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.