The other night, I had a dream.
I woke up and I had a book idea, formed, whole in my hands. This book was to tell the story of girls in a genre that I love, that of the Girls’ Own Novel. The turn of the century boarding school story. The jolly japes and the high-jinks. The tomfoolery and the Playing Of The Game.
The following piece is a first thought at that. Apologies that it’s a little quote-light, a lot of my books are currently in another country. But in all honesty, I don’t need quotes at this time. I just need to get my dander up. And trust me, it’s up.
The Girls’ Own book was epochal. These books were the popular culture of their time; the Just Seventeen, the Tumblr, the Myspace, and they defined girlhood for so many readers. This is what these girls saw, this is what they read, these were the titles that said what they were, what they could or should be.
Whether it was Elinor M. Brent-Dyer telling her readers that not all Germans were Nazis (my God, the nature of her work during World War Two still stuns me), or whether it’s Angela Brazil teaching readers at the dawn of the century that they need to know how to work for their living because the future of the country rests in their hands, these books inculcated values and bravery and goals to a world of readers.
That’s what books – comics – pamphlets – our socially constructed narratives do for people. They are a shared voice, a shared construct, which we accept as a voicing of some part of our day to day culture and that which we accept as a receptacle for us to imbue them with our culture. They are both empty vessel and brim full cup. They express the glorious, the inexpressible, and the unimaginable. They are our voice, our spoken, unspoken and unknowable voice.
So this is what this is about. It’s about girlhood, it’s about how these books constructed and presented the experience of girlhood, of developing into womanhood, and it’s about how they did it and the role of the reader in that process. It’s about what they said women could be, it’s about how they presented the world of girlhood to readers across the world, and it’s about their lasting impact today.
But before that, it’s about Sophy Hamel.
“You don’t mean Sophy Hamel? How is she – chubby as ever? When she was at school she was always known as Fatty.” – Two Sams of the Chalet School
Sonsy Sophy Hamel. Fat, round, lovely Sophy/Sophie Hamel. Her fatness is her definining characteristic really, and it’s one that despite her innate generosity, it’s one that she continues to be defined by. The above quote comes from an adult who is addressing a child and it’s a quote that is spectacularly awkward in both context and content. This is perhaps the first time we as readers discover this supposed nickname for Sophy, despite this moment coming in the final throes of a series that crossed over a kazillion books. It is, perhaps, Brent-Dyer’s first attempt at retcon (and a rather blasé retcon at that). And it’s just rude! It’s a rude, rude moment.
Fatness in the Chalet School is something to be ashamed of, to be talked about in lightly jolly tones, to be ashamed of, to be Commented Upon About By Joey Maynard (or in alternative circumstances Mary-Lou), or to be spoken about in purely practical terms about space in moments such as: “Gosh I’m glad Hilda wasn’t on this bus because one of us would have had to travel on the roof, ho hum.”
Textually, weight nullifies these girls. We don’t have fat brave girls, we don’t have leading protagonist fat girls, we don’t have fat girls achieving things of note. We simply have girls who are fat, placid, and sporadically jolly. Sometimes they’re slow, sometimes they’re unthinkingly heedless but they are all so very secondary. Even Hilda Jukes, who is steadily present throughout a substantial amount of books, is consumed by the cultural hegemony of The Gang (“Oh Mary-Lou and the Gang, they lead the school by a nose!”) and the necessity Of Doing The Right Thing, and ultimately disappears into the ether that faces second tier characters, a tier formed of the odd dramatic necessity and the need to occasionally appear in a background midnight feast or to be married off to a doctorly type.
And what happens when they grow up? When they leave school? Of course nobody ever really leaves school in this genre, but if they do, if they remain fat, these girls have the fate of Nancy (“Oh Gosh Winnie Is So Fat I Must Do Something About My Weight”) Wilmot to look forward too. An increasingly masculine, physical presence where you define your appearance against that of others and occasionally burly your way across a flooded river (which coincidentally allows Hilda Jukes to shine, the one situation where the fat girls, the earthen solid made of clay girls, get to shine is the moment where they actually stand fast against a natural disaster and only then to save the weaker and more fragile girls!).
In a genre where the characteristic is key, the fat girl is fated to a lesser status. The pressure of the Girlsown novel, set at school amidst a cast of thousands, means that characters need that little bit more to stand out. Dorita Fairlie-Bruce writes Dimsie, a vibrant, friendly everygirl character who is thoroughly appealing through her straightforward ‘play the game’ nature. But then, in the same breath, she writes about Hester Harriman.
“Fat placid Hester Harriman, who was her room mate, and therefore saw more of her than the others, merely labelled her ‘a funny freak’ and left it at that ; and Fenella soon ceased to waste the pearls of her conversation on Hester, believing – rightly – that the fat one failed to understand half she said.” ‘Dimsie Moves Up Again’ Dorita Fairlie-Bruce 1932 (this ed. 1949)
Can I tell you what makes me uncomfortable here? It’s the way these words, these words with their connotations of pearls before swine, of some sort of cultural level to this interaction, it’s in the way these words echo through to today.
It’s in the way Toccara from America’s Next Top Model was dismissed when she lost her personality, it’s in the way I read an interview in the Sunday Times with Beth Ditto which was opened with the interviewer ruminating on the fact that she does not smell like he expected fat people to smell. It’s in the way that fat actresses get the comedy roles, the dark unattractive roles, and never, ever, the falling in love roles.
It’s in the way that all that seems to be embodied in these moments in these books that I love, it’s in the way that these books that taught our girls who to be and what to be, could not bear for a fat girl to be okay.
But then again, I’m reading them from a modern perspective, from a fat perspective of my own. I read these books and these moments through my own perspective and when it comes to these moments, I read them through my fatness.
But then again, there’s the girls with ‘something about them’, the girls with the ‘pale and interesting’ appearance, the girls with the ‘indefinable something’. There’s the girls who are everything you’d ever want to be.
Everything but fat.
The fat schoolgirls, the fat mistresses, the fat characters in these books are all victims of a war of attrition. They are not part of the dominant ideology. They are not even really part of the narrative until they are forced to be, interacting with our primary characters in a sort of haphazard approximation of textual polar opposites. These girls are background.
And so we end this with the notion of girlhood. We end with the notion, the conceit perhaps that this matters, that this mattered then and it matters now to the reader who engages with this text. The notion that maybe, it’s not really about these books, it’s about every book that features a funny fat sidekick, a dorkily unattractive secondary character, a fat placid character who sits in the back and says very little.
But most importantly, it’s about the notion that this actually matters. That the representation of fat girls at the turn of the century actually really, really matters. Because it does. Because everybody deserves the right to see themselves in a mirror. And that mirror shouldn’t be warped in such a particular way that these characters are solely constructed of their fatness. Their fatness should not be all that they are.
Because that’s bad, cheap and sad writing. That’s writing with the blinkers on, that’s painting with the broadest of brushstrokes, that’s the laziest of character construction.
And because, to quote one of my favourite ladies from Sunnydale, it’s wrong.