Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The School at the Chalet – with Juliette Lawson

The seventh in my series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of a modern edition of The School at the Chalet
I reread a modern edition of this story, nearly a century old now – original copies are now collectors’ items!

When last year I launched my St Bride’s series of school stories for grown-ups, I discovered that many of my author friends had a secret passion for school stories of one kind or another – from children’s classics (such as Anne of Green Gables) through affectionate parodies (Molesworth) to adult novels set in schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

I’m delighted that this month’s guest, Juliette Lawson, has chosen one of my favourite vintage children’s school series, Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, which was launched in 1925 with The School at the Chalet.


 

headshot of Juliette Lawson
Meet Juliette Lawson, Historical Novelist, whose debut novel A Borrowed Past I very much enjoyed

Hello, Juliette, and welcome to my blog! To kick off, could you please tell us a little about The School at the Chalet for the sake of any readers who aren’t familiar with it? 

This is the first book in the series. Madge Bettany sets up a school in Austria after her guardian dies; she believes the climate will help her younger sister Joey’s (Jo’s) fragile health. It attracts locals and boarders, girls of various nationalities. There are conflicts, disasters, and bad behaviour among the girls, but all ends well, with lessons learned and peace made.

I’ve chosen the first book in the series, but I read many of them while at school, all in hardback. I don’t think the library had all 64 of them though!

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?

I was probably around twelve, because I remember our classroom was next to the library in that year, and I was always finding an excuse to go in there. I think I was attracted to the story after going abroad for the first time when I was eleven, to Switzerland and France with Girl Guides. Another favourite book was Heidi by Johanna Spyri, so perhaps I had a thing about mountains! I didn’t re-read any of the Chalet School stories until recently, and I’m 60, so it’s been a very long gap.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

It is still very evocative of the Tyrol and has a charm that has lasted. With hindsight I can see why it appealed to me at the time; there’s a sense of freedom, exploration and constant adventures, none of which I ever had. I was drawn to foreign languages (I did French, Latin and German at school and I have a Classics degree), so the idea of a multi-lingual school was fascinating to me.

The characters are still larger than life, full of energy and enthusiasm, and they navigate their way through various problems and challenges with gusto. My original reading was so long ago that I can’t remember if I was aware of the naïveté or whether the old-fashioned language felt alien to me, being from quite a poor background. Now all the interjections of ‘spiffing!’, ‘splendiferous’, and ‘tophole’ are slightly irritating. As an author, I can also spot lots of telling and head-hopping too, which obviously I wouldn’t have known about at the time.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

The action never stops – I was always gripped by the story and it kept me reading. I used to get in trouble for reading at the dinner table and not hearing my mother ask me a question (I have to confess it still happens with my husband; he despairs!) There was a core set of characters, but new girls were always coming and going, giving rise to different friendships and inevitable clashes. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have worked my way through so many of the series if I’d disliked anything at the time.

Which character did you identify with?

Joey – not in the sense that she was like me, but rather because I wished I could be as confident as her, full of ideas, likeable and very adaptable to whatever situation she ended up in.

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I didn’t have a very happy childhood, so reading this series was an escape for me. I could let my imagination run loose, picturing myself in the setting. Because the school library held such a lot of titles from the series, I became very used to borrowing books; it probably influenced my lifelong love of reading and appreciation of libraries more than any works of literature (I started university reading joint English Literature and Classics). It definitely opened my eyes to the wider world and showed me that you could make things happen if you worked hard enough – Madge’s confidence that she could set up the school and make it successful was inspiring. One of my greatest pleasures as an adult has been travelling, and I’m pretty sure it gave me that global interest.

How did it affect your writing?

I’m afraid there was too long a gap for me to take lessons from it; I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties!

