Monday, February 28, 2011

Review of Susan & Friends

Whether you’re just beginning your Jane Shaw experience or are a long-time enthusiast, Susan and Friends is a worthwhile addition to your bookshelf. Edited by Alison Lindsay and published by Bettany Press in 2002, it has 346 pages packed full of articles, a biography, complete bibliography, photos and almost every short story of Jane Shaw’s for "older" readers (The Adventures of a Snowman is a noticeable exclusion) that ever saw the light of day (and one or two that did not), some of which are even illustrated. However, the short stories for younger readers such as The Magic Basket, The Onion Man and Tiger Kitten are  not included.
The book is divided into sections, although it could be argued that at least one of the articles appears to have been placed haphazardly. For example, the first section is entitled Jane Shaw: Her Life and Work. This includes an excellent appraisal of the author’s work by Rosemary Auchmuty, a brief biography by Alison Lindsay, Jane Shaw’s first ever published work (a short article entitled Builders of Books under her real name Jean Patrick) and a piece by her son Ian Evans explaining the cryptic dedications that his mother made in her books. All of these are excellent and provide a wealth of information about the writer and her life. However, tacked on at the end of this section is a piece entitled Fifi and the Fish: Susan in Sweden by Eva Löfgren. It provides some excellent insight into how books may be edited in another language or have their titles lost in translation, but its placement here is somewhat puzzling, and may well have been intended for the following section of the book. Most of the articles were written by women who were Jane Shaw fans in childhood and then moved on to academic careers. This results in a little inconsistency in register, and there seems to be some uncertainty over whether to write as a fan or a scholar. Rosemary Auchmuty kicks off the book well enough by making a flat and very true assertion:
"No one else writes quite like Jane Shaw. If asked to read a story and guess the author, I think I would always know if she had written it."
She begins her recollections of the Susan series by claiming that:
"I am sure I am not the only reader who mixes up the Susan books because I can never remember which title belongs to which story."
However, elsewhere in the article, when comparing Jane Shaw with other writers, the tone veers toward that of a doctoral thesis as she states that:
"These three writers are representative of a thread of iconoclasm which entered in the school-story genre towards the end of its ascendancy."
But on the whole, the article is very informative and well researched. Over its twenty-one pages, she analyzes sense of place, humour, light entertainment, the main Jane Shaw characters and series and the heritage of her work. The most interesting section is devoted to Sara and Caroline, of Breton and Bernese Adventure fame, explaining how their stories were originally a trilogy of Holidays, including Highland Holiday, which was not reissued as an Adventure.
Alison Lindsay herself now enters the scene with A Glasgow Girl. She and Jane Shaw became friends in the 1990s and throughout the article she refers to her fondly as Jean. The piece is a summary of Jean Patrick’s life and shows how she welcomed comments from both readers and her publishers, quoting some correspondence with both. It also tells the story of how the Susan books might have garnered a little more mileage by being published in Armada paperbacks, which sadly never occurred.
Following Jean Patrick’s first ever published article, her son Ian steps in with his detailed explanation of the dedications. We learn who JBYG and RCFE and Katherine are. People from Arran to South Africa earned a dedication from Jane Shaw and it’s interesting, although a bit of an information overload in such a short space, to discover who they were. 
The rest of the book is broken down into sections. Susan in Short has all four of the Susan short stories published in annuals in the fifties and sixties and the tentative first chapter of a twelfth novel entitled Susan in Trouble, with the gang deciding to raise money for a trip to the USA. The short stories were previously hard to find and are anthologized here for the first time. All of them (Susan’s School Play, Susan and the Home-made Bomb, The Wilsons Won’t Mind and Susan and the Spae Wife) are very good and well worth adding to your collection.
The next five sections are split up geographically. Appropriately, we begin with Jane Shaw’s Scotland. Alison Lindsay gives us a tour of the places that marked the life of Jean Patrick in her home land, including Glasgow and Arran. This article is followed by two short stories set in Scotland: Amanda’s Spies, written during World War II; and Crooks Limited, a sequel to Crooks Tour, the only story set entirely in Glasgow. This section is followed by Jane Shaw’s England, France, Alps and South Africa. The sections on England and France follow the pattern of the Scottish one: an introduction by Alison Lindsay, followed by more short stories. The Alps part has no short stories and is written by Beverley Garmston. The South Africa section is introduced by Polly Whibley, and includes one short story, The Matchmakers. As far as I can tell, neither of the two ladies knew Jane Shaw personally, but both have strong ties with the places they describe, painstakingly tracking the places mentioned in Jane Shaw’s books.
The collection rounds off with a complete bibliography and some black and white photographs of Jane Shaw and her family and friends, taken in Glasgow, Arran and Johannesburg. There is also a photograph of the author on the cover, the rest of which is in the same nostalgic shade of green as the boards of the Collins books of her heyday.
Of the short stories, the longest (and best) is the previously unpublished novella A Girl with Ideas. This was written at the behest of Collins in the 1960s, but was never published. It shows how Jane Shaw kept her magic touch right to the end of her career. The story is told in the first person and centres round Dorothea, or Dotty, the girl with ideas. At her school, she decides to start a mouse club and from then on there is only excitement. All the Jane Shaw hallmarks are included: long-lost treasure, unlikely coincidences, funny nicknames for teachers and the bending of school rules. Not to be missed.
This book is the definitive Jane Shaw handbook. Little nuggets of information appear at every turn of the page. For example, the St. Ursula’s church in Fourpenny Fair in real life is St. Catherine’s, six miles north of Monkton Combe. The Village of Farthing Green in Susan’s Helping Hand does indeed exist and may also have served as the model for Hunting Green in Willow Green Mystery. And so on. Every time you open the book, you turn up something new.
Despite the one or two little flaws mentioned above and a couple of typos, I would still give the book ten out of ten. As a relatively new explorer of Jane Shaw’s work, my task was aided enormously by this collection and made more enjoyable. If you like Jane Shaw, this book is a must.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Fourpenny Fair Review

