My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“What! Go to school! To boarding-school! I won’t I tell you I won’t!”
So begins The School in The Forest and the story of fourteen year old Jean Langton, a spoilt heiress who is both inevitably orphaned and inevitably romantic. Her life in the remote and isolated Craigness Tower is to come to an end and she is to be sent to boarding school. Prodigously, as “south country air doesn’t suit” Jean, a respectable school has evacuated to the locale and thus she is to be sent there. St Hilda’s is a typical school as far as Brazil is concerned; it is progressive with a naturalistic pedagogy (can you tell I am writing an essay about this book as well as this review?) and has relocated itself to the romantic surroundings of Wildeswood Hall.
I always overuse the word romantic when I talk about Angela Brazil because her books are so resolutely focused upon casting the everyday outside and becoming embroiled in a saga of dancing through the trees and singing songs around a campfire. Even Brent-Dyer, my great literary love, held back from the wholesale passions of Angela Brazil and her obsession with the outdoors world. And I think it’s the way that Brazil approaches the outdoors and forces her girls out there to engage in the world that gives her work a particular and peculiar force, even now, a million miles away. Jean is a musical girl (how rare for the new girl to have a talent! *side-eyes camera) and yet, she’s irrevocably tied to landscape. Her family history, her escapades, her Christmas with real and true and proper friends; all of it steps outside of the school and into the wide world.
Of course, having said that, as ever with Angela Brazil there’s a deeply contrived subplot. And what is a school story without a contrived subplot? It is a quirk of genre and one that is inescapable. This subplot involves gypsies and a mysterious child. It’s a subplot which doesn’t translate particularly well to contemporary reads. As ever, judge the text by the standards of the age and make allowances for those standards, however they may be.
For an author who cut her teeth on school stories, and who indeed must take credit for making the contemporary school story what it is, The School In The Forest isn’t really a book about schools at all. It’s a book about girlhood; about learning to live in a community and to live with yourself. I rather love it. But, then again, I think that I will always love Angela Brazil for a myriad of reasons, and not only for the way I learn a thousand new synonyms for ‘said’* every time I read her work. Brazil was epochal. Still is, really.
(page 55: ‘asked’ / ‘mocked’ / ‘laughed’ / ‘nodded’ / ‘sniggered’ / ‘decided’.
I love these books)