Treeks and New Girls
Article by Laura Canning (February 2, 2005)
This is an essay on themes and plot devices in Malory Towers. It's part of a book proposal Laura (the writer of this page) is working on at the minute, looking at Enid Blyton from a literary criticism perspective.
The Malory Tower books remain one of the best Blyton series. Yes, the usual conventions and plot devices are there—the new girl scoring the winning goal in the lacrosse match despite a twisted ankle (In the Fifth at Malory Towers); the midnight feasts (Upper Fourth at Malory Towers); the spoilt and childish blonde (Gwendoline Lacey). But, while the characters remain typically one-dimensional, they are more interesting and flawed than, for example, the St Clare's girls. Darrell with her temper, Sally with her jealousy, Alicia with her hard-heartedness—these are consistent in all the books simply as character facets, not as something a new girl must strive to overcome if she is to settle down at the school and become a happy member of it.
The first book in the series starts, as is typical for Blyton and the genre, at the heroine's home as she is preparing to leave for school. Unlike Elizabeth Allen in the Naughtiest Girl series, and the O'Sullivan twins at St Clare's, Darrell Rivers is happy and excited to be going to school at last. Her father gives her a piece of advice that is later repeated by the headmistress Miss Grayling as she welcomes all the new girls: 'You will get a lot out of your time at Malory Towers. See that you give a lot back.' This sentiment of encouraging participation in school life, and of being 'sensible' in the environment, is consistent through Blyton's school stories and the genre as a whole.
Darrell and the other first formers
Darrell feels that this will not be a problem. She quickly settles into Malory Towers life, and the girls in her form 'soon accepted and liked her'. The girls in the first form North Tower dormitory are a good example of the types of schoolgirl character. There is Katherine, the serious head girl, just and calm and whom everyone obeys and respects, virtually indistinguishable from St Clare's Hilary Wentworth. Alicia is the rebellious one with a wide array of tricks to play on the mistresses. Mary-Lou is ridiculously timid, frightened of everything. Irene is the mad artist, brilliant at maths and music but equally capable of coming down to breakfast with her hat on. 'Filler' characters like Jean, the 'Scots' girl with her gruff manner and her collection of 'Ochs' and Emily quiet and studious, complete the typical schoolgirls character list.
Yet there are subtle character aspects with some of the girls that make them not quite as straightforward as their types would indicate. Alicia is the trick player, yet she does not have the sunny nature of similar girls with a sense of fun—Irene and later Belinda. Like St Clare's Janet, she can be harsh, but unlike Janet she does not have the kindness behind the temper. The relationship between Darrell and Alicia is one of the more interesting and well-developed parts of the book. Darrell greatly admires Alicia and wants to be her close friend; Alicia doesn't mind Darrell tagging along with her and her best friend from West Tower Betty. Similarly, Darrell is often quite cruel to Mary-Lou, laughing at her fears and telling her not to be such a baby. This is not the stuff of which schoolgirl heroines are made, and so shows Darrell as a more rounded character. Darrell's relationships with Alicia, Mary-Lou and finally Sally show several aspects of her character—she is almost subservient with Alicia; mocking with Mary-Lou and finally a true and straightforward friend with Sally. Her relationships with the three mirror her growing into her role as a sensible Malory Towers schoolgirl.
Inevitably when describing such a close-knit community, the theme of difficult friendships recurs and recurs in Blyton's school stories. The rest of the series sees Darrell and Alicia (mostly) maintaining an uneasy and fragile peace, much like that of Nicola and Tim in Antonia Forest's Kingscote novels. Alicia is openly nasty in the second and fourth books, when Sally and Darrell respectively are head girls of their form. Gwendoline's search for a particular friend is a recurring theme in the books—she clings to new girls such as Clarissa and Zerelda, particularly if she thinks they are rich or glamorous, only for the new girl to drop her once she settles into Malory Towers life and realises Gwendoline's true personality (Anne Digby also uses this device in First Term at Trebizon, when a lonely Rebecca at first pairs up with unpopular Debbie Rickard). Twins Connie and Ruth have a very uneasy relationship, which is one of the strongest plot points of the Upper Fourth book. Sisters Moira and Bridget seem to detest each other, as do cousins Alicia and June (In the Fifth at Malory Towers). Darrell and her younger sister Felicity, of course, have the type of relationship much more typical in the genre—supportive and loving, with the younger sister usually following in the elder's footsteps re team membership, goal-scoring ability and popularity.