As the title suggests, this is the fourth volume of Jane Shaw’s Penny series. It kicks off with Penny and Jill back in Friars Combe, near Bath, for the Easter holidays with their friends Laura and John Mallory. The girls are bathing the Mallory dogs when John arrives with the exciting news that the vicar is giving away half crowns. All four children hurry over to the vicarage to cash in on this unusual treat, only to discover that the money they collect is to be used in a Talents Contest. The participants have to invest their money and make it grow, and all profits are to be used to rid St. Ursula’s church of the death watch beetle. Jill decides to buy ingredients for Russian toffee and sell it to a sweet shop, Laura decides to make little bags for clothes pegs to sell to the local women, and John will gather primroses to sell to a florist. But Penny can’t think of anything to do and postpones her decision.
In the following weeks, Bath buzzes with activity. Penny and John find themselves embroiled in a jewel heist, which they manage to foil. A local family organizes a gymkhana at which Penny, in charge of the takings, is the victim of theft and feels obliged to reimburse the organizers, blaming the unhappy incident on her own carelessness. In the meantime, she simply can’t think of how to invest her half crowns, and this frustration, coupled with her new debt and the endless insults aimed at her by Jill, only add to her inherent sense of inadequacy.
However, things begin to pick up a little. Penny hits on an idea at last: buy a dachshund that is going for what seems to be a ridiculously low price and sell it to someone else for a handsome profit. But, although a buyer is found, she inevitably becomes attached to the little dog and wishes she could find a way to keep it. She also takes pity on a local orphan, Sid, and promises him that she will find a suit of armor for him to advertise the play that the kids at the orphanage are putting on at the fair. Sid, who has a bad stammer, thanks her and tells her that now the other boys at the orphanage will respect him if he can deliver on this promise. Only then does Penny realize that she has landed herself in it up to her neck, for where will she find a suit of armor of all things?
As this is Jane Shaw at her finest, there is nothing to fear. The armor will be found somehow and will play a crucial role later on. And no story by this author would be complete without a long lost treasure. Then there is the fair itself, the most memorable scene in the story. Penny helps Sid advertise his play by strutting around in the suit of armor. The vicar is delighted that it is a beautiful spring day and the money is just rolling in for his church fund. Everyone is working hard to make the fair a success. But that thief is about again, meaning more danger and adventure for Penny as the tale hurtles toward a brilliant climax.
This story is well crafted and packed with interesting events and characters. The children visit Stratford to see where Shakespeare was born and take in a performance of Twelfth Night. Penny befriends an American woman at the Memorial Theatre, but she also grapples with thieves and wins a prize at the gymkhana. In addition to picnics and trips to the country, there are also some funny scenes, such as when John dresses like a ragamuffin to go out and sell flowers so that people will feel sorry for him, and the hilarious scene in which Sid and Penny wreak havoc in Judge Toplady’s garden in pursuit of Bill the hamster. We also see a growth in Penny’s personality. After taking Jill’s insults for nearly the whole book, in the end she manages to stand up for herself and put Jill in her place.
All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended. I would grade it at 8 out of 10.
Title: Fourpenny Fair
Publisher: Nelson, 1956
Location: Friars Combe Village, near Bath
Main Characters:
Penny Carter
Jill Carter
Laura Mallory
John Mallory
Other Characters:
Stephen Mallory
Peg Masters
Diana Masters
Mrs. Mallory
Mrs. Browning (orphanage house mother)
Mr. Gauntlett
Miss Dixon (general store owner)
Mr. Harding (jeweller)
George (stable hand)
Mrs. Ellison (American lady)
Inspector Collins
Constable Bottle
The Vicar
Mrs. Masters
Marietjie Le Roux
Piet Le Roux
Mrs. Le Roux
Pamela Standish
Miss Shelley
Mr. Toplady
Mrs. Toplady
Biddy the Dog
Tim the Dog
Candy the Dachshund
Bill the Hamster
Jester the Pony
Topsy the Horse

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Wilsons Won't Mind

The Wilsons Won't Mind was the first short story about Susan, published in the Collins' Girls' Annual in 1955 and reprinted in The Treasure Book for Girls in 1958 and Ballet Stories in 1982. It is the only Susan story without her name in the title. As it was published just after the second book in the series, Susan's Helping Hand, perhaps the author had not yet decided to adopt the pattern of using the lead character's name in every title. In this story, Susan and the Carmichaels decide to provide some Christmas cheer for the Wilson family. Elvira, Stevie and the twins are down on their luck and have no money to go to a pantomime, so Susan and Co decide to put one on for them. As usual, there are several twists and turns before the miraculous happy ending is reached. An excellent story. In the illustration above, Charlotte sees her efforts at baking go awry. 

