Leah was interested in the theatre, and Madge herself
thoroughly enjoyed a play if it was not too high-brow. Anything high-brow
was quite beyond her understanding. Fantasies she did not care for nor
appreciate. She remembered her shame when, some years before, truth had
forced her to admit that she preferred a bouncing pantomime with its laughable
crudities to Peter Pan, that fairy-tale classic. The grown-ups had
been a little disappointed in her lack of taste, and Clem had not agreed
(Joan Butler-Joyce, Hot Water, Harrap, 1935, p248)
From childhood on, I had always thought that schoolmistresses
and schoolgirls were funny and in 1932, at the age of 22, I started to
invent little turns and skits about them which I inflicted on startled
guests at parties - headmistresses addressing the girls at the end of term,
botany mistresses leading a nature ramble, and so on. In 1934, a BBC producer
heard me and put me into a Charlot's Hour, a monthly late-hour entertainment
on the wireless. It was thought piquant that a schoolmaster, as I then
was [at Oundle, a boys' public school], should be doing this sort of thing
and I got a certain amount of publicity. I have been broadcasting on various
subjects ever since.
In 1935, I started to make gramophone records of some of this material for Columbia and in the same year Raymond Mortimer, at that time literary editor of the New Statesman, asked me to review, in the Christmas books number, the large collection of schoolgirl stories that publishers sent in (Angela Brazil was still writing), and this happy task continued until the war. In post-war years I branched out and was entrusted with books that did not only concern schoolgirls.
Thus Arthur Marshall summed up a career which had benefited from the first from his tendency to find schoolgirls and their teachers "funny". His parents, "keen theatre-goers", had "started married life in Barnes" in 1906; the year in which Angela Brazil's first school story, The Fortunes of Philippa, was published. Their son, born four years later, was to spend most of his life associated with parodies of girls' school stories. His own teaching career was never to be as important to him as his life as a writer and broadcaster; from the first he loved acting.
it was the real thing, proper professional stuff, that I hankered after and by a strange chance it was, of all unlikely people, Angela Brazil who provided a key to the door. From a relatively early age I had been an ardent admirer of her girls' school stories. Miss Brazil had, of course, no comic intention when she started, in 1906, to write her books but I found them hilarious and I discovered, when I read out passages to friends and aimed to share some of the fun with others, that audiences were receptive and ready to smile and, even, laugh.
fact, it is not difficult to see where Marshall could first have come across
the notion that girls' school stories were "hilarious". By 1920,
when Marshall was ten (or at "a relatively early age"), The
Times Literary Supplement's annual review of children's books, a guide
for Christmas gift shoppers, had begun to take an ironic approach to girls'
This was to last throughout the decade, and to encourage readers to laugh
at the more extreme examples of the genre. But by 1935, when Marshall began
a similar column in the New Statesman, the tone of the TLS
reviewer had changed (as, probably, had the anonymous reviewer).
The genre was now regarded as being of a considerably higher standard than
a decade beforehand, even though a decade or so later it would be regarded
as anachronistic and undesirable.
Was it Raymond Mortimer, literary editor of the New
Statesman, who missed the tone of the 1920s TLS Christmas review
and decided to renew it with Marshall? Or was it Marshall himself who suggested
it, in a typical writer's effort to find an outlet for his writing? At
this point, despite Marshall's broadcasts and records, he was relatively
unknown. Either way, it is unlikely that Mortimer could have been unaware
of the TLS tradition. And in cultural terms, the continual refusal
of the critics to take the genre seriously, which masked a fear of what
meant that the atmosphere would be extremely favourable for a satirist
wishing to ridicule the books.
Since there was already a widespread view of the books as not deserving to be taken seriously, Marshall's task was a straightforward one. He writes in his autobiography, Life's Rich Pageant (Hamish Hamilton, 1984), that: "The stories were mainly splendid stuff and stood up well to having a little gentle fun poked at them. Often it was only necessary to quote a striking passage." (p126) He begins his first review, for the New Statesman's 1935 Christmas Review of Books, thus:
Life in schools for girls is clearly an exciting business. They go the pace. Lights are put out in the cubicles and one would think that the girls, exhausted by the strain of ragging Miss Bellamy, would be ready for refreshing sleep. But all that the merry madcaps seem to want is the ginger-pop hidden under Bertha's bolster and a moonlight climb over the roofs. And doubtless the readers of these stories would not have it otherwise.