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended the primary school across the road from my home, then passed the 11-plus and gained a place at the local high school for girls, the equivalent of a grammar school, which was run on a traditional basis; some of the older teachers wore university gowns and we all had to stand up when a teacher entered the class. After three years, it was merged with the grammar school for boys and a secondary modern to form a comprehensive school, which was a revelation. We were kept in our academic streams for O Levels, but it didn’t take long for the boys and girls to start mixing in the playground! The change coincided with me gaining more confidence, but I’m not sure whether there was a causal link.

I was very musical and from the time we went comprehensive I threw myself into more activities and clubs. School became my oasis, and I was always attending orchestra, choirs, or rehearsals for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We also had an Archaeology Society and used to go to historic sites on a weekend in the school minibus, driven by our Latin teacher. It would never pass health and safety rules today: there were two benches in the back facing each other, and when we went round a corner, we’d often slide off into each other’s laps, which was great for a group of hormone-ridden mixed-sex teenagers!

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

In the earlier years of my secondary school, I found it difficult to make friends, so it was very much my own private world, where I could imagine being happy. I never felt lonely when I had my nose in a book.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

I very much doubt it – they would probably be in stitches at the language and the old-fashioned tone of it!

Thank you, Juliette, it’s been great fun to share your delight in the Chalet School books. 


About Juliette Lawson

cover of A Borrowed Past by Juliette Lawson
Highly recommended: Juliette Lawson’s debut novel about an aspiring young artist in the north-east of England

Juliette Lawson writes heart-warming historical sagas, bringing the past to life through vivid characters in strong settings inspired by her seaside location in NE England.

Find out more about Juliette Lawson and her work at her website: www.juliettelawson.com

Follow Juliette Lawson on Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/juliettelawsonauthor

Join her Reader Club for regular newsletters and insights into her writing life: www.subscribepage.com/a7f7t3

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading, Travel

The Serendipity of Secondhand Books

In my column for the September 2020 issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m musing about my love of secondhand bookshops and the unexpected treasures to be found in them.

cover of September issueAh, the joy of browsing through secondhand books! – one of the few things I missed about not having a summer holiday this year. Wherever we go, we always end up in vintage bookshops. They’re my main source of holiday souvenirs and more besides.

Last August in Norfolk, the proprietor of The Old Station Bookshop in Wells-next-the-Sea introduced himself to us as Harry Potter’s potter. Some years before, a film company’s properties scout had spotted the bookseller’s side-line in ceramics, nestled between the books. A few days later an order arrived, presumably delivered by owl, for two sets of matching pots in different sizes – one small version for Harry Potter and chums, the other scaled up for Hagrid the giant.

The film scout had clearly adhered to

my golden rule of second-hand bookshop shopping: never look for anything in particular.

On no account take a shopping list because you won’t find what you’re looking for. Instead, browse the shelves with an open mind, and let the books find you.

Timely Reading

The best second-hand books leap out at me with extraordinary timing. A vintage copy of Where No Mains Flow, Rebecca Warren’s witty memoir of restoring an old cottage, kept my sense of humour intact as we did up our own place.

 cover of Where No Mains Flow
I was so pleased to find another copy of this mid-century book, having loaned my original copy and never got it back

 

Just after I’d joined a VE Day 75 committee, the first book I saw at the Bookbarn near Wells was a slim hardback of The White Cliffs, Alice Duer Miller’s novel in verse written in 1940. (Yes, it predates the Vera Lynn song.) I’d never heard of it, but in its heyday it sold a million copies and was even credited with bringing the Americans into the Second World War.

cover of The White Cliffs
This book was the first one I saw displayed cover outwards when entering the Bookbarn – an extraordinary coincidence when i was working on a WWII community project

Just after my sixtieth birthday in January, I decided to reread Graham Greene. On my next visit to a secondhand bookshop, I picked up A Burnt-out Case. Wondering when it was published, I opened the book at the copyright page: 1960, same vintage as me. Suddenly I felt very old.

cover of A Burnt-Out Case
Same vintage as me – but I think I have aged a little better than the chap on the cover

