30 April 2010

First Term at Malory Towers

I have to apologise in advance for this post, as it isn’t as good as I would like. I’ve re-written the damn thing about 3 times, but this book really is quite boring. I never realised how little plot there is. If I were to rename it, it would be ‘random stuff that happened at school this term’ or ‘Gwendoline joins a cult’ (or something near enough as makes no difference – the school is a very strange splinter of society)

It must be because most of the book is introduction. I’ve already done that, so I’m trying not to cover new ground. Most of the book is really just those ‘housekeeping’ issues that Blyton mentions to readers so that later on we all understand what she is talking about. Darrell just wanders through the scenes with wide eyes thinking ‘golly, this is all grand’ and we tag along, vicariously awed … without the rose-coloured glasses, it is so dreadfully dull. Or perhaps that’s just the caffeine talking – I’ve pulled an overnighter to write an essay this week, then decided that it would be ‘fun’ to go to IKEA after work today (after vowing not to buy anything, I came out with a heap of kitchen stuff and a bag of Swedish meatballs ...), so I’ve been hitting the tea with a vengeance. Everything around me seems slow ...

I just have to note one thing: the covers to my books. I judge a book by its cover Always have, always will. These Dean covers from the mid 90s were the images that I have always associated with MT ... although why they are all dressed circa 1993, I’ll never know.

Please note the school bags with the drawstring top and buckled flap over the top. These were ever so cool in the mid 90s. I almost expect them to be wearing Doc Martens and wearing a ‘Nirvana’ t-shirt under their uniform, or wearing those black rubber bands on their wrists. Sigh ... those were the days ...

But on to the story:

Basic plot: our heroine, Darrell Rivers, begins the book by being excited about going to school. She goes to school, she settles into the institution, and is indoctrinated into the ways of the regime, shit happens, then more shit happens. Dung beetle Blyton then rolls all of this tightly up in a ball and squashes it in time for everyone to catch the train home for hols. Hurrah all round, I say.
I won’t bore you with the details – Darrell fits in and joins a ‘gang’ (seriously – she becomes friends with the class trouble-makers Alicia and Betty … they are so cool), but Gwendoline doesn’t. Chapters have highly imaginative titles such as ‘First Night and morning’, ‘Miss Potts’ Form’, ‘The first week goes by’ … the excitement inherent in those chapters is almost palpable.

We get a class prank from too-cool-for-school Alicia (she pretends to be deaf), who then runs into trouble by really going (temporarily) deaf … oh, how we chuckle at the poetic justice! Darrell also learns that being in a gang lowers her intelligence, so she downgrades her full membership to an associate membership. Gwendoline gets bullied, but finds no support from the teaching staff (having been told by her teacher not to ‘sneak’ on her classmates ... even going so far as to threaten to tell the class that Gwen is ‘sneaking’ so that they can punish her). It is almost like Darrell came home from school and sat down with her mum and a pot of tea and developed verbal diarrhoea, spilling out a heap of little anecdotes, unconnected except for the fact that they happened at school ...

What to notice: Darrell’s uniform: Brown and Orange. Need I say more? Well yes, I do – although my mum would be horrified. The only redeeming feature is the tunic – you know, the ones with three box pleats down the front and back. I love those things, but when I bought one from an op-shop, my mother just about had flashbacks to ‘Nam. She couldn’t believe I would actually choose to wear one, but they are seriously cool. However, it is the only bright spot of the outfit – again I say Brown and Orange.

Parents: Daddy has buggered off to work, so mummy (Enid) takes Darrell to the train station (I should point out that an Enid Blyton book is like that scene in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich goes through the hole … she’s everywhere). Cue big smug pat on the back for mummy being so sensible about dumping her daughters with strangers. They turn up to the station, Darrell is deposited with the teacher and then Mummy happily toddles off. She is there all of a couple of minutes – doesn’t even see the train off … Yes, that’s what I call good parenting. I just love the callousness of the whole set up. All these parents who routinely send their little beloveds off without a qualm – I wonder what they would think of all the stories of violence in these institutions. The other new girl, Sally, turns up sans parents. Just think: a 12 year old girl, with luggage, was sent off to London to catch a train all by herself. Nice.

