’
‘Well, if you’d almost drown her one week, I should think you could quite well bring yourself to put a spider in her desk the next week,’ said Darrell.
Gwen’s attempts to push the issue are stymied by the entire class chanting, “SHUT UP, GWENDOLINE!” until she goes away. Twelve year olds. So great.
Gwen feels “vicious”, we are told, and she attempts to suggest to Miss Potts that Darrell and Alicia were behind the incident. This … doesn’t go well.
Miss Potts looked up. ‘Are you trying to sneak?’ she said. ‘Or in more polite language, to tell tales? Because if so, don’t try it on me. At the boarding school I went to, Gwendoline, we had a very good punishment for sneaks. All the girls in the sneak’s dormy gave her one good spank with the back of a hair-brush. You may have a lot of interesting things to tell me but it’s no use expecting me to listen. I wonder if the girls here have the same punishment for sneaks. I must ask them.’
I think this is another source of the idea that Blyton’s school stories feature teacher-sanctioned spankings.
Also, Miss Potts is still the greatest. Not for the spanking thing, but she speaks to and about the students like they’re actually people.
Gwen’s less pleased. Her mother and governess would be horrified if they knew what a terrible, awful school Malory Towers was, but she senses that Miss Potts and her father might be kindred spirits.
A week passes, taken up largely with swimming and Darrell’s attempts to match Betty and Alicia in their feats of diving. Sadly for Darrell, though she’s fearless like the good little Gryffindor she is, she’s just … not as good.
And Mary-Lou’s having a bad time of it. Her clothes are dropped in a puddle, her new tennis racket has its strings cut.
‘My new racket!’ she said. ‘Look, Gwendoline, who would think a new racket could go like that?’
‘It couldn’t,’ said Gwendoline, pretending to examine it very closely. ‘These strings have been cut, Mary-Lou. Someone’s been playing a dirty trick on you. What a shame.’
WOW, AMAZING DEDUCTION, GWEN.
Then the buttons are cut from Mary-Lou’s best Sunday dress. Gwen is as supportive as ever:
So, making a great show of it, Gwendoline sewed on the six blue buttons one night. The first-formers stared at her in surprise. They knew she never mended anything if she could help it.
‘How did those buttons come off?’ asked Jean.
‘That’s what I’d like to know,’ said Gwendoline smugly.
‘Six buttons, all ripped off! I’m putting them on for Mary- Lou, because I’m so sorry that anyone should play her such a dirty trick. And I’d like to know who cut the strings of her tennis racket, too.’
For the first time the class starts to wonder about the mysterious destruction of Mary-Lou’s property. Someone must be doing it, but even though some of her pencils turned up in Alicia’s desk, no one but Gwen thinks she was responsible. Alicia likes to be upfront about her bullying.
Meanwhile, half-term is approaching, that magical weekend where parents visit the school and bring an outsider’s perspective to the events of the term. And this revives a suplot we haven’t heard from in a while:
‘Is your mother coming, Sally?’ asked Mary-Lou.
‘No,’ said Sally. ‘She lives too far away.’
Then Darrell, well-intentioned, curious Darrell, remembers that her mother mentioned having met Sally’s mum … and her baby sister.
‘Oh, Sally, I expect your mother won’t come because of the baby,’ she said.
Sally went stiff. She stared at Darrell as if she couldn’t believe her ears. Her face went quite white, and when she spoke she sounded as if she were choking.
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she said. ‘What baby? We haven’t a baby! My mother won’t be coming because it’s so far, I tell you!’
Darrell was puzzled. ‘But Sally—don’t be silly—my mother said in a letter that she had seen your baby sister— she’s three months old, she said.’
‘I haven’t got a baby sister!’ said Sally, in a low, queer voice. ‘I’m the only one. Mother and I have been everything to each other, because Daddy has had to be away such a lot. I haven’t got a baby sister!’
I think this is actually the only mention of Sally’s father in the entire series. If not for the baby sister, I would have assumed Mrs Hope was widowed.
(There are a lot of single parent families in Blyton’s books, but they all involve good middle class Englishmen who marry girls from circuses. Then the wives can’t adjust to their new lives, so they take their babies and run away. Then, conveniently, they die a few years later, leaving their adolescent children to be raised by the father. Usually with the help of a strict but kindly paternal grandmother.)
(One semi-exception is Barney in the R-mysteries — yes, his mother was a circus performer, but his father, when he finds him, turns out to be a reputable stage actor, and the kindly paternal grandmother is a bit on the bohemian side herself.)
Anyway, everyone’s kind of WTF? at Sally’s outburst:
‘ All right,’ said Darrell, uneasily. ‘ You ought to know, I suppose. Anway, I expect you’d like a sister. It’s nice having one.’
‘I should hate a sister,’ said Sally. ‘I wouldn’t share my mother with anyone!’
She walked out of the room, her face as wooden as ever. The girls were really puzzled. ‘She’s a funny one,’ said Irene. ‘Hardly ever says anything—all closed up, somehow. But sometimes those closed-up people burst open suddenly— and then, look out!’
Irene: SO GREAT. SO UNDER-APPRECIATED.
Later, Darrell tries to make it up to Sally:
‘I’m sorry I made that mistake about your having a sister,’ she said to Sally. ‘I’ve written to tell Mother you said you hadn’t one. She must have mistaken what your mother said.”
Sally stood still and glared at Darrell as if she suddenly hated her. ‘What do you want to go interfering for?’ she burst out. ‘Leave me and my family alone! Little busybody, always sticking your nose into other people’s affairs!’
Darrell’s temper flares again, but for now her assault is merely verbal:
‘Oh, don’t be so silly!’ flared back Darrell, really exasperated now. ‘Anyone would think there was a deep, dark mystery, the way you go on! Anyway, I’ll just see what my mother says when she next writes to me—and I’ll tell you.’
‘I don’t want to know. I won’t know!’ said Sally, and she put out her hands as if she was fending Darrell off. ‘I hate you, Darrell Rivers—you with your mother who comes to see you off, and sends you things and writes you long letters and comes to see you! And you boast about that to me; you do it all on purpose. You’re mean, mean, mean!’
You can probably guess what’s going on with Sally, right? But I love this bit, because while Blyton’s not exactly known as an observer of human psychology, I think she gets Sally exactly right here — that childishness that comes from fear and jealousy.
Darrell was utterly taken about. What in the wide world did Sally mean? She watched the girl go out of the room, and sank down on to a form, completely bewildered.