This review covers Fifty-two Sports Stories for Girls (edited by R. S. Lyons), Veronica Marlow's The Lower School Leader, Winifred Darch's The Head Girl at Wynford and Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Nancy in the Sixth. It sets the pattern for future columns of describing plots accompanied by extracts, combined with commenting on them. This came from The Lower School Leader.
"But that's all gristle!" protested the junior,
"really it is."
"Nonsense. Eat it up at once. There is nothing put before you in this school that is not entirely digestible," snapped Miss Buckett.
But Margaret did not move, nor did she try to eat it.
"If you want me to be sick, I will," she said defiantly, "but it's just cruelty to animals."
This seemed to enrage Miss Buckett. "Take her out, please," she ordered; and immediately two prefects left their places and more or less dragged the junior by brute force off her chair and out of the dining-room.
"Never mind." Marshall went on. "Everybody
has cheered up in time for the staff lacrosse match."
Janet Montefiore, in "The Fourth Form Girls Go Camping: Sexual Identity and Ambivalence in Girls' School Stories", has argued that Marshall:
by emphasising the violent dragging away of the disobedient girl, alludes discreetly to a possible sexual interpretation. His praise of the scene as "strangely powerful" amounts to a humourous, distant gesture in the direction of Freud's essay "A Child Is Being Beaten".
Perhaps. Marshall's humour is at its most pointed and
powerful when, by extracting passages and by passing comment on them, he
reveals and ridicules girls' preoccupations, authorial concerns, hidden
and alternative meanings - particularly with regard to discipline and sexuality
- and poor writing. After continuing to describe the plot of The Lower
School Leader and The Head Girl at Wynford, Marshall turns to
mocking the names of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's characters in Nancy in the
Sixth ("There are Desdemona Blackett, Geraldine Judkins, Ryllis
Rutherford and Clemency Walton"), and Nancy's gift for playing the
organ, before concluding: "Three of the above books bear the noble
imprint of the Oxford University Press. Oh well, il faut, no doubt,
Presumably Marshall meant that the genre generated considerably
more income than some of the publisher's more academic books. This may
have been the first recorded criticism of OUP for publishing girls' school
stories, reflected almost fifty years later in Humphrey Carpenter and Mari
Prichard's comment in The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature
(1984) that OUP published Dorita Fairlie Bruce's books "in the days
before it had a more discriminating policy towards children's fiction"
(p86). There must have been a considerable amount of pressure placed on
the Press to withdraw from girls' book publishing, since its reputation
for quality would have given the genre respectability.
The following year, in 1936, Marshall reviews Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Prefects at Springdale, Kathlyn Rhodes' A Schoolgirl in Switzerland and The Winifred Darch Omnibus, beginning:
Gusto streams from these packed pages and one reads breathlessly
on and on.
The girls are all fearfully keen on a ripping games mistress called Miss Stewart, and can one wonder? "It isn't her beauty and her auburn colouring, but she's got that - that sort of glamour." She abandons lacrosse momentarily in order to go for walks with a plucky little junior called Faith Kersey, who has "eyes like drowned violets" and is an "undeveloped genius at throwing-in". It is Faith who canoes down the flooded main street to the rescue of two girls who are singing hymns while imprisoned in a ruined tomb [in fact Marshall was wrong; it was a quite different character, Nicola Carter]. Meanwhile, the plot requires the headmistress, a Miss Timmins, to try to shin up an extremely high wall. Need I add that she reaches the top? [actually she stands on a ruined tombstone and is then aided by the said Miss Stewart]
It is interesting to note that Marshall's columns frequently
make reference to "crushes"; he both perceives the books as reflecting
lesbianism and actively sets out to ridicule this. Marshall did, of course,
have one advantage over the TLS reviewer of the time, in that he
was only obliged to review those books which he found funny, and his inaccuracies
and exaggerations were presumably regarded as all part of the fun, annoying
though this must have been to the authors and publishers concerned. Marshall
goes on to describe A Schoolgirl in Switzerland as "a riot
of violent wiggings from the headmistress and stern punishments",
while "in Margaret Plays the Game the girls are extremely fond
of theatricals and of the English mistress".
By 1937 and his third column, Marshall has expanded the number of books reviewed. The column is subtitled "Memsahibs in the Making", reflecting the fact that, in reality, many boarding-schoolgirls were the daughters and intended future wives of those who administered and controlled the British Empire, with their literature reflecting a common ethos. The books reviewed are Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Dimsie Intervenes, The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Omnibus, Winifred Darch's Elinor in the Fifth, May Wynne's Audrey on Approval, Jessie McAlpine's Growing Up at St Monica's and Frederica Bennett's Gillian the Dauntless. Marshall begins by commenting on the changing preoccupations of the genre, with "beauty culture" and thus sexuality beginning to intrude on the world of the school.
