Friday, November 23, 2012

Archetypes in Jane Shaw: The Eccentric Aunt

Illustration: Aunt Lucy arriving at St. Ronan's in Susan's School Play.

Literature is full of archetypes. For instance, for every Holmes there is a Watson, and this is particularly true of juvenile literature. I grew up reading The Three Investigators and The Hardy Boys. In T3I, Jupiter was the brainy boy, and his rapid deductions always had to be explained to Pete and Bob. Pete was always very slow to get the point, Bob often caught on in the middle of Jupe’s explanation and sometimes even finished off his reasoning for him. In the Hardy Boys stories there was Chet Morton. Overweight and lazy, he was always dragged reluctantly into his friends’ adventures. But he served a useful purpose. In every story, he had a new hobby, and this hobby always conveniently tied in with the latest case the boys were working on. If they were up against a magician who was somehow able to smuggle top secret documents out of the country, Chet would just happen to be taking a correspondence course on amateur conjuring. Both Chet and Pete were always looking for a way out, reluctant to face danger, but always proved to be loyal and steadfast when it came to the crunch. This was particularly puzzling in the case of Pete, who wanted to be an investigator but always claimed that he “drew the line” at the more bizarre adventures the boys became embroiled in. Nevertheless, these archetypes play a key role. When it comes to the plot, they act a bridge between the brainbox and the reader. If you can follow the whiz kid’s theories, you can identify with him, but it you can’t, you can take comfort in the fact that you only got part of it, like Bob, or really haven’t much of a clue, like Pete. They also provide a great deal of comedy. Many a boy would chuckle when Jupiter would give a wordy explanation and Pete would look perplexed and say “Can you repeat that in English?” And, in the case of Chet’s hobbies, they help the reader to learn something new. I would say that a good story for children has to teach readers something. Without T3I and the Hardy Boys, how else would I have found out that a mynah bird can be trained to talk even better than a parrot, that in Iceland people have a patronymic instead of a surname or that Alice Springs is located in the exact centre of Australia?

The reluctant friend, who’s either too lazy or too sensible to get involved, or is just a bit of a coward, is one of the most common archetypes in children’s stories. And the works of Jane Shaw are no exception. In the Susan series there are the Carmichaels, especially Midge, who try to keep Susan out of trouble or dissuade her from her quirky ideas. In Crooks Tour we find Julie and Fay pointing out to Ricky that her obsession with crooks is totally unfounded. The more sensible Caroline is constantly in strife over Sara’s ramblings and offbeat notions. Alison is often surprised by Dizzy’s unusual takes on life, although in this case the prose and dialogue are more toned down.

But here I would like to analyze another archetype in more detail: the eccentric aunt. The dotty aunty is found in many books. Again, I first came across this phenomenon in the Three Investigators stories, with Jupiter’s Aunt Mathilda always eager to put her nephew and his friends to work around the junkyard and her catchphrases like “Mercy and goodness and sweetness and light!” But the first real dotty aunt that I came across was the Hardy Boys’ inimitable Aunt Gertrude, their father’s unmarried sister. She was obsessed with cleaning the house and spewing reams of moral advice to her nephews and lecturing them on every conceivable topic.

But what about Jane Shaw? Surprisingly, aunts do not play as big a role as we might expect from an author who, to the casual observer, never hesitated to use archetypal characters. In the Caroline and Sara stories, the role that would normally be assigned to the eccentric aunt goes instead to Caroline’s older sister, Vanessa. In Highland Holiday, there is no aunt, as Jane’s mother is dead. It is not until The Crew of the Belinda that the first aunt is mentioned, in the form of Aunt Mattie. However, the dreaded Aunt Mattie’s only role in the story is to drive the younger girls to try to set the house on fire and then bolt to Loch Lomond, and we never actually meet her. The Moochers stories do not involve aunts apart from the long-dead Great-Aunt Katherine. It is only in the Susan series, which began in 1952, that we are introduced to Aunt Lucy Carmichael. The later Penny series had no eccentric aunt, nor did Venture to South Africa, Crooks Tour and the Northmead novels. The only other aunt, and the only truly oddball one, was Dizzy and Alison’s Aunt Sophie.

In the first book of the Susan series, Susan Pulls the Strings, we are told that the Carmichael children’s mother has been dead for several years and that they are looked after by their maiden aunt, Lucy, the sister of Uncle Charles and Mrs. Lyle. In her late thirties, Aunt Lucy has apparently given up all hope of having a family of her own and keeps house for her brother and helps to raise his children. She comes across in this story as a little bit eccentric. Having come under the influence of her new neighbour and close friend, Miss Pershore, she has developed a love for highbrow culture. She wishes to replace the nice paintings in the house with awful modern art. Even the Christmas cards the children send are not safe, as she buys cards with reproductions of modern paintings rather than holly or red-breasted robins. And we are told that this is just the latest in a long history of eccentricities. Prior to becoming a culture vulture, Aunt Lucy had got caught up in a craze for hand-loom weaving, making clothes for the children out of some strange prickly material. These clothes caused so many rashes that they had to be cut up and used as cloths for mopping the floor. Then she went vegetarian. Her young charges were saved from this by measles, which their aunt mistook for a rash caused by their diet. This craze was followed by an attitude that was later a much criticized trait of Selina Gascoigne’s: allowing the children to do what they liked in order to develop their characters. It was only after Bill had carved up an old clock and threatened to take his pen-knife to the piano that his father intervened and put an end to this idea. Aunt Lucy was inspired for this particular experiment with what Bill describes as “a book by some wizard schoolmaster”. This restlessness is shared by Charlotte, who flirts with a number of hobbies and careers in the earlier books, ranging from nursing to cookery to archaeology, before she finally settles on art. It appears that this changeability is a trait of some of the Carmichael women. However, it is a trait that weakens and eventually falls by the wayside as the series progresses.

