Posted in Writing

The Story Behind the New Sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s

cover of Stranger at St Bride's
A fun, pacy story set in the autumn term

I’m delighted to announce that today marks the launch of my latest novel, Stranger at St Bride’s. This is the second in my St Bride’s School series and the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s (shortlisted for the Bookbrunch Selfies Award 2020 for the best independently published fiction in the UK).

To mark its launch, I thought it would be fun today to share the story behind this particular novel, which was inspired by my own experience of working at an English boarding school.

The Premise for Stranger at St Bride’s

As you’ll know if you’ve read the first in the series, Gemma Lamb has recently joined this eccentric boarding school for girls as an English teacher. It’s a residential post and she’s enjoying its beautiful setting. She is also making good friends among her secretive but kindly colleagues.

Then on the first day back after the autumn half-term holiday, an American stranger turns up claiming to be the rightful owner of the school’s magnificent country estate. At once Gemma fears losing not only her job and her home, but also her hopes for a relationship with charismatic PE teacher Joe Spryke.

Her fears are compounded when the headmistress, Hairnet, accepts the stranger’s claim due to his remarkable resemblance to the school’s late founder.

So it’s down to Gemma to fight his claim and save the school, with a little help from her friends:

– the put-upon Bursar, ousted from his cosy estate cottage by the stranger
– the enigmatic Max Security, always up for a bit of espionage
– irrepressible Mavis Brook, geography teacher, itching to fell a tree on top of the stranger’s white Rolls-Royce
Judith Gosling, history teacher and genealogy expert, who knows more about Lord Bunting than she’s letting on

Fickle maths teacher Oriana Bliss is even prepared to marry the stranger to secure St Bride’s future, especially if it means she gets to drive his fancy car. That’s if inventive pranks by the girls – and the school cat – don’t drive him away first.

Pranks Aplenty

The reason the girls’ pranks feature in this story is Debbie Irving’s comment in her review of Secrets at St Bride’s:

My only complaint is that the pupils are far too well-behaved!

That was my cue to dream up some high-jinks that the girls use to try to drive away Earl Bunting, the unpleasant stranger. He’s a baddie that I hope, like St Bride’s staff and pupils, you will love to hate!

The Origins of the Stranger

The idea for this story has been simmering in my subconscious for many years, even before I dreamed up the concept of the St Bride’s series. It arose when I was working at Westonbirt School, near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, just a few miles from my home in the Cotswold countryside.

Robert Holford, the Victorian gentleman who built Westonbirt School and planted the National Arboretum at Westonbirt (Public domain)

Like St Bride’s, and very many other private schools, Westonbirt is set in a former stately home. It was built by Robert Holford, one of the ten richest gentlemen in Victorian England. He also planted what’s now the National Arboretum at Westonbirt. once part of the grounds to the house. His legacy is of such historic importance that it has its own charity to preserve the fabric of his house and grounds: The Holfords of Westonbirt Trust.

When Robert Holford died in 1892, he left the estate to his son, Sir George Holford. When Sir George died without issue in 1926, for a time it was thought that the house would be demolished. Such wilful destruction may seem outrageous to 21st century Britain, when we do so much to protect and preserve the nation’s cultural heritage. But in those days, with the rise in inheritance tax and the increasing difficulty in making estates pay for their own running costs, it was not uncommon to see a beautiful old property torn down and sold off for scrap if the owner could no longer maintain it.

Fortunately, Westonbirt House was reprieved by a charitable trust engaged in founding new schools. The Martyrs’ Memorial Trust decided Westonbirt would be just right for a boarding school for the daughters of the gentry. it opened its doors in 1928, and has been going strong ever since.

I worked at the school for thirteen years, and one of my many roles was to give guided tours to visitors. Occasionally members of the public would turn up in reception without an appointment, hoping to have a chance to see behind the scenes, especially in the school holidays. During one summer vacation, I answered the door to a pleasant American couple who had a particular reason for wanting to look around: the gentleman’s name was Holford.

For a moment I had a horrible suspicion that he was a long-lost heir, come back to declare his ownership of the property, planning to oust the school and take it over as his family seat. Luckily my fears were groundless, and an informal tour and a photo opportunity were enough to satisfy him before he went on his way. Nonetheless, after that I always wondered what might happen if another Holford with a stronger claim turned up.

And that imaginative leap led to the opening chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s, which you can sample below.

How to Order

From today, you can buy the ebook online, buy the paperback online  or order it from your local bookshop quoting ISBN 979 19 11 223 597.


