Monday, November 7, 2011

Northmead Nuisance (Review)

Northmead Nuisance, 209 pages, published in 1963 by Nelson, is the second and last of the books about the boarding school in Kent. Chapter 1 kicks off with Nicky and Kay, the stars of New House at Northmead, welcoming two new girls to the school: Judy Redfern, a short, bubbly and enthusiastic girl; and Gail Lester, a sulky, dark-haired girl who detests being at a boarding school.
Gail sets out to become a nuisance. She and her twin brother Michael are furious that they have been split up and forced to go to boarding schools. Therefore, they have concocted a plan: to get themselves expelled. From day one, she sets out to be as big a pest as possible. Sloppy schoolwork, lack of interest in sports and indifference to all school activities are the ploys she adopts. But to no avail. The teachers give her the benefit of the doubt and think it will just take her some time to settle down. She herself, inevitably, ends up coming to like some things about the school and the other pupils, especially being cast in the school play, but she forces herself to believe that she really does want to be expelled.
The other girls do not take kindly to Gail’s so-called Operation Nuisance, but that does not keep them from accepting her invitation to spend a weekend at her aunt and uncle’s farm, Appleacre. To Gail’s disgust, Michael has also brought a friend with him, a taciturn, bespectacled boy by the name of A. J. Wotherspoon, to whom Gail takes an immediate dislike. Michael is full of stories about rugby and his new teachers and classmates and only reluctantly agrees with his sister that their plan is still on. There is a little drama at the farm too. All the farmers in the district have been plagued by poultry theft, and the police are unable to get a lead on it. Of course, the children set out to do a little investigating of their own.
Back at school, the girls from New House are determined to improve their lot. During the house’s first year of existence, it had come bottom in just about everything. But now the girls are working hard to get better results, with a little success. The story is packed. Sports, exams, the school play, another trip to Appleacre at half-term and Gail’s dramatic midnight adventure all keep the reader’s eyes glued to the page.
When writing the Northmead books, Jane Shaw drew on a different seam of her imagination and produced stories that are quite unlike her other works in several ways. Like the first book, Northmead Nuisance makes use of anti-climax. The children work out how the thieves are making their getaway and inform the police. However, they are not present when the crooks are arrested and only hear about it by letter when they are back at school. Another aspect that differs from her other works is that her characters mature a little. There is a clear difference between the Nicky and Kay of the first book and the girls now that they are in the fourth form. They have become just a bit more serious and enjoy the extra responsibilities they are given. This is quite different from Susan, Midge, Caroline and Sara. Up to this point, Penny was the only character in her works that showed any sign of a maturing process. This was probably due to Jane Shaw’s editor at Nelson, Jocelyn Oliver, who was described as very “blunt” to his writers, even though Jane Shaw was a close friend of his whom he addressed as “my dear wee Jean”. In 1960, her editor at Collins also warned her that her characters were becoming caricatured, and this seems to have spurred her on to develop them more.
Of course, there are also the Jane Shaw hallmarks that really inject life into the plot. The other characters in the story really give it a lot of colour. Lynette, the Rhodesian girl, has ceased her moaning about England and has become more tolerant. Elizabeth Byrd, known as the Sparrow, who once nearly blew the school sky high with a chemistry experiment, has given up photography and taken up geology. At one point Gail tries to pair her off with Wotherspoon, but the two have little to say to one another despite their common interests. And there is the comedy, provided mainly by the clumsy Judy Redfern, always falling all over the place and carelessly blurting out secrets, although there is also the light-hearted banter that permeates all of the author’s work.
In my opinion, the Northmead books are underrated. Both books are well plotted and have excellent characterization. However, when they were published, the school story as a subgenre of juvenile literature was on its way out or at least changing. Following World War II, stories moved away from boarding schools toward comprehensive schools. Therefore, by the 1960s, books such as the Northmead novels would be viewed as outdated and perhaps stuck in the British class system. Books were now being read by children from all walks of life and were no longer the privilege of the upper and middle classes. Most children would be unable to relate to Jane Shaw’s characters, with their farms in Kent, flats in Paris and sprawling houses in South Africa, and would seek other sources of reading. The writer’s inability or unwillingness to move with the times resulted in a rapid decline in her readership throughout the 1960s, albeit, needless to say, without a loss of quality. In this respect, Northmead Nuisance cannot be faulted, and I would rate it 9 out of 10.
The review of New House at Northmead, which I wrote earlier this year, can be read here.