For the Love of Covers

Then there are the books I’ve acquired simply for the sake of their covers. Naturally, it was during Storm Ciara that a vintage hardback of Joseph Conrad’s Typhoon leapt out at me, its cover so atmospheric that you can practically hear the wind roar.

cover of Typhoon
I can feel the winds howling every time I look at this gorgeous cover

Best of all are the curiosities bought as talking points. Who could resist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes printed entirely in Pitman shorthand? Now all I need to be able to read it is an old copy of Teach Yourself Pitman Shorthand. But I’d better not go searching, or I’ll never find one.

sample pages of Sherlock Holmes novel in Pitman Shorthand
I confess I cant read Pitman Shorthand, but this was an irresistible find!

Sneak Preview of Developments in Wendlebury Barrow

cover of the Clutch of Eggs
My next book will be out in October

Such is my love of secondhand books that in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, I’m planning to make Hector Munro to start a vintage section in Hector’s House, the bookshop at the heart of this series. He already has a large private collection of what he refers to as his “curiosities”, and these occasionally play a part in my stories, such as a festive short story that I wrote last year – you can read it here for free if you can bear to think about Christmas just yet!

His curiosities collection also gets a mention in my new book, The Clutch of Eggs, the next in my Tales from Wendlebury Barrow Quick Reads series, which will be out in October – more news of that to follow shortly. (You can join my Readers’ Club mailing list here if you want me to notify you of the publication date.)

Then in the eighth book in the Sophie Sayers series, one of his “curiosities” will be at the heart of a mystery that takes Sophie and Hector from Wendlebury Barrow to the Scottish Highlands.  But first I must write the seventh – Murder Lost and Found, my November project, for the first draft, anyway!

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Molesworth – with Linda Gillard

The sixth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

headshot of Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard is the author of nine literary novels, the latest of which is the intriguing “Hidden”, set in both 1917 and 2017

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.

So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Helen Hollick on Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Riding School Stories, and Madeleine D’Este on The O’Sullivan Twins – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden, Scotland and England.

This month we’re staying in England for a series of school books that is quintessentially British, in the company of novelist Linda Gillard, author of nine novels, two of which became Kindle bestsellers. Linda will explain why she loves the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, set in a classic boys’ private school, St Custard’s. (Searle also created the equivalent girls’ school, St Trinian’s.)

Molesworth & Me

I needed no introduction to Molesworth. When I was a child, we had a well-thumbed hardback omnibus edition that all the family enjoyed, including my mother, a teacher, and my brother and sister, who both trained as teachers when they grew up. (I was never a teacher, but I did work in a boarding school for 13 years.) None of us had boarding school educations, but we still appreciated the witty satire about private school life, and I especially loved the anarchic use of language, full of quaint schoolboy slang, complete with painfully bad spelling which is an intrinsic part of the humour.

Linda Gillard & Me

I first got to know Linda Gillard online about seven years ago and it was a couple of years before we were able to meet in person, because she lives hundreds of miles from the Cotswolds in Scotland. However we have managed to meet at two very appropriate places – Leakey’s wonderful secondhand bookshop in Inverness, and at Foyles’ flagship store in London.

cover of Emotional Geology
An engrossing novel set on Skye, now optioned for film

Although Linda is English, and went to university not far from me in Bristol, many of Linda’s books are set in Scotland, and I particularly enjoyed Emotional Geology, set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where I’ve often been with my Scottish husband.

(Leakey’s Bookshop and Skye will feature in the eighth Sophie Sayers novel, which I’m looking forward to writing – but first I must finish the seventh, Murder Lost and Found!)

Now, let’s find out why Linda has chosen Molesworth as her favourite school story.


Linda, welcome to my blog. I’m thrilled that you chose what for those of a certain age is a timeless classic. To kick off, please tell us a little more about it. 

