Thursday, June 23, 2011

New House at Northmead (Review)

Published by Nelson in 1961, this is the first of the two books about Northmead, a girls’ school in Kent. The story begins with Elizabeth and Anne, senior girls at the recently established and aptly named New House, lamenting that just as they have reached the upper echelons of Clarke’s House, where Elizabeth was about to fulfil her lifelong dream of becoming head girl, they find themselves transferred to New House. They voice their concerns that only the less talented girls will be put in the house, thereby crippling their hopes of trophies and shields in sports events and intellectual competitions, a fear that is not unjustified.
The focus then shifts to the main characters, third-form girls Nicole Charteris and Kay Crawford. Unlike many of Jane Shaw’s other stars, such as Susan and Midge and Caroline and Sara, Nicky and Kay are not cousins. However, like most of the author’s other characters, they are skivers, being described as full of enthusiasm and wishing to improve the Form, the school and the human race which, unfortunately, doesn’t leave them much time for things like maths and Latin. There is a new girl at the school, Lynette du Toit, from Africa. She is having great difficulty in adapting to life in England, bemoaning the lack of sunshine, the fog and drizzle and the fact that she has no servants. The two busybodies decide to take her under their wing and show her how good England can really be.
However, there is an amusing episode before they get down to helping Lynette. Nicky and Kay decide to set up the New House Insurance Company. Other pupils can adhere to the scheme by paying a premium. In return, the co-owners will take care of lines, punishment exercises and house marks (the scheme promises to compensate house marks with sixpence). After a brief initial success, the whole thing backfires as the younger girls craftily catch on to the fact that they can actually make money from the scheme and start forcing teachers to give them house marks. Fortunately, the head mistress finds out about the venture and puts an end to it, much to the relief of Nicky and Kay, who can now turn their attention to the plight of the homesick Lynette.
The best way to make the “colonial” appreciate her new country is to show her England at its best, and what better way to do this than take her to a stately home? Lynette appreciates the beauty and grandeur of Claire and Falconhurst and becomes keen on English history. But there is another reason to be interested in these places. Paintings disappear from the houses, expensive pictures, replaced by clever forgeries. The authorities are baffled. The girls, however, are not. When they develop the photographs they took on their visits, they notice that on both days there was a man with a “woffling” moustache on the scene. Suspicion immediately falls on him, although no one can explain how he switches the paintings with hordes of visitors swarming around. However, on a second visit to Claire, the girls get locked in and have to be rescued. In the gallery with them is the man with the “woffly” moustache. When confronted by Lord Claire, this man introduces himself as Dr. Partridge, curator of an art gallery in Johannesburg. He rambles on, using fancy flowery language and talks his way out of the house. Lynette, who has lived in Johannesburg, knows that he is lying.
Back at school, the girls plunge into the sports events: the swimming gala and tennis tournament. New House does better than expected but... will they ever get a trophy? And as the term draws to a close and the day of the pageant arrives the girls notice, to their great surprise, that Dr. Partridge is in attendance. They take to calling him the “unspeakable” Dr. Partridge, which is very comical because he is a short, non-descript rather fussy middle-aged man, bursting with self importance but in no way evil looking. Why is he at the school? There is a big showdown with him. And suddenly the story ends with the girls going home for the holidays.
I found this a very enjoyable book, yet among Jane Shaw enthusiasts it does not seem to be very fondly remembered. This may be due to the huge anti-climax. At the swimming gala and tennis tournament, there are moments when you imagine that the New House underdogs can actually win. In other Jane Shaw books, no matter how incompetent or unlikely the characters are, things always pan out for them. The opposite happens here. In the Susan stories, the cousins come out with wild ideas that don’t come within shouting distance of common sense and yet their suspicions are usually justified. But not here. An element that runs through this story is that Lynette is painstakingly writing a history essay; quite a few pages are devoted to this. So you can’t help expecting her to win first prize. However, after the essays are handed in, they are simply never referred to again, the book ending with: the end of term results New House came bottom in every House competition with unfailing regularity.
“Gosh, it’s bad,” said Nicky. “Bottom in everything.”
“Never mind,” said Kay, joyfully throwing clothes, shoes, books into her trunk, “next term, we’ll fix it.”
The target audience, i.e., children, cannot help feeling let down. They want New House to beat the odds and win at least one medal, they want Lynette to become an Anglophile and win the competition; yet the book just suddenly ends with the girls happy to get away and apparently not giving a toss. The only triumph is the capture of Dr. Partridge, although even that is not particularly dramatic. Instead of a chase or anxious search, what we get is:
Out of the corner of their eyes they saw the unspeakable Dr. Partridge tiptoeing off into the trees and Inspector Burford striding after him saying “Just a moment, Dr. Partridge, sir, if you please...”
Tiptoeing? He could have stolen a car with the police in hot pursuit. But no, another anti-climax. Even so, this aspect of the story was what I found most amusing. All that build-up for nothing! It’s quite funny when you come to think of it.
As always, the minor characters in the book are well written. There is the eccentric Elizabeth Byrd, known as the Sparrow. She’s always doing scientific experiments that Anne claims will “blow us all to glory”. Anne and Elizabeth, the despairing senior girls, are also interesting, as is Lord Claire and, of course, the unspeakable Dr. Partridge.
The best aspect of this book is the humour. As already noted, the anti-climax is a point in question. But there is also a great deal of less subtle humour, which even gets a bit slapstick at times. Anne and Elizabeth are amusing when discussing their future charges:
“All the terrors unloaded on New house.”
“Didn’t I tell you? They’re all either mad or bad-“
“Maniacs or morons-“
“Prim or potty-“
“Wild or wicked-“
“Nuts or nuisances-“
Nicky and Kay have their funny moments too:
“This is something like it!” said Nicky, bouncing more and more wildly in her efforts to hit the ceiling. “This is the first bed that I’ve ever had at school that has sound springs!”
“And your last, I should think,” said Kay, moderating her own bounces. “You needn’t think you’ll get another mattress if you go through that one.”
The best part of the book is Chapter 15, Rough Girls, when the indignant Dr. Partridge is knocked over by the girls:
Meantime, Dr. Partridge had struggled to a sitting position, shouting furiously and almost incoherently at the girls “...such treatment... after a friendly chat... scarcely expected to be set upon in this scandalous fashion... train to catch... important appointments in London...”
“Oh, put a sock in it!” said Kay rudely.
Dr. Partridge’s florid style of speech is also amusing:
“I had no choice, my dear sir, no choice in the matter at all. When carried away by my interest in your exquisite home... I became separated from the party of sightseers, I was not alarmed. I employed that little leisure time in looking again at my favourite pictures... Nor, when I descended the great staircase and found the door locked and barred, was I alarmed, I was merely happy to have a little longer among your treasures.”
Although viewed by many as a run-of-the-mill school story, I find that the story grows on you and you find more in its subtleties every time you read it. I would give this book 9 out of 10. I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up, Northmead Nuisance.