The Three Elizabeths by J.M Page

The Three Elizabeths meet the local guides who go “what, you’re all called Elizabeth Graham? Bit weird dudes” (I paraphrase, I paraphrase).

The Three Elizabeths by J.M. Page

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Published in 1950, The Three Elizabeths is rather late for a school story – and, to be frank, rather on the edge of obscurity for the genre. It’s kind of missed the big moments and the big authors in the genre and sits somewhere towards what I would think of as the beginning of the downward curve. Big authors like Brent-Dyer have been writing for twenty-five years or more and are in the middle of their landmark series and others are increasingly removed from the world about them. Yet in being rather late for the genre, The Three Elizabeths also sits somewhere super interesting – namely, the ‘brave new world’ post Second World War. It comes into contact with co-educational schools, tenement housing, dances and (very briefly and in a slightly appalled fashion) even dates. There’s even a weirdly brutal moment where one of the girls goes to a dance and comes into contact with the poor unloved wallflowers who are all bawling in the cloakroom (this scene is so off its tree, I cannot). Finally, this book also possesses one of the worst school uniforms I have ever read about and I love it entirely for that.

So what do you do with a book that looks backwards to the greatness of girl’s school stories whilst also looking forward to something quite different? You write something that kind of echoes what it should do but also has this kind of wriggling discomfort and ache to be something different. And that’s precisely what happens here. There are moments in the Three Elizabeths that could be pulled out of the girls’ school story handbook (guides! bad baking! sports victories!) but then, there’s this effort to move away from the privilege that so often underscores this genre and an attempt to give something different.

I don’t think that The Three Elizabeth quite manages to pull it off but I appreciate it very much for the way it tries. Does that make sense? I’m increasingly fond of those books that try to really recognise who and what they are in the world and if they don’t quite fully deliver, I still appreciate that moment of trying. I’d rather a book failed in trying something different and vital and important rather than never trying at all.

Having said all of that, this really isn’t a bad book. It’s very pleasant indeed. It does slide into a rather episodic quality in the latter half where something happens to one girl and then the other before we all stop for tea, and the premise of the girls all being called the exact same thing is utterly ridiculous, but that’s what a vast majority of these books did back in the day. A healthy and unashamed embrace of the ridiculous is the absolute heart of this genre and thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.

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