Friction in First Term at Malory Towers is usually centred around the new girls Darrell, Sally and Gwendoline. The new girl is an easy and effective plot device in school stories, as her inclusion is fully plausible and as her character is as yet unknown. As Darrell is the heroine of the Malory Towers series, the plot will naturally centre on her, but Gwendoline and Sally provide their share of excitement.
Gwendoline is one of Blyton's typical schoolgirl characters. Like Angela in the St Clare's series, she is blonde, spoilt, vain and unpopular. She is portrayed as bringing all her misfortune upon herself, although she does have a point when she later tells Alicia, 'You don't need to be rude immediately you see me,' after Alicia makes a biting comment when Gwendoline is barely through the door. Gwendoline is spiteful and petty, and, like all Blyton's characters of this type, she is not academically gifted. (Blyton incidentally does not seem to allow for genuine lack of academic ability, unless the character is popular. St Clare's' Doris is described as a 'dunce' who really can't help it, whereas the unpopular and vain Gwendoline and Angela often come in for sarcastic comments from their form mistresses about the poor quality of their work.)
Gwendoline has two major 'moments' in First Term. When she cruelly ducks Mary-Lou in the pool, she is attacked by the furious Darrell, whom we see losing her temper for the first time. In a rage, Darrell wades over to Gwendoline and slaps her several times. She is told to leave the pool by Katherine, who, like the rest of the first formers, is shocked by this new aspect of Darrell's character. In her typically straightforward way, however, Darrell calms down, knows she was wrong, and, unprompted, apologises to Gwendoline. Mary-Lou now thinks Darrell is a heroine, and starts to annoy her by following her about all the time, thus paving the way to show another, more negative, side to Darrell's character.
Gwendoline's other 'moment' forms the climax of the book, when she engineers for Darrell to be blamed for the smashing of Mary-Lou's expensive fountain pen. In best school story tradition, baddie Gwendoline is unmasked by the end of the book, and Darrell finds her true friends—Sally and Mary-Lou, who stood by her.
The other new girl, Sally, also provides a way for aspects of Darrell's character to be portrayed. Darrell loses her temper again at half-term and pushes Sally, knocking her over. When Sally becomes very ill, Darrell almost becomes ill herself with worry, until her surgeon father arrives to operate on Sally for appendicitis and explains to Darrell that Sally would have been ill for some time. Sally and Darrell become 'best' friends and remain so throughout the six books.
Sally is not a particularly engaging character in the series, and in this way she is much more like a typical Blyton character rather than the more well-rounded ones in this series. The only indication that she has a character is her jealousy, but, unlike Darrell's temper or even Alicia's harshness, her flaw is merely irritating. She is steadfast, loyal, hard working, intelligent... but not interesting.
Sally becomes head girl of the form in the second book, much to Alicia's disgust. Alicia and Betty try to provoke Darrell throughout the term and, while Darrell manages not to lose her temper on these occasions, she does lose it spectacularly towards the end of term.
Again, this is with a new girl. Three new girls join the school in the second book—Ellen, a sullen scholarship girl; Belinda, a talented artist who is just as mad as Irene and who becomes her instant best friend, and Daphne, a seemingly shallow girl who is always boasting about how rich her parents are. Ellen is the most immediately unpopular of the three. The girls think she is bad-tempered and anti-social, not having the information the reader does that Ellen is overworked and frightened she will not be able to keep up with the standard at Malory Towers. Sensible Sally enlists Jean to try and befriend Ellen, but Ellen becomes more and more withdrawn until she decides to sneak downstairs at night and try to see the exam papers locked in Mam'zelle's desk. It is when Darrell wakes up, follows her and ends up fighting with her on the floor, that Miss Grayling becomes involved and the full extent of Ellen's worry is revealed.
Ellen's cheating was triggered by the girls thinking she is a thief, as they find her a few times rummaging through drawers in the form room. Of course, she is looking for exam papers, but she cannot say this, and, as things have been going missing, the girls quite naturally assume it is Ellen who has taken them. This plotline in Second Form leads to another common plot device, The Thrilling Rescue.