Thank you, Debbie for inviting me to talk about my favourite school book. It’s been delightful re-acquainting myself with the works of Nigel Molesworth, “the Curse of St Custard’s”.

The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, comprises four short volumes of memoir crossed with self-help manual, written by the fictional Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at a second-rate English public school in the 1950s.

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what ages (approx) have you reread it?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I was a junior pupil at a strict, old-fashioned girls’ grammar school when I was lent a copy of How to be Topp by one of my posher friends who had a brother at public school. (State education was apparently good enough for girls in the 1960s.) I was probably about twelve or thirteen.

I’ve returned to Molesworth throughout my life, just to dip in and chuckle. I owned Puffin paperbacks of all four books (Down with Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane) and passed them grudgingly on to my children, then one day in a second-hand bookshop I came across a hardback omnibus edition. I pounced.

photo of Linda Gillard with The Compleet Molesworth
Linda Gillard with her prized copy of the omnibus of all four Molesworth books

I shelve that with children’s fiction, but like the William Brown books of Richmal Crompton, Molesworth’s oeuvre was in fact intended for adults. His diary first appeared in Punch and generated so much fan mail, four books appeared in the 1950s.

How has your perception of the books changed with later readings?

When I first read them, my response was (as it has been to a great deal of literature, including poetry and Shakespeare) a mixture of awe, delight and only partial comprehension.

I had a sense of opening a window on to an absurd and hilarious world: not just the appalling prep school, St Custard’s, but a new world of anarchic language (Willans) and illustration (Searle).

The books have enriched my life, my children’s and my parents’. I can’t think of any other books that have been enjoyed by all three generations. My respect for Molesworth has grown over the decades. He still makes me laugh.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

Every page is laugh-out-loud funny. You only have to mention The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter or The Molesworth Bogus Report to aficionados and they will start to smile. (Whenever I trimmed his hair, my father would quote a line from Matron’s Report: “We forgot to pack his combs. Simply couldn’t face it.”.)

The genius of the book is the perfect pairing of Geoffrey Willans’ economic text with Ronald Searle’s baroque illustrations. Searle is quite rightly credited as co-author, rather than  illustrator. The text would be nothing without the illustrations, but equally the deadpan text points up the grotesque humour of the illustrations. “Distance back to pavilion is now 120000 miles” is the caption underneath a picture of a seething, bowled-out Molesworth in the “Criket” section.

Which character did you identify with?

Nigel Molesworth, the rebellious anti-hero. I had a younger sister, two forms below me, so I understood the long-suffering tolerance of his annoying sibling, known as Molesworth 2. (“He do not share the charm and good looks of his elder bro, molesworth 1, hem hem. Strange that they could be related.”)

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I don’t think the books influenced me particularly, though they might have made me more tolerant of the Latin I had to study as far as O Level. Like Molesworth, I didn’t see any point in learning Latin. (I do now.) The books were just joyous entertainment, something I shared with my friends and family. I would feel an instant kinship now with anyone who said they’d read and loved them. They confer the camaraderie of the old school tie.

How did it affect your writing?

Nigel Molesworth’s total disregard for grammar, spelling and political correctness had no effect on my writing, fortunately.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended a girls’ grammar school in the 1960s. We weren’t allowed to talk to boys outside school, not even pupils at the Boys’ Grammar School across the road (of which Mick Jagger was a recent ex-pupil). We wore unflattering felt hats in winter and equally unflattering straw hats in summer, of a design that made even pretty girls look dowdy.  It was detention if you were caught turning your hat brim up.

The uniform was a horrible bottle green and we had to wear two pairs of knickers: white next to our skin and bottle green over the top of those. We were subjected to occasional spot checks to make sure we were wearing both pairs.

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

A friend introduced me to Molesworth. In turn I showed the books to my sister (Gillard 2) and eventually our parents, who probably recognised in Molesworth a natural successor to Spike Milligan and the Goons.

