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Chapter 13: Half-Term at Last!

For some reason, every time I think of HALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERM, I’m reminded of this comic.  I’m sorry, I can’t help it.

The girls became very excited at the beginning of half-term week. Many of them would see their parents on the Saturday—and Miss Remmington, the games-mistress, had suddenly decided to have a small edition of the Swimming Sports for the benefit of the parents.

I presume the other teachers were all like, “Thanks, Remmington, couldn’t you have thought of that, like, at the beginning of the term?  Are we not busy enough?  If there’s one thing that teenagers are good at, it’s last-minute organisation!”

Darrell’s pretty excited by HALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRM, but first she’s in for a shock.  This is one of those schools where students’ class rankings are routinely read out for all to hear, as if that’s not deeply humiliating and potentially demotivating … and Darrell’s doing kind of badly.  Like, Mary-Lou-and-Gwen-type-badly.

Darrell goes off to see Miss Potts, to let her know that her parents are paying good money for this education, and they expect the school to produce the goods ask what happened.

‘Let me see—what were you? Quite a long way down,’ said Miss Potts, pulling the list to her and looking at it. ‘Yes, that’s right. I was surprised and disappointed, Darrell. You did so well in the first two weeks.’

‘But Miss Potts,’ said Darrell, and then stopped. She didn’t know quite how to say what she wanted to say. She wanted to say that she had much better brains than at least half the form, so why was she so low? But somehow that sounded conceited.

Here’s the first edition’s illustration of this scene:

Miss Potts, man. She’s so great.

How fierce is Miss Potts, eh?

However Miss Potts, who was very quick-minded, saw her difficulty. ‘You have come to ask me how it is you are nearer the bottom than the top when you could so easily be among the top ones?’ she said. ‘Well, I’ll tell you, Darrell. There are people like Alicia, who can play the fool in class and waste their time and everyone else’s, and yet still come out well in their work. And there are people like you, who can also play the fool and waste their time—but unfortunately it affects their work and they slide down to the bottom. Do you understand?’

DEAR MISS POTTS, WE HAVE A MESSAGE FOR YOU FROM POTTERMORE:

This whole scene is pretty key to the series and Darrell’s character, so I’m just going to type it all out:

Darrell flushed very red and looked as if she could sink through the floor. She nodded.

‘Yes, thank you,’ she said in a small voice. She looked at Miss Potts out of her clear brown eyes. ‘I wouldn’t have been so silly if I’d known it was going to affect my place in the form,’ she said. ‘I—I just thought as I had good brains and a good memory I’d be all right, anyhow. Daddy and Mother will be disappointed.’

‘They probably will,’ said Miss Potts, taking up her pencil again. ‘I shouldn’t copy Alicia and Betty too much if I were you, Darrell. You will be a finer character if you go along on your own, than if you copy other people. You see, what you do, you do whole-heartedly—so if you play the fool, naturally other things will suffer. Alicia is able to do two or three things quite well at one and the same time. That certainly has its points—but the best people in this world are the whole-hearted ones, if they can only make for the right things.’

‘I see,’ said Darrell. ‘Like my father. He’s whole-hearted. He’s a surgeon and he just goes in for giving back people their health and happiness with all this heart—so he’s marvellous.’

‘Exactly,’ said Miss Potts. ‘But if he split himself up, so to speak, and dabbled in half a dozen things, he would probably not be nearly such a remarkable surgeon. And when you choose something worth while like doctoring—or teaching— or writing or painting, it is best to be whole-hearted about it. It doesn’t so much matter for a second rate or third-rate person. But if you happen to have the makings of a first-rate person and you mean to choose a first-rate job when you grow up, then you must learn to be whole-hearted when you are young.’

Darrell didn’t like to ask Miss Potts if she thought she had the makings of a first-rate person in her, but she couldn’t help hoping that she had. She went away rather subdued. What a pity she hadn’t been whole-hearted over her work and got up to the top, instead of being whole-hearted over playing the fool with Alicia and Betty, and sliding down towards the bottom.

Note that Miss Potts isn’t wholly thrilled with Alicia as a person either.  SO THERE.  #TEAMPOTTY

I’m also a little charmed that Blyton — because surely she’s speaking through Miss Potts here — regards teaching and the creative professions as deserving the same respect as medicine.