What is up with the Girls of England? This year's batch of stories contains far too many references to beauty culture. Are Hilda's plaits as glossy as Thelma's? Where is Patience's bejewelled hair-slide? Who has tampered with Eileen's cold cream? This is unhealthy stuff, and let this be the last of it.
Marshall continues to draw attention to poor writing, especially unusual names and stereotyping.
In Nancy at St Bride's there are Helga Grub . .
. Betty Muffet . . . and Charlotte Truscott . . . The dormitories are named
after fruits . . . Nancy is very wild . . . And even before the story begins
there have been troubles . . . One of the characters muses about the school's
past history and utters the most remarkable sentence that I have ever found.
"It was the summer of the great gale when the san. crashed into the
sea - stirring times."
Audrey Trevorne of Audrey on Approval has a mother who "is obviously a sport", the Trevorne eyes ("dare-devil blue") and an uncle who is a rich recluse. She visits him in Cornwall and comes in for a lot of Cornish dialect, bats (referred to as "airy-mice"), and a dear old Cornish soul called Mrs Wherry, from the fishing world ("It's the prattiest sight to see t'mack'rel brought ben").
Audrey's uncle is overcome by fumes from fluids which "have drenched the linoleum in his laboratory", but Audrey is thoroughly on the spot . . .
And goodness me, how Miss May Wynne can write when given half a chance:
Who minded a scramble when sun-kissed wavelets were dancing over the golden sands. Evening mists were rising over the moors, drawing a mysterious curtain as though pulled by fairy hands, hiding the secrets of the Little People who love the heather and moonshine.
Those dear, dear moors! How could she leave them?
Marshall concludes the review by bemoaning the new preoccupations of the genre, and by calling for a return to more innocent topics.
It is interesting to note that while anything which might
reflect lesbian sexuality is perceived as undesirable, so are topics such
as "beauty culture" which reflected heterosexuality. Or perhaps
it was the fact that girls were using make-up for their own sakes rather
than in order to meet with boys.
By Christmas 1939, the Second World War had begun, but this had occurred too recently to be reflected in the genre, as Marshall pointed out in "From Santa's Workshop". Note how Marshall's language cleverly denotes that girls' books and their authors are not to be taken seriously: "authoresses" - not authors - are "gallant" (which is a particularly interesting phrase considering that it is usually applied to men, hinting at lesbianism); and the stories are "yarns".
The Führer's reckless démarche occurred too late in the year to enable our gallant authoresses to prepare for this Christmas such heartening yarns as Madcap Monica of the Maginot Line or Vivandière Vera. So this year the girls' books are the usual gay round of scrumptious study teas with the spiffing Senior, Hyacinth Duggleby, rags in the cubies (and no quarter with the bolsters) and diamond cut diamond on the lacrosse field.
did indeed begin to write about the war within the genre, but Marshall
spent the rest of the war as an Intelligence Officer and his columns ceased
for the duration: "I could hardly be found in the officers' mess eagerly
reading the latest Brazil."
This sentence takes it for granted that a man who read girls' school stories
for pleasure could never expect to receive any respect. However, Marshall
was soon to introduce girls' school stories to an even more unlikely venue,
the battlefield of Dunkirk in June 1940. Here Marshall was hit in the ankle
by a bullet, but he continued to encourage his men to face the enemy fire
and so to reach the awaiting ships with "Come on, girls, who's on
for the Botany Walk?"
Girls' school stories were fine in their place, which was to be laughed
at. Marshall's words also suggest that his men were being urged to refrain
from behaving "like girls", and thus to act bravely.
Marshall's comic talent became in great demand to raise public morale during
the remainder of the war. He continued to broadcast, and his character
"Nurse Dugdale" quickly became a household name. Following the
end of the war he returned to Oundle, where he became a housemaster in
1947, and also to the New Statesman, where his personal fame had
by now eclipsed that of the magazine. However, in 1954 Marshall left Oundle
gratefully to become Private Secretary to Victor and Tess Rothschild in
Cambridge ("I was not by nature a Mr Chips and had no wish to finish
my life scratching away short-sightedly on the blackboard and making, an
object of friendly derision perhaps, the same tired old jokes.")