Madame Polinskaya greets her new pupil, Elvira Wilson, providing a happy ending to Christmas and a promising New Year to the Wilsons.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Breton Adventure

Jane Shaw's first published book was Breton Holiday (1939). After World War II, both this work and the sequel Bernese Holiday were reissued as Adventures, the titles by which they are most familiar to readers today. I thought it was rather charming when one of the members of our Yahoo! Group, Margaret, told me that she had Bernese Holiday. Most members were surprised at the use of this title. The Adventures are slightly abridged versions of the original Holidays. This may have been due to the soaring price of paper after the war, which resulted in a crippling cost of books for the general public and particularly the libraries, a major source of income for publishers and authors in Britain. In the children's book community, there has been some debate over how to refer to this series collectively. The Susan and Penny books are named after their main protagonists. But what about this series? Some refer to the trilogy as the Caroline and Sara books, others as the Sara books, feeling that she is the main character. However, a real Jane Shaw buff who was there from day one, would tell you that the books were known as the Holiday Series: Breton Holiday (1939), Bernese Holiday (1940) and Highland Holiday (1942). The first two titles are very easy to find (as Adventures) and were mass produced, so they sell for three or four pounds on average, providing new readers with a wonderful opportunity to be introduced to the Jane Shaw universe. Highland Holiday is... well, I've never even seen a copy, except for a scan of the cover. When I first read Breton Adventure, I didn't enjoy it much. A common criticism of the book is that it has no plot. The story chronicles Caroline and Sara's visit to France with the somewhat naïve belief on the part of their parents that it will improve their French. But the girls are typically British and avoid speaking the language whenever possible and actually end up helping some young French people improve their English! The mystery element is left in the background, and we are given descriptions of the girls' daily routine in St. Brioc (Binic). However, after reading it again, I found the characters starting to grow on me and it became a more enjoyable read. Even so, I wouldn't go as far as some readers and say that it was the author's best work. But I am getting to like it more. Binic would be revisited over the following decades under different names by Jane Shaw's most popular characters. Susan would visit it as St. Clos and it would be known to Penny as Kerdic. The town obviously made a lasting impression on her, as it later would on most of her readers.

Aunt Lucy

The frontispiece of Susan Pulls the Strings. We don't often get a glimpse of Aunt Lucy, so this is a special illustration.

Sara's Adventure (1953)

Eleven years after their last appearance in Highland Holiday in 1942, Sara and Caroline returned in a very short story called Sara's Adventure in the Collins' Girls' Annual of 1953 and reprinted in Crackerjack in 1959. This is a beautiful very detailed scan of the scene at customs, drawn by R. A. Branton, who also provided illustrations for the Susan series. Vanessa and John can be seen behind Sara. Click on the picture twice to view it in high resolution.

Highland Holiday

Rare scan of the third Caroline and Sara book, Highland Holiday. Considered as having become dated as a war novel, this title was not reissued as an Adventure. Thanks to Barbara for providing the scan.


Fay, Julie and Ricky from Crooks Tour are seen here in an illustration of Crooks Limited, the only other story about these characters and the only Jane Shaw story set entirely in her native Glasgow. There were several other illustrations of this story in the Collins annual but they are marred by the fact that the artist switched Fay and Ricky around, giving Ricky dark hair and making Fay blonde. I wish that artists would actually take the time to read the stories they illustrate. This carelessness really got up my nose when I was a child.

A number of the Susan books have coloured frontispieces and I was lucky enough to get one or two of them when I ordered them from Peakirk Books. This one is  from Susan's Trying Term, with Tessa, Midge and Susan restoring the school museum. It's interesting that Tessa and Midge are both described as fair haired, but one of them has become a red head!
Here we see Pea-green, i.e., Peregrine Gascoigne, causing havoc at St. Ronan's in the short story Susan's School Play. This story is narrated in the first person by Midge, the only departure from the third person. Another short story, The Wilsons Won't Mind, is the only Susan story that does not include the lead character's name.
The cover of No Trouble For Susan. Note the in-joke: To Susan's right there is a stack of Susan books! However, the title of one is in error. Instead of Susan's Trying Term, the title is Susan's Trying Time. Strange that R. A. Branton should  make this mistake as he illustrated many previous stories about Susan and her cousins.
Dreamy Penny on the island of Arran in Scotland in the first book of her series. Jane Shaw and her husband would later retire to this isle just off the Ayrshire coast.

The latest edition to my collection is Threepenny Bit. If I can tear myself away from the Susan books, this will be the next one to read.

A running gag throughout the Susan series is waking up Midge. Whether early in the morning or in the middle of the night for some nocturnal excursion, Susan employs a variety of methods to rouse her cousin. Here, in Chapter 10 of Susan Muddles Through, a wet spong is used.

Susan with Midge and Tessa at St. Ronan's in Susan's Trying Term.
The cover of Susan At School depicting the hilarious scene involving Dotty's ancient car.
Although I have a first edition of A Job For Susan, there are no accompanying illustrations or frontispiece, which is a bit disappointing because it is  my favourite of the eleven books in the series. It would have been nice to see some  more scenes, but by the time it was published readership was in rapid decline and they probably opted not to include illustrations in an effort to cut costs. It's interesting to note that the front cover was illustrated by Roger Hall, who also did the internal drawings for the British editions of The Three Investigators books.
My copy of Susan Rushes In is an undated Children's Press edition.

