"Yes, Miss Parker," said Belinda, meekly, and
began to make a little sketch of the teacher on her blotting-pad. . .
Nearly every girl in the class now had a neat little sketch of Mam'zelle marking her place in her French grammar. It was the ambition of the class to have, as a marker, caricatures of all the mistresses taking their different classes - Miss Carton for their history books, Miss Grayling for the scripture exercise books, Mr Young for the school song book and so on.
(Enid Blyton, Second Form at Malory Towers, Methuen, 1947, pp28-9)
Searle, creator of St Trinian's, was born in Cambridge in 1920.
After leaving school at the age of fourteen, he took night classes at the
Cambridge School of Art (which overlooked his sister Olive's school playground,
a possible source of inspiration). In order to pay for his tuition, he
worked first as a solicitor's clerk and then, after a period of unemployment,
as a parcel-packer and later as a clerk at the Co-op. At the age of fifteen,
when he started working for the Co-op, he became the resident cartoonist
on the Cambridge Daily News, and at sixteen he also began contributing
to the student magazine, The Granta. In September 1938, at the age
of eighteen, he was granted a year's scholarship by the local Education
Committee which allowed him to study full-time at the School of Art, although
he continued to work for the CDN, as it was known locally. Then,
in April 1939, at the age of nineteen, Searle joined the Territorial Army
as an Architectural Draughtsman in the Royal Engineers with the rank of
Sapper, and left the School of Art in the summer after scraping through
the Ministry of Education's Drawing Diploma's examination with 42% (the
pass mark being 40%).
Searle was soon called up into the regular army - on 1 September 1939 - and after a few week's training was stationed in Norfolk. That month, November, he saw his first drawing published in a national paper: an illustration for a short story in the Daily Express. In January 1941 his work was included in an exhibition of wartime artwork by members of H.M. Forces stationed in East Anglia at Norwich Castle, but by then Searle had left for the village of Kirkcudbright in Scotland, which happened to be an artist's community. This posting was to affect the rest of his career.
One of his most welcome ports of call was the home of
the Johnston family . . . One day, as a purely domestic joke, he made a
drawing to please the two schoolgirl daughters, Cécilé and
Pat, who attended an Academy for Young Ladies in Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh
(temporarily evacuated to the west coast). The name of their school was
- St Trinnean's.
It's success at the hospitable tea table was such that he was encouraged to include it with a small number of cartoons he was hopefully submitting to a monthly magazine.
The address he wrote on the label was: Miss Kaye Webb, Assistant Editor, LILLIPUT . . . and the date on the registration slip, which he still has, was 13 July 1941.
Lilliput accepted the cartoon,
and it was published in October 1941. It shows a group of schoolgirls gazing
bemusedly at an official noticeboard, bare flesh showing between the tops
of their stockings and their gym slips. The cartoon's caption, slightly
reworded by Webb, reads: "Owing to the international situation, the
match with St Trinian's has been postponed." (In fact, of course,
the girls must have belonged to another school, but the drawing is always
known as the first St Trinian's cartoon.) Searle, however, had been posted
abroad before publication, arriving in Singapore in January 1942. By the
end of the month the British forces had withdrawn from Malaya to the island,
but this was not enough to stop the Japanese from invading, which they
did on 9 February 1942. On 13 February, under enemy fire, Searle found
a copy of the October issue of Lilliput amongst debris in a Singapore
street, and saw his cartoon in print for the first time. Two days later
the British forces surrendered, and Searle was listed as "missing",
his career also postponed "owing to the international situation".
No more was heard of him for almost two years, until the Red Cross finally
informed his family that he was alive on 29 December 1943.
Searle, though, continued cartooning and drawing secretly
during his time as a prisoner of war, recording many of the events which
took place. After a time in Changi prison camp, he eventually he fell foul
of the British authorities with his contributions to The Survivor,
a radical magazine circulated secretly and banned by the British on his
23rd birthday, 3 March 1943. As a consequence, Searle was sent to work
as a labourer on the Siam-Burma railway, where he suffered continual bouts
of malaria. He finally entered the camp hospital after an attack by the
guards on one of his hands, by which time he was also suffering from beri-beri,
ulcers and skin disease. In September 1943, he was paralysed by a blow
from a guard's pick-axe which penetrated his back as far as the spine,
and was taken to the sick lines weighing around seven stone.