Gwen, meanwhile, is looking forward to HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM because it’s a chance to, um, rub her governess’s face in it?

How small she would make Miss Winter feel, when she talked of her lessons and how wonderful she was at everything!

Wow, Gwen.  Wow.

Sadly, Mary-Lou’s mother can’t make it, so she’s stuck with Gwen, and Gwen’s ego for the day.  BUT WAIT, A WILD DARRELL APPEARS!

Darrell’s all, “Hey, Mary-Lou, you should totes spend the day with me and my family.”  And Mary-Lou’s like, “I’d love to!  But how will I tell Gwen?”

‘I think you’re a bit hard on her,’ she remarked, in her forthright Scots voice.

“Forthright” is such an odd adjective in this context.  Yes, Jean is outspoken and honest, but is her voice outspoken and honest?

‘Well, it’s all for her good,’ said Darrell. ‘If I can make her have a little courage, she’ll thank me for it. I said those things purposely, to shame her into going to Gwendoline and asking her.’

‘You’ve shamed her all right, but not in the way that will make her pluck up her courage.’ said Jean. ‘You’ve given her the kind of shame that puts people into despair!’

You know, I really haven’t given Jean enough appreciation in these posts.  Let’s change that.  JEAN, YOU GUYS.  SHE’S PRETTY EXCELLENT.  She turns up, says sensible and often funny things, and then leaves.  Like Irene, only her hat is being Scottish, not a genius.

Meanwhile, Mary-Lou’s developing a full-blown anxiety disorder, not at all helped by Gwen:

‘Fancy Darrell having the cheek to ask you, after I’d asked you!’ she said. ‘I’m glad you had the decency to refuse, Mary-Lou. You’d surely not want to go off with a girl like that, who thinks you’re such a poor worm?’

‘No.’ said Mary-Lou, and couldn’t say any more. If only she could have said yes, boldly, right out! But she couldn’t.

I SYMPATHISE, MARY-LOU.  My therapist sent me away last week with instructions to be mindful of situations where my first instinct is to do my best impression of a welcome mat.  It’s surprisingly hard!  And that’s just being aware of the instinct, not actually doing anything to assert myself!

HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERM arrives at last, and Darrell is in high spirits.  She’s even singing!  She’s in such a good mood that she impulsively invites Sally to join her for the day.

‘I’d rather not, thank you,’ said Sally, in a stiff little voice, and went on up the cliff without another word.

BURN.

All this rejection is getting a bit awkward for Darrell because her mother is particularly keen to meet her friends, and it’s starting to look like Darrell doesn’t actually have any.  Finally, she invites Emily — you remember Emilly?  She’s really into sewing — and Emily happily accepts.  This is lucky, because after that, there was only Violet, and that would first involve remembering her existence.  Which, obviously, Blyton doesn’t.

Chapter 14: A Really Lovely Day

HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF-TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRMMMMMMMMMMM!  Are you sick of this joke yet?  Well, tough, I’m not.

Things the narrative notes about Darrell’s parents:

  • their car is “plain and black”
  • Darrell’s father drives it himself
  • Darrell’s mother is “pretty, amusing and sensible”

That last comes from Emily, who is almost forgotten in Darrell’s excitement at seeing her parents.  Mrs Rivers doesn’t quite know what to make of Emily, who’s a lot quieter than she expected of one of Darrell’s close friends.

She did not know that as yet Darrell had no definite friend.

RUB IT IN, WHY DON’T YOU?

I also like Emily’s take on Mr Rivers:

…and as for [Darrell’s] father, well, any one would trust him at sight, thought Emily, gazing at his determined, good-looking face with its big dark eyes and intensly black eyebrows, just like Darrell’s but bigger and shaggier.

Mr Rivers was based on Blyton’s second husband, remember, so this is an especially sweet tribute to the man.

BY WAY OF CONTRAST, of course, we have Gwen’s mother and governess.  (Gwen’s father has chosen to absent himself from proceedings, because it’s not like Gwen could do with a stronger and stricter presence in her life, right?)

She saw Gwendoline with two women—one obviously her mother, with bright golden hair like Gwendoline’s and a rather babyish, empty face. The other must be Miss Winter, the governess, thought Darrell. What an awful person!