Jane Shaw Bibliography

All titles published by Collins.
These were the author’s earliest works, featuring Scottish cousins Caroline and Sara Storm. The first two books were later slightly abridged and reissued as Adventures. The two Adventure titles are very easy to find and low in price. Highland Holiday, published during World War II and never reissued, is extremely rare. Caroline and Sara would only make one more appearance in the SARA’S ADVENTURE, a short story published in the Collins’ Girls’ Annual in 1953 and reprinted in The Crackerjack Book for Girls in 1959. The plot of this story would later serve as the basis for the final chapters of one of her most popular books, Crooks Tour. The author often used the same settings and recurring themes in her stories.
THE MOOCHERS (Lutterworth, 1950)
THE  MOOCHERS ABROAD (Lutterworth, 1951)
A third book, MOOCHERS AND PREFECTS, was written in 1951 but was never published. Lutterworth forwarded the manuscript to West Regional TV, whose staff lost it while considering it for production.
All titles published by Collins.
It is quite likely that the first Jane Shaw book that you read was an early Susan book. The series enjoyed a wide audience right up to the mid 1960s. The last three books are very hard to find, although a limited number were reissued in paperback in 2006 by Bettany Press. There were also four short stories published in annuals: THE WILSONS WON’T MIND, Collins’ Girls’ Annual, 1955 and reprinted in The Treasure Book for Girls in 1958; SUSAN’S SCHOOL PLAY, Collins’ Girls’ Annual, 1957; SUSAN AND THE HOME-MADE BOMB, Collins’ Girls Annual, 1958; SUSAN AND THE SPAE-WIFE, Collins’ Girls’ Annual, 1960. THE WILSONS WON’T MIND is the only title that does not include the leading character’s name, and SUSAN’S SCHOOL PLAY is the only story narrated in the first person, by Midge. By the late sixties, Jane Shaw’s output was slowing down. Not only was A JOB FOR SUSAN the last book in the series, it was also her last published work. In 1970, she began a twelfth book, SUSAN IN TROUBLE, with Susan and Midge trying to raise money for a trip to America. But the story never progressed beyond a few tentative pages. Susan had gone to live with her cousins in London while her parents were in Africa. By the eleventh book, Mr. and Mrs. Lyle had returned to Britain and everything had come full circle and the time had come to round off the series. However, it is worth pointing out that the quality of the series held firm right to the end. The later books are every bit as good as the earlier ones, perhaps even better.
All titles published by Nelson.
These books were something of a departure from the usual Jane Shaw style. Penelope Carter is a quiet girl, in contrast to Susan Lyle and Ricky Andersen, who enjoy madcap banter with their friends. The first three titles are quite easy to come by, but the others are harder to find. CROOKED SIXPENCE, on the rare occasions that a copy comes available, changes hands for over sixty euros on e-bay.
All titles published by Nelson.
Both titles published by Nelson.
Both titles published by Nelson.
MAGIC SHIPS (Collins, 1943)
FARM FRIENDS (Collins, 1953)
PUPPY TALES (Collins, 1953)
LEFT-HANDED TUMFY (Lutterworth, 1962)
CROOKS TOUR (Collins, 1962)
CROOKS TOUR was followed up with CROOKS LIMITED, a short story involving the same three characters, Ricky, Julie and Fay, published in the Collins’ Girls’ Annual, 1962. This story is interesting because it is the only one set entirely in Jane Shaw’s native Glasgow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My Introduction to Jane Shaw

As I recall, it was on a fine sunny day in late 1975 or early 1976 that Miss Irvine, my Primary 5 teacher at St. Brendan's School in Yoker, Glasgow, was absent. Normally, children are happy when their teacher is off, but we weren’t. She was a young teacher with different methods. She read us James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory during the last half hour of lessons. She had a hamster called Tarzan who ran on his wheel for our amusement. Her teaching was different and even fun. So it was quite upsetting that she was absent that day. And then a murmur went round the class. Who would be replacing her? Some old fogey with a penchant for metric maths? Fortunately, before we could get too worked up about it, a young man came in who obviously knew nothing about our syllabus and told us to do some SRA cards. The day wore on and after lunchtime, having run out of things to do, this replacement teacher frowned, looked at his watch and, in a light bulb of inspiration, asked us to follow him to Room 11. We all knew that Room 11 had a TV set and mountains of books, even illustrated annuals and the like. We trotted after him happily. He told us to choose a book and read it quietly. At the time, I was just getting into the Three Investigators mysteries, so when I came upon a book called Crooks Tour on a remote shelf avoided by the others because the books all had plain unillustrated covers, the title attracted me, first of all because of the crooks that Jupe and friends tangled with and secondly because my nine-year-old mind understood the title as Crooks Tower, imagining a mysterious tower filled with smuggled booty and stolen diamonds. The heat from the radiators and the sun on the window panes made the classroom warm and the pupils drowsy and quiet, and I settled down at a little desk facing the corner, disconnected myself from the rest of the world and began to read. I was surprised that it was about three girls who were about to embark on a school trip to Switzerland (surprised because our school trips never went any farther than a visit to the Art Gallery up past Whiteinch, with the promise of a day trip to Ayr as we bade goodbye to our little school in the last week of Primary 7). There was no tower, but they did talk about crooks. One of the girls was nicknamed Button. The story went on and on. It was frightfully difficult for me to read, probably about two years above my reading level at the time. At the beginning of Chapter 5, when they came to a forked path and had to choose which direction to take, the young teacher’s voice interrupted my thoughts. Put your books back where you found them. The bell rang and we piled out of the classroom. Next day, Miss Irvine returned, I never saw the young substitute teacher again and life went back to normal.