The Opening Chapter of Stranger at St Bride’s

THE OPENING CHAPTER OF STRANGER AT ST BRIDE’S 

1

Gemma Meets a Ghost

“Miss Lamb, Miss Lamb, there’s a ghost outside the front door!”

At St Bride’s School for Girls, I never quite know what to expect when I open the staffroom door to deal with a girl’s enquiry, but Imogen’s announcement before the first lesson of the day was unprecedented.

“Foolish child,” muttered Mavis Brook, the geography teacher, from behind me, closing the exercise book she was marking. “I blame that Halloween nonsense for putting such silly ideas into her head. Most unhealthy.”

The terror on Imogen’s face made me loath to dismiss her claim as a prank, although that seemed more likely than seeing a real ghost. I tried to make light of the situation to calm her down.

“Anyone’s ghost in particular? Are you sure it’s not just one of your friends in a white sheet?”

Imogen shook her head vigorously.

“Oh no, miss, it’s a real ghost all right. You should see it. It’s far too tall to be any of my friends. And it’s a man.”

Imogen, aged 11, came up only as far as my shoulder, but there were some very tall girls in the top class of seventeen- to eighteen-year-olds. Might one of those try such a stunt?

“OK, Imogen, wait a moment and I’ll take a look out of the staffroom window to see whether it’s still there.”

I closed the door – school policy is to keep the staffroom private from the girls – and crossed to the big bay window that gave on to the forecourt. As I peered round to view the front porch, the doorbell rang again, and a tall, thin, dark-haired man with a wide clipped moustache stepped back to look around for signs of life.

Nearby on the window seat, Oriana Bliss, Head of Maths, looked up from a stationery catalogue she had been browsing through and followed my gaze.

“He looks like flesh and blood to me.”

“Well, you’re the expert,” said PE teacher Joe Spryke, unzipping his pink tracksuit top. Joe is a former competitive cyclist on the run from hostile journalists who unfairly blamed him for an international sports scandal. During term-time, Joe disguises himself as a woman to escape detection.

I narrowed my eyes to focus better on the stranger. I had to agree with Oriana.

“He looks familiar, but I don’t think he’s one of the girls’ fathers, is he?”

Oriana laid her catalogue down on the seat beside her.

“Not unless the Bursar’s signed up a new pupil during the half-term holiday. And speaking of the Bursar, where is he? Why isn’t he answering that pesky doorbell?”

In the absence of a budget that would stretch to a receptionist, answering the door falls to the Bursar, the only official man in the school besides Max Security (not his real name, of course – like Joe, he’s incognito). Max is like St Bride’s own Scarlet Pimpernel. You never knew where he might pop up next, and it is often in the place you least expect. The Bursar is far more visible, an overt equivalent to Max’s undercover agent – a kind of bouncer, perhaps. The Bouncing Bursar. I smiled. Perhaps he wasn’t so bad after all, now I’d got used to him.

The bell rang for the third time. Oriana glanced at the wall clock above the door, then at me. There were just a few minutes left before lessons began for the day. I took her hint.

“I suppose I can let him in myself.”

Imogen, still waiting outside the staffroom door, skipped alongside me as I strode down the corridor to the entrance hall.

“Oh miss, you are brave! Do you want me to get a gang of girls to rescue you in case it’s the dangerous kind of ghost?”

I tried not to hurt her dignity by laughing. She meant well.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine, thank you. I don’t think much harm can come to me answering the front door in broad daylight.”

“Ooh, yes, thank goodness it’s daylight. That means he can’t be a vampire. But I’ll hide nearby, just in case. If you need me, shout the code word. What should our code word be?”

After spending half-term with my parents, I hadn’t yet retuned to the girls’ mindset.

“How about ‘help’?”

Imogen frowned.

“I don’t think you’re really trying, miss.”

When we reached the vast entrance hall that had so intimidated me on my arrival at the school back in September, Imogen took cover behind one of the broad marble pillars supporting the ornate painted ceiling. I marched across the tiled floor, heels clicking, and heaved open the front door.

“Good morning,” I said, blinking against the pale November sunshine. “How can I help you, sir?”

The stranger stepped forward, assuming I’d let him in. We did an awkward shuffle as I tried to stall him until I’d established his credentials. We’re very hot on child protection at St Bride’s, even with members of school staff. Max Security lives in Rose Lodge, one of the pair of cottages at the entrance to the main drive, and has security cameras all over the place. In the other cottage, Honeysuckle Lodge, lives the Bursar. Thus, even the two men at the heart of school life are in their leisure time kept at a distance from the main school building.