Poor Miss Winter was not really awful. She was plain and poor and always eager to agree with everyone. She adored Gwendoline because she was pretty and graceful, and did not seem to see the selfishness and spoilt ways of the silly little girl.

I feel like everything about Miss Winter’s life can be summed up in that one sentence — she has few resources of her own, but as long as she’s agreeable to the Laceys, she has security and an income. It’s not a good position at all.

Speaking of bad positions, Mary-Lou is stuck listening to Gwen’s OUTRAGEOUS WEB OF LIES:

‘I’m almost the best at tennis in our form,’ she heard Gwendoline say. ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if I’m put into a match-team, Mother!’

‘Oh, darling—how clever you are!’ said Mrs. Lacey, fondly. Mary-Lou stared at Gwendoline in surprise. Why, everyone knew Gwendoline was a real muff at all games!

‘And Mam’zelle is very pleased with my French,’ went on Gwendoline. ‘I believe I might be top in that. She says I have a splendid accent.’

Miss Winter glowed. ‘Oh, Gwen darling! Isn’t that lovely now? I did my best with you, of course, but I was always afraid it was rather a poor best, because I’ve never been to France.’

Mary-Lou longed to say that Gwendoline was always bottom in the French class, but she did not dare to. How could Gwendoline stuff her people up with such a lot of lies? And how could they believe them?

‘Are you going to go in for the swimming-match this afternoon?’ asked Mrs. Lacey, looking fondly at Gwendoline, who today had her shining golden hair loose down her back, and looked, so her mother thought, like a real angel.

‘No, I thought I wouldn’t, Mother,’ said Gwendoline. ‘It’s best to give the others a chance. After all, I’ve done well at so many things.’

SO GREAT.  SO GREAT.  I guess the class rankings aren’t put on display for the parents.

But it’s okay, because Gwen has a Darrell-shaped comeuppance!

Then Darrell spoilt it all! She passed by with her mother and father, and Mrs. Lacey was struck by her good looks and happy smile.

‘There’s a nice girl, dear!’ she said to Gwendoline. ‘Is she one of your friends? Let us speak to her.’

‘Oh no, she’s not a friend of mine,’ began Gwendoline, but Mary-Lou, delighted at this praise of Darrell, was calling to her. ‘Darrell! Darrell! Mrs. Lacey wants to speak to you.’

Darrell went over to Mrs. Lacey and was introduced by a glowering Gwendoline. ‘And are you going to go in for the swimming-sports?’ asked Mrs. Lacey, graciously. ‘I hear dear Gwendoline is not, bless her.’

‘Gwendoline! Oh, she can’t swim a stroke!’ said Darrell. ‘We always yell at her because she takes five minutes putting one toe into the water. Don’t we, Gwendoline?’

This was all said in good humour and fun—but Gwendoline could willingly have pushed Darrell over the cliff at that moment! She went very red.

Mrs. Lacey really thought that Darrell was joking. She laughed the tinkling laugh which she thought was so pretty. ‘I suppose if Gwendoline entered she’d beat you all!’ she said. ‘As she does at tennis—and lessons, I suppose.’

Darrell looked in astonishment at Gwendoline, who was glaring at her, crimson in the face. ‘Gwendoline’s been stuffing you up, I expect!’ she said with a laugh, and went off to join her own party.

‘What a very outspoken, blunt sort of girl,’ said Miss Winter, puzzled and worried.

FORTHRIGHT, MISS WINTER.  LOOK IT UP.  (I had to.)

It turns out that not even Mary-Lou can be bullied into saying that Gwen is great at sport.  I like to picture her looking around wildly, going, “LOOK OVER THERE!” and jumping in the pool to escape.  Though actually she just remembers an urgent appointment with Mam’zelle.

BACK TO THE MYSTERY OF SALLY.  Mrs Rivers spots her and wants a word, as she has a message for her from Mrs Hope.  But Sally pretends not to hear Darrell call, and hides in the bushes. Only not really:

She plunged down into a path that led through some bushes in the drive and disappeared.

Darrell’s invitation to Emily backfires, as she and Mrs Rivers bond over embroidery, which Darrell can’t stand.  Ooops.  But we move on to one of Blyton’s characteristic food descriptions:

Cold chicken and pickles—pickles! There was never a pickle to be seen at school. Little cardboard containers full of fresh salad and mayonnaise sauce. Delicious! Jam-tarts and slabs of chocolate ice-cream. What a lunch!