Time passed. I went to high school. I got married. Came to live in Brazil. And yet every now and then when it was a fine sunny day I would cast my mind back to Room 11. I don’t like unfinished business and I wondered what ever happened to Button and her two friends. In 2001, on a particularly chilly April afternoon, I had a brainwave. Why not use the Yahoo! search engine that I was rapidly becoming attached to on this new thing called the Internet? I’d already found sites about the Three Investigators and the Hardy Boys to rekindle childhood memories. The only problem was I could only remember the name of the book, not the author. Well, not to be deterred! I typed in Crooks Tour and discovered that the author was one Jane Shaw. I did nothing about it for a long time. I couldn’t buy the book from an online dealer because I didn’t have a credit card. In 2006 and 2007 I went to Scotland to visit my family and could have looked for the book there, but my dad was ill at the time and passed away shortly before the second visit, so hunting for second-hand books was not a priority. However, in 2009 I was determined to find out at last what had happened to those three girls. I went to the library in Ayr with my brother’s card. There was no hope of finding the book there. Any copy that they might have had would have been removed long ago to make room for more modern juvenile literature. I logged on to the internet to do a quick search. I discovered Peakirk Books down in Peterborough and purchased a pristine copy of Crooks Tour for the princely sum of £4, plus £3 for postage and packing. The book arrived shortly before my return to Brazil. And, on a fine sunny afternoon in my nice quiet house in Curitiba almost thirty-four years on, I settled down comfortably on my bed just as I used to do with The Three Investigators and Hardy Boys books and began to devour Crooks Tour. It was much easier going now. Button’s real name was Julie Mitchell, level-headed and hard working, although she wasn’t exactly the main character. That special role was reserved for Ricky Andersen (real name Erica). Ricky is obsessed with crooks and is a kind of well-meaning girl with her head in the clouds. She wants to run into crooks and uncover some fiendish plot. The other member of the trio was Fay Macdonald, the quiet one. They are middle-class girls at a fee-paying girls’ school in Glasgow. The story begins with them sitting in the school library wondering whether their parents can afford or will allow them to go on the school trip to France and Switzerland. Of course, they can and do and the story takes off in Chapter 2.

This book that I had tried to read as a serious work all those years ago is anything but. Everywhere she goes, Ricky imagines she has seen a crook doing something bad and repeatedly makes a fool of herself as the suspected criminal turns out to be perfectly innocent. All through France and all over Switzerland she raises false alarms only to find herself being made a laughing stock, with Julie and Fay gleefully pointing out her mistakes to her. Yet she herself never loses her cool. It’s all water off a duck’s back to her. It is only back in Britain on the very last leg of their journey home that she accidentally and unwittingly gets caught up in a minor little crime and unmasks an unlikely crook.

That was my baptism into the genteel world of Jane Shaw; and I was surprised to find myself wanting more. Not many websites are dedicated to her on the internet. Only two that I could find (and one Yahoo! group on children’s books) yielded any information, but that was enough to get me started. There were no other books about Ricky, Julie and Fay, only a short story called Crooks Limited that appeared in a girls’ annual in the early sixties around the same time that the book was published in 1962. But there were other works. From 1939 to 1969, Jane Shaw published well over 40 books and numerous short stories, the most popular being the Susan series, which ran to eleven titles. That would be my first stop. There were also her first two books, Breton Adventure and Bernese Adventure, starring two Scottish cousins, Caroline and Sara, and the Penny series, about an English girl called Penelope Carter. I decided to start with the Susan books. The early Susan stories are easy to find and very low in price. The later ones are hard to come by and incredibly expensive. I ordered the first six in the series from Jeff at Peakirk Books, along with the two Sara and Caroline books and Penny Foolish, the first in the series of that name.

Before commenting on the stories any further, it is worth mentioning some points. The first is that you have to set your mind to the period during which the stories take place, both in terms of the plots and characters themselves and society at that time. The children in the books are what we would consider young for their age. Taking Susan as an example, although her adventures are progressively chronicled over time, she shows no signs of growing up. She has no interest in boys beyond wishing that they would dance with her at parties and remains as childish as she is in the earlier stories. Only her older cousin Charlotte has any romance in her life, being invited to the pictures occasionally by local boys. Furthermore, Shaw’s world is thoroughly middle class. Contact with other walks of life is rare. The characters live in their own little cocoons, going to private schools, living in spacious houses and traveling abroad. A financial crisis in this world is not having enough money to buy a painting for an aunt’s birthday and having to make do with a lesser trinket instead. Occasionally a sweet old widow is threatened with eviction, but even then the widow is more likely to be an elderly middle-class lady who has fallen on hard times rather than a struggling working class matriarch with a family of six. The victims are bailed out by discovering a long-lost masterpiece tucked away in the attic or an unexpected inheritance from a distant relative rather than a visit from a social worker or the DHSS. In only one story, No Trouble for Susan, do the leading characters come into contact with working class people in the form of a gang of boys, who are portrayed as stereotyped Cockney street urchins who drop their aitches and "don't do nuffink". Only Susan, the busybody that she is, makes any serious attempt to reform Timmy the terror, the local ringleader. Her cousins prefer to keep their distance from the boy and see no hope of making him a better person. This is in contrast with T3I and other later children’s books. Jupe, Pete and Bob were willing to associate with anyone who could help them solve their mysteries, and in The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot and The Mystery of the Headless Horse, the boys grapple with the social and financial problems facing the Mexican community in California. Such scenarios do not occur in Jane Shaw’s books. Although Timmy does indeed turn out to be not such a bad apple in the end and even helps capture the leader of a rival gang, he and the Carmichaels do not become fast friends, as would surely have been the case if the story were written ten years later and dramatized on TV. The wall that divides social classes remains firmly in place. On a less serious note, another anachronism is the author’s disdain of women wearing trousers. One of the gripes about their arch enemies, the ghastly Gascoignes, is that their mother wears trousers rather than a dress and that Gabrielle wears her hair in a ponytail. I found this a bit unusual until I remembered having some retirement age teachers at primary school who displayed similar attitudes. By the 1960s, Jane Shaw did mention once or twice that Susan and Midge were wearing “slacks”, but that seems to be about as far as she came to conforming to the times. Rosemary Auchmuty argues that this refusal to keep up with changing society may have been a reason why Jane Shaw stopped publishing in 1969 after bringing out A Job for Susan.