“Why, good morning to you, ma’am.” The stranger spoke with a leisurely US drawl. With his dark moustache, black suit, brocade waistcoat and string tie, he reminded me of Clark Gable as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Scarlett O’Hara would have felt right at home at St Bride’s, with its ostentatious historic house and gardens, although our English weather couldn’t compete with the southern sunshine at Tara, her family plantation estate.

If the stranger was a belated trick or treater, his choice of costume was unusual. I kept my hand on the doorknob. I wasn’t going to let him in without good reason.

“Do you have an appointment, please?”

“Why, thank you, ma’am, I surely do.”

He gave a slight bow. Was he mocking me with his elaborate Southern charm?

“And with whom might your appointment be, sir?”

I’m not the kind of English teacher who is a stickler for “whom” in general conversation, but his formal speech was rubbing off on me.

“With Miss Caroline Harnett, your headmistress, if you please. I believe I am right on time.”

He patted the pocket in his waistcoat, from which hung a silver watch chain, fastened at the other end to a button. Holding the door open to allow him in, I pointed to the signing-in book on the table beside the sofa.

“If you would be so kind as to write your name in our visitors’ book, I’ll give you a security badge and tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”

The stranger bent his head in acknowledgement and produced from his inside jacket pocket an engraved gold fountain pen. He signed his name in copperplate of such a size that it spilled over the edges of the signature box, yet the loops were so tightly closed that I couldn’t make out what he’d written.

“Whom shall I say is here for her? I mean, who?”

He added an ornate swirl of self-importance beneath his signature, then gazed up at me in feigned surprise, as if he were a celebrity recognised wherever he went. He straightened up, capped his pen and returned it to its pocket.

“My name is Bunting. Earl Bunting. Thank you kindly.”

The gasp that issued from behind the pillar echoed my own surprise. Lord Bunting was the school’s Victorian founder. Over a hundred years before, when he’d apparently died without issue, he’d bequeathed his house and grounds to be turned into a boarding school for girls.

I was unsure how to address the stranger. My Lord? Your Excellency? Your Worship? The school library’s copy of Debrett’s Peerage would tell me. We had plenty of titled girls on the roll, but it was school policy not to use those titles in daily life, so I’d never needed to swot up on the etiquette before. For now, I took the easy option.

“Please take a seat, sir, and I’ll tell Miss Harnett you’re here.”

As I marched off to the Headmistress’s study, Imogen came pattering after me.

“Now do you believe me, miss? It’s the ghost of Lord Bunting, isn’t it? Didn’t you recognise him?”

The life-size oil painting of the school’s founder on the wall of the assembly hall had made him a familiar figure to us all.

Imogen skipped to overtake me, then turned back to face the way we’d come.

“I’m going to the hall now to see if the picture’s still there. Lord Bunting might have stepped down from it and turned real. That’s the sort of thing that happens at Halloween. I’ve seen it before.”

“Really?”

“Yes, in a play my grandma took me to see in the summer holidays. There were lots of songs in it and all the paintings came to life.”

“That’ll be Ruddigore,” came a voice behind us – Louisa Humber, the music teacher, was on her way to her classroom. “It’s an operetta, Imogen, not a play, by Gilbert and Sullivan.”

Imogen shrugged. “Anyhoo, my point is, there’s probably now a big empty hole in the painting where Lord Bunting used to be.”

Louisa flashed a conspiratorial smile at me.

“Let me know if your ghost bursts into song.”

She walked on.

“Off you go then, Imogen.” I hoped that when she found the painting intact she would feel reassured. “But be as quick as you can, or you’ll be late for your lesson.”

“Yes, Miss Lamb.”

Not wanting to be late for my lesson either, I hastened down the private corridor to the Headmistress’s secluded study and rapped on her door.

“Come in!” came her cheery greeting.

I went in to find Miss Harnett sitting at her desk, contentedly opening her half-term post. Through the bay window behind her lay a neat rose garden, pruned and orderly for the winter. McPhee, her black cat, lay on his side on the window seat, basking in a beam of autumn sunshine, legs stretched out for maximum exposure to the warmth. He’s a substantial cat. I mean she. Officially, McPhee is female, like all the teaching staff – one of Miss Harnett’s policies for the sake of child protection.

“Good morning, my dear. I trust you have had an enjoyable break?”