And, naturally, ginger beer to wash it down.  I must be hungry, because that sounds to me like the perfect meal.  PICKLES.

Then they go back to the school for the swimming, and more hilarious Gwen shenanigans:

The swimming-sports were exciting. Mrs. Rivers was delighted with Darrell’s strong swimming, graceful diving, and fearlessness. She was one of the best of the small girls. Some of the big girls were extremely clever in their diving, especially Marilyn, the sixth-form games-captain. Everyone cheered her as she did a graceful swallow-dive from the topmost board.

‘And can you do all these things, darling?’ Darrell heard

Mrs. Lacey ask Gwendoline. Gwendoline, who was near Darrell and a few others, looked round warily, wishing her mother wouldn’t ask such awkward questions in public.

‘Well—not quite all,’ she said, and Miss Winter patted her fondly on the shoulder.

But all this is secondary to the important matter of Sally: What The Hell Is Up With Her?

‘Mother! There’s Sally Hope again!’ said Darrell suddenly, catching sight of Sally’s head in the distance. ‘I’ll get her in a minute. By the way, you never told me how that mistake about Sally’s baby sister happened—the one you said she had got, and hasn’t.’

‘But Darrell dear—she has got a baby sister!’ said her mother in surprise. ‘I’ve seen her!’

‘Well—whatever does Sally mean!’ said Darrell. ‘I really must get her and find out!’

END CHAPTER ON A DRAMATIC NOTE

Short fiction for Hallowe’en seems to have exploded in the last few years, or maybe I’m only just starting to notice it.  I don’t care much for horror, or creepypasta in general — my BFF is obsessed with the NoSleep boards on Reddit, and I’m like, BUT I WANT TO SLEEP! — but I do enjoy a good ghost story now and then.

“Over the River” by Katherine Traylor is a really excellent, atmospheric, creepy story.  It reminded me of one of the Hugo-nominated novellas of this year, except it wasn’t sexist or annoying, and also I can remember the title.  OKAY, THAT SOUNDS LIKE FAINT PRAISE.  Despite a superficial similarity to that story, “Over the River” is really good.  It felt like the set-up for a novel, but also stands on its own.  You should go and read it and stuff.

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!

NIGHTMARE SCENARIO.

‘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.

SHERLOCK 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.

Next chapter: SPRING BREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAK!  I mean, HALF TEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRRRRM!

Deb Stanish and L M Myles, editors of Chicks Unravel Time — hey, I’m in that, remember? — were interviewed over the weekend by Radio Free Skaro, which instantly became the very first podcast I listened to.

At one point, discussion arises as to whether CUT is specifically a feminist book, and the editors disagreed.  Deb said that just because a book is written by women, it isn’t automatically feminist.  LMM pointed out that simply “talking about Doctor Who” has traditionally been a masculine activity — there have always been women in the fandom, but books of criticism about the series have very rarely featured women’s voices.

In a desperate attempt to suck up to both editors at once, I’ve been flipping back and forth all day.

See, I agree with Deb that merely being written by a woman doesn’t make a work feminist … but then I find myself thinking, no, but the act of writing itself might be.

And I agree with LMM that discourse about Doctor Who has been traditionally male-dominated (to say nothing of the show itself, which has had shockingly few female writers, directors and producers).    On the other hand, the Aussiecon panels in 2004 amply demonstrated that just because a woman is talking about Doctor Who, she isn’t necessarily saying feminist things.

(This is to say nothing of the many other misogynistic ideas that I’ve seen women in fandom promote — that Amy’s worth is defined by the length of her skirts; that marriage makes River and Amy worthless; that it was a feminist act for Rose to discard every aspect of her life that didn’t revolve around the Doctor; and so on, and on, and on.)

Well, I thought, as I pottered around making tea, I know my essay didn’t have an explicitly feminist agenda.

Sure, said the other part of my brain, it’s just about how season 17 was badly received by male fans because it was driven to a large extent by female characters.  And then you start writing about the Countess Scarlioni’s personality instead of her looks, which has never been done before.  And your general “Romana is the Doctor” agenda.

Goodo, then!  Pats on the back for me!

