Saturday, March 16, 2013

Susan at School (Review)

Susan at School, published by Collins in 1958, is the fifth book in Jane Shaw’s Susan series, although chronologically it is the second. The story backtracks to early January just after the events of Susan Pulls the Strings and The Wilsons Won’t Mind to chronicle Susan’s first term at St. Ronan’s.

The story begins with Aunt Lucy dropping Charlotte, Midge and Susan off at St. Ronan’s. Susan is soon introduced to many of the most memorable characters in the series. First of all, there is her dreamy friend and fellow newcomer, Tessa. Then there are Charlotte’s fellow prefects, the boisterous but likeable Hippo and the nasty Hermione Pennington-Smith, known to her many enemies as H. P. Sauce. Susan also befriends Ann Burton, the girl with a lisp, and Elizabeth Rogers, the budding actress. However, and unusually, it is on Susan and Tessa that the story mainly focuses, with Midge in many chapters taking a back seat. Other characters that are still remembered years later by readers are the teachers: Miss Phillimore, the imposing head mistress, “Dotty” Johnson, the Latin teacher and the dreaded Miss Ferrier, a.k.a. the Ferret, the maths mistress.

The story that follows is one of Jane Shaw’s most humorous and is also interesting because it goes against the grain of the school story genre. The girls do not form a tight bond with the school. They tend to be underachievers and very little learning takes place. They go through prep and classes with the minimum possible effort. But Susan does win her place on the hockey team and is anxious to help provide funds for the new and badly needed school hall. Not surprisingly, there is a long-lost treasure supposedly buried on the school grounds that can help achieve this. And there is the added mystery of dotty Miss Johnson’s mysterious comings and goings to an old shed.

Unlike other Jane Shaw stories, this tale thrives on anti-climax. Miss Johnson’s supposed secret has Susan and Tessa chasing all over the place, but turns out to be an ancient car that everyone else in the school already knew about. And the most hilarious is the uncovering of the so-called Ronan’s Heap, the long-lost priceless treasure. Susan and Tessa are convinced that the location of this collection of jewels and gold is marked on an old map they find in the school library by the cryptic message “R. H. Here”. A hilarious scene has the girls unearthing a collection of broken kettles and other 19th century trinkets. However, not all is lost, as these items turn out to be worth a few pounds. The story rounds off with a triumphant Susan helping her team to win a hockey match away from home. Even getting to the hockey match involves adventure, with Miss Johnson’s ancient car saving the day, transporting Susan and the team’s equipment to Moreton Grange just in time.

The book is not run-of-the-mill Jane Shaw in other ways too. The author gently pokes fun at the school genre throughout the story by having Tessa compare everything that happens to her with what she has read in her mother’s old books about boarding schools (supposedly books penned by the likes of Angela Brazil). Everything that happens in Tessa’s books is in contrast with the reality of St. Ronan’s. There is no permanent threat of expulsion, the mistresses have no big secrets and the prefects do not bully their charges, rather it is the younger pupils who get the better of them. This story also depends more heavily on slapstick comedy than any other Jane Shaw story. A lot of humour is derived from Tessa’s slow intellect, and there are times when this is laid on a little too thickly. A final point of note is that it is at St. Ronan’s, ironically, that Susan actually excels at something, i.e. hockey. In all the other stories, her busybody nature usually does more harm than good, with only the predictable coincidences saving her at the last minute, but here she actually has a skill that she can proudly call her own.

Although the author claimed that she did not enjoy writing school stories, Susan at School is an excellent, well-plotted piece of work and was a huge success in its day with many memorable characters. I give it a ten.