26 May 2010

Treeks and Xenophobia

I had a great opening, but I think I’ll keep it for another day … it’s good but it doesn’t fit here. It did give me an idea for another post, however … the workings of the REGIME …

I want to look briefly at the tricks in the story, the standard comic set piece of every book. As a child, I thought them hilarious, and wondered why I couldn’t be so clever. Looking back at them, I wondered how anyone would ever think it worth the time it took to write them. They are weakly

Alicia is the main perpetrator of these practical pleasantries, coming up with jokes that are (so we are led to believe) clever and foolproof. But there’s a catch — they can only ever be played on the French mistresses, as they are the only ones gullible enough to be taken in by such ‘treeks’. The English mistresses, of course, are far too clever, and far too familiar with the regime from the students’ end, to ever be taken in

I’ll give you a run down on the ‘treeks’ played on Mam’zelle:

Form 1 – Alicia pretends to be deaf. When Mam’zelle says something too her, she deliberately misunderstands, and much hilarity ensues as the students repeat what the teacher says at the top of their lungs. Mam’zelle is completely taken in; Miss Potts susses it out in a second …

Form 2 – Invisible chalk. Alicia’s friend Betty brings invisible chalk that cannot be detected on a surface, but when it comes into contact with another surface, leaves a bright pink chalk mark (No one ever explains why the chalk can be seen on one surface and not another, nor why, if it needs heat to be activated, it stays visible once cooled).
Although first played on the singing master, it is later played on Mam’zelle Dupont — Darrell incurs Alicia’s ire by writing ‘OY’ on Mam’zelle’s seat, thus gaining the upper Forms’ admiration – talk about thunder stealing. The trick is never detected.

Form 3 – Alicia’s brother sends a package of home-made sneezing powder – which is always guaranteed to end well … When played on Mam’zelle, the pellets are found to be too strong and Mam’zelle has the rest of the day off sick from exhaustion.

Form 4 – tablets stuck to the ceiling of the classroom created bubbles that the girls pretended not to see (or hear, as they apparently burst with an audible noise – WTF?). Mam’zelle thinks she is the only one seeing bubbles and becomes hysterical. Miss Potts is called and thinks it good fun to tell Mam’zelle to ask a maid to sweep the ceiling.

Form 5 – the Empire strikes back! Although a first former tries a trick with balloons under her shirt, Mam’zelle hits back with hideous false teeth. She wanders round the school grounds randomly smiling at people. She manages to scare the crap out of a heap of students, half the teachers and Miss Grayling with a couple of parents. IMO, this is the best trick of the series. It inverts the idea of making one person believe a big thing, and instead makes everyone believe a little thing. Once the trick is outed, all of the teachers are quite disapproving, but Mam’zelle is quite unrepentant.

Form 6 – there’s a recurring trick regarding a magnet, hairpins and hissing gas pellets. With improbably perfect timing, random and disparate elements come together to form an ‘astounding’ trick in which the French teachers’ (yes BOTH of them) hair pins are removed with a magnet and stashed around the classroom. The teachers never figure out how it’s done, despite the obvious set up …

If you look at the tricks, they’re not very ingenious. They are utterly dependant on convincing Mam’zelle of something highly improbable. Like clockwork, the students manage to pull these unworkable and rather weak tricks on teachers whose mental powers are repeatedly called into question. The fact that these tricks are only ever played on the French mistresses is the flagship example of Enid’s xenophobia in this series. Readers are expected to believe that the one teacher (it’s always Mam’zelle Dupont) will continually fooled by the same people over and over. No-one is that stupid.
Seriously, this is an upper-class school. Are we really expected to believe that they would hire someone so stupid? All those parents would not be happy that their precious monsters would be getting such bad service, especially given the money they are paying. Besides, the woman has been there for years – where’s her cynicism? Has she the memory of a goldfish? Dealing day-in and day-out with these monsters, are we really going to believe that she will be taken in every time something strange happens?

But she’s French. That’s apparently meant to be reason enough for her stupidity.

And I really hate that reason. It’s not just xenophobic and socially inaccurate, it’s bad literature. It makes, and forces the reader to accept, large assumptions about all French people. Mam’zelle is too vain to wear glasses, is silly and plays favourites with the pretty girls; therefore all French people are shallow. She’s not a strict disciplinarian and is quite a drama queen, therefore French people are – and that’s why they make worse teachers than English. It’s not stated outright, but the general tone is a dismissive ‘oh, she’s French’. I would love to see how the character is portrayed in French (I’ve tried to research it, but only came up with one article that didn’t really mention the teachers).

Each ‘treek’ scene is ended by an English teacher coming in to bring order to the chaos. Mam’zelle is always in near-hysterics, saying ‘oh-la-la’ in a very French way (that’s all French people say, apparently. I think I wasted nine years learning French – all I needed to learn was ‘oh-la-la’). Funnily enough, the girls only ever get in trouble once – with the sneezing incident. It’s as though the teachers are of the opinion that you either sink or swim in this world.

So basically, it’s fine to play a trick on your teacher – so long as they are French (or at least foreign) …

(BTW, I absolutely love the fact that until the 50s, when her popularity could not be ignored, the BBC had a pseudo-policy of not broadcasting any of EB’s works. Despite numerous attempts (she was a shameless self-promoter) to branch out into broadcasting, the BBC steadily refused our Enid, insisting that her works was ‘second rate’. They hated her dialogue and her plots, thought her work waffly and limited in its vocabulary – and just all round NOT GOOD ENOUGH. This is in addition to the publishers, librarians and academics that also disliked her books on literary and social grounds – she was considered racist and overly class conscious even in her own time!)

Next generation is coming up!


  1. It's almost as though EB's soul is fully grounded back in the Napoleonic wars or something, with Britain as the master nation and those smelly, revolution-ridden Frenchies as sub-human creatures. It really is a fascinating double-standard, though - it's OK to disobey as long as you're disobeying the French mistresses.

    You probably have plenty of ideas for future posts, but I was wondering if I could add a vote for the concept of tattling. I find it really fascinating the way it's frowned upon by the students and the teachers and I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

    Thank-you so much for the link to my blog! I'll be addding one to yours the second I finish posting this comment...

  2. That's OK.

    I'm always open to ideas - I totally forgot about snitching! I'm on it!!