I have a new appreciation for Blyton right now, because I’ve been reading some early Angela Brazil novels, and, well.
Brazil was one of the pioneers of the girls boarding school novel as a genre in its own right, but her early stuff, at least, hasn’t aged well. I don’t just mean the old-fashioned, episodic narrative structure, I mean the bit where the heroine’s sister writes minstrel songs for a hobby (a … different term is used), or the long digression about the inhumanity of the Chinese. I have a new appreciation for Blyton’s “everyone is white, and we’ll just be prejudiced against the Europeans who aren’t English” approach.
Anyway, stay tuned for more about Brazil in the podcast I’m launching with my friend Heidi in the new year. Yes, it’s about boarding school stories. Obviously.
When we left Malory Towers, scholarship girl Ellen was flouncing out in tears after Daphne makes a just-barely-inaudible jibe about her limited finances.
Chapter 13: Poor Ellen!
Ellen is in a bad way, and none of her classmates understands why.
Nobody guessed that Ellen was getting more and more worried about her work. She knew that the end of term tests were coming along, and she wanted to come out well in them. She must!
I guess the modern version of this plotline would involve someone sitting Ellen down and giving her a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug.
But since this is the 1940s, Ellen just works herself too hard and, to her horror, gets sick. She can’t afford to miss any classes, so she resorts to throat lozenges and secret gargling — and yet, she still can’t stop herself from coughing in front of Miss Potts.
Because Miss Potts is The Very Best, she suspects right away that Ellen’s getting sick, but it’s not serious enough to force her into sickbay. Yet. I love you, Miss Potts.
But Ellen is feverish and unhappy, and acutely aware that she has no one to confide in. Not even Jean? Well, so Ellen assumes.
I don’t know what’s come over me lately, thought the girl. I used not to be like this, surely. I had plenty of friends at my other school. I wish I’d never left there. I wish I’d never won a scholarship!
Sickness resulting from overwork is a bit of a trope in girls school novels. It’s partially what we would consider stress-related illness, but might also be based on ideas about female delicacy — I haven’t read enough boys school novels to know if it’s a trope there, too. But whereas a few generations earlier, the cure might have been to withdraw a girl from education all together, here the cure involves some rest followed by sports.
Meanwhile, Alicia is typically unsympathetic to Ellen.
She didn’t like people who coughed or sniffed or groaned. She had no sympathy to spare for those who needed it. She was a healthy, strong, clever girl, who had never been ill in her life, and she scorned stupid people, or those who were delicate and ailing, or in trouble. She was hard, and it didn’t seem as if she was getting any kinder.
Alicia gets her comeuppance in the fourth book, and frankly, it’s not a minute too soon. (Specifically, she gets measles in the middle of important exams, and has to be quarantined. Vaccinate your kids, guys!)
Darrell often wondered how she could so badly have wanted Alicia to be her friend when she had first come to Malory Towers!
Darrell, honey, we all wondered.
Unlike Miss Potts, Miss Parker doesn’t notice that Ellen’s under the weather:
Miss Parker did not often take any notice of Ellen. She was usually a quiet girl, with a name for bad temper, and Miss Parker was not at all interested in her, though sometimes surprised that her work was not better.
Miss Parker, you are vastly inferior to Miss Potts in every possible way.
On the other hand, Sally is so kind to Ellen that she starts crying — but, of course, it’s Forthright Jean who gets Ellen into Matron’s care, by promising to share her notes from their classes.
Remember the good old days, when a bad cold meant being sent to bed for a whole week? Ellen, of course, is less pleased, but there’s no escaping from Matron’s care.
Jean reports to the others that Ellen is quite ill, with a very high fever.
“She coughed like anything in prep tonight,” said Sally. “I felt sorry for her.”
“Well, Alicia didn’t,” said Gwen, maliciously. “She told her to shut up! Dear, kind Alicia!”
Alicia has a bit of a sulk because she knows Gwen’s not wrong — and Alicia isn’t into taking what she usually dishes out.
Even Darrell joins the criticism, because Alicia’s well and truly in her bad books. For her part, Alicia feels guilty about her behaviour lately — “…but how could she know [Ellen] was really ill? She hadn’t any time for that silly Ellen, Always snapping and snarling at everyone! Let her be ill! A good thing if she was away from the class for a while. She wouldn’t miss her!”
So maybe Alicia doesn’t feel that bad.
As soon as Ellen starts to recover, the anxiety comes back. She needs to be close to the top of the class to keep her scholarship, and she doesn’t want to let her parents down by losing it. Her family isn’t wealthy, and even with the fees covered, the other expenses were a strain:
The uniform had been so expensive. Even the train fare was expensive. It was a good thing she had been able to get a lift down in somebody’s car. Mother had bought her a new trunk and a new suitcase. More expense. Oh, dear — was it really a good thing to win a scholarship to a school like Malory Towers if you had to count your pennies? Perhaps it wasn’t.
And here’s an article from 2016 about the same issue in Australia.
Naturally, the stress slows Ellen’s recovery, to the puzzlement of Matron. But Matron authorises Jean to pay a visit, so in she comes, “bringing a pot of honey”.
(Terrible Malory Towers drinking game: drink every time you’re reminded that rationing is still in effect.)
Ellen: I hope you brought homework!
Jean: You are an alien. An actual alien.
But then Matron catches them talking about lessons, and outright forbids Jean to bring her class notes.