By contrast, Gwendoline Mary, my new favourite character, is seen off by a mother who is actually sad to see her go … but she is instantly condemned for failing at the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ thing. I think we can see here the very moment when Gwendoline’s torture begins – I’d say more (in fact I did say more) but I realised I have entire post that may be devoted to darling Gwendoline Mary. I love Gwen.

The accommodation: Finally we get to the ‘dormy’ – home for the next year. Basically, it’s a row of cubicles, separated by curtains, with minimal furnishings and … well that’s it really. Don’t think Harry Potter here with four poster beds and awesome little tower windows. I have a vision of an old-fashioned hospital ward – all metal bed frames, whitewashed walls and thin mattresses. There are wash basins at either end but no bathrooms, and it is a comfort to us all to know that the girls won’t be bathing regularly? It wouldn’t be a proper traditional English school story if there were hygiene standards!

Shit happens

The real highlight of the book on is our glimpses of Darrell’s anger management problems.
Gwendoline, who I am choosing to call socially inept, triggers the first psychotic episode form Darrell by tormenting the class puppy Mary-Lou, and Darrell lays into Gwendoline, giving her several ‘stinging slaps’.

‘Darrell’s hand was strong and hard, and she had slapped with all her might, anywhere she could reach as Gwendoline hastily tried to drag herself out of the water. The slaps sounded like pistol shots.’

Everyone is most shocked, not because Darrell hit Gwen, but that it wasn’t her job to do so. I am not joking – the head-girl of the form wanted to punish Darrell for taking away her right to ‘discipline’ Gwen. But of course, all is well once Darrell apologises – so like an abusive husband (I was really hoping that the class would collectively develop battered woman’s syndrome and take Darrell down by the end of the series, but, alas, I have never been so fortunate as to have the ending of the series change between readings). Later on, she attacks Sally, who takes offence at Darrell being nosy:

‘Darrell could not bear to be touched when she was in a temper, and she shoved back with all her might, and she sent Sally flying across the little room. Sally fell across the chair, and lay there for a minute.
She put her hand on her stomach. ‘Oh, it hurts,’ she said. ‘Oh you wicked girl, Darrell!’’

It is interesting to note that after this lovely little scene, Sally and Darrell become besties ... If I hit you, would you become my friend?

What happens to the other characters?

Well, Mary-Lou becomes friends with Gwen after Darrell figuratively hits her on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. Gwen plays tricks on her new pet and blames Darrell, so Darrell gets ‘sent to coventry’.

(Sidenote: sending someone to Coventry is an awesome name for a punishment. The mechanics of it is that everyone around the ‘sent’ person ignores them for a set period of time, not speaking to them or acknowledging their existence. No one knows with any degree of certainty why people are sent to Coventry, but I really want to go there and see whether people talk to me!
Note 2: I should like to point out that this punishment was also widespread in the unions during the early part of the 20th century. One wonders why upper-class school-girls would employ such a low-class practice. Tsk tsk …)

Mary-Lou faces her fears (after having her courage bucked up by possibly the worst ruse known to man – getting the puppy to save a supposedly drowning Darrell. Truly, it was a sickening scene) and proves Darrell innocent. Hurrah! This drops Gwendoline in the shit, for which everyone is happy!

Gwen runs foul of everyone and gets picked on over every perceived wrong, from missing home on the first night, to wearing her hair out to class (‘you can’t have your hair like that – not in school!’ I especially like EB’s editorial comment after her hair is tightly plaited ‘She did look much nicer now’), and has a pretty rotten term.

