Review of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic: The Life and Work of Angela Brazil’ by Gillian Freeman

I was about to start this post by reporting that this book must be out of print.  I actually found it for £3 on a secondhand bookstall in St Mary’s Market, Cambridge.  However, I am very heartened to learn that it’s still very much out there, and available to purchase from World of Books and also obtainable to borrow from

So who was Angela Brazil? Why is she important? Why is someone bothering to read and review a biography written in 1976? Especially when she is on holiday. Is it the rain pouring down from the Alps, or the parties of bored Austrian teenagers doing karaoke in the bar across the road, in German, to songs I’ve never heard before, and never want to hear again? To all of this, I can honestly answer No… apart from never wanting to hear karaoke in German again.

Angela Brazil wrote school stories for girls, beginning at the turn of the 20th century and was still writing at the time of her death in 1947. As a pre-teen, I lived and breathed school stories: Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, The Naughtiest Girl in the School, the Chalet School series (all 60 of them!) and many, many more. My mother recommended the Chalet School, and Angela Brazil, but, whereas I was readily able to obtain copies of the former from the local library, I never really embraced Angela. I do remember bundles of hardback Angela Brazil books with their faded red and yellow covers, at the bottom of my mother’s wardrobe, below the folds of her flowing New Look dresses, but – children are funny things – I was put off by their general dusty smell and ‘old’ feel. I think I read one; it was about a girl called Nesta, who was adopted by her mother’s rich, childless friend, then returned to her real mother (‘Nesta’s New School’, which is still available on Amazon).

‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’ recounts the very full life of Angela Brazil: not just a writer, but a naturalist and painter, philanthropist, antiquarian, and local dignitary in Coventry, where she lived for most of her adult life. She studied the schoolgirl frame of mind by involving herself in every sort of activity which involved young people in her city, becoming a benefactor to local schools, involving schoolgirls in her new museum and giving massive and elaborate children’s parties. She never married, living, as single, middle-class people did in those days, with her elder brother and sister. The author implies, several times, in so many words, that Angela never actually grew up, that she was a perpetual schoolgirl. Maybe she was on paper, but, in real life, she was grand and domineering. Local poet, Abe Jephcott’s tribute to her after her death (quoted at the end of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’) begins like this:

‘At the head of the grand staircase
She received me.
Ah! She stood as a statue would
New found in huge Isles of Greece,
Enrobed in gold and jewelled fold
Of emerald green and bright cerise.’

It is clear that her biographer, Gillian Freeman, didn’t like her subject very much, although her analysis of Angela’s work, and of the times in which she lived, is thorough and insightful. She quotes frequently and knowledgably from a wide range of Angela’s books, although sometimes her text is confusing to follow, because the layout on the page makes it difficult for the reader to work out whether he/she is reading a quote from one of Angela’s books or Gillian’s commentary. Also, she doesn’t cross reference fictional characters and real life personages enough; one is left wondering sometimes who exactly is the ‘Mildred’ or ‘Dotty’ about whom she is making such a strong point.

From a social history point of view, this biography is a valuable resource on life in England in the first part of the twentieth century, how people lived, their emotions, standards and attitudes. What Gillian only touched upon was the fact that education for girls was only just beginning at the time Angela was writing; it was both ground-breaking and a novelty for young girls to be together, away from home and able to get up to ‘jolly japes’ like their brothers. Her next point, however, was well-made, that Angela’s world view was otherwise old fashioned, even at the time she was writing it, that Picasso, the Bloomsbury Group, fascism and communism had all wafted over her.

Gillian also discussed in detail the physicality between the girls and their teachers, and their extravagant language, how they frequently referred to being ‘in love’ with a friend. Moreover, one of Angela’s heroines was named ‘Lesbia’. But Gillian knows and understands her subject, and the age in which she lived, well enough to recognise innocence and naivety. Women in the nineteenth century (the era where Angela belonged) did have very intense friendships and used very emotional words.

Well, dear Reader, are you still with me? Sorry this post is so long. Do I recommend this book – yes. Did I enjoy it, on a personal level – yes. More than that, though, I believe that Angela Brazil is very important in literature and in women’s literature in particular, because she wrote the first proper school stories for girls. Everything that came after – your Enid Blyton and your Chalet School, possibly even Harry Potter – developed the theme that Angela began, even if we haven’t read her output.

Please bear with me a bit longer, if you can. One of the reasons I’m now in Austria, in the Tyrol, close to Innsbruck, is because of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School, which started off here. I can confirm that the area is every bit as beautiful as Elinor said it was and, after a bit of Googling, I discovered that Elinor has a memorial in Pachenau, which is close to here, and also that there is an organisation called ‘Friends of the Chalet School‘.  They don’t make school stories like they used to.

Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.
Plaque to Elinor Brent-Dyer in Library in Information Centre at Pachenau, Austria.

Review of ‘A Very British Murder’ by Lucy Worsley

Available from BBC.

This book is a tie-in to accompany the BBC4 series of the same name (which I didn’t watch, because I don’t watch television).  Even though it is not an academic publication, it reads very much like one, in that it is thoroughly researched, with facts thoughtfully presented and synthesised to generate new information, and the author’s views balanced with meaningful comments from (real) academics… And P D James, who, as always, made more sense than the rest put together.

The author tackles the issue of why we Brits find murder fun. Indeed, why do we? We are a tasteless, prurient lot, soaking up all the salacious gory bits about true crimes and fictional ones. And we do this in a different way to the Americans. In fact, in what Lucy describes as ‘The Golden Age’, we liked our murders served up deadpan, with a few lines about a dagger and perhaps a very small patch of wet blood on a dinner jacket, after which we moved on to the Cluedo-like puzzle of  working out whodunit. The Americans on the other hand preferred a celeb detective, with a massive ego, snarling and drawling from a screen, not a printed page. But it wasn’t always so. Difficult as this might be for some of us to believe, detective fiction existed pre Agatha Christie.

Lucy takes us through the course of murder stories from Thomas de Quincy (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) in the 1800s to Scandi Crime – or does she? She takes through the appetite for true crime in the nineteenth century, including the salacious interest generated in the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and Jack the Ripper, and many Victorian authors and authoresses of which I’d never heard. She wrote about how murder fiction was presented, as ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ with woodcut illustrations, and how, even in those days, authors and readers tended to be female.

She then discusses what she calls ‘The Golden Age’, that is detective fiction written between the two World Wars, and particularly the female quartet consisting of Agatha Chrisite, Dorothy L Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham, who wrote what has also been called ‘cosy crime’ – Butlers in Conservatories, middle-class, country houses.  Lucy rightly points out that these detective novels were written in a comfortable way because, in the age when they were being published, readers, who were recovering from one war and being psyched up for the next, needed reassurance.  However, a lot of her other criticism of this genre reflects fashions in writing style and could be levelled at much literature written at this time, that characters were thin and stories were plot-led. The author also got her knickers in a twist about ‘The Golden Age’ being so ‘middle class’ –  maybe the middle classes should have nothing written for them at all?

The point where I really take issue is that, at the end of the book, she moves on far too fast from her ‘Golden Age’ , through thrillers and Noir to the present day, with a glancing reference to Scandi.  Lucy has completely missed out the generation that followed the ‘Golden Age’, still with their roots in ‘cosy crime’, even with a few servants in their earlier works… but moving on and gradually becoming darker  – writers like Ruth Rendell, P D James and Kate Atkinson.  Whole swathes of other modern writers she doesn’t mention either : Alexander McCall-Smith (the cosiest of them all) and Ian Rankin, and many, many more, some cosier than others.  Going back the servant issue, she could have made more of P D James’s preoccupation which cleaners as suspects in many of her later works.  The author could also have mentioned detective fiction in children’s literature, and possibly explored why it is that young teenagers often move on from children’s and YA books to Agatha Christie.

So would I recommend this work?  Yes, I think so, but more work needs to be done.  I believe her conclusion to be incorrect:  I think cosy crime, with its links in the ‘Golden Age’, is alive and thriving.


Trying to Wave, Not Drown

When I first started writing this blog, I believed I could keep it going with updates about my writing. I soon realised that this idea was both pretentious, and boring for anyone other than me myself personally. Writers who have published the sort of books you pay for may use their blogs to promote them, but their advertising posts tend to be a bit of a yawn. (Over the last few months I have read several articles recommending that writers should keep promotional content on social media to a minimum, twenty per cent or less.) Someone who has made an enormous success of an ‘about me’ blog, however, is musician, Charlotte Hoather, and the reason  is that she shares, rather than boasts. Her blog comes across as ‘Look, this is what I’m doing. Right now, I’m singing at the Eisteddfod – isn’t it exciting? Whoever would’ve thought I’d be doing this?” Even though I’m not a musician, but I thoroughly enjoy Charlotte’s weekly updates.

I have to confess, Dear Reader, that over the last few months I have had nothing to tell you. Although I have some stories ‘out there’, the editors I’ve subbed to seem to have caught my inertia and I’m not receiving even rejections. I have been #notwriting, or, more specifically, #ammarking – both of these do exist on Twitter, by the way. During every waking moment, I have alternately either marked students’ work, or cajoled students to produce more work to be marked. Now I am on leave but still the interface of Moodle (the virtual learning environment we use for assessment) lurks in front of my eyes every time I close them.

Moodle interface.

