First Term at Malory Towers – chapters 4 and 5

These chapters are so short, I’m going to take them two at a time from now on.

Chapter 4: Miss Potts’ Form

All the school met each morning for prayers.

I’m pretty sure this is the only time that’s mentioned, and it’s the only hint that Malory Towers is anything other than a secular school.

Darrell is amazed that her class is so big it contains 25 or 30 girls!  Contemporary school teachers, this is your queue to laugh/sigh.

We catch a glimpse of the other French mistress, Mam’zelle Rougier:

She was skinny, tall and bony. Her hair too was done up in a little bun, but at the back instead of on top. Darrell thought she looked bad-tempered.

In the classroom, Gwen commits yet another faux pas:

‘Bags I [a desk] by the window!’ said a fat girl and plumped herself down there.

‘Bags I one too,’ said Gwendoline. But the fat girl stared in surprise.

‘You’re new aren’t you? Well, you can’t choose your own seat, then. New girls have to take the desks left over when the old girls have chosen the ones they want.’

GOD, GWENDOLINE, WHY CAN’T YOU FOLLOW THE ARBITRARY AND UNWRITTEN STUDENT-ENFORCED SOCIAL RULES YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT UNTIL NOW?  WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU?

Darrell hangs back like the good social conformist she is, and gets a seat with Alicia and Alicia’s BFF/partner-in-crime, Betty.  Betty is from West Tower.  I’m pretty sure there’s a line in a future book about the school’s firm refusal to transfer her to North Tower, on the grounds that the school would fall into anarchy.  Anyway, this is the only cross-house friendship we see.

Betty and Alicia are kind of the Fred and George Weasley of the series, only less funny.

Miss Potts lays down the law:

‘Last term there were one or two girls who seemed to like to be bottom every week,’ she said. ‘Leave that place to the new girls, please, and go up a few places! I never expect much of new girls their first term – but I shall expect quite a lot of you.”

A few girls went red. Miss Potts went on talking. ‘I don’t really think I’ve any brainless girls this term,’ she said, “though I don’t know much about the new girls, of course. If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course—but if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.’

If Professor McGonagall was the head of Hufflepuff instead of Gryffindor, she’d be Miss Potts.

To modern eyes it seems strange that students as young as twelve are being ranked like this, and weekly.  When I was at school, rankings like that didn’t appear until the second semester of year 12, when they were linked to university placements.  (If anyone cares, I was in the top five for all my subjects except maths.  And that’s genuinely impressive, since I had surgery and missed a long stretch of school!  But I think I was, like, third from the bottom in maths, and that was in a cohort of a couple of hundred.  GO TEAM ALGEBRAICALLY CHALLENGED!)

Miss Potts is predictably unimpressed with Gwendoline’s hair, which spills all over her desk as she grapples with some maths problems.  She has to plait it … or get her mother to have it cut short in the school holidays.

“AS IF!” says Gwen.

Well, actually she thinks, “As if Mother would dream of cutting off her beautiful fine sheet of hair.”  But wouldn’t the series be great if Gwen was actually Cher Horowitz?  (SPOILERS!  A spoilt, superficial but basically good-natured American girl does come to Malory Towers in the third book!  Sadly, she learns an important lesson about Being More English, and at no point is accused of being a virgin who can’t drive.)

Among Gwen’s many failings, she can’t plait.

This was another thing that puzzled me as a kid, because for the longest time I couldn’t plait either.  My mum was raised by her dad, so certain feminine skills like plaiting and braiding just passed her by.  In the end, I sat down with my Barbie one Saturday morning and taught myself how to make a plait.  And that was only because the other girls at school would come in with very elaborate braids, and I wanted to learn how to do that.  (I never did figure out braiding!)

Gwen’s basically home-schooled, and her education didn’t include hairstyles.  Seems a bit rough to judge her on that, but then, I save most of my judgement for her mother and governess, who seem to have been so busy weeping over the imminent separation that they didn’t tell Gwen that a neat ponytail will suffice for school.