The railway was completed on 25 October 1943, but Searle
was too ill to be moved to Singapore. He was eventually transported to
the Sime Road camp near Singapore race course in December 1943, when his
malaria immediately recurred. However, he recovered enough to design and
perform in the prisoners' shows, and on 4 May 1944 was transferred to Changi
Gaol, a modern prison built by the British eight years beforehand. Originally
intended for eight hundred prisoners, ten thousand men were now incarcerated
there, with Searle living in a cell which contained two hundred men. Despite
the hardships, though, Searle continued to draw, contributing to a new
magazine, The Exile, as well as designing shows and recording camp
activities. The Japanese were aware of his activities, and in 1945 he spent
three months drawing murals at a beach villa and officers' club before
the prison administrator, an artist who admired Searle, was abruptly transferred.
By 10 August 1945 Searle's health had became so poor that he had to have
an ulcer on his leg surgically excavated, but on 15 August 1945 the ceasefire
was declared, and on 27 September he began the journey home, arriving in
Liverpool on 24 October 1945.
Searle lost no time in picking up his career where it had left off. In November 1945, as Kaye Webb describes, Searle:
walked into our offices bearing a neat folder containing seventy-two cartoons. They were drawn in faded brown ink, on stained and yellowing paper. Some of them were crumpled. Most of them had survived burial in the jungle undergrowth or under disease-ridden mattresses, where the Japanese would be unwilling to search. Among them were the second and third St Trinian's drawings. We asked him for more and published them every month for the next three years.
Over the five years which separated the first and second
St Trinian's cartoons, the content had undergone a fundamental change.
If this had not been so, it is doubtful whether Searle would have continued
drawing them at all, since there was no real hint in the first cartoon
of what was to become the joke underlying the rest. In contrast to the
first cartoon, the second to be published (it was the third to be drawn,
in Changi Gaol) shows a classroom full of grinning schoolgirls, all with
their hands at their sides, being addressed by a Victorian-looking schoolmistress:
"Hand up the girl who burnt down the East wing last night."
Another cartoon which was first published in 1946 shows three schoolgirls,
hockey sticks in hands, gathered around a tree from which a schoolmistress
- also Victorian in appearance and still holding a cane - is hanging: "Well
that's O.K. - now for old 'Stinks'."
The joke was that, contrary to the popular image of the
quiet, well-behaved, "honourable" British boarding-school girl
which had dominated from the beginning of the century until the Second
World War, the girls were in fact violent, even demonic, gin-swigging,
cigar-smoking and out of control. Rather than being "innocent"
and worthy of respect - the pre-war ideal - the girls were worldly wise
and to be feared. The fear of girls' schools and school stories as promoting
women's independence and lesbianism had, of course, been the motivating
factor for attacks on the genre from as early as 1915. While the post-war
critics became more overt in their attempts to repress the genre, the post-war
parodists became more overt in revealing the reasons for these fears. That
these fears were widespread can be seen in the fact that St Trinian's quickly
became "a new National joke";
"a term of national reference, so that but to say 'St Trinian's' was
to conjure up a whole world";
"The Times has referred more than once to 'Trinianism' confident
that this will be immediately comprehensible to its readers".
Webb, with whom Searle began an affair in 1946, has pointed out that:
it was inevitable that the débacle [Searle] had just witnessed, the atmosphere of cruelty and the smell of death in which he and his companions existed for . . . four years, should permeate his drawings so that the next two schoolgirl jokes took on their first flavour of violence. It hardly seems necessary to mention that Searle does not really think of schoolgirls as murderous little horrors. But unconsciously he was seeking to reduce horror into a comprehensible and somehow palatable form.
It is probable, too, that the public's experience and/or
awareness of wartime cruelties and horrors is another reason why the cartoons
were so well-received.