The stress of work has squashed out of me all thoughts of stories and characters. As my husband is out for the evening, I have peace and quiet and generally the sort of environment for some proper writing – fiction, I mean – yet I’m doing this instead. I am too tired to write. I know the received writerly wisdom is that you should always keep going but I can’t. I just can’t put myself through the stress of looking at an empty screen and trying to squeeze something out of my fingers.

So, I’m going to do some writing-orientated reading instead. Only this week, Helen Yendall, in her Blog About Writing, reiterated that, if you want to write for womags, you’ve got to read them. Pretty obvious, really, but I don’t do enough of it. I have also resolved to do some more background reading for The Novel; unfortunately, all the books I need are expensive and only one is available on Kindle. To the university library, I think – one of the small advantages of working where I do!

Yesterday, I was in Cambridge. (I wish I could say I was doing research for the small parts of The Novel which take place in Cambridge, but I doubt if my character would ever set foot in King’s College Chapel, especially as she is Catholic.) However, when browsing a second-hand book stall in St Mary’s Market, I came across a hard-backed version of ‘The Schoolgirl Ethic’, which turned out to be a biography of Angela Brazil, writer of school stories during the inter-war years. I never buy paper-based nowadays, but I did on this occasion, because this small dusty tome was blatantly out of print. Research? Possibly, because one of my short story drafts is about a schoolgirl in 1939, but this was right up my street anyway! I am also making my way through ‘A Very British Murder’ by Lucy Worsley, even though I know I could never tackle detective fiction.

So, Dear Reader, we are both the same now.

(Copyright of image owned by author.)

Review of ‘In the Kitchen With a Knife’ by Susan Wright

Available from Alfie Dog Fiction here.  This is a repeat of a review I’ve posted on Goodreads and Amazon, as a member of the Reading Panel for Alfie Dog Fiction.

Caroline rents a Riverbank Cottage in a Sussex village with no thought of ‘getting involved’ with the neighbours. On the run from an abusive husband, Caroline just wants to get on with writing her erotic novels, but, as everybody in the village rushes to tell her, many years ago A Murder took place in Riverside Cottage – in the kitchen with a knife. No one had been convicted of the crime, nor was there anyone with an obvious motive. Some people think it must be the victim’s husband, others her rather fit son, Toby… or any number of other people. Oh, and by the way, the little house is haunted, although this turns out to be more of a plumbing issue.

When Caroline discovers that her erotic novels are not selling as well as before, she considers writing a book about the Riverside Cottage murders. However, as soon as she announces this intention, the village clams up on her, poison pen letters plop on to her doormat and her agent refuses to continue to represent her. Caroline, however, soldiers on with her combined sleuthing cum novel research, with the help of her good-natured and indefatigable neighbour, Maggie Clements. The story ends with a twist that I certainly didn’t anticipate, but, like all the best twists, hints, which the reader only recognises after the reveal, were dropped earlier in the text.

Caroline herself was a companionable sort of main character, although not particularly distinctive. Susan might have developed a point she made early on, that Caroline was actually quite ‘straitlaced’, unsuited to writing erotica, and what brought her into this genre. She might also have made more of the abusive husband; the reader is told repeatedly that Caroline is terrified of him finding her, but, when he does appear, he is despatched very quickly, and not mentioned again. The most effective character in the book is the neighbour, Maggie Clements, locked in a dysfunctional marriage, fat, slovenly, and obsessed with her two enormous dogs. Kind and obviously fond of mc, she also takes advantage of Caroline. Maggie’s reaction, when she finds out what her husband is really getting up to, is from the gut and totally believable, but she moves on, with the help of Caroline and others.

‘In the Kitchen With a Knife’ was an enjoyable, easy read – ‘cosy crime’, of the sort Caroline intended to write, with a love interest. Do I recommend it? Yes, definitely.  Dagger, possible murder weapon

What I did not include on my Amazon and Goodreads reviews was that this novel was what kept me going during one of the most demanding and exhausting periods of my working life.  As you will have become aware, Dear Reader, I have not done ANY writing at all over the last few months, except for occasional blog posts here.  Never believe it when people tell you that teachers get long holidays and generally don’t do anything.  Last weekend, I marked ALL weekend, except for a few hours when my husband dragged me away for a drive out in the country and a cream tea.  This week, I have marked every evening and all day Saturday.  I am still not out of the heat yet.  When I return to college tomorrow morning, I will once again find myself rushing around marking, organising students and speaking to/emailing parents whose kids are suffering understandable mental stress caused by an extremely poorly designed and managed qualification (by the awarding body, not our college).  I am so tired I don’t feel like writing at all.  I have to get this lot sorted out by 15 July, when I go on leave.  Many of you are having successes, with stories placed and published.  Well done, all of you.  I long to be up there with you.