I. Finding Schoolgirls Funny: Arthur Marshall


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.

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In 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' school stories. 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.
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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 it represented, meant that the atmosphere would be extremely favourable for a satirist wishing to ridicule the books.
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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:

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.

"Never mind." Marshall went on. "Everybody has cheered up in time for the staff lacrosse match."
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Janet Montefiore, in "The Fourth Form Girls Go Camping: Sexual Identity and Ambivalence in Girls' School Stories", has argued that Marshall:

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, vivre."
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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.
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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:

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".
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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.

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Marshall continues to draw attention to poor writing, especially unusual names and stereotyping.

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.
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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".

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Authors 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.
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Unsurprisingly, 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.")
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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.

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One Day Event, meanwhile, is:

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.
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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:

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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.

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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.

The genre, then, is to be regarded primarily as entertainment for the adult, male world.
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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.
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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:

This 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.
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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 Trinian's cartoons, 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 section.)
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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 liberal!"
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Next: 8: II. Ronald Searle and the St Trinian's Cartoons
Return to: 8. The Parodies of Girls' School Stories Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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