“Thank you, yes. I felt like one of the girls, going home to see my parents, but it was lovely.”

Unlike the girls, I hadn’t seen my parents for a few years, due to a disastrous relationship with my controlling ex, Steven, from whom I’d fled to this job and some vestige of security. At last I was starting to make up for lost time. I’d be returning to my parents for the Christmas holidays.

“What can I do for you this morning, my dear?”

The pleasure of being back in the Headmistress’s comforting company had almost made me forget the stranger.

“You have a visitor, Miss Harnett. He’s waiting in the entrance hall. He claims he has an appointment with you.”

She glanced at the large hardback diary that lay open on her desk. Her smile faded.

“Ah, yes, so he does. Please escort him to my study.”

She didn’t ask his name.

Setting her pile of post aside, she pulled her daybook towards her.

When I’d retraced my steps to the entrance hall, where I found the stranger gazing up at the ornate painted ceiling, I saw him with fresh eyes. His resemblance to the original Lord Bunting was inescapable.

I coughed to attract his attention.

“Miss Harnett will see you now.”

I raised a hand to indicate the direction of her study. His reverie interrupted, he stood up and straightened his silk tie.

When we passed the foot of the curving marble staircase that led to the residential part of the school, he patted the finial fondly. As he followed me down the oak-panelled corridor to the Headmistress’s study, he whistled in admiration.

“It’s quite a place we have here,” he said in a low voice, as much to himself as to me.

We? I wondered at his choice of pronoun but made no comment.

I knocked on Miss Harnett’s door, waited for permission to enter, then held it wide for him to go in.

The Headmistress rose from her desk and crossed the crimson Persian carpet to greet him. Instantly alert, McPhee leapt down from the window seat and followed at Miss Harnett’s heels, his tail bushy with hostility.

“Ah, Mr Bunting, I’ve been expecting you.”

Eyes wide, I withdrew and left them to it, just as the bell rang for the first lesson. I would have to wait until morning break to update my colleagues about this mysterious stranger.


Like to know what happens next?

Here’s how to order your copy of Stranger at St Bride’s

To order from your local bookshop, quote ISBN 978-1-911223-597

To order the ebook online, click here

To order the paperback on line, click here.

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – with Historical Novelist Clare Flynn

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

cover of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Historical novelist Clare Flynn picks this modern classic as her favourite school story – read my interview with her to find out why

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories. I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

So far in this series we’ve had novelists Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables and Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking – to that’s a Welsh author on a Canadian story and a Finnish author on a Swedish one! This time, I’m pleased to welcome British historical novelist Clare Flynn talking about the Scottish modern classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark.

Although I’ve known of the book for a long time, it’s one of those that I was meaning for years to get round to, and only managed it a couple of years ago. I’d also put off seeing the film until I’d read the book – so the film is now on my to-watch list!

Over to Clare Flynn to tell you about why she chose Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as her favourite school book.

Clare Flynn, welcome to my blog! Before we begin, can you please just tell us a little about yourself for readers not already familiar with your historical novels?

Clare Flynn, award-winning historical novelist, shares her passion for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

I’m the author of ten historical novels and a collection of short stories. My tenth novel, The Pearl of Penang, set in Malaya around the Second World War, was published on December 5th and is the winner of The Selfies UK Awards for the UK’s best self-published novel for adults. I live on the Sussex coast and an a former Marketing Director and management consultant.

When did you first read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

I can’t remember whether I read the book first or saw the film – probably around the same time and I would have been about fourteen or fifteen. I think my mum was reading it and I probably pinched her copy. I’ve recently read it again – fifty years later. Shriek!

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

I really enjoyed re-reading it although I can’t help hearing the unmistakable voice of Maggie Smith as Miss Brodie – impossible not to. Spark’s writing is beautiful. It defies the test of time.

I wonder whether I’d have found it harder to relate to now if I hadn’t got this nostalgic link to my past reading. Miss Brodie’s girls lived a world far removed from the experiences of schoolgirls today with their phones and social media. Yet there is so much about human nature that is still very relevant today.

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

I loved the waspish humour, in particular the way it so deftly nails Miss Brodie’s overbearing certainties and incapacity to admit alternatives. In virtually all of her absolute certainties she is to be proved wrong. It is a real lesson in hubris. In some ways, Jean Brodie is a monster – her espousal of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler (later modified to a post-war admission that ‘Hitler was rather naughty’), her determination to shape and mould her girls in her own image. Yet at the same time her desire to ‘put old heads on young shoulders’, to inspire and to stretch her pupils way beyond the confines of a narrow curriculum are praiseworthy. I’d have enjoyed being in her class.

