22 May 2018

Poor Joan My Fat Foot!

Image result for the naughtiest girl in the school

This has taken me a bit longer than I expected, mostly because it is hard to get back into the swing of indignantly recounting of events. You'll forgive me if my ability to reach the heights of outrage is a little impaired ...

So this rant thing has expanded somewhat. What was meant to be a standalone rant on a subject has blown out into a three blog post extrantaganza. THREE SEPARATE POSTS.

No wonder I balked at writing it the first time around.

So I decided to turn it into a rant sandwich, because there are parts of this chapter that I do like, or rather, that I COULD like, if it weren’t wrapped up in all the Enid-ness, that niggling wrongness that creeps through the story like yeast through bread.

The three posts on this subject will be as follows:

  • Poor Joan my fat foot;
  • Redeeming qualities; and
  • Why the regime really fails those who most need its benefits.

The chapter itself is just two short scenes. When last we left our (not so) intrepid heroine, she had just been caught going down to the shops by herself by no less a personage than the HEAD GIRL!!! (Dun dun DUUUUUUUUNNNNN). Rita, being one of the Keepers of the Zoo that is Whyteleafe, does what no one else has thought to do and actually TALKS to Elizabeth about why she is doing what she’s doing (I told you I actually like some stuff about this chapter). Then she goes and ruins it by appealing to Elizabeth’s sense of superiority and asks her to take pity on poor friendless Joan and to try and make her life a little easier. So Elizabeth tries – and Joan essentially tells her to @#*! Off, she didn't want Elizabeth lurking round her to laugh at her some more.

Gotta say, in that moment, I really liked Joan. I also have to say that part three of this rant-a-thon will come back to that ...

But herein lies my rant. Who is Joan? She’s a name that has popped up a few times in the book, one of the girls in the same room as Elizabeth. You don’t know much about her except that she is a bit obsessed with checking the post, and the other children mock her for this rather benign obsession.

So why should Elizabeth be friends with her? Rita explains

“She hasn’t a happy home, and she comes back to school very miserable each term. She worries about her father and mother all the time, because they don’t seem to want her or to love her. They never come to see her at half term.”

They don’t come at half term? The horror! That can mean only one of two things: either her parents are poor, or they are monsters! Either way, Joan clearly must have a rough trot of it. We’re expected to presume it’s the latter because Rita continues.

“ ‘Nobody knows except me,’ said Rita. ‘I live near Joan at home, so I know.’ “

Oh, so she knows the family? What a relief. That’s all right then – it’s fine that they are monsters, as long as they are the right sort, and not … *whispers* working class.

Rita continues

I am telling you this, Elizabeth, because if you really do mean what you say about not wanting to make other people unhappy, you can just try to make things better for Joan. She hasn’t any friend, any more than you have – but for a different reason. She is afraid of making friends in case anyone asks her to stay with them for the holidays – and she knows her mother wouldn’t bother to ask any friend back to stay with Joan. And Joan is very proud, and can’t bear to take kindnesses she can’t return. Now – there’s a job for you to do! Can you do it?”

At first glance, you might be reading this and thinking “Fen, are you thick? Can’t you see that Rita is trying to encourage Elizabeth’s good qualities by focussing her on being kind to another person? Can’t you see how admirable that is?”

Others might say “WTF is she doing giving out personal information to an admittedly naughty child? Doesn’t she know what sort of damage could be inflicted by the untrustworthy being given confidential information?”

And I’d agree with you both – hence the rant sandwich.

But here’s my true problem with this: What reason is Elizabeth given to make Joan her friend? Pity. And while that is not a dreadful reason to befriend someone, it becomes problematic when it’s the ONLY reason to befriend someone.

You see, Elizabeth, being naughty in the Enidverse, is not permitted to have a friend with any redeeming virtues. She cannot make a strong friend, or a smart friend, or anyone with any social capital that may increase her social position. No, she has to have the ugly three legged dog with a flatulence problem as her friend.