New times were also reflected in his Christmas review of 1954, titled "Cheerybuzzfuzz", which for the first time included a pony book, Josephine Pullein-Thompson's One Day Event, as well as Nancy Moss' School on the Precipice and Nancy Breary's Fourth Form Detectives. This reflected the fact that pony stories had developed as a genre during the 1930s, peaking in popularity during the 1950s. As books which appealed to girls, they were an obvious target for humour. Girls' school stories had, however, survived the war with their genre conventions intact. As in the early days, adventure elements were foregrounded instead of "beauty culture" or the "public school spirit". New authors were continuing to enter the genre and to uphold its conventions, as Marshall notes.
Welcome, thrice welcome to Nancy Moss, a newcomer in the
finest Brazil tradition. This is the real thing.
The school in question, Cliff House . . . is somewhat riskily situated: "the last fall of cliff took an acre or so of ground down with it," and indeed the major portion of the hockey field now forms part of the foreshore . . . However, on the limited remaining terrain, a great deal happens. Susan Savage diverts from the cliff top a runaway horse bearing the head girl, Beryl Marston . . . and subsequently receives the Marston Award for Heroism . . .
The headmistress has a barely satisfactory brother who drives the school shooting-brake down a disused tunnel as a preparatory move to dynamiting the school buildings and collecting the insurance money. This novel plot is foiled by Beryl Marston herself, who unselfishly misses the Rambling Club ramble to achieve it, and is witnessed by Susan Savage through Elsa Marling-Brown's telescope.
One Day Event, meanwhile, is:
the ideal book for pony-maniacs as, when doubts and difficulties arise, there is always Major Holbrooke to make everything clear.
In other words, his head, neck and inside shoulder will be bent to the inside, his inside foreleg will be off the school track, his inside hindleg will follow in the track of the outside foreleg and his outside hindleg follows a track of it own. The horse's head is flexed in the opposite direction to the movement.
As Marshall underlined, pony stories comprised a separate
world, which required a knowledge of its customs and language, quite as
much as girls' school stories did. Marshall also underlined the fact that
he regarded the books as being equally ridiculous.
Unsurprisingly, by the following year, 1955, the scope of Marshall's column, titled "Phooo-ooo-oof", had expanded still further, with the books reviewed being E.C. Eliott's Kemlo and the Star Men, Patrick Moore's Mission to Mars and Nancy Moss's Susan's Stormy Term. Marshall begins: "A swiftish glance at this year's books for young persons shows that Space has triumphed in popularity over ponies". And, presumably over girls' school stories, which Marshall now treats as being anachronistic as well as ridiculous. For example, an extract from Susan's Stormy Term is followed by:
Middle-period Brazil, you think? Vintage Winifred Darch? Dorita Fairlie Bruce? Early May Wynne? It is none of these delightful things but current Nancy Moss who, with Susan's Stormy Term, strengthens the splendid impression she made last year with The School on the Precipice.
In 1956, four out of the five books reviewed are school stories again: Nancy Moss's Strange Quest at Cliff House ("Miss Nancy Moss gives us the third of her splendid Cliff House yarns"); Elizabeth Hyde's Valerie of Gaunt Crag ("chiefly remarkable for the complications of its plot"); Margaret Rowan's Theo and her Secret Societies ("Theo has some ups and down in popularity but eventually wins through - 'One of the day girls offered her an open packet of potato crisps' "); and Margaret Biggs's The New Girl at Melling ("the headmistress, Miss Pickering, is described as being nervous and tender-hearted and is included to doodle on her blotting-pad, which really will not do at all"); with the odd one out being C.Salter's Two Girls in a Boat ("Babs visits Jill who has got 'a simply gorgeous little dinghy' and knows all about gudgeons, pintles, sail tiers and how to rig a new backstay"). Marshall makes it clear that the new books are to be treated in the same way as past publications.
Though this year's schoolgirl stories are milk-and-water when compared with the Brazilian glories of yesteryear, there are indications that authoresses are once more concentrating on the sensible, basic subjects such as lying, cheating, squabbling, and shinning up and down creepers.
This picture of the genre as repetitive was added to in 1957, when Marshall's review is titled "The mixture as before". Marshall reviews Moss's The Cliff House Monster (which "turns out to be a fuel-less car, the invention of Raymond Poyntz, run by springs and requiring a complete rewinding every thirty miles"); P.M. Warner's If It Hadn't Been For Frances [not a school story]; Mona Sandler's The Young Horse Dealers; Gillian Baxter's Jump to the Stars (another pony book); and Elinor Brent-Dyer's Excitements at the Chalet School. He also stresses that the books do not represent contemporary girls' interests.
