Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Timeline for Susan

Sorting out the timeline of the Susan series is not an easy task and it has to be admitted that there are insoluble problems. Unlike the Penny books, which were written and published over a period of five years and in a clear order, with numbers in their titles, the events in the Susan series did not occur in the order in which they were written, part of this complication lying in the four short stories. For example, the first story published about St. Ronan’s was Susan’s School Play. This takes place at the end of the school year and sees Susan and Midge upset with Aunt Lucy for bringing Selina and Peregrine Gascoigne to the show. The story ends with Lord Dulwich announcing that a new hall will be built on the school grounds. The second story about the school was Susan at School, which was the fourth book in the series but the second one chronologically, as Jane Shaw and her publishers decided to go back in time and show Susan’s introduction to St. Ronan’s immediately after her first Christmas in England, as portrayed in Susan Pulls the Strings. Then, after Susan Muddles Through, set about eight months later, it is announced that Gabrielle Gascoigne will become a pupil at St. Ronan’s too, meaning that by the time of the school play at Christmas, Selina should be going along as Gabrielle’s mother rather than a guest of Aunt Lucy. However, there is a different play staged at the end of Susan’s Trying Term and the money raised is to be used to help pay for the new hall, which has already been built! So it is impossible to reconcile the short story and the novels. One solution could be to ignore the short stories, but a clear reference to The Wilsons Won’t Mind is made in Susan at School, when Midge mentions that after her enthusiasm for nursing, Charlotte had become keen on baking. Furthermore, in Susan and the Spae Wife, there is a reference to the events in Susan Muddles Through. This is proof that the original intention was for the short stories to be considered part of the canon. However, the same cannot be said for Susan's School Play and Susan and the Home-made Bomb, which do not blend in with the novels. As mentioned above, the former cannot possibly be reconciled with the novels; the latter stands on its own. Another confusing point is the children’s ages. When Susan goes to live with the Carmichaels, she is fourteen years old. She spends three summers without her parents and yet she is only fifteen in the last book of the series. On top of that, despite the three summers away from her parents, we are told in A Job for Susan that she retained much of her Scottish dialect despite a “two-year sojourn" in England. In the first book, Bill is 10, Susan and Midge are 14 and Charlotte is 16. In the last book, Charlotte is 18, Bill is 12 and Susan and Midge are 15. In fact, Susan and Midge celebrate two Christmases at the age of 15, as clearly stated in No Trouble for Susan and A Job for Susan. This, of course, was necessary to allow the characters to retain their endearing traits. It would be hard to imagine Susan, Midge and Tessa at the age of 17 behaving in the rather childish way that they do. Another point worth mentioning has to do with the changes that take place in society. As the stories were written over a period of eighteen years, it is hard to chronicle the books over any specific space of time. In A Job for Susan there are very casual references to watching television. In the early 1950s, when the series began, much more would be made of having a television in the house, as very few people actually had one. Therefore, total coherence in the Susan stories is not possible. But, just for fun, I’ve had a go at putting the jigsaw together.

Year 1:

Circa November: In Susan Pulls the Strings, 13-year-old Susan is informed by her mother that she will be going to live with her cousins the Carmichaels in London while her parents go to Africa to build a bridge. On 23 December Susan, now 14, arrives in London to live with the Carmichaels. Susan Pulls the Strings chronicles her first Christmas and New Year in London, during which Susan helps to smash a smuggling ring. The events of The Wilsons won’t Mind also take place during this holiday, with Aunt Lucy’s friend Madame Polinskaya springing to the aid of the hitherto down-on-their-luck Wilson family.

Year 2:

January: Susan at School. Susan is a new pupil at St. Ronan’s, where she befriends fellow new girl Tessa, gets a respectable place on the hockey team and hunts for Ronan’s Heap.

Easter: In Susan’s Helping Hand, Susan and Midge return to Wichwood, but they have caught chicken-pox and the family go to Cousin Barbara’s farm in Kent. Susan’s Helping Hand chronicles their adventures with the mysterious Belle and the criminal activities of the Mad Collector.

Summer: Susan Rushes In. Susan and Midge come home for the holidays and meet the Gascoignes, to whom they take an immediate dislike. Susan sets out to save an elderly lady, Mrs. Thorne, from eviction. Midge and Charlotte publish a book about a dragon. The packed summer continues with the trip to Switzerland in Susan Interferes and is immediately followed by Susan Muddles Through on the island of Arran, with the gang getting caught up in Cold War adventures. In the former story, they help the son of a Czechoslovakian dissident seek refuge in London and in the latter they find themselves trying to stop a scientist from defecting to the Soviet Union. They are also obliged to take the Gascoignes to Arran. At the very beginning of the story, Selina marries Sam Pilkington, but the nanny who was meant to look after Gabrielle and Peregrine during the honeymoon breaks her leg, and Aunt Lucy comes to the rescue by offering to take them on holiday for two weeks. When the two weeks are up, the Gascoignes leave. It is after their departure that the short story Susan and the Spae-wife takes place. We know this because the holiday lasts a month and the Gascoignes only stay for two weeks, allowing plenty of time for the arrival of Mr. Rock Carlisle on the island and the robbery at the post office before the fĂȘte. Furthermore, when Susan reads Charlotte's fortune, she makes references to Andrew Macphail, the archaeologist Charlotte spends a great deal of time with in Susan Muddles Through. So we can see that The Wilsons Won't Mind and Susan and the Spae-wife fit neatly into the chronology.