Meanwhile, Darrell is attempting to befriend Sally:

Sally Hope was sitting on the grass alone, no expression at all on her closed-up face. Darrell went over to her. ‘What do you think of Malory Towers?’ she said. ‘I think it’s fine.’

Sally looked up primly. ‘It’s not bad,’ she said.

‘Were you sorry to leave your other school?’ asked Darrell. ‘I wanted to come to Malory, of course, but I hated leaving all my friends. Didn’t you hate leaving all your friends too?’

‘I don’t think I had any, really,’ said Sally, considering. Darrell thought that was queer. It was hard to get anything out of Sally. She was polite and answered questions, but she didn’t ask any in return.

“Ambiguity” isn’t something one really associates with Enid Blyton’s writing, but I’m always intrigued by Sally’s declaration that she had no friends at her old school.  Is she saying she was a complete loner who despised human company?  Or, perhaps, did she have a circle of friends, but they all drifted away when she entered what’s obviously a difficult phase of her life, and now she wonders whether they were truly friends at all?

Darrell plaits Gwen’s hair for her, and gets NO THANKS WHATSOEVER in return.  Oh, Gwen, social skills aren’t actually beneath you.

Chapter 5:  The First Week Goes By 

We belatedly meet some more of Darrell’s schoolmates, including Mary-Lou, the class scaredycat:

Mary-Lou was a scared mouse of a girl. She was frightened of mice, beetles, thunderstorms, noises at night, the dark, and a hundred other things. Poor Mary-Lou. No wonder she had big scared eyes. Darrell, not easily scared of anything, laughed when she saw poor Mary-Lou rush to the other side of the dormy because she saw an earwig on the floor.

THAT’S NOT VERY NICE, DARRELL.  Also, after all these years I finally googled “earwig”, and they look like this:

For some reason I was expecting something more … earlike. In a wig.

And, okay, I can think of more hideous insects, but ew.

We meet Irene, who is an absent-minded genius.  Notably she’s a mathematical and musical genius — two fields are related, but the maths is not exactly traditionally feminine.

There’s also Emily, who sews, and … well, she sews.  She’s sew great.  And there’s Jean, who is Scottish and therefore good with money.

Mam’zelle disliked Jean because Jean was scornful of Mam’zelle’s enthusiasms and emotions. Jean herself never went into ecstasies about anything.

Welp, that’s the Scottish taken care of!

And there’s Violet, the most pointless character ever created:

Violet, a shy. colourless child, very much left out of things because she never seemed to take any interest in them. Half the form never even noticed whether Violet was with them or not.

THEN WHAT IS SHE HERE FOR, ENID?  Aside from presumably making up the numbers in the dorm.  You know that episode of Buffy where a girl is ignored so hard she becomes invisible?  That’s Violet.  I don’t think she’s ever mentioned again in the series.

But maybe Violet is secretly a ninja assassin, and Darrell just doesn’t notice because she’s too busy nursing an epic girl-crush on Alicia:

She knew a great deal about Alicia, but then, so did everyone, for Alicia poured out everything that came into her head, she chattered about her brothers, her mother and father, her dogs, her work, her play, her knitting, her opinion of everything and everybody under the sun.

Alicia had no time at all for airs and graces, pretences, sighs, moans or affectations. She was as downright as Darrell, but not so kind. She was scornful and biting when it pleased her, so that girls like Gwendoline hated her, and those like scared Mary-Lou feared her. Darrell liked her immensely.

‘She’s so lively,’ she thought to herself. ‘Nobody could be dull with Alicia. I wish I was as interesting as she is. Everyone listens when Alicia speaks, even when she says something unkind. But nobody pays much attention when I want to say something. I do really like Alicia, and I wish she hadn’t got Betty for a friend. She’s just the one I would have chosen.’

Oh honey.