The following year, 1947, when Webb gave birth to a twin
son and daughter (the couple later married, in 1948), the gin-swigging,
cigar-smoking aspect of the girls emerged. For example, one cartoon shows
a group of four girls, two with hockey sticks and all wearing their boater
hats, sitting on their dormitory beds having a drink: "My God - she's
put water with it again!" Another
features a lone schoolgirl, also complete with hat, sitting in a classroom
writing the "lines": "I must not smoke cigars during prayers.
I must not smoke cigars during prayers . . . " (This was later reproduced
with the word "pot" replacing "cigars";
many of the captions were subsequently changed or updated.)
However, violence continued to dominate the cartoons.
For example, one cartoon shows disconsolate girls being frisked as they
enter the school doors, with a growing pile of weapons on an incongruously
elegant and spindly table besides the (continuingly Victorian-looking)
mistresses: "Bang goes another pair of knuckledusters."
Another, untitled, shows the victorious hockey players raising their sticks
in triumph over the bodies of their opponents.
The mistresses are shown to be unbothered by all this, on one occasion
commenting simply "Cleaners getting slack, Horsefall" as they
step over the bodies littering the school corridor.
Later the girls became actually demonic, with one cartoon
showing a girl writing the lines "I must be gooder" with her
devil's pointed tail doubling as a pen.
This also extends to the mistresses, with the girls lined up under the
banner "Welcome to our new Science mistress" as a witch flies
in over the gates.
(Single women have often been accused of witchcraft.) However, girls continue
to commit arson and to drink: one cartoon shows a girl lifting a broken
bottle from her case with the caption "Hell! My best Scotch";
and another, uncaptioned, shows simply a pair of legs emerging from a dustbin
surrounded by empty bottles, the inevitable boater resting on its lid.
As time progressed, though, these themes were tempered with others, slightly
more gentle, such as the parent being shown round the school's snooker
room: " . . . of course indoor games are an extra";
and the schoolgirl being comforted at the midnight feast: "Honestly,
darling, you don't look a day over nine".
From the beginning, the cartoons received widespread public acclaim, as Webb has described.
The monthly appearance of one of "Searle's ghastly schoolgirls" brought flooding into his bewildered hands enough press cuttings to fill six large folio scrapbooks, and enough letters to fill two volumes, and when the postman delivered one addressed simply to "Mr Ronald Searle, St Trinian's, London", he began to feel that he was sitting on a horse which had taken to the open country.
Unsuprisingly, the cartoons soon appeared in book form, with the publication of Hurrah for St Trinian's! in 1947. Searle's biographer Russell Davies has noted that this:
expressed a sentiment with which he would never concur. Even though scarcely more than a dozen St Trinian's drawings had yet appeared, the invention of new horrors for the girls to wreak already looked likely to become a chore.
It is important to note here that Searle may have been
pleasing the British public, and, presumably, the children's book critics,
but he was not, as Marshall had been, happy to regard it as a key part
of his life's work. Hurrah for St Trinian's! was, however, followed
by The Female Approach (1949), which sold 16,000 copies; Back
to the Slaughterhouse (1951), of which the first print run of 20,000
copies sold out in six weeks; Souls in Torment (1953); The Female
Approach (New York, 1954); and Merry England etc (1956). Other
cartoons were included along with St Trinian's, but the books were marketed
on - and presumably sold because of - the St Trinian's content.
Hurrah for St Trinian's! was introduced by D.B. Wyndham Lewis, who became "the girls' official chronicler" when a writer was needed to accompany Searle's cartoons. He later published a full-length novel with Searle, The Terror of St Trinian's (1952), writing as Timothy Shy (45,000 copies of this were printed in the month of publication), and also wrote the St Trinian's Soccer Song:
The reference to "Island Blood" makes it clear
that the girls are British girls. It suggests that the qualities which
"Island Blood" engenders in men become ridiculous in girls, who
do not as adults progress to the battle field. The fact that the girls
play soccer rather than hockey also suggests that their behaviour is unfeminine.