Returning to the stories, along with the titles mentioned above, I also purchased three annuals with some short stories. The first was the Collins Girls’ Annual (undated but probably published in 1962) containing Crooks Limited. I also bought the Crackerjack Girls Own Book and another Collins Annual with a girl holding a lantern on the cover, one of which contains Susan’s School Play. These were perfectly well preserved but dusty, and I need to wear a mask to read them. With hindsight, I needn’t have bothered with these annuals because all the short stories are included in Alison Lindsay’s collection Susan and Friends: The Jane Shaw Companion. However, it was worth it because of the beautiful coloured illustrations. As the annuals were the first books to arrive, Susan’s School Play was the first of the Susan stories that I read. It turned out to be a departure from the normal style because it was written in the first person by her cousin Midge, whereas all the other stories are told by the omniscient narrator. After enjoying these stories and an unrelated one called Family Trouble, I turned to the Susan books themselves, which arrived a few days later.

Susan Lyle, age 13, is a Glaswegian girl, described as dark-haired and rosy-cheeked. At the beginning of the first book, Susan Pulls the Strings, she is informed by her mother that her parents will be going to Africa to build a bridge (her father is an engineer) and that she will be staying with her cousins, the Carmichaels, in London. So, along with her cat Chang, she takes the train to London and is greeted there by her three cousins: Charlotte (16), Midge (14) and Bill (10). They live with their widowed father (a doctor) and his single sister Lucy (who are also Mrs. Lyle’s brother and sister) in a little fictional London village called Wichwood at 12 Tollgate Road. She is just in time for Christmas, with the story ending at New Year. As she states at the very beginning of Chapter 1 that she will be “fourteen in December” she must have celebrated her birthday by this time. However, the chronology is a bit erratic. Although when you add it up Susan should be turning seventeen in the last book, having spent three summers away from her parents, she declares that she is fifteen at the beginning of the story, despite having confirmed earlier that her parents had been away in Africa for "years and years". In fact, it is clearly stated that she celebrates two Christmases at the age of fifteen (No Trouble for Susan and a year later in A Job for Susan). I can only conclude that, like the Hardy Boys, who are always seventeen and eighteen no matter how many Christmases and summers come and go, time in Susan's world and in the real world are not quite the same thing and we are obliged to live with this fuzzy math so that Susan can retain many of her endearing childish characteristics.

Following her arrival in London, Susan sets to. Every adventure trundles along at an easy-going pace and usually involves the cousins trying to help someone in difficulty. The characters themselves are among the most realistic I’ve ever come across and are what hold the stories together and capture the reader. However, the relatively normal characters and initially humdrum situations they find themselves in are wonderfully offset by the unfolding plots, which thrive on mind-boggling coincidences, unusual occurrences and predictably happy endings that lie just within the confines of credibility. Susan and her cousins, like almost all of Jane Shaw’s characters, are not child wonders but rather your everyday kids. When it comes to studying, they are not brainboxes. They are all average pupils and never really develop a bond with their school. They daydream during lessons and look forward to the holidays. Despite the trips abroad that are meant to improve their French, no progress is ever made beyond a couple of words and phrases. Midge and Charlotte are lazy and usually only undertake a task after being browbeaten into it by Susan, who in turn usually does more harm than good when trying to help people, though the reader is never in any doubt that everything will turn out for the best in the end. Shaw's characters are children that readers can identify with rather than look up to. A light sense of humour permeates all the books. The girls may bicker, but they seldom become nasty or cruel. Midge and Susan might poke fun at their friend Tessa, who is notoriously slow in the uptake, but there is no viciousness in their teasing.