And, of course, feminism is a broad church.  I have a friend who thinks all sex work is exploitation, and another who has featured in feminist porn.  I know pro-life feminists and feminists who think that’s a contradiction in terms.  Fandom is full of women who seem to have very serious feminist objections to the existence of mothers, although personally I suspect that’s more about their psychology than feminism.

I don’t think Catherine Deveny’s writing is especially feminist, except occasionally by accident, but I have friends who worship her.  Someone out there thinks Germaine Greer and Helen Razer are relevant.  Personally I draw the line at feminists who limit the concept to cis, white, able-bodied women, and everything else, maybe I’ll disagree, but it’s not a life or death issue.

Incidentally, “feminism” doesn’t look like a word anymore.

SO, IN CONCLUSION, I’m fairly optimistic that CUT will be regarded by some people as a great feminist work, and by others as an abomination unto Nuggan.  (The same day it was announced, a post went up on Tumblr decrying the use of “chicks” in the title, so odds are good.)  And I have to say, I’m eager to see how the debate plays out.

Ahem: “Hur, hur, that looks like an innuendo.”

Sorry, had to be done.

The chapter begins with a sensual description of swimming in a cold pool on a hot day.  I hear you Enid.  Even though it’s freezing right now and the thought of immersing myself in icy water is … unpleasant.

Darrell loved to have a game of tennis and then sprint down to the pool to bathe. Oh, the delicious coolness of the water then! She couldn’t understand how Gwendoline or Mary-Lou could possibly shrink from getting in. But they insisted that the hotter the day, the colder the water felt, and they didn’t like it.

Darrell sings the praises of the icy cold plunge, and finishes by calling Mary-Lou and Gwen cowards.

Neither Mary-Lou nor Gwendoline liked being called cowards.

WELL, THERE’S A SHOCK.

Mary-Lou resents, rightly, being lumped in a category with Gwen merely because they share a common distaste.  Also, her wooing is becoming more like stalking:

She tried her hardest to make Darrell pleased with her by running after her more than ever, even to tidying her locker in the common room, which exasperated Darrell because Mary-Lou always altered her arrangement of things.

‘ What’s happened to my sweets? I know I put them in the front here. And where’s my writing-pad? Blow, and I’m in such a hurry, too!’

And out would come every single thing in the locker, higgledy-piggledy on the floor! Mary-Lou would look on mournfully.

‘Oh—I tidied them all so nicely for you,’ she would say.

‘Well, don’t!’ Darrell would order. ‘Why don’t you go and bother with somebody else’s things? You always seem to make a bee-line for mine. You seem to have got a craze for tidying things and putting them away. You go and do Alicia’s—they’re much untidier than mine! Just leave mine alone!’

“I only do it to help you,’ Mary-Lou would murmur.

Yeah, Mary-Lou, no.  Step away from the personal possessions!

Alicia doesn’t appreciate Mary-Lou’s unsolicited tidying any more than Darrell does, and is even less tactful about it, if that’s possible.

‘Can’t you see when you’re a nuisance?’ she said. ‘Can’t you see we don’t want a little ninny like you always flapping round us? Look at that photograph! Smashed to bits just because you started messing around.’

Yep.  It’s possible.

Unfortunately, Darrell and Alicia are driving Mary-Lou right into the arms of Gwendoline.

‘Hallo! Crying again! Whatever’s up now?’ asked Gwendoline, who was always interested in other people’s rows, though never sympathetic.

I just love that, “Hallo!  Crying again!”  It reminds me of that bit in Harry Potter, when Harry wakes up from a nightmare and Sean’s all, “Somebody attacking you again, Harry?”

Gwen is just fascinated to learn that Mary-Lou is having problems with Alicia and Darrell, and is deeply sympathetic, and even manages to get in a few digs at Betty!

As she spoke, a perfectly wonderful idea came into Gwendoline’s head. She stopped and thought a moment, her eyes shining. In one moment she saw how she could get even with Alicia and Darrell, yes, and give that stupid little Mary-Lou a few bad moments too.

It’s a little known fact that the word “frenemy” was created especially to describe Gwendoline Mary Lacey.

To Mary-Lou’s intense surprise she suddenly slipped her arm through the younger girl’s.