Everyone ignores Sally (I bet you forgot her!) because she is a moody, cold fish, but it comes out that Sally was sent to school because her mother had a second child. So she is a girl with abandonment issues, who also contracts appendicitis during term (exacerbated by Darrell’s hissy-fit as described earlier). Of course, after Darrell’s ‘daddy’ (cue family propaganda) comes and whips out the offending organ, Darrell is sent in to fix all her mental issues. Do but see how the expert manages such a feat:

‘I’ve got a little sister, too. It’s lovely to have a sister. [...]’
Sally’s ideas of sisters underwent a sudden change ....'

Hallelujah!! Can I hear an Amen? She’s cured!! And from that moment on, Sally and Darrell are BFFs.

As for Irene, she seems to have lost her last name – how silly of her. I never realised that she is never given a last name. Jean says ‘och’ a couple of times, and apparently is good with money. The other girls do stuff, and it’s amazing because it’s at boarding school and everything there is amazing, don’t you know.

GAH!! This post isn’t really up to standard. Taking the rose goggles off is harder than I thought ... the next one shall be better, I promise. I just need to adjust to this new sight ... it’s so overwhelming!

22 April 2010

Malory Towers 101

All right, I am ready to start delving into the murky world of a boarding school full of adolescent girls. I have an old school jumper on (it might say BSB rather than Malory towers, but it was a good school dammit – on a side note, is it sad that I still have the jumper 13 years after attending my school? It’s such a comfortable jumper …) and I’m ready to show some school spirit, or to destroy it, whatever.

Welcome to the world of Malory Towers – a world in which parents cheerfully abdicate their parental responsibility and dump their pre-adolescent daughters in an isolated school on the coast in Cornwall. At this school, girls will learn the joys of institutional living, become conditioned into the ‘right’ way of thinking (this process involves some spanking and hair brushes), and gain an inflated sense of their worth in society (based on the school they attended). They will be forced to play sports, learn to sew, and be educated just enough to be regarded as decent marriage material (because we all know that marriage is the only real career path for any female, don’t we Enid?), not to mention network with the ‘right’ people, as that is the pool from which eligible husbands will later be sourced.

I feel that it is necessary to introduce you to this wonderful world before I dump you headfirst into the wild and heady adventures that take place within the books. Part of the attraction of the stories is the familiarity with which we come to regard the characters, shaking our heads over Irene’s latest mad escapade, predicting the demise of Gwendoline’s latest friendship …

This post may be a little boring, and I apologise – but it really is necessary.


Malory Towers itself is a boarding school in Cornwall, and is (so I understand) the place from which the sun rises and sets every day. It is a utopia filled (mainly) with the right thinking element of society, all from the right sort of families (you will see in a later post what happens when the nouveau riche try to infiltrate the ranks of this fine establishment …). It must be the sort of school that Blyton wished she had gone to (alas for poor E, she was doomed to be a day girl at a local school – no heady delights of communal living for her). As a point of interest, the school was probably based on the school to which Enid shipped her own two daughters from the age of about ten.

The building itself appears to be an old converted stately home (although no one ever speculates as to why anyone would be so stupid as to build a stately home on an exposed headland). It has four towers, imaginatively called the north, south, east and west towers, in which the girls reside. We are told from the start that only the North tower is worth living in, as that is where our heroine resides, so anyone not in that house is of no value and is hence ignored (thus does the indoctrination begins – the hierarchy of the school boarding houses is of the sort that gives birth to the larger bigotries later – remember that Hitler had only lately been defeated when she started writing these books). Apart from the details about the towers, we are not given much information about the geography of the school. There are sports fields, tennis courts, classrooms, a swimming pool and so on, but the layout is a closely guarded secret that would only be familiar to those who have actually been to the school. We are just meant to know. (It’s a clever little trick of Enid’s – we are given details that we can fill in ourselves in order that we might have some ‘ownership’ of the setting. While controlling that section, she takes over in more subversive ways …) Let us take as given that the layout doesn’t matter and that the girls all just magically appear where they are supposed to be…

Oh and there is a uniform, but I’ll save the joys of that until the next post.