Aunt Lucy changes a great deal in the subsequent stories, becoming more motherly and “normal”. The only odd thing about her in the later books is that it takes her a long time to get it into her head that Susan and her cousins do not like the Gascoignes. Apart from that, she does nothing that could be described as eccentric except when she “punishes” Susan and Midge for their bad marks in French by packing them off to Brittany for the summer in Susan’s Kind Heart.

Why Aunt Lucy’s eccentricity did not survive into the second story and beyond is not clear, and we can only speculate about it. There are two possibilities to consider: that the reason might have been editorial or that it could have been due to the plots of the stories. Regarding the former, as has well documented, Jane Shaw’s editor at Collins remarked that her characters were becoming caricatured, although this comment only came much later on in the late 1950s when the Susan series was already well established. But concerns might have been raised earlier on about the caricaturing of an already shopworn stereotype. There was already Susan the busybody, the lazy Midge and the snobbish Gascoignes, so it might have been deemed too predictable to maintain the dotty aunt. As for the plots, one possible reason is that there was no room in an already crowded picture to accommodate an eccentric aunt. The Susan stories are multi-layered and never have a single plot thread. In Susan’s Helping Hand, along with the Folding Letter and the Mad Collector there is the mysterious Belle. In No Trouble for Susan, there is the bookshop, the theatre, Timmy the Terror and Mrs. Gregson’s impending eviction. Many minor characters are involved. In some stories, such as Susan’s Kind Heart and Where is Susan?, there isn’t even any room for Bill, who has to stay at home to keep the number of characters down. Another explanation could be that after her bad experience with Miss Pershore, Aunt Lucy learned her lesson and decided not to rush into any new fads without careful consideration. Or it could be that as she has a more maternal role in the Carmichael household, it would be difficult to portray her as a responsible guardian while at the same time indulging in eccentric behaviour. As the series progresses, Aunt Lucy becomes more motherly, always making sure the children are in time for meals and constantly insisting that they go to bed early. As the series draws to a close, she makes fewer appearances and has less of an impact on the stories. As mentioned above, she is briefly seen in the middle of the series as a bit of a “traitor” because she accommodates the Gascoignes, inviting them to Arran and promising to look after them while Selina is away for a weekend and foisting them on Susan and her cousins. But even that melts away and we are told in Susan and the Home-made Bomb that she has finally realized that the Carmichaels and Gascoignes are not going to be friends.

So we can see that Aunt Lucy starts out as an eccentric aunt, but this characteristic fades away in the later stories. She is a likeable character and much loved by readers of the Susan series, but she is not the archetypal eccentric aunt.

The other aunt that features in the writings of Jane Shaw is Dizzy and Alison’s Aunt Sophie. On the first page of Anything Can Happen, Alison states this quite clearly when she says that even Aunt Sophie’s fervent admirers have to admit that she is “as mad as a coot”. She then goes on to say that as that sounds a bit harsh, it would be better to describe her as “eccentric”. But even that isn’t quite accurate because there is “nothing straws-in-the-hair” about her. Aunt Sophie is considered a bit dotty because as soon as she receives a cheque from her publishers (she’s a writer of whodunits) she flies off to the ends of the earth. At the beginning of Anything Can Happen, she invites Dizzy and Alison to go to Paris. When the girls arrive, their aunt announces that she has given up the flat she had rented and moved into a hotel. The reason given for this is that she would rather enjoy authentic Parisian cuisine than stay cooped up in her flat cooking for herself. She then produces a list of restaurants and tells the girls that they will be visiting them in turn. Throughout the visit, she is often distracted and unexpectedly announces that she will be holed up in her room for a day or an afternoon because she has just thought up a new story to write. She also amazes Alison by announcing that she is going to introduce her to a young man. But, apart from providing some light comedy, she does not play any major role in the development of the story after she gets the girls to Paris and introduces them to Pierre.

Aunt Sophie resurfaces in Nothing Happened After All. Again, it is she who suggests and finances the trip to South Africa. But, like Aunt Lucy in the Susan stories, her role is far less prominent in this second book, and for the same reasons. The girls are introduced to several of their relatives in Johannesburg and inevitably end up spending more time with their cousins and their friends than with Aunt Sophie, the other adults and a host of minor characters. Again, Aunt Sophie’s full potential had been used in the first story and to have her crying out that she had found a new idea for a book every time that she saw a mountain or a person passing in the street would have lost its appeal. In the way that she is portrayed, she is a fun character who provides the means for the girls to travel abroad and is used very effectively by the author.

So, we can see that although Jane Shaw used many archetypal characters in her work, the dotty aunt was one that she tended to shy away from.