Mary-Lou has already jumped into the pool to 'rescue' Darrell in First Term, and now she decides to push her newfound bravery further, by taking to the post office a parcel new girl Daphne 'badly' wants posted. It is dark and windy, but Mary-Lou worships Daphne in much the same way she did Darrell the previous year, and she takes the parcel anyway. She is blown over the cliff and rescued by Daphne some time later. The next day, Sally and co go to look for the parcel and find that it contains their missing things. Daphne thus becomes the subject of another plot device, The Thrilling Rescue Which Cancels Out a Bad Deed (Frank Richards' Billy Bunter rescued so many people from the River Sark while on the point of expulsion that he was always allowed to remain at Greyfriars). By the vote of the girls, Daphne is allowed to remain at Malory Towers, but she is always a sidelines character and the impression is given that she is fairly unpopular.
Third and Fourth Forms
Third Year at Malory Towers is preoccupied with another important theme in Blyton's school stories—the school team. Darrell is desperate to get onto the lacrosse team as third reserve, and of course gets into the team itself. Elsewhere, new girls again are central to the plot. Zerelda is like all the Americans in Blyton's books—flamboyant and eccentric. Gwendoline of course latches on to her, and much is made of Zerelda's acting 'ability', which is quickly deflated when drama mistress Miss Hibbert sees her rendition of Juliet. Zerelda is nevertheless a likeable and good-natured character and by the end of the book has become a proper Malory Towers girl, complete with plaits and healthily scrubbed face. Mavis, who was new the term before, runs off to a 'third-rate' singing contest and ruins her first-rate voice by getting caught in a storm. Again, vanity does not pay, as the new Zerelda tells Mavis in the San. They become friends for the rest of the book.
Bill (Wilhelmina) is the tomboy, much like Bobby of St Clare's but even more extreme. She arrives at school on horseback, and is 'horse-mad', a detail rather overdone by Blyton as she has Bill unable to concentrate in class because she is daydreaming of her horse Thunder. The crisis of the book centres around her being forbidden by Miss Peters to see Thunder, and of Thunder's developing colic. Miss Peters rides for the vet, and she and Bill become 'firm friends' afterwards.
Bill does not have her 'own' friend in the third book, but becomes friendly with Clarissa Carter in the fourth. Upper Fourth is one of the best books in the series, as it once again shows Darrell's character flaws. She is made head girl of the form, but has to resign after she loses her temper with Alicia's young cousin June, attacking her and being caught by Miss Potts. June had wangled her way into the fourth formers' midnight feast, and says she feels she must go to Miss Potts and 'own up'. Midnight feasts are of course an important part of schoolgirl fiction, and Malory Towers is no exception. The feast in Upper Fourth is arranged by Clarissa, who goes to tea with her old 'nurse' and finds that a mix-up means Nurse has prepared 'tea for twenty'. The girls bring the food back to school and decide to eat it after a midnight swim in the pool. Rain forces them indoors, where June arrives with Felicity.
This is the first of the books to simultaneously focus on a younger form, and this is continued for the rest of the series. Felicity, Darrell's young sister, joins the first form in this book, as does Alicia's cousin June. Darrell's first term is mirrored by Felicity's, who finds the unsuitable June exciting and wants to become her best friend. The friendship ends when June boasts about getting Darrell demoted as head girl, and Felicity, like Darrell, takes up with a more sensible and suitable girl, Susan.
Another strong plotline in the fourth book concerns twins Connie and Ruth, and ends up getting Darrell reinstated as head girl. Connie is unpleasant and dominant, always finishing Ruth's sentences for her and even brushing her hair. When things start to happen to Connie, in the school story tradition of 'playing tricks' (i.e., hiding books, damaging belongings), it is Darrell who realises that it is Ruth who is campaigning against her twin, in a dangerous love/hate relationship. When Darrell 'tackles' Ruth, Ruth tells her that Connie wants her to fail the School Cert. so that they can both stay down in the fourth form together. Darrell, and later Miss Grayling, are horrified, but the situation is resolved by Ruth's passing the exam despite her attempt to fail. Darrell's maturity is rewarded by her becoming head girl again, and thus Blyton again shows both sides of Darrell's personality.