While each story can be read on its own, there are references to the past and a few developments. In the third book, the empty house next door to the Carmichaels is let to the ghastly Gascoignes, a family of know-alls with high society connections and an endless supply of money (much to the frustration of the indignant Carmichaels and Susan). Although they clearly think themselves superior to their new neighbours, the Gascoignes insist on getting involved in everything Susan and company do, aided and abetted by the unwitting Aunt Lucy, who thinks they are a delight and an excellent influence on her charges. The most unlikable character is the precocious nine-year-old Peregrine, whom the girls call Pea-green. He is a menace who goes around toting an air gun, toying around with a chemistry set in an attempt to make bombs and generally getting up to mischief that usually ends up being blamed on Susan and Midge. His overindulgent mother and sister think that he should be given a free hand to do what he likes without any discipline that could curtail the development of his genius, as they view him as being sensitive and artistic. Wherever they go, the Gascoignes are loved by all as they show off their endless talents for music, languages (they all seem to speak a number of languages with perfect fluency), art and sports. The behaviour of this unbearable family gets worse from book to book, culminating in Susan Muddles Through, when they accompany the family to Arran for a holiday. In the next book, Susan’s Trying Term, Gabrielle moves to St. Ronan’s, Susan and Midge’s boarding school. The behaviour of these awful children reaches its zenith in these books and Jane Shaw herself wrote to her publishers that she was getting tired of them. Pea-green finally gets his comeuppance (of a sort) in the second-last book, Where is Susan? Thankfully, in the last story, A Job for Susan, there are only a couple of passing references to Gabrielle, with Susan declaring at the very beginning that the Gascoigne family won’t be with them for Christmas because they usually go skiing in Austria. There is an older Gascoigne brother, Adrian, who sometimes takes Charlotte to the pictures, but he does not feature as heavily in the stories as his younger siblings. In the early days, the Carmichaels even fear that their widowed father might marry the widowed Selina, but to their relief nothing comes of this. This loathsome family, whom readers loved to hate, are prominent in several books.

As I said above, Susan as she is portrayed in these books would be an anachronism nowadays. One of the most common features in the stories is meals. The characters consume huge amounts of food that I’m sure would have nutritionists and weight-minded parents up in arms today. Susan is described as a little bit plump, which is hardly surprising judging by the huge feasts the characters enjoy. At breakfast they shovel down plates of bacon and eggs with endless slices of toast and honey. Then there is elevenses with rock cakes and scones, followed by lunch (always topped off by a pudding), afternoon tea, numerous snacks and hearty dinners. As the UK was beset with rationing into the 1950s due to the strains of World War II, an abundant food supply would be a luxury and even a fantasy for many readers at that time. The stories are also politically incorrect by our standards because the children often complain about foreign food (although they do praise it too depending on the situation). They deplore the absence of bacon and eggs at breakfast in France and find it hard to get used to the continental habits of eating fruit and crumbly rolls. There is nothing xenophobic about this. It is a child’s honest opinion at being exposed to foreign situations for the first time and struggling to come to terms with them. But I couldn’t see a children’s editor allowing this stuff into books today. With contemporary racial and cultural sensitivity, another aspect that might displease an editor is the way that the English children poke fun at Susan’s Scottish speech. When she uses terms like jings and wheesht, her cousins are often perplexed and ask her to speak English.

In all, there were eleven Susan books and four short stories published in girls’ annuals throughout the fifties and sixties. In 1970, Jane Shaw embarked on a new Susan novel entitled Susan in Trouble, in which the girls are trying to raise money for a trip to America, the farthest afield that they had yet fared. But the narrative was rushed in style and the author abandoned it after only a few pages. With the closing of the nineteen sixties, Jane Shaw’s writing career had come to an end and the last chapter of the Susan saga had been written. In the last book published, Susan’s parents were home after their sojourn in Africa and everything had come full circle. The Lyles, Carmichaels and Gascoignes had run their course and it was time to bid them a fond farewell.

After finishing the Susan books, I decided to put off reading the Caroline and Sara books and turned to the first volume of the Penny series. Penny Foolish is the only one I have acquired so far. These books were not written for Collins but for Nelson, the six volumes being published between 1953 and 1958. In the first story, Penny is sent to Arran to recover from an illness and is followed there by her sister and adventure. I found this book delightful. Like Susan, Penny is faced with annoying brother and sister neighbours, but Kenneth and Elspeth are nowhere near as annoying as the Gascoigne creatures and Penny ends up winning them over in the end. Penny is a more introspective girl and the humour in the story is more toned down than the madcap banter between Ricky and her friends and Susan and Midge. I’m looking forward to reading some more of this series, although the books are much harder to come across than some of Jane Shaw’s other works.

It was now time to turn to the remaining two books I had: Breton Adventure and Bernese Adventure, the author’s first two books, published in 1939 and 1940, respectively. The first was the only book that I have to say that I didn’t like very much. Some commentators have said that the problem with Breton Adventure is that it has no plot, while others have contended that it was Shaw’s greatest work. I have to say that I lean more towards the former than the latter. Sara and Caroline are going to Brittany for the summer to improve their French. They go. They meet people. They go out for a trip. They go home. They go swimming. They like some food but not other kinds of food. They go out again. They go swimming again. I remember thinking that it was like watching a mortally wounded animal. I actually abandoned it for a few days before resuming, having resolved to see it through. There was a happy ending, of course. If the Susan books are character based, then the same holds doubly true for this book, which is more an exploration of the girls’ characters than a story. It is successful in that the two girls are likeable. However, I do have to say that this is the only book that disappointed me. I gave myself a hiatus from Jane Shaw around 20 January, but in February I turned to Bernese Adventure. This one was much, much better in that it had a plot, the girls and Caroline’s sister and brother-in-law being chased across Europe because they have at first unknowingly come into possession of a cache of stolen diamonds. There is less meandering and more quick-paced action and dialogue than in the predecessor, and a nice little quip rounds off the story. In 1942, a third story, Highland Holiday, was published, but this quickly became dated because it was a war story and with the end of World War II it waned in popularity. I haven’t been able to find a copy of this book. As it was published during the war years and times of rationing and shortages, I don’t imagine many copies were actually printed. The two stories I have turned out to be slightly abridged versions of the original stories, published as Breton and Bernese Holiday, forming part of a Holiday trilogy. The Highland story was not reissued as an Adventure. Although I am not as big fan of Sara and Caroline as I am of Susan and the Carmichaels and Ricky and Co., I am forced to recognize that these girls were very popular with the audiences they were aimed at in their day. It is said that no self-respecting collector of children's literature in the forties and fifties had a bookcase bereft of the two Adventure stories. I recognize Sara today as a blueprint for Susan, and Caroline as a sort of cross between Charlotte and Midge. But at the time of publication Sara and Caroline were very popular in their own right. They would only appear once again, in a very short story called Sara’s Adventure, which uses almost exactly the same plot that would later serve as the finale of Crooks Tour (Jane Shaw often reworked plots and reused locations and themes in her stories).