We all became fans and Molesworthian expressions crept into our everyday speech. As any fule kno, I have given it to the poor boys, Hullo clouds hullo sky and I diskard him were favourites. The fact that I was able to share the books in this way  with friends and family was half the joy. It gave us a common frame of reference, a shared, quirky language. Right up until their deaths, my parents would still quote Molesworth, smiling:

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Searle’s illustrations are timeless and will be eternally hilarious, but Willans’ text is problematic. I doubt whether the books would appeal to young readers. Few children learn Latin now and there are a lot of jokes about the teaching of Latin. Most young people don’t regard correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as important, so I’m not sure they’d see the joke of Nigel’s cavalier literary style.

The books are also very much of their time. Corporal punishment is not a laughing matter now, nor are defective teaching or parenting. A public school education is no longer something to be envied or admired and the ridicule of wealthy, white, male privilege hardly seems subversive.

However, the popularity of the recent dramatisation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books made me wonder whether Molesworth could still be enjoyed as a quirky period piece by teenagers. You certainly don’t have to attend public school to enjoy Molesworth, but I do wonder if Willans’ wit would travel down the decades for those who enjoy a modern and enlightened education. “Caesar had some jam for tea” depends on familiarity with “Caesar adsum iam forte”. The books might now be dismissed as élitist, as Blyton’s are. Ironically the intention was to ridicule an élite and celebrate the indomitable and ingenious spirit of the British underdog.

Enuff said.

Thank you, Linda, it has been a joy to hear about your passion for the immortal Molesworth.


cover of Hidden by Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard’s latest novel, her ninth, Hidden, is available in paperback and ebook

Here’s an introduction to Linda Gillard’s highly acclaimed latest novel, Hidden:

A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

In 1917 a sense of duty and a desire for a child lead celebrated artist Esme Howard to share her life and home – 16th-century Myddleton Mote – with Captain Guy Carlyle, an officer whose face and body have been ravaged by war. But Esme knows nothing of the ugliness that lurks within Guy’s tortured mind, as he re-lives the horrors of the trenches. As a child grows within her, Esme fears Guy’s wrath will be turned on them both. A prisoner in her own home, she paints like one possessed, trusting that one day someone will hear her silent cries for help.

A century later, Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection from a father she never knew and decides to move on after the end of an unhappy marriage. Inviting her extended family to join her, Miranda sets about restoring the house and turning it into a thriving business. When someone from Miranda’s past returns to torment her, an appalling act of vandalism reveals the Mote’s dark secrets, hidden for a hundred years.

For more information about Linda Gillard, her books and her writing life, visit her website at www.lindagillard.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Personal life, Reading

The Biography is in the Bedroom

Photo of Howard's End is on the Landing on my bookshelf
I blame Susan Hill…

In this month’s Hawkesbury Parish News, I’m sharing my experience of reorganising my bookshelves.

Ten years ago, I was given a copy of Howard’s End is on the Landing, Susan Hill’s memoir inspired by the chaotic state of her bookshelves. This gave me the idea of reorganising my books, library style, and I displayed her book on my landing to remind me of my plan.

In all that time, I got no further than occasionally taking the book down to dust it.

Opportunity Unlocked

Then came lockdown, offering enticing glimpses of immaculate bookshelves of famous people broadcasting from home. Once more I began to yearn for shelves so neat that they’d have space for other items, from pot plants and family photos to curious kittens with a head for heights.

after reorganising bookshelves
…but I’m pleased with the end result

With bookshelves in every room in my house, reorganising my books was no small undertaking. Yet a week after I started, not only is Howard’s End on the landing, but so is the rest of my fiction.

Poetry and biography have moved to the bedroom, including, pleasingly, some poets’ biographies. Arts, crafts, history and music now have their own space in the extension, and cookery, gardening, and rural interest live in the kitchen.