‘You be friends with me,’ she said, in a honeyed voice. ‘I shan’t treat you like Darrell does, and Alicia. I haven’t a wicked tongue like Alicia, or scornful eyes like Darrell. Why don’t you make friends with me? I shouldn’t jeer at you for any little kindnesses, I can tell you.’

Gwen is about as plausible as a snake, but Mary-Lou has low self-esteem and is desperate for a friend.  Still, her self-preservation instinct is not entirely atrophied:

She took her arm away from Gwendoline’s. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I can’t be friends with you, Gwendoline. You were very cruel to me that day in the pool. I’ve had dreams about it ever since.’

Imagine if Gwen was a guy being called out for cruel and bullying behaviour towards a girl he was now trying to ask out.  What would he say next?  I’m guessing the “It was just a joke” defence would come out.

WELL, WHAT HAVE WE GOT HERE?

‘It was just a joke.’

DING DING DING DING DING!

Mary-Lou is trapped.  She doesn’t want to be friends with Gwen, but she doesn’t know how to assert herself.  So she gives in:

‘Well,’ she said, hesitatingly, ‘well—if you really didn’t mean to hurt me, that time in the pool, Gwendoline, I’ll be friends. But I’m not going to talk against Darrell or Alicia.’

Gwendoline gave her arm a squeeze, bestowed another honeyed smile on the perplexed Mary-Lou and walked off to think out her suddenly conceived plan in peace.

Gwen’s plan is to play tricks on Mary-Lou, figuring that Alicia and Darrell will be blamed for them, as they’ve made no secret of their annoyance with Mary-Lou.  And Gwen genuinely believes that Darrell and Alicia would be that overtly cruel, even though their meanness is generally verbal and to one’s face rather than elaborate pranks designed to scare people.

She couldn’t even see that she was doing a mean thing. She called it ‘giving them all a lesson!’

I like this.  It’s plausible.  Most people don’t set out thinking, “Hah, I’m going to do the wrong thing!”  Rationalisations are go!

In fact, a similar plotline appears in the second season of Dance Academy — I really must do a post sometime about how Dance Academy combines boarding school and stage school tropes in one glorious Australian setting — when a girl destroys her pointe shoes and those of her “friend”, leaving the girl with undamaged shoes to take the blame.  But Grace doesn’t bother with rationalisations beyond the fact that her father ignores her and she’s jealous of the other students.  She’s quite upfront about being manipulative, which is refreshing compared with Gwen, but had her bordering on cartoon villainy by the end of the season.

Anyway, Gwen’s plans for Mary-Lou are about as sophisticated as breaking pointe shoes, only presumably less expensive:

She would pop a black-beetle into Mary-Lou’s desk—or a few worms—or even a mouse if she could get hold of it. But no—Gwendoline quickly ruled out mice because she was so scared of them herself. She didn’t much like black-beetles or worms either, but she could manage to scoop those up into a match-box or something.

She could do that. And she could remove Mary-Lou’s favourite pencils and hide them in Alicia’s locker. That would be a cunning thing to do! She might put one or two of Mary- Lou’s books in Darrell’s locker too. And how sympathetic she would be with Mary-Lou when she found out these tricks!

Gwen takes herself off to the garden in search of a worm, where Scottish Jean is dry and Scottish at her.  Giving up on worms, Gwen finds a spider, and even more impressively, manages to catch it.  (*shudder*)

She led the conversation round to spiders that evening. ‘I got my head caught in a web in the shed today,’ she said. ‘Oooh, it did feel horrid. I don’t like spiders.’

‘My brother Sam once had a tame spider,’ began Alicia, who could always be relied on to produce a bit of family history of any moment. ‘It lived under a fern in our green¬house, and it came out every evening for a drink of water, when Mother watered the ferns.’

There really ought to be some kind of Alicia’s Brothers Drinking Game.

Mary-Lou, to no one’s surprise, is afraid of spiders.  Alicia plays right into Gwen’s hands:

Terrified of this, scared of that—what a life you lead, Mary-Lou. I’ve a good mind to catch a large spider and put it down your neck!’

I don’t like to ask how, but Gwen manages to keep her spider alive until Monday.

Gwendoline’s chance came, and she took it. She was told to go and fetch something from her common room, ten minutes before afternoon school. She tore there to get it, then raced to the first-form classroom with the cardboard box. She opened it and let the great, long-legged spider run into the desk. It ran to a dark corner and crouched there, quite still.

