Monday, March 7, 2011

Book of the Week: Breton Adventure

When I first put pen to paper about Breton Adventure, I was, to put it mildly, less than complimentary. Although it is Jane Shaw’s first book, it was the fourteenth one that I read. After enjoying Crooks Tour, the whole Susan series and a number of short stories, with their over the top Scottish heroines and fast-paced action, I wasn’t prepared for what lay in store when I opened the first Caroline and Sara book. Yes, there are the Scottish heroines, and yes, there is the madcap banter. But the pace…
The story starts off like many other Jane Shaw works. Caroline and her cousin Sara are going to spend two months in Brittany, and the purpose of this holiday is to improve their French. There is a mad taxi ride from St. Brieuc to the sleepy village of St. Brioc, where the girls will stay at the home of Madame de St. Brioc, with whom Sara’s mother had attended school in Switzerland years before.
However, once they arrive, the story really slows down. They unpack, bickering all the way, and then go down to dinner and mull over the food. A series of typical holiday events then follows. They go to the village to look at the shops, they go to the beach to swim, they have lunch, they meet people, they are surprised by the food and the people, unable to understand how the French can do without bacon and eggs at breakfast… And on it goes. A couple of new characters are brought in: Madame’s cousin Michel and her son Raymond; the large Duval family, who arrive at mealtimes and insist on kissing and shaking hands with everyone, which Caroline especially finds embarrassing. My first impression was that chunks of the book read more like a travel guide than a novel. And yet, on my second reading, I found myself being absorbed into this tranquil little world, just enjoying it and going with the flow.
There are a couple of nice excursions. First, they go on a visit to a battleship in the bay of St. Quay. Sara is befriended by a young sailor and ends up getting left behind when the boat takes the others back to shore, providing her with an opportunity to raid the ship’s pantries. On another day, they go shrimping on one of the little islands just visible from Madame’s home. They celebrate the fourteenth of July, the birthday of the French Republic. Sara causes havoc at a circus, leading to the escape of a performing chimp. She also loses her watch and offers a reward to the finder, resulting in Madame’s house being overrun by bounty hunters attempting to pass off old, broken watches as her lost treasure. And speaking of lost treasure, no Jane Shaw story would be complete without a heavy chest buried or hidden somewhere on Madame’s property that will solve all the family’s problems and get Raymond out of a boring life as a civil servant so that he can pursue his dreams. Will the girls find it? A purely rhetorical question!
The book has all the features that would later become Jane Shaw’s trademarks. The cousins are, like Susan and Ricky in later works, skivers when it comes to learning French. They don’t seem to improve very much and take every chance they get to speak English. The family they are staying with, despite having lots of property and farms, is described as being short of cash, and a little windfall, such as a chest of buried treasure, would do just the trick at this time. There is the occasional little ironic twist at the end of a chapter, such as when Sara spends a day shrimping and then forgets her catch on the beach. There are the meals and numerous stops for cakes, ices and cold drinks. And there is no romance. Readers might expect Raymond or Michel to fall for one of the girls, but it doesn’t happen. They all become friends and play tennis together and go out for the day, but it goes no further than that. Caroline and Sara, both sixteen years old, seem a little immature for their age.
My opinion of the book has changed a great deal over the last year. When I discovered that it was originally titled Breton Holiday, this made me look at it in a different light. The Adventure is a slightly abridged version. Perhaps due to the soaring cost of paper after World War II, the book was reissued in a shorter form and the publishers felt obliged to rename it, perhaps not giving the new name that much thought. But thinking of it as a Holiday rather than an Adventure does make a difference. It has been said by other reviewers that the weakness of the book is that it has no plot. This may be due to the fact that it is only in Chapter 6, while they are on their shrimping expedition, that Madame reveals the key aspects of her family history that will eventually lead to the treasure, leaving the reader for the first five chapters wondering where the story is going. There is also the fact that the family doesn’t seem particularly interested in the treasure. Maybe if these aspects had been reworked a little, the book would be more exciting.
Having said that, it is hard to see how tampering with the story in this way would make much of a difference since the mystery aspect of this story is really only of secondary importance. The main focus is on the girls and their holiday. Written in 1939, when only the very rich had a chance to travel, the simple fact of being set in France would have been enough to attract curious readers. Minor aspects of everyday life that are casually mentioned in the story provided children with some insight into other lands and their mysterious inhabitants, so near and yet so far away. Despite the hot weather, the native women of Brittany dress in black. We also discover other little details, especially about the food. For instance, despite their culinary talents and love of food, the French do not take afternoon tea. They also serve each dish separately at dinner time. In the 1930s and 1940s, such tidbits would be an exciting revelation to British children.
The stars of the book are not only Sara and Caroline, but Brittany itself. Jane Shaw had visited Binic (the model for St. Brioc) years before, and her loving and painstaking depiction of it and its inhabitants show that she was obviously deeply affected by this land, its coast and its mysterious islands. Rereading the story, I was happy to let the author guide me through this country and learn its ways. It’s also fun to watch the two cousins interact. Sara, short and bespectacled, is capable of an endless stream of talk and is constantly trying to get by without wearing her glasses, usually with disastrous consequences. Caroline is taller and thinner, and apparently more sensible, often embarrassed by Sara’s antics. They go well together, something like a female Laurel and Hardy, although sometimes I got the impression that some of Caroline’s lines would sound better coming from Sara. I clearly see in Sara the blueprint for Susan, while Caroline appears to be a composite of Charlotte and Midge. But the girls are also a great success in their own right, as can be testified to by generations of young readers, seeing that the pair remained popular right up to the 1960s.
I wouldn’t go as far as some reviewers who claim that Breton Holiday was Jane Shaw’s best work. It grows on you over time, but does not have the quality and more clearly defined characters of the Susan or Penny stories. Nevertheless, it is a fine debut from a very talented author. Sara and Caroline would go on to star in two more novels (Bernese Holiday, 1940; and Highland Holiday, 1942) and one short story (Sara’s Adventure, 1953). The focus of Jane Shaw’s writing would then shift to Susan and Penny. These characters, like their predecessors, would also visit Binic and have their own Breton adventures.