[I am so thrilled to bring you this guest post today on the Melling books from the lovely Rachel Playforth. Rachel is a poet, editor, crossword setter and librarian. She has poems in the recent anthologies: Night Feeds and Morning Songs by Ana Sampson (Hachette UK) and These Are The Hands – Poems from the Heart of the NHS (Fair Acre Press), and co-edited the wild swimming anthology Watermarks. You can find her online at rachelplayforth.com]
Between the ages of 8 and 11, one fictional school towered above all the others in my imagination. It had literal towers! Plus dormitories and midnight feasts and tuck boxes and a smart uniform, and of course the tidal seawater pool carved out of the Cornish cliffs. Malory Towers was the Platonic ideal of a girls’ boarding school, and I adored it. But the Enid Blyton books weren’t really school stories to me, they were pure fantasy. My own experience of school was nothing like Malory Towers. I attended a state primary school until I was 9, then moved to the Brighton Steiner School, which adapted the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner into a hippy experiment cherished by a small cohort of unconventional middle-class parents. Steiner school pupils were neither one thing nor another – we were seen as weird and insular by the local state school kids, but we had none of the golden privileges or casual confidence of ‘real’ private school pupils. We had no uniform (let alone one involving blazers and boaters), no imposing house mistresses (we called our teachers by their first names) and no sports facilities (what the hell was lacrosse anyway)?
I needed to move on from Malory Towers and find a fictional school that spoke to me. That school was Melling House. Margaret Biggs wrote 6 Melling books between 1951 and 1957, at the tail-end of the fashion for girls’ school stories. And yet she did temporarily breathe new life into the genre, not with original plots or a radical style, but with a simple twist. Melling House is a weekly boarding school – the gentle headmistress Miss Pickering doesn’t believe in keeping girls away from their families for long periods, and they return home at weekends. This allows the stories to expand beyond the traditional closed society of a boarding school and include rich and complicated scenes of family life. Not only that, but there are boys! I had a lot of friends who were boys growing up, and even though Melling was still a world away from any school I was ever likely to attend, I loved the hint of normality in the warm friendships the girls have with their brothers and brothers’ friends. There was also a sense of messiness and realness in the varied responsibilities, roles and problems that the girls face in their weekend lives. Melling isn’t an all-consuming world like Malory Towers; although the intensity and specialness of life away from your parents on the clifftop was part of the Malory Towers appeal, it sometimes felt claustrophobic and terrifying.
I re-read the Melling books (collected in two volumes in the early sixties) many times throughout my teens and into adulthood. Until recently I only owned the second volume, passed on to me by my mother who received it as an 11th birthday present close to its original publication date. It was easy to jump into the middle of the lives of the Blake family and their friends, so I never minded not having read the earlier books. The solid burgundy hardback with its torn spine and missing dust jacket was always comfort reading, but also gave me something different every time. As a shy and self-conscious teenager it was encouraging to see how the girls at Melling manage to overcome similar challenges. Nervous Franny Warner becomes head girl and a brilliant actress when her friends support and encourage her; the diffident Laura Lacey is also made head girl in her turn when perceptive teachers see her hidden depths. As a budding writer and second-generation librarian I also had a strong affinity with Roddy Blake, the sardonic, reserved middle Blake sister, who catalogues the Melling library and turns her sharp writer’s eye on the absurdities of school life. Then as a young adult there was a realisation that the grown-ups of Melling (both teachers and parents) are given unusual character depth and are shown dealing with their own struggles and emotions. They make mistakes and reflect on them. I had never before read a children’s book where a strict teacher (substitute head Miss Whyte) later admits that her strictness is born from insecurity and shyness, and apologises to the pupils she has bullied.
When I discovered Jane Austen (like many a 90s teenager, via Colin Firth with a wet shirt in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) I could see some of the same things that appealed to me about Margaret Biggs. Biggs was hardly a prose stylist on a par with Austen, but her dramas were similarly – deceptively – small scale and her moral lessons subtly taught. Roddy Blake is an Elizabeth Bennett type, independent and free-thinking but slow to see her own flaws of pride and stubbornness. Melling shows characters being both sympathetic and deeply flawed, which was something of a revelation. These flaws are not always overcome or trained out of them either – Helen Blake accepts her own laziness and doesn’t have any plans to change; her younger sister Susan remains incorrigible even as she enters the sixth form.
Bringing boarding school stories into the modern world is a challenge (one that several authors are still enthusiastically embracing, I’m happy to see!) Even Enid Blyton tried it with the unconventional Whyteleaf in the Naughtiest Girl stories in the 1940s. Melling isn’t exactly modern, but it somehow felt that way. I was aware even when first reading them that the world depicted was a rarefied and privileged one – the school is ‘frighteningly expensive’ and the two families at the heart of the books are undoubtedly upper class. As in Austen, snobbery abounds and many traditional societal structures are barely questioned (particularly the gap between the servant class and their employers, and the regularly mentioned feudal loyalty to the aristocratic but cash-strapped Laceys). But there are hints of change: a new looseness in social relationships, and an independence in the older schoolchildren as they become proto-teenagers at the dawn of the 1960s. There are dances and unchaperoned outings with boys, some of which blossom into romance as the books progress. The almost-bohemian art mistress Miss Killegan even wears ‘blue jeans’ on one shocking occasion.
I never really dreamed of going away to a single sex boarding school, midnight feasts notwithstanding (those could be created at home anyway, although the concept of ‘midnight’ during a rowdy but tired sleepover was a vague one, and quite likely to be 9pm). But if I had, if would have looked like Melling – a warm but uniquely ugly yellow brick sprawl in the draughty Fens, rather than a castle on a cliff.