Formal exams are included for the first time in Upper Fourth—the 'School Cert.' that Connie wanted Ruth to try and fail. Yet again Gwendoline shows her unpleasant character, as she is inspired by Clarissa's weak heart to fake illness in order to get out of doing the exam. Her worried mother and governess bring her home, where the family doctor sees through her scam and orders her back to school in time for the test. Gwendoline duly fails the exam, as, surprisingly, does Alicia, in the first real development we see in her character. Alicia, quick and casual, irritates the others by speeding through her work and laughing at those not so quick as her. But when it is exam week, Alicia finds herself suddenly 'woolly' and stupid. She thinks it is a punishment for mocking others, that she has 'lost her brains', and, in probably her first ever experience of empathy, wonders if this is what less clever people feel all the time. Her 'wooliness' turns out only to be measles, but Alicia has Learnt Her Lesson. Disappointingly, however, there is not much evidence of the new improved Alicia in the last two books, and little reference made of her experience apart from a passing comment that she has to study in the fifth to resit the exam.
Gwendoline is also moved up into the fifth form, despite having to also resit the School Cert. The official reason for this is that Miss Grayling feels that, as one of the oldest in her form, Gwendoline should not stay down with the fourth; the actual reason is of course that Blyton wanted such a good character to stay onstage. Nevertheless, Gwendoline's role in the fifth book is quite minor, being confined to her wanting to play Cinderella in the fifth form pantomime. There are however several very comic moments involving Gwendoline and the sickening new girl Maureen, whom Gwendoline detests yet whom everyone says is so like Gwendoline that they could be twins. Maureen also has her eye on the part of Cinderella.
The pantomime forms the main plot focus of In the Fifth. The new head girls, bossy Moira and doormat Catherine, who have stayed down from the sixth, head the pantomime committee despite their unpopularity. The somewhat exaggerated talents of the fifth formers are fully utilised for the play—Darrell is co-opted to write the script, Belinda designs wonderful sets, Irene composes marvellous music, Mavis moves the audience to tears with her newly restored voice, and, in the space of a few weeks Alicia becomes a Demon King 'good enough to be on the London stage'.
The pantomime is of course a huge success, but causes a lot of friction during preparation and rehearsals. Moira and Alicia constantly fight, ending in Alicia's resigning from the show. Gwendoline and then Maureen are mocked by Moira when they are separately found in the dormitory with hair loose and wrapped in eiderdowns, pretending to be Cinderella. Mary-Lou, who gets the part, is terrified of acting in front of an audience. And, in quite a sinister development, the unpopular Moira begins receiving poisonous anonymous letters.
As with the fourth book, some room is made for Felicity and June, now in the second form. Like Darrell in her third year, Felicity tries hard to make the lacrosse team and is successful. An overused device of Blyton in school stories has Felicity playing with a twisted ankle and scoring the winning goal, predictably 'just as the whistle blew for time'. (Antonia Forest satirises this delightfully in End of Term, where the injured Lawrie wishes she could be like 'people in books who play with broken bones and no-one knows until they faint at the end'.) However, the main 'younger form plot' comes from the revelation that it is June who sent the poison pen letters to Moira, leading to Felicity coming to the fifth form common room in tears saying that June is going to be expelled. Moira's going to Miss Grayling to plead June's case gets June a reprieve, and a grateful Alicia says she will once more take part in the pantomime. The book ends with Darrell being called onto the stage to be applauded as the pantomime's author, her first writing success.
The sixth book, while it is interesting to learn where the characters are going on to from Malory Towers, is in some ways disappointing. Darrell, now Head Girl of the school, is not directly involved in a lot of the book, and a great deal of focus is placed on Felicity and June's form. Although this is the last term, there are two new girls—Amanda, a strapping athlete who intends to enter the next Olympics and who is only at Malory Towers because her famous sports school burnt down; and Suzanne, Mam'zelle's niece who is as scatty, irresponsible, needlework-loving and sports hating as all Blyton's French schoolgirls.
Much more is made of Amanda than Suzanne. Annoying Moira, Darrell and Sally by criticising the sports at Malory Towers, she is challenged to coach some of the younger pupils and surprisingly settles on June, saying that with proper coaching June could be in the school teams by the end of the term. The sixth formers scoff, but Amanda is determined to be proved right and starts mercilessly coaching June, who finally loses her temper and calls the coaching off. The Vanity and Comeuppance plot device is utilised by Amanda's deciding to swim in the sea and getting into real danger; and the Thrilling Rescue is carried out by June. The two agree on an uneasy truce.