I love the constant repetition by both Miss Brodie and her girls that she is ‘in her prime’ and they are the ‘creme de la crème‘. Miss Brodie has a complete absence of any sense of irony – Muriel Spark however has it in spades.

Here’s a typical example of an exchange between her and her pupils:

‘Who is the greatest Italian painter?’

‘Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.’

‘That is incorrect. The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.’

Or this, regarding a poster the headmistress has stuck on the wall:

‘This is Stanley Baldwin, who got in as Prime Minister and got out again ‘ere long,‘ said Miss Brodie. ‘Miss Mackay retains him on the wall because she believes in the slogan “Safety first”. But Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth and Beauty come first.’

Structurally the book is clever the way it jumps back and forward in its timeline – so that from the beginning the reader is aware of the future fates of the Brodie set and their teacher and her ‘betrayal’. This is a hard act to pull off by a writer and Spark succeeds brilliantly. In fact, the whole time we are a party to Miss Brodie’s self-delusion, her misplaced assumptions – particularly about Sandy.  Within the first few pages we are told what each girl is ‘famous for’ – Rose ‘for sex-appeal’, Eunice ‘for spritely gymnastics and glamorous swimming’, Sandy ‘for her small, almost non-existent eyes’ and Mary MacGregor ‘for being a silent lump’. Just a few pages later in Chapter 2 we are to discover that at only twenty-four, Mary MacGregor is to die in a hotel fire, Sandy of the little ‘pig-eyes’ is to sleep with the art teacher, ‘betray’ Miss Brodie and then become a nun.

Spark is wonderful at creating a vivid sense of time and place. I was immediately pulled into the world of pre-war Edinburgh. Very prim, Presbyterian and proper.

Which character did you identify with?

I suppose I identified with the girls, particularly Sandy and Jenny – at least my memory of myself at that age. I loved the scenes where those two write romances in which their teacher engages in passion-fuelled entanglements with fictional heroes. I used to write daft stories all the time (when I was around eleven or twelve) and turn them into plays to perform with friends.

The two girls write imaginary letters between Miss Brodie and the music teacher. The last of which – when they fictionalise her declining his marriage proposal – ends

‘Allow me, in conclusion to congratulate you warmly on your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing. With fondest joy, Jean Brodie.’

I remember two or three teachers who made a big impression on me – but none in the kind of suffocating and exclusive manner Miss Brodie employed.

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

As a child, I was probably grateful I didn’t live the restricted life those Edinburgh girls did. I had access to television and radio – to pop music, to parties, to weekend/ holiday jobs to earn some cash – and so probably grew up faster.

In other ways, my own schooldays were similar. My school was full of teachers that were comparable with those at Marcia Blane Academy – numerous post-war, aging spinsters for whom we would create interesting backstories about how their motorbike despatch driver fiancé was killed in occupied France, or their true love blown up in the Blitz. None of them struck us as being in their prime! Mostly well over-the-hill so, instead of being unduly influenced by them, we felt rather sorry for them.

How did it affect your writing?

Muriel Spark was one of many good writers I read and absorbed from a tender age and I believe all of them must in a subliminal way have influenced my own writing. I just wish I had a fraction of her talent!

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

I went to a direct-grant Catholic convent then, after we moved, to a state girls’ grammar school before the comprehensive revolution began.

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

Books were a private world for me – mostly to escape from being part of a large noisy family! I shared my passion with one friend in particular and we would recommend books to each other.

Would the book still resonate with young readers today?

I hope so, but somehow, I doubt it. It is such a world apart and these days there is an expectation of ‘relatability’ – which is rather a shame.

Thanks for giving me the excuse to go back and read this again, Debbie!

cover of The Pearl of Penang against Malaysian backdrop
Clare Flynn’s tenth novel was awarded the Selfies UK Award 2020

Connect with Clare Flynn

Find out more about Clare Flynn’s excellent historical novels via her website www.clareflynn.co.uk, where if you sign up for her readers’ newsletter you may claim a free download of her collection of short stories, A Fine Pair of Shoes. You can also find her on Facebook as authorclareflynn, on Twitter as @ClareFly and also on Instagram as @ClareFly.

Next time in this series I’ll be talking to another historical novelist, Helen Hollick, who will be sharing her passion for stories about quite a different kind of school to Miss Brodie’s – Ruby Ferguson’s Riding School!