I actually like that Darrell spends much of this book kind of failing at everything.  Blyton’s school story heroines either come in with a terrible attitude and Learn A Valuable Lesson, or they come in with a good attitude and Succeed.  So it’s nice that Darrell’s success isn’t instant, even though it means lots of paragraphs about how great Alicia is, and how she smells like Christmas, and she does joke shop commercials … in Japan, and one time she punched Gwen in the face.  And it was awesome.

This was a cover to a 1998 edition. SUCH A GREAT DECADE.

(I have made a TERRIBLE DISCOVERY!  Whilst searching the internet for a picture appropriate for a Mean Girls macro, I realised that I’m doing this BACKWARDS!  The St Clare’s books were published from 1941-45, and THEN Malory Towers appeared!)

One interesting bit:

No one seemed to like two girls called Doris and Fanny. ‘Too spiteful for words.’ said Alicia, who of course, could always give an opinion immediately about anyone or anything from Winston Churchill down to the little boy belonging to the Tower House cook. ‘They’re frightfully pi.’

‘What do you mean, pi?’ said Gwendoline, who hadn’t apparently heard that word before.

‘Golly—what an ignoramus you are!’ said Alicia. ‘Pi means pious. Religious in the wrong way. Thinking they’re wonderful and nobody else is. Trying to stop people’s pleasure. They’re a sickening pair. Always on the prowl and on the snoop.’

It’s good to see the Christian Right was around and doing its thing in the mid-1940s.  I’m sorry, however, that we don’t get to hear Alicia’s opinion on Winston Churchill.

One of the tropes Blyton loves in her school stories is the class prankster, who plays increasingly elaborate jokes on teachers and, occasionally, fellow students.  The Fred and George type.  Alicia is the prank player, Darrell is the egger-onnerer:

‘If they try any tricks on me, I’ll try a few on them!”

‘Oh, do, do,’ begged Darrell, who had a great weakness for jokes and tricks. She didn’t always dare to do them herself, but she was always ready to back up any one else who did.

OH DARRELL.

One of the most memorable features of Malory Towers is its swimming pool:

One of the things that Darrell liked best of all was the big swimming-pool down by the sea. This had been hollowed out of a stretch of rocks, so that it had a nice rocky, uneven bottom. Seaweed grew at the sides, and sometimes the rocky bed of the pool felt a iittle slimy. But the sea swept into the big natural pool each day, filled it, and made lovely waves all across it. It was a sheer delight to bathe there.

The coast itself was too dangerous for bathing. The tides were so strong, and no giri was allowed to swim in the open sea. But anyone was safe in the pool. One end was quite deep, and here there were diving-boards and a chute, and a fine spring-board for running dives.

I used to think this was unrealistic and probably dangerous, but then I read about the ocean baths of New South Wales.

So the first week passes, and Darrell is the most popular of the North Tower new girls.  But the chapter ends with FORESHADOWING!

‘Oh, my.’ said Darrell. ‘I love it. If every term is as nice as this, I shall be thrilled!’

‘Ah, you wait,’ said Alicia. ‘Everything’s always all right at first -but when you’ve had a wigging or two from Mam’zelle, and been dosed by Matron, and kept in by Potty, and slated by Miss Remmington, and ticked off by one of the older girls and…!’

‘Oh stop!’ cried Darrell. ‘Nothing like that will happen, Alicia. Don’t try and frighten me!’

But Alicia was right, of course. Things were not going to be quite so smooth and easy as Darrell thought!

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4 comments
  1. I often get confused as to which set of boarding school books I’m reading, and having a Mary-Lou who is scared of things here, and a Mary-Lou who is very nearly the second coming in the Chalet school books, always confused me for the first few pages after they were introduced!

  2. lizbarr said:

    Which is funny, because I wouldn’t have picked “Mary-Lou” as a hugely common name!

  3. Loving these posts – precious nostalgia! And the commentary ain’t too shabby either.

    • lizbarr said:

      LOVELY NOSTALGIA!

      Researching contemporary boarding schools, I was mildly disappointed (but not actually surprised) to learn that the modern version of the midnight feast is Sneak Off, Smoke Cigarettes, Drink Alcohol.

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