There are new characters introduced in each of the six books, as variety is the spice of life (and reading about the same boring brats does tend to get tedious), but there are a few core characters with whom you must be conversant to really appreciate the subtle intricacies of this deep and philosophical epic.

Darrell Rivers: Our heroine. A ‘sensible girl’ who happens to have serious anger management issues – but these aren’t seen as a major character flaw as she always apologises after beating the shit out of some poor unfortunate. Potential domestic abuser in later life. Likes any sport that involves some sort of instrument that can be used to hit people (tennis, lacrosse, hockey). Nominally based on Blyton’s daughter Gillian, but seems more to channel how Blyton may have seen herself at school.

Alicia: The coolest girl in the class – clever and good at sports. She is an absolute bitch, but gets away with it as she is just so bloody wonderful and has school spirit (very important) – perhaps also because she admits that she is a ‘hard’ girl (I think one can get away with character flaw at Malory Towers so long as they admit that flaw. It’s a licence to misbehave). She likes to play pranks. Probably a fairly accurate depiction of Blyton at school (based on what I’ve read).

Sally: Darrell’s best friend. She has a tendency to be a possessive, jealous bitch – but that’s fine apparently because it shows her loyalty. She’s a good all-rounder, but obviously not as good as Darrell, because no one can be as good as Darrell. She seems to be the most normal of the lot, and hence quite boring. She really only exists to be a hassle-free foil for Darrell – almost wifely in her unquestioning devotion.

Mary-Lou: There are no super-intelligent pets in this series, so little Mary-Lou stands in for one. Doormat, co-dependent and possessing a tendency to fawn, Mary-Lou is seen as the class puppy. She gains an owner later in the series, which makes everyone happy for her.

Irene: budding musician. She is a stereotypical artist-type (forgetful, temperamental etc.) and is made the butt of many jokes because of it. Her idiosyncrasies appear to be programmed out of her throughout the series – making her much less interesting ...

Jean: Stock Scots-girl. Think of a Scottish stereotype and she is it. Says ‘och’ at least once a book so that everyone knows that she is from Scotland – but is seen as a good egg because she has many fine English attributes ... (please be aware that, in Blyton books, only English people can have or teach acceptable character traits – anyone who is a good egg obviously learnt their winning ways from one of this fine nation). She disappears later in the series

Gwendoline: supposedly the anti-heroine, Gwendoline is really the tragic victim of this institutional system. Sadly unprepared for the jungle into which she is thrown, Gwendoline does not react well to the constant negative reinforcement that she receives at the school. The rest of the staff and student body, however, are too stupid to try any other tactic than ‘sitting on her’. Constantly bullied and friendless, Gwendoline is the type from whom you hide any sharp implements. Today, she probably would have been the emo rebellious type and dyed her hair black (yet listened to Girls Aloud).

Miss Potts: House mistress and form mistress who enables the girls in their bullying of the misfits. She has a fanatical dislike of the wrong-thinking element and does not recognise the damage she causes by allowing her pet students to torment the outcasts. This mindset seems to be the same for all the teachers.

Miss Grayling: Head mistress. Woefully out of touch with the students in the school, she only gets involved when there are PR implications. Recites a stock speech at the beginning of every term to new girls that introduces them to the idea that they owe their school for their education (quite apart from the exorbitant fees they pay) so they should pitch in and ‘give back’ to the school. How one may do this is never set out … I can just see those words paving the way for a sexual assault case down the track …

The mam’zelles: two French mistresses, one fat and jolly, the other thin and sour. They are major French stereotypes – often get into cat-fights (in the gallic style – no English woman would behave so inappropriately). Fat and jolly Mam’zelle Dupont is often the butt of practical jokes, being nothing but a silly French woman (as all Frenchies are apparently). Both have a fierce temper. I can’t really think of a way in which these depictions could be more derogatory, but I’m sure that it will come to me throughout the series.

