You know when you just finish reading a book and go ‘huh, so. what. just. happened?’. That’s The Most Popular Girl In The School in a nutshell. I read it and had to have this little moment where I flicked back through to check that I hadn’t imagined it all. But I hadn’t. Honestly, everything I’m about to tell you is true…
The Most Popular Girl in the School by Bessie Marchant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bessie Marchant always surprises me. You can often predict what happens with many of the books of this type from the early twentieth century because there’s a pattern, lord love them. Here’s the pattern for a typical Angela Brazil, for example: somebody misplaces a will, somebody finds the will, everything’s okay, we’re all still posh. A generalisation, yes, but nobody loves a probate-themed plot quite like Angie. Bessie Marchant’s version of this is a revolution. Big, small, bloody, political, in the middle of it, or on the edges, she properly loves them. Of course this is just a big metaphor for the benefits of the British Empire, and even if you’re in Patagonia or Russia or somewhere that there’s never been any vestiges of British colonies, there will always be some Hot And Noble (potentially impoverished due to the foul deeds of others) English Chap to help out our heroines.
Delightfully, The Most Popular Girl In The School is right up there with the rest of her work. It’s not what I’d call particular readable (were I to be frank I’d call it a ‘right state’) but that sort of quality judgement is a bit sweeping on my part, because it totally denies the spectacular power of these books. The Most Popular Girl In The School seems to be a boarding school story but in fact, it’s a story about revolutionaries in Brazil. Trunks full of cartridges end up at the school! The sentence ‘To 50 cases of T.N.T sent as best Heather Honey, and carefully forwarded through usual channels’ actually exists!! Mary helps “unmask the secret of her father’s birth” which is 1920s children’s book speak for ‘don’t worry, she’s been a member of the upper class all along, that’s why she’s so great”!
Honestly, the hysteria, I die.
So, do I suggest you start your Bessie Marchant adventures with this? I do not. I don’t think it’s particularly ‘good’ nor is it ‘coherent’ nor is it, in fact, what you might call ‘linear’ or ‘particularly comprehensible’. However it does have a particular appeal in that, I think, it’s tied quite specifically to real world events. I came across Tenentism and the details of a 1922 revolt – which, bearing in mind that this was published in 1924, feels about right. Tell me again how children’s literature isn’t political. Go on. I’ll wait.
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