Also in Felicity and June's form is Jo Jones, a spoilt rich girl who is predictably unpopular. Last Term's best plot concerns when Jo is left out of the form's midnight feast and decides to buy her own food with five pounds sent to her by her relations, and which she has not declared to Matron. She conscripts Deirdre, a timid first former, and the two plan their feast. But Jo loses the money, and it is picked up by Matron. She does not dare to ask Matron for the money back, so instead sneaks into Matron's room and raids the safe. She is shocked to find that she has inadvertently taken nine pounds, rather than the five which were hers, but decides to keep it for the time being and pay it back later.
The girls buy a lot of food with the money, and then run away from the school. They are found the next day in a shack by Bill, Clarissa and Miss Peters, and brought back to Malory Towers. Jo's father is summoned to the school.
What makes this story unusual in the Malory Towers series is that Jo is actually expelled. This of course is the ultimate disgrace in the genre, but Blyton does mitigate Jo's blame slightly by having Miss Grayling place equal responsibility on Jo's reckless and loud father, saying that Jo did not have much of a chance as she was not shown a proper example. Perhaps there should be a school for parents too, Miss Grayling reflects after Jo and her father leave.
Parents and family are reasonably important in the Malory Towers (and St Clare's) series, despite being mainly off stage. The girls with 'decent' parents, such as Darrell, are straightforward, honest and sensible. Gwendoline is said to be so silly because she was spoilt and indulged by her mother and governess Miss Winter. Daphne uses her parents to lie about her family's wealth. Alicia and Bill are seen as so down to earth due to having so many brothers (three and seven respectively). In the St Clare's series, as will be discussed in the next chapter, Angela Favorleigh, like Gwendoline, is very much the product of an overly indulgent mother.
Like Angela though, Gwendoline has a no-nonsense father, who tries his best to make his daughter be 'sensible'. Gwendoline is particularly obnoxious in Last Term, harping on about her finishing school in Switzerland which she has emotionally blackmailed her father into letting her attend. But, as Miss Grayling explains to Darrell, 'somewhere in her life, punishment is awaiting Gwen'. This comes much sooner than expected with the news that Gwendoline's father is seriously ill and that she must leave Malory Towers at once and get a secretarial job. As in many middle-class books of the time, having to 'go into an office' is seen as a desperate fate. Darrell, happy and on her way to college, receives a letter from Gwendoline from which it seems Gwendoline has finally started thinking of others. Although Gwendoline is a fairly unpleasant character, this is quite a cruel finish to the series for her, and does seem to encourage a readerly sense of schadenfreude.
As the series ends, Darrell, Sally, Alicia and Betty are off to college, although Miss Potts predicts that Alicia and Betty will be too busy with parties to get the academic honours Sally and Darrell will. Bill and Clarissa are opening a riding school near Malory Towers. Everyone (except Gwendoline) is doing what she wants to do, using her talents in the best way. Although Miss Grayling says that Malory Towers is intended to make girls 'good, strong women the world can lean on', good wives and mothers, the series ends with no hint of marriage for any of the characters. This is a pleasant surprise in the genre, and indeed in girls' fiction in general—Anne Shirley gave up writing to have several children; Joey Bettany did continue writing but gallantly had eleven children as well; Karen Marlow gave up her career at Oxford to marry a widower with three children, et al et al.
As anyone who reads Enid Blyton will know, she comes in for her fair share of criticism over her supposedly weak plots, characterization and stereotyping. It is true that many elements of these can be found in her works, but she was also a talented writer in creating believable, if simplistic, worlds such as Malory Towers and St Clare's. The Malory Towers characters are among her better developed and realistic, and the series itself is one of her best. Darrell is a more likeable and believable character than the St Clare's twins, and her fierce temper shows her as more human than the standard fictional schoolgirl. Additionally, as this is a single-sex environment, there are none of the annoyingly superior comments found in series like The Famous Five and Secret Seven, where the girls must stand back in times of crisis and not 'defeminise' themselves by trying to be 'as good as a boy'. It is an environment without parents, where the girls live and largely govern themselves in their own community, and despite its faults is one of Blyton's best.