Monday, December 26, 2011

No Trouble for Susan (Review)

NO TROUBLE FOR SUSAN

PART ONE: THE OPUS

The eighth book in the Susan series begins on the first day of the Christmas holidays with Susan and the Carmichael family having their long, leisurely breakfast. During this meal, Midge delights in the fact that the dreaded Gascoigne family have gone skiing in Switzerland. However, there is a new enemy to be dealt with in Wichwood Village: Sir Arthur Symes, aka the Wicked Baronet, or Bad Bart for short. Susan is shocked to hear that this old miser is about to evict an elderly tenant, Mrs. Gregson, because she started a petition against him to prevent him tearing down the local theatre and building a block of flats on the site. And there are Bill’s new friends the Wichwood Players, the theatre company that is fighting tooth and nail to avoid eviction by the dastardly Bad Bart. All this news gives Susan two new crusades, but there is much more for her to heap on her plate before the morning is through. When the cousins call in on their friend Louella Foster at the local book shop, they find that she is having problems too. First of all, she is being plagued by a gang of urchins, led by Timmy the Terror, who come into her shop and knock things down and generally cause havoc. To make matters worse, Louella is also coming down with an illness and fears that she will be unable to keep on running her shop in the run-up to Christmas. Business is not so good because there is competition from a new book shop. Seizing an opportunity to help someone, Susan immediately offers to run the shop until Louella is back on her feet again. The indolent Carmichaels agree, albeit with much less enthusiasm than Susan.

The story now moves into top gear, with so many events that readers in later years find themselves surprised to discover that they all form part of the same story. Louella is diagnosed with mumps and ordered to take to bed, leaving the cousins in charge of the shop for far longer than they imagined. Susan dreams up a bargain bin and a lucky dip and tries out a number of ideas to generate new trade. The Wichwood Players visit the shop to borrow books as props. They are caricature theatre types, who call everyone dahling. They rope Charlotte into the play to replace a sick member of the cast. One of the series’ most memorable minor characters, the gossipy Mrs. Weatherby, storms into the shop one morning claiming that she lost her precious brooch there during an altercation with Timmy the Terror and his gang and insists that the children discover its whereabouts. Mrs. Gregson, the kind but rather dotty and forgetful widow, asks Susan to sell a valuable old book for her and the sly Sir Arthur tries to purchase it from the bargain bin. There is ice skating on the pond, with Timmy up to his usual nonsense and running afoul of Sir Arthur. A rival gang is out to get Timmy and cause even worse chaos in the village. But there is also the traditional carol singing, cozy meals and happy chatter. The story never slows down, and culminates with Charlotte’s premier night when she gets a pot stuck on her head and has to be replaced at the last minute by Midge, who falls asleep during the performance! Many minor characters give a touch of added flavour to the story: the tough Butch who tries a hold-up at the box office, the irascible producer, Jimmy Wilson, who shouts and seems incapable of anything else, and Charlotte’s potential suitors who all turn up to play Santa Claus at the shop on the same day. Further comedy is provided by Susan and Midge who, while acting as ushers at the theatre, send everyone to the wrong seats, incurring the wrath of the boisterous Mrs. Weatherby. But, as always, although there are many problems to be solved, we know that it is not a matter of if but how. How will Mrs. Gregson be spared eviction, how will the Players survive, how will the gang make a success of the book shop?

There are some developments in the lives of the characters. Bill’s policeman friend Joe Taylor is now a sergeant. Charlotte goes through not one but two new crazes. First of all, she informs a surprised Aunt Lucy that she has always wanted to work in a book shop. Then comes the acting, although this passion is extremely short-lived, the pot on her head dampening her enthusiasm. However, it is at the theatre that she discovers her niche in life: art. The book ends with Charlotte continuing at the theatre, but as a painter of scenery. This will lead to her going to Perugia the next year to study art. Susan and Midge, on the other hand, remain unchanged. Susan is the helpful busybody and Midge is the unenthusiastic sidekick who is dragged along for the ride. The author has clearly decided that allowing these girls, especially Susan, to “grow up” would take away some of the essence of their personalities. Another character that really breathes life into the tale is Wichwood Village itself. The whole story is set here but with so much variety and so much action that the reader never feels boxed in.

No Trouble for Susan is an excellent book and a joy to read. It was published in 1962 by Collins, is 192 pages long and lavishly illustrated by R. A. Branton, with a beautiful coloured frontispiece. It is easily one of the best not only of the Susan series but of all of Jane Shaw’s works. I would rate it at 9 out of 10, with a couple of reservations which are outlined below.

PART TWO: THE TURNING POINT

This publication was the last book of Jane Shaw’s to enjoy high sales. There would be no more Susan books for three years (after many years of almost regular annual publication), and the last three books, despite keeping to an incredibly high standard for so long a series, did not fare as well as their predecessors. The reason for this was the changing society of Great Britain in the mid 1960s and Jane Shaw’s unwillingness to conform to it in her books. No Trouble for Susan, despite all its laudable qualities and high standard of plotting and writing, was aimed at an audience that made up only a part of her potential readership: upper middle class children living in a semi-Victorian cocoon. Her portrayal of the working class children in the story as delinquents and thugs makes the book appear dated even for its time. All the working class people employ shocking grammar and dropped aitches and claim that they’ve done “nuffink”. They are rude and cruel for no other reason than that this is how they are expected to behave. Yes, there are working class children who behave this way, but the author has made it a rule that they must all do so (at least in this book; little Sid the orphan in the Penny stories is somewhat of an exception). Unlike her middle class characters, some of whom are nice and others not so pleasant, there is very little room for maneuver here. As a working class person myself, I can attest to the fact that there were indeed a number of Timmys at my school and in my neighbourhood, but there were also others who wanted to get on in life. Yes, there were the truants and vandals, but conversely many of us went on to be engineers, teachers, doctors and stockbrokers, and still more went on to “ordinary” jobs without turning to a life of crime or brawling in pubs. In the 1960s, The Beatles and Rolling Stones were showing that people from a less privileged background could be talented. Michael Caine and other actors were out to show that Cockneys could do more in the movies than touch their caps and say “Aw right, guvn’r”. This seems to be something Jane Shaw could never get to grips with or was simply unwilling to address. This may have been due to her living so far away in South Africa, only remotely aware of the changes and unable to observe them enough to write about them convincingly; or it may simply have been that now that she was comfortably into her fifties it was too late for her to change. However that may be, she was losing ground. Books like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators were pouring in from America with heroes that did not go to public schools or have titled relatives. Children’s programmes on television were carefully crafted to be inclusive. Legendary BBC presenter Brian Cant recalls that he was instructed to avoid saying things like “you can do this at home on the lawn” because children in high-rise flats didn’t have lawns. In fact, roles were reversed. In the 1970s, politicians strove to be men of the people and downplayed any upper class connections they may have had. Aristocrats in the media were assigned comic roles, and anyone who employed the term “old boy” inevitably turned out to be a crook. The press began to take delight in stories about cash-strapped royals such as Princess Michael of Kent and barons who could no longer afford the upkeep of their stately homes. Although these portrayals were no less fair than depicting the working classes as unwashed, foul-mouthed yobs had been in the 1950s, they are examples of how society changes. And if you can’t keep up with the changes, you find yourself shunted aside. If Jane Shaw had been living in the UK in the 1960s, she may have been able to accompany these changes and avoid the stereotypes. Sid was based on a school friend of her son Ian’s, a boy named Johnny Orpen. This showed that when she had a chance to observe people, she could move away from the stereotypes. But she was far away in South Africa and No Trouble for Susan did indeed mark the beginning of her waning years as an author.