POSTSCRIPT: 3 Strange Coincidences

  • cover of Secrets at St Bride'sI mentioned at the start of this interview that Clare’s novel The Pearl of Penang was awarded The Selfies UK Award 2020 last month. By a strange coincidence, my school story, Secrets at St Bride’s was in the final shortlist of six novels for that award!
  • Clare has since published the sequel to Pearl of Penang, called Prisoner from Penang – and I’m about to publish the sequel to Secrets at St Bride’s, called Stranger at St Bride’s (due out on 1st July, the ebook is already available to order.
  • I’ve only just noticed that in both pairs of books, we’ve chosen alliterative titles! Kindred spirits indeed!

For more information about my School Stories for Grown-ups, and to read the first chapter of the first in series for free, click here.

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Pippi Longstocking – with Guest Author Helena Halme

The second in my occasional series of guest posts by author friends who love school stories

When I launched Secrets at St Bride’s, the first in my new series of school stories for grown-ups, (the story revolves around the staff rather than the pupils), I began to realise just how many of my author friends also loved school stories like I did! I’m therefore inviting them to share on my blog their enthusiasm for their favourite school story.

I’ve also pledged to read any that they nominate that are new to me. You might like to read along with us.

First up was Jean Gill, talking about Anne of Green Gables (click here to read her interview).

Now it’s the turn of Finnish romantic novelist Helena Halme, who nominated the Swedish classic Pippi Longstocking series by Astrid Lindgren – one of my own childhood favourites.

Pippi Longstocking at St Bride’s

Funnily enough, Pippi makes an appearance in Secrets at St Bride’s as a favourite bedtime story of the youngest girls in the school, as in the following extract.

Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's

FROM CHAPTER 21 – STORY TIME

“What are you going to read to us tonight, Miss?” asked Tilly from the bed in the far corner, busy plaiting her long dark hair, presumably to keep it tangle-free overnight. 

That took me by surprise. “Me? Now? Read to you?”

“Miss Bliss always reads to us for fifteen minutes.”

I wondered why Oriana hadn’t included that in my briefing. Were they having me on?

“Really? What does she read?”

The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking,” they chorused, clearly relishing the name.

“Aren’t you-?” I was about to say “too old for these stories,” which I remembered enjoying back in priarmy schol. But as I clocked their eager, hopeful faces, soft in the low light cast from their bedside lamps, I realised the connection: they shared the motherless Pippi’s vulnerability. Seeing her sea-captain father only at rare intervals she claimed complete self-reliance and gloried in her independence, although her more conventional friends suspected her of making up her madcap adventures to hide her loneliness.

“Pippi Longstocking it is, then,” I beamed, gratefully accepting the big green hardback that Imogen held out to me.

Meet Helena Halme – and Pippi Longstocking!

headshot of Helena Halme
Meet Helena Halme, Finnish novelist and Pippi Longstocking fan

Now over to Helena Halme to explain her love of Pippi Longstocking!

Helena is a prize-winning author, former BBC journalist, bookseller and magazine editor. She holds an MSc in Marketing and an MA in Creative Writing. Full-time author and self-publishing coach, Helena also acts as Nordic Ambassador for The Alliance of Independent Authors and has published ten Nordic fiction titles and two non-fiction books. Apart from writing stories set in her native Finland, Helena is addicted to Nordic Noir and dances to Abba songs when nobody’s watching. 

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)

Hi Helena, welcome to my blog, and I’m so pleased to have you here to share your love of Astrid Lindgren’s legendary creation, Pippi Longstocking! Can you please kick off with a brief description of her books?

The latest edition in the UK features endearing illustrations by Lauren Child

Pippi Longstocking is a girl with upturned plaits the colour of fire. She lives on her own in a large wooden house with a pet monkey and a white black-spotted horse and never wants to grow up. Pippi is superhumanly strong and can lift her horse one-handed, but she’s also playful and unpredictable. She dislikes unreasonable adults and often makes fun of them or plays tricks on them, especially if they are unfair or pompous. Her father is a swashbuckling pirate captain and she tells endless adventure stories about him. Whether all of them are strictly true is another matter… Her four best friends are her horse and monkey, and the neighbours’ children, Tommy and Annika.

How old were you when you first read Pippi’s adventures?