The book that took me longest to find was Susan and Friends: The Jane Shaw Companion, published in the UK by Bettany Press in 2002, edited by Alison Lindsay. Copies of this book proved impossible for me to find despite many an online search, but I turned to Air Books in Campinas, a specialized shop that had helped me find rare books before. Within a week they e-mailed me that a copy had been found. It took a month to arrive and was not cheap, but I got it. This book is important because many people who actually knew the author contributed chapters to it, reporting on her life and their experiences with her. However, for the time being, I am concentrating on the fiction Shaw produced. The book is of great interest because it contains the tentative pages of draft for Susan in Trouble, the abandoned twelfth book, and all the short stories that appeared in annuals throughout the years, including four Susan stories. There is also a story, more of a novella, called A Girl with Ideas, a unique school story involving four new, younger girls. And there is Crooks Limited, the follow-up story to Crooks Tour.

Of all these works, A Girl with Ideas is easily the best. The four girls in the novella are “eleven, going on twelve” and beginning a new school year. A new girl, Lisa, has a pet mouse and Dotty, the girl with ideas, proposes forming a mouse club. The characters are dynamic and interesting and could easily have been used in a series of their own. The story is told in the first person by Denise. It incorporates the traditional Jane Shaw themes such as girls inventing nicknames for their teachers, breaking the school rules, friendly banter among the friends and the uncovering of a long lost secret. The author was pressed to write this story by Collins but in the end it was only to see the light of day in this collection. This is the latest work of Jane Shaw’s that I have read, and I have every intention of reading much more.

Who was Jane Shaw?

Jean Bell Shaw Patrick (1910-2000) was a Scottish writer of children’s books. She studied at Glasgow University and thought of becoming a teacher. However, she decided to take a job at Collins Publishers in London and the children’s books editor encouraged her to write stories. Her first work appeared in 1937-38 under the pen name of Jean Patrick, with the titles Builders of Books (an article telling young people about the publishing business) and My Own Book of Baby Beasts and My Own Book of Other Lands, aimed at very young children. However, her first work as Jane Shaw was Breton Holiday in 1939, launching her career proper, a career that would span 30 years. In 1937, she married Robert Evans. They lived in London and surrounding area during the war years. Her husband was offered a job in South Africa in 1952 and in Johannesburg she worked in a local bookshop, writing her stories in her free time. The couple had two children. They returned to Scotland in 1978 and Robert died in 1987. Jean continued living in her home land until her death in 2000. More complete biographies can be found in Susan and Friends and on the  Collecting Books and Magazines website.

Why does Jane Shaw appeal to me?

Why did I, at the age of forty-three, become interested in books aimed at children in the nineteen fifties and sixties? After all, when I was born, Jane Shaw’s career was already in its twilight years and I was only three years old when her last book was published in 1969. Shouldn’t finally completing Crooks Tour, a book that I began at primary school long ago in the mid seventies, have been a simple exercise in closure? Yes, it should. But things don’t always go the way they ought to. As is my habit, whenever I read a book or watch a movie, I want to know more about the writer, actors and director. This is usually no more than a cursory glance at a page of Wikipedia or fan site. But in the case of Jane Shaw, when I read about her on the Collecting Books and Magazines site, I was intrigued by the descriptions of Susan and her cousins and found myself wanting to explore their world. It was something different. After years of sci-fi, Tolkien, Lewis and the Second World War, reading Crooks Tour was a welcome change. In recent years I had returned to the Three Investigators, but wanted to read children’s books that I hadn’t read before. So it happened that coming across Jane Shaw presented me with a new opportunity.

And there are other more reasons for me to read this author. I like history and am especially interested in the times from the Industrial Revolution onwards. We often compare what our children read and watch with what we used to enjoy. But we seldom look back at the generation just before us. If I had been born twenty years earlier, what would life have been like? In 1976, a boy in my class called Peter Rafferty stunned us all by announcing that he and his family would be holidaying in Spain. We had only ever heard of foreign travel in movies and books. I’d never actually met anyone who had been abroad, apart from my dad, who had been called up for duty toward the end of World War II. By 1980, going to Spain for your holidays was quite the norm. By the mid eighties I had traveled to Brazil. In the fifties, however, even middle-class people didn’t get abroad that much and didn‘t get to see other countries much beyond photographs and in films, many of which were just backdrops at Ealing Studios! In fact, at the time that the first Susan books appeared, only one in every hundred British people had ever been abroad at all. That is why travel is so heavily featured in Jane Shaw’s books, providing many children with the only trip abroad they could ever hope to enjoy.

And so, with this rather rambling personal reflection, I complete my recording of the Jane Shaw experience so far. I plan to continue working my way through her books as I come across them. It’s nice at the age of 43 to have found something new to enjoy from so long ago. Life is full of surprises, and this one has been thankfully very pleasant.

Originally published on 17th April, 2010.