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.