Matron: The closest thing to a mother figure many of these girls have. The parents turn up like toys to be played with every half term, leaving the actual caring to Matron. Has been at the school long enough to look after Alicia’s mother when she attended. She seems to go rabid over darning.

Darrell’s Family: Mummy, daddy and little sister Felicity. Mummy is (again) Enid Blyton, and Felicity stars later on in the series (does it surprise you that Blyton had a second daughter called Imogen?), but it is Daddy who excites my interest.
Daddy is a surgeon. This is relevant because it highlights a habit Blyton had – that of whitewashing her own history. The father of Blyton’s daughters was not a surgeon – he was E’s first husband and he was a publisher. E and husband number one, however, divorced when the girls were about ten and six, and she never let him see the girls again (she apparently had a history of cutting people out of her life). She did, however, provide them with a substitute father in husband number two. His last name happened to be Darrell Waters (sound familiar?) and he was a surgeon. Read these books and the references to ‘Daddy’, particularly in light of the other parallels one can draw with the Rivers family, and you will definitely feel a little manipulated …

Here endeth the lesson. To be honest, going through the characters in this series really does remind me of the movie Being John Malcovich - you know, the part where John Malcovich goes through the hole - ALL of the characters are basically Enid. Yes, I know that she wrote the damn books, but my point is that the different aspects of the Great E are not even very well disguised - if you know anything about her, you just keep seeing her pop up everywhere ...

I will actually start dissecting the books in the next post. I've been working up the courage. It doesn't help that the characters all start out so young and stupid - if they were old and stupid I wouldn't care, but this still feels like kicking a puppy! Anyway, The first cab off the rank in the series is First Term at Malory Towers If you're very interested, dig up a copy and take a look, but it isn't absolutely necessary in order to enjoy this blog. Reading the bog, however, is obligatory: keep reading or you may find yourself on the receiving end of some sharp slaps from a hairbrush!

16 April 2010

The Dilemma

Something strange happened when I actually started writing my first post.

The moment I finished my first paragraph I began to feel guilty about the whole enterprise. The review felt ... low and backstabby, as though I had decided to kick a puppy. This worried me for a while.

I thought that it may have something to do with the fact that I’m beginning my Blyton odyssey with Malory Towers, a series I read and re-read growing up. My feeling of treachery seemed to stem from the idea that I was betraying my alma mater (of sorts), ridiculing something that had given me so much (in the words of Miss Grayling, the Head-mistress). Then I started re-reading the books and I realised what the matter REALLY was.

I’d been brainwashed.

That’s right. Wholesome Malory Towers is actually an arm of the cult of Blyton. It is not just a set of amusing stories about school life, it is social conditioning – behaviour modification of pre-adolescents. Seriously, those girls never have to deal with a single growy-uppy type of issue. None ever seemed to have periods ("Irene, I've told you a thousand times - THROW your pads AWAY!"), or talk about boys ("Alicia, could you hook me up with your brother, he is sooo cute"), or anything like that - because the characters aren't meant to reflect reality. They exist solely to further the teachings of the great EB: toe the line, the majority is always right, Keep Britain Great ...

I’m amazed that I had never noticed how willing I was to take Enid’s point of view when reading this series. Enid’s way of writing just assumes that you agree exactly with her idea of what a ‘decent’ person is: English, solid upper-middle class, English, from a good school, English, sporty, English, smart and English. Any one not meeting these requirements, well, toe the line and they might let you join the posse. They were all jolly nice at Malory Towers, and if I wanted to be liked I had to be just like them ...

Just look at the characters in this series – they all start out as individuals, but over the course of the series all come to conform to the norms of the structure in which they live. And so does the reader, in a way. Continual reinforcement of certain ideas indoctrinated me into a certain way of thinking – even a certain way of viewing the characters and their actions. It was highly seductive and masterfully done by EB. I tip my hat to her twisted genius.