Ellen is doomed to failure.
Chapter 14: Ellen has a bad idea
SAD STORY: this chapter opens, “Nobody missed Ellen very much.”
This is a segue into a bit about how the girls — and by “girls”, I mean Darrell — do miss Mary-Lou when she’s not around.
You see, Darrell is missing Mary-Lou quite badly, because instead of tagging along with her and Sally, Mary-Lou is “attaching herself firmly to Daphne”.
Darrell — sorry, “the girls” — thinks Daphne is using Mary-Lou for her French skills, but Mary-Lou insists that, not only does Daphne genuinely like her, but she’s the only person in the world who needs Mary-Lou’s help and company.
In fact, Mary-Lou thinks that Darrell “only puts up with her out of the kindness of Darrell’s heart”:
“You’ve got Sally. You let me tag along behind you like a nice puppy — but you don’t really want me, and I couldn’t possibly help you in any way.”
Mary-Lou has some pretty serious self-esteem issues to unpack here.
But Daphne, as we know, really does like Mary-Lou, although that might be partially because Mary-Lou enjoys her glamorous stories, and doesn’t interrupt to talk about herself as much as Gwen.
After eleven days, Ellen finally comes back to school, determined to catch up. She asks Mis Parker for extra coaching. Miss Parker responds:
“No, Ellen. You’re not even up to your ordinary work at the moment, let alone taking extra coaching. I shan’t expect much from you, nor will anyone else. So don’t worry.”
This, to me, is not good teaching. Like, if you have a student who isn’t working to the standard you’d expect, based on her previous work, do you offer her extra help, or do you write her off? And surely, in a case like this, if the school has decided not to worry about Ellen’s scholarship for this term, shouldn’t someone tell her?
I’d like to say that Miss Potts would never stand for this, but both Mam’zelles agree with Miss Parker, so who knows?
Exams are just ten days away, and that’s when Ellen gets the titular bad idea:
If you could perhaps see the test-papers before they were given out! If you could read the questions and know what you were going to be asked!
Ooookay, exclamation marks.
Blyton goes into a spiel about how Ellen has never been tempted to cheat, because “people didn’t cheat if they could do as well or better without cheating!” I’m not sure that’s necessarily true, but I’ll allow that Blyton wasn’t writing in an age when you could buy an essay off the internet and keep on playing World of Warcraft all night.
On the other hand, the crux of the matter — that it’s easy to not cheat if you’ve never needed to — is fair. And temptation keeps nagging at Ellen — especially when she finds herself alone in Miss Parker’s room, with a test-paper lying on her desk.
BUT NO, it’s an exam for the first form.
But now the temptation is irresistible, and she spends a lot of time slipping into Miss Parker’s room, or Miss Potts’s. Alicia finds her going through Miss Parker’s desk in the classroom, and Ellen has to make an excuse about looking for her fountain pen.
Then Darrell finds her in Miss Potts’s room, and Ellen is appalled to realise that she’s becoming a smooth liar.
(I have to say, this whole section is still INCREDIBLY STRESSFUL for me to read, having been a high achieving kid who missed a lot of school and was often behind.)
The girls are hanging out in the common room, discussing Ellen’s failings, when Gwen comes in, asking if anyone’s seen her purse. She put five pounds in it that morning, and now it’s gone.
Daphne helps her search, then offers to lend her the money — or, rather, to repay what she owes. But — shock — her purse is gone, too!
And just a couple of days earlier, Belinda lost two pounds — although no one thought anything of that, because let’s face it, Belinda not losing stuff would be more noteworthy.
It’s Gwen who quietly wonders if someone is taking the money — but Alicia is the one who remembers seeing Ellen going through Miss Parker’s desk, looking for a “lost” fountain pen she used in the very next lesson.
So Alicia sets out to keep an eye on Ellen, despite her lingering bitterness that it’s Sally who’ll be resolving this issue. (Yes, whether or not petty theft should be escalated to the teachers is up to the discretion of the head girl.)
Needless to say, Alicia’s constant presence makes it difficult for Ellen to go looking for exam papers. Which is good, in a way, but Ellen doesn’t see it in that light.
I particularly love this illustration from the Spanish edition of Alicia cheerfully disrupting Ellen mid-sneak. (Enrique Lorenzo’s Ellen is as goth as you can get without making these depictions too modern, and I adore it.)
Daphne makes up for the loss of her purse by borrowing money from Mary-Lou, but Gwendoline “had been taught not to borrow”. I grew up in the age of credit cards, so this bit introduced me to a whole new concept.
Gwen is also appalled that Daphne offers to lend her some of Mary-Lou’s money.
“That’s the worst of being as rich as you are — I suppose you just simply don’t understand the value of money!”
This is the closest Gwen has ever come to criticising Daphne — but she gets over it quickly.
“I expect you’re right!” she said. “I’ve always had as much money as I wanted — I don’t really know the value of it. It’s the way I’ve been brought up. Don’t be cross, Gwen.”
“I don’t know what would happen to you if you were ever in real need of money!” said Gwendoline. “You would be miserable without your yacht and your cars and your staff and your beautiful house! How I wish I could see them all!”
This blatant hint doesn’t get her an invitation to spend Christmas with Daphne’s family — so Gwen resigns herself to spending the holiday with her “adoring mother and worshipping governess”.
It’s hard, being Gwen.
It’s also hard ending chapters, apparently, because that’s it for now!