I finished my St Clare’s reread last night. I’ve been reading these books as part of my research; they form one of the big aspects of my next chapter alongside the Malory Towers books.
It’s been a long time since I read St Clare’s. I had fond memories but bare ones, you know? The sort of memory where you know something is good, that it makes you happy, but you can’t quite remember the detail of what it is that makes you feel so positive about something. Sensible Hilary. Slapping Carlotta. Pat and Isabel. Claudine and that swimming pool incident.
And when I finished them last night, the end of a binge of six books in a row, I realised something. For all her foibles, for all intensely problematic her talking to goldfish and never quite giving Anne a chance, Enid Blyton could write. The St Clare’s series is possess of such a determined style that it’s quite breathtaking at points. These are ferociously readable books. These are books that have been written with an eye towards being read and towards being enjoyed. And the more they’re written, the better they get. I talked earlier this week about how I think The O’Sullivan Twins might be one of the best school stories out there, but I suspect Fifth Formers At St Clare’s might stand up there with it. There are some chapters in this novel, some intense twists of plot and circumstance that are flabberghastingly brilliant. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I’m sure those of you who know these books will have an inkling of the chapter I mean. It’s the midnight one ….
I was struck as well by the diverse manifestations of girlhood within these books. One can be sensible, brave, foolish, selfish, idiotic, whatever. Blyton is determined to allow these girls to be themselves and that’s something quite special. It’s not, perhaps, kind in how she does it for certain of the girls but again, that’s something quite remarkable in itself. She’s not afraid of giving a girl a bad end, or being unabashedly scolding of their attitude. It’s not subtle but again, it’s not wrong. Writing like this intrigues me; this distinct, and occasionally vicious authorial voice, that isn’t allowed to let her characters be idiots or ignorant or stupid. That’s quite a thing.
I suppose really, what I’m trying to say is that Blyton gets a bad rap. And it’s often very deservedly so; she is a complex, challenging and occasionally deeply frustrating author. But she is not a bad writer. She is smart, ferociously readable, and deeply intriguing. And these books, these school stories, when they’re good – they are brilliant. They are raw, determined brilliance. And that’s something worth acknowledging.
I’m off to Malory Towers next. Wish me mishaps in the swimming pool and midnight feasts!