I’ll admit to being brainwashed, and to enjoy being so manipulated. There is a certain sort of smugness that we get from identifying with ‘nice’ characters, when really, deep down we are all have more in common with the ostracised and disliked characters (particularly as teenagers – teenage girls can be utter wenches). I read these books numerous times, and at one point, when there was a possibility that I might be sent to boarding school, I was adamant that I should go to that school or one just like it, and I was sure that I would be a Darrell and not a Gwendoline … oh stop looking at me like that – I was 13! No one is particularly smart at that age, AND I was misled by the covers of my books (more about that in a later post), so I was envisaging a mid-90s utopia rather than the mid-40s reality of the series. I think that I am still a little disillusioned by the shattering of that little dream.

... You do realise that Blyton ran at least 2 fan clubs. That woman was a master programmer – she not only wrote books, but maintained newsletters for these groups, as well other periodicals and so on - just to support her agenda. I conjecture that this agenda was world domination, using children as her minions. I can see the progression: she spent a few years teaching in order to understand children better, then spent the rest of her life preaching at and indoctrinating them into her way of thinking. The children joined the fanclub and became more and more involved in the groups and forming squads, before graduating into full militant Blytonians ... I’m not sure what would have happened if she had lived to see her legion of fans grow up … history might have been very different … (I had a brief image of a Blyton-style empire, and it was not pretty).

I find it amusing that Blyton’s works are now being censored for being racist and generally politically incorrect. It’s being touted as some grand revelation that she didn’t like ‘nasty foreigners’, or people of ‘inferior’ classes … or anyone much, for that matter. If you go back into E’s early writing, however, you’ll find that this bigotry was always there – 15 year old E’s postcard to a friend (during one of her very few trips abroad) from France complained of how ‘greedy’ the French were and how much they ate (this from the woman whose narratives are often dominated by food!) – can anyone say Mein Kampf? Early indication, people, that’s all I’m saying.

So coming back to the series after a hiatus of about 10 years (during which all of my Blytons sat in a box awaiting an as yet unforthcoming next generation) is a bit like returning to school after graduating (which can be a little pathetic). You can’t believe that you actually thought the place was the centre of the universe, but you feel a bit guilty because it was instrumental in shaping you into the person you have become. There is one small problem: I never went to Malory Towers because IT DOESN’T EXIST. I am not an ‘old girl’, nor am I in any way indebted to this series of books. My feeling of guilt is due solely to the brilliant manipulation of a woman with a megalomaniacal disposition. I must break free of this false sense of obligation!!!

This deconstruction is therefore therapy for me, I’m de-programming myself. This incoherent and disjointed rant is just the beginning! I’m glad I have it all justified in my mind – otherwise this might just seem sad. Take the view that you’ve been corrupted (even if you have never read Blyton – I assure you that prevention is better than cure) and read on for the cure!

03 April 2010

Tea and Scones

I have a box of books under my bed. It's hidden behind the boxes of old textbooks and chicklit I am too embarrassed to put on my bookshelf, and it's my deepest, darkest, most guilty secret. It's the box of books that I turn to in my hours of trial to give me a little glow of happiness.

It's a box of Enid Blyton books.

They can be read in an hour, they have as much emotional depth as a teaspoon, and you always reach the end feeling morally superior because you would never be that politcally incorrect ... all in all, they are the perfect antidote to a shitty week at work!

I'm not sure that I will ever outgrow that desire to become an inmate of Malory Towers, but coming back to them a decade later, I'm pulled back in not by the wholesome jolly school children who manage to have so many unlikely adventures, but by all the other things that you can read into those stories, the twisted aspects of Blyton's mind that find their way onto paper.

Well, that and the food - the woman's obsession with food is legendary - I swear that she is the only writer who has ever made me feel like eating pickles.

Anyway, over the course of this blog, I plan to share with you the sick genius of Madame Blyton, and any other childhood favourites that come to mind ...

Watch this space ...