So here are Joan’s Character traits:
  • She has red hair;
  • She has freckles;
  • She’s quiet;
  • She’s not smart – demonstrably bad at French and arithmetic;
  • Her parents are strange;
  • Her parents don’t write to her;
  •  Nevertheless, she writes to her parents;
  • Children laugh at her for this inequity of letters between herself and her home.

Basically, Joan has no redeeming virtues, according to Enid. She has nothing to offer except to make Elizabeth look good. She won’t challenge Elizabeth for brains or spirit (or looks, it’s implied – she never says Joan is ugly, but red hair and freckles are a marker for Enid. The freckles more than the red hair – In Malory Towers, Clarissa has red hair, glasses and braces, but becomes pretty in an ‘unusual’ way once the latter two items are gone). She can’t offer anything to Elizabeth on this reading, as Elizabeth is about to become her teacher and protector and superior. 

The only feature she has is that she appears to have is loyalty, which is praiseworthy, but which is also what you would attribute to your dog.

And She really is written as Elizabeth’s pet. She’s given no character, no agency, nothing that could teach Elizabeth anything – even the fact that she is pitiable doesn’t rouse any new feeling in our naughtiest girl – Rita brings the subject up because Elizabeth says she doesn’t like to see other people upset. You might argue that Rita was enacting a cunning plan, one which would put benefit both girls, and that her heart was in the right place. You might well do that. But she never says anything like "you could learn a lot from Joan" or says one single positive thing about Joan. No this is all about  Elizabeth and her doing a good deed for the day. 

I loathe this characterisation. I abhor it. I am willing to get a thesaurus out to detail how much I dislike it. Truly and passionately dislike it. I mean, really: She’s unattractive and stupid and not even her parents like her? THAT’S the girl you’re going to go with, Enid?

In Malory Towers, you had Sally and her jealousy about her new sibling, and you had Marylou and her timidity. But what they had was one isolated characteristic in an otherwise independent character. Sally is smart, Marylou is liked by other people. They are rounded characters who are part of the machine and accepted despite their negative characteristic.

With Joan, you get this piling on of (apparently) negative characteristics, with an underlying sensation that this is her fault. It is HER fault for expecting the basic level of communication from her parents, and the fact that she does not receive it is a point of mockery from the other children. Her red hair and freckles are noted by Enid, which is significant because she uses physical characteristics as personality markers (see Irish Nora, Fat Ruth, and pretty Elizabeth). Joan is part of the system, but is set apart by the others. She causes no trouble, she does all the right things, but the children ostracise her, with the reader invited to join in the mockery. 

To accept this description of Joan makes the reader complicit in this warped hierarchy within the school precinct. She doesn't fit in and it's her fault. Point at her and laugh, everyone. This underlying meanness, which underpins all of the “Rah Rah” decent Enid Britishness of the school, really leaves an icky feeling under my skin as I read. Enid has created this Lord of the Flies institution, one which on the surface is all about decency and fairness, but which, as you look at Joan and her treatment, exposes its rotten core at its heart. 

And the oddest thing about that core is that I don't think that the establishment can see it. They are too young to think it anything other than part and parcel of the whole Rah Rah thing. I think that irks me the most.

So much for part one of the rant-sandwich. Next time I shall tackle the chocolate chips in this turd cookie.


  1. Enid was excellent at equating personal appearance or race with particular characteristics, isn't she? At this stage, I'm hoping Joan runs away from school and ends up leading some sort of rebel army in South America. If you're going to be undesirable to society no matter what you do, you might as well do it with bells on.

    Looking forward to the rest of this rant sandwich!

  2. I have deliberately not read ahead, so Joan's character arc is a mystery to me.

    I agree about the bells, and South America if it comes to it. It does come as a shock to the system to see that good behaviour brings no guaranteed reward ...

  3. you made my day
    nothing intelligent to say
    hey, a poem
    that will show'em