Science, politics, philosophy, geography, and Scottish books are assigned to my husband’s study, while mine is reserved for writing reference and research books. Phew.

How Many Books Do I Really Need?

As the process required me to remove every book from its original position, I took the opportunity to reject any that didn’t “spark joy”, as Marie Kondo puts it. Incidentally, the Japanese decluttering guru believes no household needs more than 10 books, despite having written two herself. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and kept my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying.

New Lives for Old Books

image of Teach Yourself Rapid Reading on the shelf
Now all I need to do is read them

I set aside some of the rejected books to replenish the Little Free Library on my front wall. (Books awaiting their turn out there are stored in the dining room.) The remaining ten bags full I donated to the Bookbarn* a warehouse near Wells stocking a million second-hand books for sale at bargain prices. The good news is that while delivering my donation, I bought only ten more books. I count that as a win.

Everything in its Place

Cover of shorthand edition of Sherlock Holmes book
I rediscovered forgotten curiosities such as this Sherlock Holmes book entirely in Pitman Shorthand

Every day now I gain so much satisfaction from gazing at my new-look bookshelves that I’m surprised it took me so long to get round to streamlining them. After all, I’m the sort of person who likes to have everything in its place. In my purse, for example, I make a point of sorting the banknotes in descending order of denomination, the right way up, and with the Queen facing me as I take them out to spend.

Not that sorting my banknotes takes very long, being far less numerous than my books. Do you think the two facts might be related?


*The Bookbarn gets a mention in Stranger at St Bride’s, as the source of a place to buy books by the metre for decorating pubs and the homes of the pretentious!

In the eighth book of my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, Hector Munro, proprietor of the village bookshop, Hector’s House, will be starting a vintage department, using his vast personal collection of curious old books currently housed in the spare bedroom of his flat above the shop. I think my shorthand Sherlock Holmes book would be right at home there! 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Stories: The O’Sullivan Twins – with Madeleine D’Este

The fifth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

photo of Madeleine D'Este
Meet Madeleine D’Este, who joins us from Melbourne, Australia

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.

So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Helen Hollick on Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Riding School Stories – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden, Scotland and England.

This month we’re heading to the other side of the world to talk to Tasmanian author Madeleine D’Este about her love of Enid Blyton’s The O’Sullivan Twins.

I first got to know Madeleine last year when she kindly invited me to be a guest on her lively podcast series. It was great fun to speak to her online in Melbourne, Australia, at opposite ends of our day, thanks to the twelve-hour time difference! You can hear our conversation on her podcast site here. 

Madeleine is the first guest in this series to choose an Enid Blyton classic – which has surprised me, as when I mention school stories, most people immediately think of Enid Blyton.

(However I do have another post lined up for later in the year in which Malory Towers will be the guest’s choice.)

cover of The Flower and the Serpent
One of Madeleine’s own school stories – an exciting horror story for teens & young adults

Madeleine also writes school stories herself, aimed at teenagers and young adults. Her latest novel, The Flower and the Sword, nominated for a prestigious Australian Shadow Award last year, is a horror story set around a high school production of Macbeth. What a great idea, especially as in the UK at least “the Scottish play” is on the syllabus for the GCSE public exams!

Now, let’s find out why Madeleine so loves The O’Sullivan Twins


Madeleine, welcome to my blog! To kick off, for the sake of those unfamiliar with your favourite school story, can you please tell us a little about it?

Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are back for another term at St Clare’s and this term the twins are determined to buckle down and do well.

But the new term brings new faces to St Clare’s, including their vain cousin Alison, the pretty Lucy and the sullen Margery who seems determined not to make any friends.

There are blow-ups and pranks and midnight feasts to distract the twins from their school work, but when a fire threatens St Clare’s, which of the girls will turn out to be the real heroine?

How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you reread it since?

I devoured all the St Clare’s books when I was around eight years old in the early 1980s. I re-read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago and now again in 2020.