Wyndham Lewis was soon joined by Arthur Marshall, previously the best-known parodist of girls' school stories in the country. In "Look out King Wenceslas!", published in Lilliput in 1949, Marshall imitates the head of the school, "Madge", writing to Maud, an old college friend, about the past term. When compared with Alastair Sim's performance as Millicent/Amelia Fritton in the film comedies which followed later, it is clear that Marshall's characterisation was influential in shaping both the character of the headmistress in the films and the actor's subsequent performance of it.
. . . The American girl has made a great hit. I feared
that her name (Gloria Milton Zimmermann) might be against her, but when
she announced that she came from Chicago they were all over her. She has
been most generous, nylons for the Sixth (and yours truly!), refrigerated
steaks all round, and fearsome concoctions called Rye and Bourbon which
have caused much merriment in the studies. She showed them how to wire
a chair for electricity, and they put a sharp charge through Mademoiselle
just as she was getting into her stride with a La Fontaine fable. The current
was from the School plant, and obviously of no very damaging voltage, but
Mademoiselle made the most ridiculous fuss . . . Sometimes one really despairs
of foreigners . . .
Our new mistress, on the other hand, has been an absolute fiasco. Her name was Miss Luker (they called her "Filthy" at once; how terribly quick girls are!) and she simply never found her feet . . . I turned a blind eye and quietly wrote off to Chitty and Gale for a replacement - someone cheery who likes a joke, with Zoology, Geology, Calculus, Russian and Chemistry.
November the Fifth was a merry affair, with bangs and explosions most of the day and a monster bonfire (of desks! but I didn't get ratty) as soon as dusk fell. One of the fireworks could not have been properly assembled and blew all the Vicarage windows out: it was just like dear old 1940. Our head girl, Rhoda Hornby (and a real fizzer), had a whip-round among the Juniors and soon netted the cash. She laughingly called it Entertainment Tax and everybody under fifteen had to stump up eighteen and sixpence. There was some grumbling but she scotched that pretty pronto! It was a fine example of leadership and initiative: Rhoda should make her mark at Girton.
Other writers also seized on the opportunity to bring
St Trinian's to life: Robert Graves wrote a "School Hymn for St Trinian's";
James Laver wrote The Fourth Form at St Trinian's; C. Day Lewis
wrote "A Short Dirge for St Trinian's (following the school's demise);
and Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote the song "Surly girls",
first performed in Penny Plain at the St Martin's Theatre, London in 1951.
Siriol Hugh-Jones suggests that the reasons for the cartoons' appeal are as follows:
First, let me timidly suggest, the deep English inverted vanity that allows us to congratulate ourselves for finding funny what we are supposed to hold most dear (in this case, the unsullied peaches-and-cream English girl who is about to grow up, hurray! into the English mother). Also the fact that, bar convents and M.I.5, English girls' schools are the most closely guarded national mystery in existence, a conspiracy entered into with verve by English womanhood in the shape of staff, mothers, and non-communicative, enigmatic schoolgirls. Also, the fact that no one had ever discovered this particular, and particularly lethal, joke before.
(Of course Marshall had discovered a related joke earlier in the decade and must have influenced Searle to some extent.) Hugh-Jones believed that the cartoons appealed to men because:
most English men cherish a profound fear and distrust
of women of all shapes and sizes, particularly the shrewd, sharp canny
ones liable to grow up into astute turf accountants, or demon barristers,
or ace doctors specializing in forensic medicine.
This means that men can safely laugh themselves insensible at the Searle girls, at the same time proving their point that females are basically jungly and out to kill, and if you can't beat them you can at least lock them away.
This is a very astute analysis, and Hugh-Jones' reasons why women and girls enjoyed the cartoons are equally convincing, showing that there are a number of different ways to read the cartoons, and this is probably the main reason for their huge success.
women laugh because there were, and are, times when all
they long for is a small bomb or a sharp little cleaver, and because the
cartoons, for all the cheerful horror, are perhaps fundamentally on their
side. Confiscate a girl's gin, ban her tobacco, she will still find a way
to triumph over her environment . . .