"It's . . . it's uranium!" breathed Hilary, squatting behind the Pankhurst Pavilion and jabbing at the ominous grey substance with her lacrosse stick. So it had been true then, that little telltale twitch of her geiger counter during algebra, and Muriel watched enthralled as her chum deftly stuffed great handfuls of the valuable matter into her satchel. Then she tensed as Hilary's face, drained of all colour, swung towards her. "There's only one way to make sure, though. Bung it into Miss Bellingham's reactor in Stinks Lab. We may . . . " here she caught her breath for a space, "we may vapourise ourselves, but . . . " Swiftly banishing the thought of forming yet another dreaded mushroom, the two youngsters darted off, pigtails flying, towards the stately yellow pile that was the Edythe Castleton Laboratory.
Stories for girls should by now be chock-a-block with
passages such as the above, with radio-active headmistresses on every side
and strontium in the porridge, but authoresses haven't yet responded to
this exciting challenge and we might as well not have struggled into the
atomic age at all.
But who can complain when there is another Nancy Moss to cheer us?
The genre, then, is to be regarded primarily as entertainment
for the adult, male world.
In 1958 Marshall left Cambridge and moved to London, where
he was to remain for the next twelve years. By 1961, in "Joicks",
only two out of the five books Marshall reviews are school stories. Of
these, Jacynth Hope-Simpson's Young Netball Player featured "A
natural games player . . . Amanda Jackson from Jamaica (quite the laziest
girl we have ever had in the school)", of which Marshall notes of
the racial stereotyping "Too revealing, my dear".
Meanwhile Nancy Breary's The Fourth Was Fun for Philippa "begins
delightfully with the whole of the check-ginghamed Lower Fourth plunging,
screaming, into a pond from a collapsed pseudo-Japanese ornamental bridge";
this inevitably brings to mind the popular image of girls and women as
prone to hysteria.
During the 1960s girls' school stories were increasingly regarded as anachronistic, and educators and librarians discouraged girls from reading them. In 1970, at the age of sixty, Marshall left the New Statesman and moved to Devon. However, the genre continued to survive, and in 1975 Marshall returned to the New Statesman as a columnist, noting in "Willingly to School" that:
Who dare say that Angela Brazil in any way exaggerated
. . . .
Even today, 800 girls change classes in an awesome silence, swishing soundlessly up and down the passages as though Miss Beale herself were watching . . .
Girls conform on the whole more readily than boys. History reveals few female rebellions and so how doubly shocking was a Times item of news in the summer which stated that 40 girls at a boarding school had been sent home a week early (hardly a punishment, one would have thought) for throwing the gym mistress in the swimming pool. Shades of dear Miss Brazil again.
makes it clear that it is not just girls' school stories which should not
be taken seriously. When girls do not conform, as is their role, their
rebellions are as ridiculous as the plots within the genre. Marshall's
columns continued until 1981, when "there arrived, out of the blue,
and with no prior warning, a letter from Bruce Page, the then editor, giving
me the sack".
The genre, meanwhile, continued to survive. Marshall himself had begun
a fortnightly column in the Sunday Telegraph in 1977 and become
captain of one of the BBC's Call My Bluff teams in 1979; his career in
the media was to continue until his death in 1989.
With Marshall more than any of the critics, girls' school
stories entered into the popular British consciousness and were kept there.
And the picture he portrayed was utterly ridiculous: neither girls, their
teachers, their schools nor their books were to be treated seriously. (It
is interesting to note that Marshall included Elfrida Vipont's The Lark
in the Morn in his 1959 review, whereas the critic Marcus Crouch describes
this as being an extremely "good" book;
for Marshall, all girls' school stories were equally "hilarious".)
Marshall must also have been influential in inspiring Ronald Searle's St
which later saturated the nation's consciousness, since Searle did not
begin drawing these until 1939, when Marshall's broadcasts would have been
at least as well-known as his New Statesman reviews. This relationship
became explicit when Marshall later produced his own St Trinian's parody,
"Look Out King Wenceslas!", which is discussed in the following
Marshall's work, of course, only reflected the derogatory
attitudes towards the genre which dominated the post-war period and which
indeed began during his childhood. However, his exaggerations and inaccuracies,
together with his very partial reviewing, must have added immeasurably
to the public perceptions of the genre as being ridiculous. Prior to this,
the positive experiences of the genre's readers would probably have been
given more weight by the readers themselves than the opinions of the critics.
But Marshall was different; his weapon was humour; and it was far more
effective. I have already noted that Mary Cadogan
has repeated many of the critical attitudes of male reviewers in her work.
It should be further noted that she was extremely fond of Marshall, whom
she knew personally, and described him to me as "a tremendous right-wing
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