Gwendoline hurried away, certain that no one had seen her. Two minutes later Darrell and Alicia strolled in to fill the flower-vases with water. Ah, luck was with Gwendoline just then!

WHAT A CLIFFHANGER!

It’s Interregnum Development.

Currently reading: The Stuart Princesses by Alison Plowden.  I like a bit of royal history now and then, because it’s the popular history subgenre most likely to contain books about women.

I also like the Stuarts, because that family produced a hell of a lot of intelligent, educated women who tend to get overshadowed by the Tudors.  Okay, in fairness, the two Stuart queens, Mary II and Anne, may have been intelligent but they were barely educated at all, because hey, they’re only the women most likely to inherit the throne, right?

Anne gets a particularly bad rap:  she was uneducated, bigoted, a bit of a drama llama, easily led by her better-educated friends and courtiers — WOW, THERE’S A SHOCK — and, worst of all, she was fat.  I can’t think of a single popular history of the Stuart queens that doesn’t mention, only about eighty or ninety times, that Anne was a fatty.  Never mind that she “let herself go” over the course of seventeen pregnancies in a desperate attempt to produce a living child (and the one that survived infancy died in young adulthood, BECAUSE IT SUCKS TO BE ANNE).  She was fat.  Fatty McFatfat.

Anyway, mostly what I’m taking from The Stuart Princesses is that the whole family was hilariously dysfunctional, and the world desperately needs a costume drama/sitcom in the style of Arrested Development. 

Okay, so a couple of these people won’t live to adulthood, but the ones who do? HILARIOUS.

This is especially true during the Interregnum, that wacky period where England was a republic.  Because the Stuarts were basically scattered all over Europe, trying to keep up appearances whilst being totally broke.  And there were passive-aggressive religious conversions and fights about money, and that time the Duke of York secretly married a Catholic and it was totes awkward, and Charles II basically being the Tony Stark of Europe and concealing his royal angst behind a whole boatload of wacky shenanigans and also a spiffy beard.

Then Charles was restored to the throne, and the shenanigans continued, only they were less wacky and more sad, because Charles was kind of a dick, and his favourite sister was in an abusive marriage with a gay man, and England kept going to war with people.  And meanwhile, Charles’s German cousin Sophia of Hanover, was getting on with things over there, happily married, popping out kids and writing voluminous and hilarious letters to everyone in Europe.

Sophia is seen here in a culturally appropriative “Indian” costume, but what’s notable about the portrait is that it was painted by her sister.

So she was super-intelligent, and so were her sisters — Elizabeth was BFFs with Descartes, Louise was an artist who ran away to join a Catholic convent and wound up running it, and Henriette Marie was a confectioner, although then she married a prince and died because that’s what women do, right?

Oh, and Sophia?  Heir to the throne of England.  Because Anne had no surviving children, and her younger brother was Catholic (OH NOES) and also she’d spent years putting it about that he wasn’t really her brother at all, so she had to kind of flail about looking for an appropriate Protestant heir.  And wound up calling the German branch of the family.

Anne was a lot younger than Sophia, but she only outlived her by a few weeks.  (BECAUSE SHE WAS FAT – many historians’ opinions.)  So Sophia’s son George became the king of England, and that put us on the path that led to mad George III, the vacuous Prince Regent/George IV (HE WAS ALSO FAT, YOU SHOULD KNOW), and eventually Queen Victoria and the current lot.

In short, history is AMAZING.  And there really ought to be more costume comedies.

Justice Hall – Laurie R King
The Game – Laurie R King
Locked Rooms – Laurie R King
Ba(nd) Romance – Sarah Billington (short story)
The Language of Bees – Laurie R King
God of the Hive – Laurie R King
The Pirate King – Laurie R King
Garment of Shadows – Laurie R King
Beekeeping for Beginners – Laurie R King (novella)
A Spy in the House – Y S Lee
Point of Honour – Madeleine E Robins
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling

A bit of a light month, what with all the re-reads. Other than the Russell novels, the standout was obviously JKR’s The Casual Vacancy. I wasn’t totally blown away — I found the realism jarred against the satire, and the ending didn’t thrill me, but it was a good read, and I’m eager to see what she writes next.