Monday, April 23, 2012

Review of The Moochers

Published in 1950 by Lutterworth Press, The Moochers is the first of three stories involving cousins Fiona Auchenvole and Katherine Morton. The tale begins with Fiona and Katherine, both aged sixteen, getting ready to move to Cornwall to attend their new school Pendragon Manor. Hitherto, they had been educated at Percie, a modern co-educational school on the east coast of Scotland. However, following the school’s bankruptcy, the only place their parents can find that will take them at a late date is Pendragon. Fiona, who lives in Scotland, will travel to Bath, where she will be met by Katherine. However, during the journey, she is very ill and collapses at the train station in Bath and is forced to take to bed for two weeks. During her recovery, she reads an old diary penned in 1794 by another Katherine Morton, chronicling her journey to Cornwall and her only day at Pendragon Manor. Great-aunt Katherine’s description of the school fills Fiona with foreboding and she and Katherine finally make their way there determined not to like it. Upon arrival, they, with their co-educational schooling, scorn the house system and traditions of Pendragon, with its Head Girl and strict timetables. They flaunt the school rules, walk out of classes and show no respect for Head Girl Betty Hill, who nicknames them The Moochers because they always “mooch around”. However, the girls inevitably grow to like Pendragon, make friends and take part in school activities such as the drama club and hockey team. And just as they are getting to love the place, they find that it is threatened with closure. The school doesn’t have the money to buy the land and all seems lost. But there is the legendary long-lost treasure, the Pendragon Hoard, and Great-aunt Katherine’s ancient journal yields interesting information about a secret passage.

This is the author’s fifth novel and it is classic Jane Shaw material. On the first reading, what you have is a straightforward well told story, but one so rich in detail that you just have to read it again. Then the nuances become more evident. The characterization is excellent. Katherine is fearless and enjoys challenging the school authorities, i.e. mistresses and head girl. Fiona has a healthy appetite for both food and adventure. The minor characters are also interesting. The cousins befriend Isobel Gurney, a shy, quiet girl that everyone deems to be of little consequence but who has a hidden talent for hockey. Mr. and Mrs. Pengelly, the school’s closest neighbours, live in a cottage called Little Nance that becomes a haven for the Moochers, especially Fiona, who adores Mrs. Pengelly’s abundant supply of Cornish delicacies. Even the “enemies” come across as sympathetic in their own way. Miss Perry, the maths teacher, is quite unpleasant, but when she falls for a crooked councilor who is only using her to get dirt on the school to force it to close, you can’t help but feel sorry for her. Even Betty Hill, the Head Girl, comes across as not such a bad egg in the end, although the girls do not all become fast friends. There are more fine shades in the characters in this story than in the Susan series, for instance, where the “bad” people such as the Gascoignes, Major Banks and Sir Arthur Symes were all bad all the time, although the overall tone of the Susan series is much more lighthearted and it may not be fair to draw comparisons. One character that really gives depth to the story is Pendragon Manor itself. It is an old house with a deep sense of history behind it that is skillfully used to provide a real historical background. The only slightly disappointing character is Great-aunt Katherine. In her diary she recounts that during her first night at Pendragon she sees a man in her room. Next morning she leaves the school believing that it is haunted. This was the only weak link in the whole story in my opinion. Up to this point, the girls, especially Fiona, had been greatly impressed by their ancestor, her endurance and strength and avant garde views. To have her flee the school because of a “ghost” makes her sound a bit weak and childish. Furthermore, at the end of the story her diary is preserved as a historical treasure, which is strange since her opinions of the school were overwhelmingly negative. The ghost story in one way was a clever plot device. The secret passage had to be worked into Great-aunt Katherine’s journal and so she awakes during the night to see a man disappearing into a wall. However, this could have been contrived differently, with Katherine staying on at the school and finishing her time there still wondering about what had happened. To have her running scared put a bit of a damper on her character. Having said that, on the whole the character is used with great skill to forge a bond over the generations and also to show some enduring family traits. The fathers of both Katherines are very keen on getting their daughters educated in the most modern ways possible. In 1794, Katherine Morton notes that among her friends she is the only one to go to school at all. The Katherine of 1950 was sent to a co-educational school by her father, who believed that the more modern methods of teaching would be of great benefit to his daughter.

The Moochers is in many ways a typical Jane Shaw story. The main characters are two cousins at a boarding school in the south of England where the most unpleasant teacher is a maths teacher and there is a buried treasure to be found that will handily save the school in a time of crisis. However, the sense of history in the form of Pendragon Manor, its revered founder Mrs. Trevelyan and Great-aunt Katherine’s diary set it apart from anything else the author ever produced. The Moochers is also one of the few stories set in Cornwall and her descriptions of the scenery, local village and local characters give it a sense of uniqueness.

The Moochers was followed by a sequel, The Moochers Abroad, in 1951. A third story, Moochers and Prefects, was forwarded to West Regional TV for consideration and was mislaid and never recovered. As the author had no back-up copy, the story was lost forever. But as far as the first book is concerned, I would rate it 9 out of 10. A real gem.