How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?

When I read The O’Sullivan Twins about five years ago, I was struck by how the key theme of the book seemed to be the need to conform. Through peer pressure, the twins and their friends ostracise and basically bully those girls who don’t fit in.

Now as an adult, I understand the historical context and that the book was written in the midst of World War II when diverting from the norm had real consequences, but the undercurrent of bullying tarnished my pristine innocent memories of the book.

But… re-reading again in 2020, I saw another side to the story. While there’s no denying the peer pressure to conform, this time I also noticed how each “outsider” character is given an opportunity to explain why they are behaving in a certain way.

The O’Sullivan Twins highlights that the non-conforming characters have various, and perfectly valid, reasons for their behaviour, they each have their own issues and traumas which the other girls may know nothing about. For example, Margery feels abandoned by her father and Mam’zelle (the French teacher) is thorny because she is worried about her sick sister. Everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Who knew Enid Blyton was so layered?

What did you particularly like about this book and about the author? Anything you disliked?

I was obsessed by boarding school books and desperately wanted to go to a boarding school myself. I think I was drawn to the fun and friendship and the food. The rituals of the schools were exotic and enticing to me, the midnight feasts, the trips to town in twos and I always wondered what ‘prep’ was.

In retrospect, the way the girls are described physically was irritating. A girl who is pretty is generally good while an ugly or “unattractive” girl or woman is something to be pitied or distrusted. Sigh.

Which character did you identify with?

I was fascinated by the “sneak” character, Erica, the villain of the story – the girl who went behind everyone’s backs to spoil their fun. Her motivation intrigued me and how she continued to cause trouble even though she didn’t seem benefit or gain any status from her mean tricks.

I often wonder why people act this way in real life. What are they gaining from it?

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I never went to boarding school, although I did play lacrosse (very badly) in high school, but I became obsessed with creating my own school rolls. I would take out an atlas and a book of baby names and create a list of names of the girls in my class along with their home towns (I was also influenced by The Chalet School books and so every hometown was very exotic).

My mother still thinks it was very strange but now I understand I was creating character lists!

How did it affect your writing?

Three words: sizzling fat sausages. Enid Blyton gave me a love for sumptuous and evocative food descriptions which I still love to write (and read) today, and I continue to write feisty female characters.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended Australian state schools in Canberra, Launceston and Hobart.

Were your friends also fans, or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

Reading has always been my private world, my little retreat from everyone and everything. And it still is.

My favourite time of the day is when I turn off all the devices and start to wind down by reading a good book with a big mug of herbal tea.

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Young readers would find The O’Sullivan Twins very old fashioned, I imagine. The distinct lack of technology would make St Clare’s an alien world. However, if a young reader could overlook the “olden days” setting, I believe the themes of conformity, friendship and compassion would remain constant.

And of course, the truisms of growing up and blossoming into your own person never goes out of fashion.

Thank  you so much, Madeleine D’Este, for this entertaining and insightful analysis of The O’Sullivan Twins – and best of luck with your own school stories, as well as your series for adult readers.


photo of Madeleine D'EsteTo find out more about Madeleine D’Este, her books and her podcast, visit her website:

www.madeleinedeste.com

You’ll also find her on Twitter at:  @madeleine_deste


Now Over to St Bride’s…

If our conversation has whetted your appetite for a more contemporary take on school stories for grown-ups, now’s a good time to try my St Bride’s School series:

  • SPECIAL OFFER: The ebook of the first in series, Secrets at St Bride’s, is currently on special offer at 99p/99c or the local equivalent all over the world, until the end of July. (Buy online in the ebook format of your choice here – also available in paperback here, or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you.)
  • JUST LAUNCHED: its sequel, Stranger at St Bride’s is hot off the press (published 1st July 2020), and already earning great reviews. (Buy online – click here for ebook or click here for paperback – or ask your local bookshop to order a copy for you. )

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