I was seven when I was first introduced to the crazy world of Pippi and her friends. Pippi’s unconventional, unruly, and exciting life was in such stark contrast to anything I had ever experienced that I was immediately hooked. Although with a good heart, Pippi had a wicked side to her and often exposed grown-ups, particularly teachers, for their double-standards. The books tell Pippi’s story through the eyes of her two best friends, Annika and Tommy, who were ‘normal’ children, with a mum and dad at home.

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

Reading Pippi Longstocking later has made me realize how the book reflected social changes in Swedish society at the time. The books were published in 1945, with a hugely popular TV series 1969, which sealed the success of the Pippi stories. I believe that the books reflect the post-war era when the Western world craved freedom and looked toward higher moral values such as peace, humanity and even feminism, all of which are reflected in the Pippi Longstocking books.

What did you particularly like about this series and about the author? Was there anything you disliked?

I just adored the unruliness of Pippi’s life, especially as underneath it, there was often a message about right and wrong. The fight against authority to protect the weak is a ‘red thread’ running through all the books, and that really appealed to me.

I, as did many of those who read the books in Sweden, was later made uncomfortable by some of the racially offensive language used in some of Pippi books, such as Pippi in the South Seas. I believe the text has been changed in later editions.

Which character did you identify with?

In the Pippi books, I identified with Annika, who was the ‘goody two shoes’ to Pippi’s mad and Tommy’s more boisterous character. Annika would often vote against some hair-brained scheme that Pippi came up with, while Tommy was the first to agree to it. I would have liked to have been like Pippi, but knew that it just wasn’t me. However, Annika, who (mostly) followed the rules and was praised by teachers (like me) would have done anything even if it meant rebelling against authority to protect her friend. I hoped I might also behave in a similar way if called upon to do so.

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

Reading the Pippi books gave me a huge amount of confidence. Although at the time, my parents were still married, they were constantly fighting, and reading about this girl who could live on her own, supported by her friends, gave me comfort. Although I wouldn’t be able to lift a horse or stand up to my teachers if they were being unfair, it was nice to daydream! Besides, Annika didn’t have those powers, but she was best friends with a girl who did.

How reading Pippi Longstocking affect your writing?

Astrid Lindgren is, first and foremost, a storyteller. The Pippi books started off as bedtime stories she told her own daughter when ill and having to stay at home from school. Her books made me dream about being able to write, to entertain readers and also to convey a message through the stories. The Pippi Longstocking books also made me understand that there is no such thing as a story that is too fantastical!

What type of school did you go to yourself?

What type of school didn’t I go to? Mainly due to my dad’s job (he was a telecoms engineer), as well as because of the on-off break-up of my parents’ marriage, we moved a lot while I was growing up. Between the ages of eleven and sixteen, I went to five different schools. That’s a school per year.

My first years were spent in a lovely primary school in Tampere in Finland, where everyone respected the teachers and my big sister was with me. Next, we moved to Stockholm to a large secondary school where the teacher was bullied and sometimes physically abused by the pupils. This was the worst school I’ve ever attended. I cannot tell you the number of times I saw the teacher cry at the end of the lesson when the pupils piled out of class. How I wished I’d have the physical and mental abilities Pippi possessed to deal with the bullies!

The next school in Stockholm was the polar opposite of the first one. A small class of just 15 pupils, I was encouraged to pursue my artistic side by our wonderful teacher. Tall, blonde and blue-eyed, every girl in my class had a crush on Johan Johansson!

Back in Finland, schools were very much the same as my primary school in Tampere. Disciplined, academic and pressurized, I thrived because I was quite good at learning. And by that stage, I’d acquired a new language: Swedish, something which helped.

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

Everyone loved Pippi Longstocking! I remember once when I was eight, a friend was having a fancy dress party for her birthday. No less than five freckled-faced Pippis, including me, turned up. They must have sold out of red wigs in the local shop…

Would the Pippi Longstocking stories still resonate with young readers today?

I absolutely think that Pippi Longstocking will still appeal to today’s children. I certainly intend to introduce the rebellious, strong and fair-minded redhead Pippi to my granddaughter when she’s old enough. Pippi’s belief in her own strength, moral judgement and refusal to follow conventions is perfect for today’s world!

Like to try one of Helena Halme’s books for free? Download the free ebook of the first in her compelling Nordic Heart series of romantic novels. Click the image to find out more.