St Trinian's is English womanhood - plain, imprisoned, disguised according to Regulation Uniform Lists as trolls, demons, scarecrows, and under-privileged gargoyles - against the world.
Meanwhile girls enjoyed the cartoons because:
Searle composed, in line, the Schoolgirl's Marseillaise.
He took it calmly for granted that the Lower Fourth was in arms, and wistfully,
wishfully, in spirit they proudly rallied to the standard . . .
Searle made it all right to be plain, shapelss, and unhandy at dainty needlework. You could still batter the world into submission with a blunt instrument. Before Searle, the school heroine was the curly-haired Captain of Games who looked clean through you with those straight, fearless grey eyes before which a fib shrivelled and died of shame. Shame is a word unknown in St Trinian's. For every girl whose uniform never fitted, whose hat looked permanently on loan, whose mother worried silently and sighed audibly, whose report commented on Absence of Team Spirit, whose arrival was marked by a volley of sharp reports as elastic burst in all directions, whose appearance suggested an abandoned Christmas parcel on which the temporary staff at Mount Pleasant had worked off their grief and frustrations, Searle came as a prophet of liberty and new self-respect.
In later life, Searle himself wrote of the characters that:
The Staff, behind an extremely old-fashioned facade, conceal equivalent excesses and plenty of lesbianism. They insist on good manners at all times, and in all circumstances, but are extremely tolerant. Even to the point of employing an abortionist-nurse to look after the school creche, and care for the girls' babies while their mothers are busy in the school lab, refining heroin base.
It is interesting to note here that Searle draws attention to the fact that the staff may appear to be "old-fashioned", but that this conceals "lesbianism". This reflects the cultural fears about women teachers and their influences which had been the primary reason for the suppression of the genre of girls' school stories. Searle continues of the girls that:
. . . [The girls' rooms] have been described as smelling
like a ladies' powder-room in Port Said . . .
[A St Trinian's girl] would be sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable of any excess. She would also be well-spoken, even well-mannered and polite. Sardonic, witty and very amusing. She would be good company. In short: typically human and, despite everything, endearing.
It is interesting to note that, by Searle's description,
it would be very difficult to identify a "St Trinian's girl".
A woman might appear to be well-spoken, even well-mannered, polite, sardonic,
witty, very amusing and good company, but in fact she could be sadistic,
cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable
of any excess. She might appear to be "straight and fearless",
but in fact she could not be trusted. This played heavily on cultural fears
about women, particularly the beliefs that women were incapable of being
"Endearing" or not, though, the cartoons were a victim of their own success. By 1952 Searle decided that his life had been dominated by them for too long and stopped drawing them, killing the girls off in an atomic explosion the following year in Souls in Torment (published by his own company, Perpetua Books). An additional reason for Searle's action may have been a growing public concern about his cartoons' influence on the young, fuelled by the tendency for the media to produce stories such as "St Trinian's Girls Burned Their School" and to blame Searle for the results. To accompany the school's demise, C. Day Lewis wrote that:
It is my melancholy task, as the last surviving Governor
of St Trinian's, to announce the closure of this famous, nay, this unparalleled
school. Through circumstances which got out of control, it is no more .
Those (and they are indeed the fittest!) who have survived the St Trinian's experiment, will carry our Founder's gospel into other schools, where an infusion of blood is sorely needed - and a little effusion of it can do no harm. I am confident that our girls will soon settle down in their new surroundings, and with the aid of those advanced techniques in the knuckleduster, the knout, the hypodermic syringe, and the gin bottle which they learnt at the dear old place, will rapidly assume positions of leadership and responsibility. Though St Trinian's lies in ruins, the St Trinian's spirit will arise from her ashes, like a vulture from the feast.
And so it was to be. St Trinian's fame had long since
spread abroad, appearing in Tribune, Art News and France
Dimanche, and the girls had become unstoppable. Despite his intentions,
Searle's cartoons remained in print into the 1990s.
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