Friday, August 31, 2012

Major Banks versus the Bad Bart

When Susan first arrives in Wichwood Village in Susan Pulls the Strings, she makes the mistake of poking her nose into a car owned by Major Banks, inciting the wrath of this hot-tempered neighbour. She and Bill run away in terror and take refuge in the park. Bill explains that his father and the major have been “at daggers drawn” for years because of the children’s mischief. Major Banks is notable as the first enemy to crop up in the series. However, he was too one-dimensional, seemingly capable of nothing but bellowing and roaring empty threats. Although he would resurface in No Trouble for Susan, when Midge, Bill and Susan climb through the window of his house by mistake and find themselves on the receiving end of another diatribe, his role as the gentry menace was usurped by a more sinister and multi-layered character, Sir Arthur Symes. Known to the children as the Wicked Baronet or Bad Bart, this man is one of those people in society who, no matter how awful they are, always have the law on their side. They evict elderly women, trample mercilessly on the vulnerable and exploit people. But it’s always legal and they always get away with it. Like the major, Sir Arthur loses his temper, as he does when Tessa conks him over the head with an umbrella and Susan and Midge kick his bowler hat. But there is a more sinister side to him that makes the children’s blood run cold. However, their accusation that he is a crook is not quite fair. When he finds a 1951 penny that belongs to Susan, he has the grace to return it to her. He is not a thief, but he does try to take advantage of people given half a chance. Rather than steal something, he attempts to persuade the owner to sell it to him for as low a price as possible, as he does when he tries to buy Mrs. Gregson’s expensive book for peanuts after it has accidentally been placed in the bargain bin at Louella’s shop. He is also not above exploiting people, as he does when Bill works for him all day and receives only a pittance in exchange for his labours.

I think that Sir Arthur was definitely the best of the “bad” guys that Jane Shaw created. Major Banks didn’t have much substance with his terrible temper tantrums, and the Gascoignes had too much of it. With all their elitism and snobbery, it’s hard to understand how they amassed so many friends who were always lending them villas and gondolas and houses on the Riviera. In the end, Jane Shaw herself decided to write them out of most of the later stories because they had become so unbearable. Sir Arthur always strikes me as more realistic. He is a miserable old skinflint, but he seems to be content in his isolation, hoarding his collections and making lifelong enemies, an ideal bad guy for a children’s book.