Connect with Helena Halme

You can find more about Helena and her books on her website at www.helenahalme.com, and connect with her vial her favourite social media: Facebook (@HelenaHalmeAuthor/), Twitter (@helenahalme) and Instagram (@helenahalme)


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

PS If you’re wondering what the girls at St Bride’s make of Miss Lamb’s rendition of Pippi, here’s what happens next:

As I read, the girls gradually clicked off their bedside lights, until I was conscious of sitting in a dark room, the only lamp still illuminated focused on Pippi. Halfway through the second chapter, I glanced around to check how many of the girls were asleep and realised that while I had been reading they had all styled their hair into two plaits, which they’d arranged at right angles to their heads, draped across the pillows as they lay down. Each had closed her eyes, slight chests gently rising and falling in the comfortable rhythm of sleep. Perhaps they were all Pippi Longstocking in their dreams, reliving the chapter in which her father returned home from sea.

Secrets at St Bride’s is now available both as a paperback and an ebook.

  • Order the ebook online from your favourite eretailer here.
  • Order the paperback from your favourite bookshop quoting ISBN 978 1911 223 436, or online from Amazon.
Posted in Events, Reading, Writing

Back to School for a World Book Day Reading Competition

Every day last week I had the pleasure of spending some time at Westonbirt School, talking to English classes in Years 7, 8 and 9 (11-14 year olds), sharing insights into an author’s life and writing advice that I wish I’d been given at their age.

World Book Day logo 2020On the Thursday, for World Book Day, I returned in the evening to co-judge the school’s annual inter-house reading competition, alongside the award-winning poet Shirley Wright and two sixth-form pupils. We judged the pupils’ readings were on four criteria: clarity, confidence, choice of passage and overall performance. The overall standard was really high, and, in the stunning setting of the school’s Grade 1 listed library, being a judge was a very enjoyable experience.

Congratulations to all those pupils who performed, and to the English department, so ably led by Miss Sheehan, for staging such a streamlined and impressive evening of entertainment.

But before the readings began, I had to give a small performance of my own: a brief motivational speech to all those taking part. In case you’re interested, here’s the transcript.

My Address to the Readers

People often assume that being a professional writer is a lonely business, spent in isolation. But as I’ve been explaining in these classes, the writer’s life is all about collaboration. It’s team work. Editors, proof-readers and cover designers help turn my manuscripts into books, before the books are sent out into the world.

Reaching readers is by far the most important stage in any book’s journey, because a book’s success stands or falls by what its readers make of it. Every reader interprets the writer’s intention in their own way. Furthermore, the same reader, reading the same book at different times in their life, may find it a completely different experience.  Books you love now may leave you cold when you get to my age. On the other hand, in later life you may find you love books that you struggled to enjoy at school.

Those who read books aloud to entertain others add another layer of interest to a writer’s words.

In the audiobook publishing world, these people are called voice artists. Good voice artists add value and interest to a book and inject it with their own personality. They also make the process look easy. But even when you know a text really well, reading it aloud is hard work, as I know from my own experience. At the launch of my first novel, performing an extract from Best Murder in Show, instead of reading about “Rex’s elegant girlfriend”, I managed to call her “Rex’s elephant girlfriend”. That’s quite a different thing and an error I’ll never forget. (Click here to witness my gaffe!)

Using your voice to engage an audience is a valuable life-skill in any setting. If you apply the skills demonstrated in this competition in other settings, such as the classroom, the boardroom or in government, you can change lives and may even change the world.

Last Friday, in the rain and the mud in Bristol, Greta Thunberg spoke for just four minutes. Her immaculate delivery of  her succinct and perfectly polished script moved not only the tens of thousands on College Green, my own daughter among them – but, thanks to the internet, her voice resonated around the world, mobilising millions to support her cause – including you, here, at Westonbirt School, as you watched her speech streamed live in the Great Hall. (Watch her speech on Youtube here.)

Those of you who are reading to us tonight may be reading words written by someone else, but in years to come, when you use the power of the spoken of word to deliver your own messages, we may find ourselves as mesmerised by you as we were by Greta.

You have already proven your exceptional skills by being chosen to represent your houses in school-wide heats. No matter who wins this competition tonight, your houses should be proud of you all and you should be proud of yourselves.

Now let the stories begin.


Cover image of Secrets at St Bride's
My own take on school stories – one for the grown-ups!

The Story Behind the Story

My time spent working at Westonbirt School (1997-2010) was the inspiration for my new St Bride’s School series, which begins with Secrets at St Bride’s. However, the situation, the plot and the characters are completely made up!

To read the first chapter for free and to find out more about this jolly romp of a novel, click here