Enid Blyton is total comfort reading for me, even at thirty. They’re still likely to be the books I pull out when I’m not feeling well, when I don’t have the ability to concentrate on anything more grown-up but want to read nonetheless.
I have a lot of Enid Blyton books – although it’s but a tiny fraction of her total output – but I think my favourites were the Malory Towers books. I had five of them in the 1990 Armada covers, with everything contained in a big school badge shape on the cover but I had a very elderly copy of Second Form, which was falling apart and was later replaced with a nice sturdy but non-matching hardback. Not that I need three copies of the same children’s book but I’m suddenly tempted to see if I can get a matching paperback after all.
The reason I’ve chosen Malory Towers for today’s blog is that today I was talking to a friend about careers, about this concept of having a dream job, of knowing, always knowing, what you wanted to do and be. Neither of us have this. But I grew up reading Malory Towers and in boarding school books, any books of a similar nature, the children always have one particular talent that sticks out a mile, that makes it very obvious what career they will have (assuming they do go on to have one rather than become a Good 40s Housewife). Belinda is going to be an artist. Irene is going to be a composer. Darrell is going to be a writer. Bill and Clarissa are going to run a riding school. Amanda is going to be an athlete, or later, a PE teacher. I suppose I assumed that sooner or later it would become obvious what I was going to be good at and… it never really happened.
I tend to think of the Malory Towers books as very much of their time but actually, they’re surprisingly progressive for the Forties. I know there’s supposed to be about ten girls in each of four towers but the only girl from anything other than North Tower who gets more than about one line is Alicia’s friend Betty from West Tower and you lose huge chunks of the North Tower girls by the last book anyway – Emily and Violet both just vanish, Daphne goes pretty quiet, Mavis leaves after fifth form, I have no idea where Ruth or Maureen go, Connie gets left behind in the year below and Moira, Catherine, Jean, Ellen and Katherine are all disposed of by moving them up a form. So that leaves Darrell, Sally, Alicia, Betty, Mary-Lou, Gwen, Irene, Belinda, Bill, Clarissa, Amanda and Suzanne as just about the only girls left by sixth form and of those twelve, four of them go to university. Let’s leave aside the unlikeliness in 2016 of all the sixth-formers ending up at the same university – for a book published in 1951, a third of the female students going off to university is pretty impressive. Of the others, it’s really only Suzanne whose future is never mentioned. Gwen is stuck at home in a pretty miserable situation wished onto her as punishment and all the others have careers planned out. That’s actually really impressive considering it was much more common at the time to get married, have a couple of babies and keep house.
Of course, they’re very jolly-hockeysticks the rest of the time – there are a lot of hockey matches, lacrosse matches, tennis matches, lots of swimming in the natural pool (which I never pictured as “natural” so much as just an outdoor swimming pool. Now that I can picture it a bit better, ie the pool blasted out of Dancing Ledge, it seems incredibly dangerous), lots of playing tricks on the mistresses, plenty of midnight feasts and long walks and piano practice. As a kid, they never matched what real school was like for me – this was total fantasy, total escapism. I didn’t take them as a guide to school or to real life, I don’t think I “identified with” anyone and yet as an adult, I appreciate what they say about life for girls after school.
It would just be nice if I had a superpower like any of theirs.