September: Gabrielle Gascoigne joins Midge and Susan at St. Ronan’s in Susan’s Trying Term. Susan becomes captain of the hockey team. There is a school play at the end of the term, with Selina and Peregrine taking along some bigwigs from the entertainment industry. It is here that the first broken link in the series occurs.

Christmas: In No Trouble for Susan, Midge and Susan, now 15, return to Wichwood for the holidays. They help out Louella at her book shop and get involved in a play with the Wichwood Players. Susan also helps to save another elderly widow, Mrs. Gregson, from eviction and deals with a gang of Cockney trouble makers. In this book, we are also introduced to Sir Arthur Symes, Mrs. Gregson’s skinflint landlord.

Year 3:

Easter? In Susan and the Home-made Bomb, the gang are back in Wichwood Village, perhaps during the Easter holiday, and help Jennifer Harding take up the offer of a scholarship at the Sloane School of Art. We can imagine that this story is set around Easter time because of the references to the coming school year, which begins in September, explaining why Jennifer is in such a hurry to guarantee her place at the Sloane. We can place the story at Easter time for two reasons: first, this holiday would be just about the only opportunity for the girls to be home from St. Ronan's; and there is a reference to the weather, with the winter being "not far behind" them. Easter usually occurs in the early spring.

Summer: Susan’s Kind Heart. Following their all-time low marks in French, Susan and Midge are sent to Brittany with Charlotte, who has now left school, to improve their French. This story affords Susan and the Carmichael sisters an opportunity to have their own Breton adventure, with all of Jane Shaw's main characters now having visited Binic. There are echoes of the Moochers stories, with the girls tackling a smuggling operation and a ghost, in the shape of a phantom horseman.

Christmas: The Christmas of this year is not recorded, with the series jumping ahead to the end of the next school year.

Year 4:

September: Susan and Midge fly to Venice to meet Susan’s parents on their way back from Africa in Where is Susan? Charlotte is now studying in Perugia and Mr and Mrs Lyle are stuck on their ship due to fears of an outbreak of a contagious disease. There is also a mysterious “Russian spy” following Susan and Midge all over Venice.

Christmas: In A Job for Susan, Mr and Mrs Lyle have rented a house in Wichwood Village and Susan and Tessa are staying there for Christmas. Bill has to earn ten pounds to donate to Oxfam after making a rash promise to one of his teachers. He gets a job as a cleaner and paper boy to achieve this. Susan believes she can hit the jack-pot by finding and selling valuable old coins. And dastardly Sir Arthur is up to his old tricks, trying to buy what he believes to be a valuable painting for a very low price. Susan wants to help Maggie Zimmerli, her landlady, to raise money to go to Paris and train to be a cook.

Year 5:

Easter: In the incomplete twelfth book, Susan in Trouble, Tessa finds out she is going to spend the summer in the USA and Mexico. Susan and her parents are going too and Susan wants to find a way to raise money for Midge to go with them. Susan suggests that Midge should write another story and Midge is not very enthusiastic. The manuscript comes to an abrupt halt at this point.

So there we have it. The events of Susan’s School Play cannot be worked into the timeline at all and no clear explanation is offered regarding when the events in Susan and the Home-made Bomb take place. No attempt was made to reconcile all the short stories with the novels. It is strange that from the summer adventures of Susan’s Kind Heart, the author decided to jump forward a year in Where is Susan? when there was room for more St. Ronan's stories. Her correspondence with her publishers showed that the original plan was to write four or five stories set at the school. There are two reasons why they never materialized, although they are not entirely convincing. First of all, Jane Shaw claimed that she disliked writing school stories. Secondly, by the 1960s, school stories in general were in decline. But that does little to explain why she undertook the Northmead stories for Nelson and A Girl with Ideas for Collins in the 1960s. The huge gap in time in the Susan books may also be accounted for by the fact that two Christmas novels were already part of the series and to add a third one so quickly might seem repetitive. This actually happened later in any case. Readers today often confuse No Trouble for Susan with A Job for Susan. Another consideration is that the content of the stories might be determined by the time of year they were set to be published. Christmas stories may go down as good presents in the festive season, but not if the book is published in time for the summer holidays. I also suspect that the author wished to reunite Susan with her parents and thought that a trip to Venice in summer would be the best way to do this. It would not be a good idea to set this story in the middle of winter, so it was necessary to jump forward a year so that Susan and Midge could enjoy their gondola rides and sightseeing in the summer sunshine.

I often wonder how the series might have continued and what Susan's trip to America would have been like. The series may have got its second wind if the plans to reissue the stories in Armada paperbacks had gone ahead. These paperbacks certainly breathed new life into other series like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and The Three Investigators. We could have had a very 1970s Susan, perhaps emigrating to Australia, which might have been fun. But perhaps it was best to have the series end when it did, with Mr. and Mrs. Lyle back from Africa and settling in London. In the end, that seemed the right way to do it.