Review by Keith Robinson (November 1, 2006)
House-at-the-Corner (as the house is named) is a lively place headed by a successful and much-respected surgeon, Mr John Farrell. He earns enough that his family need not worry about financial matters. His stay-at-home wife, Lucy, is a bit of an air-head and is far too easy on her five children, especially Pam and Tony.
Pam is seventeen and a half, about to leave school and planning to go to college in September. She's pretty and popular, and very smart; normally she breezes through her exams without studying and still comes out on top. Unfortunately she's full of herself and with scorn on her younger sister, Lizzie, and the twins. Tony, age fourteen, is very like Pam in that he's smart and popular, and doesn't think much of Lizzie or the twins. He's known as the school's practical joker – which he believes makes him liked by everyone. He also teases Lizzie, who is sixteen; she's plain and rather gawky with her thick glasses and wire around her teeth, and Tony loves to put on a pair of similar glasses and pretend to be all shy and awkward just like her. Pam and the twins find this very funny, but Lizzie, being the sweet, shy, sensitive one, finds it humiliating. Still, she always has time for her siblings even though they walk all over her; she listens attentively to the stories of the old folks in the village, and is generally kind and thoughtful to all. If only she wasn't quite so shy and self-conscious! Finally, the twins are David and Delia, just ten years old. Their mother thinks of them as babies and seems unaware of the hard work they put into weeding and growing vegetables with old Frost the gardener.
Greta the Austrian maid plays a medium part in the story (most notably with her run-in with stuck up Pam). And there's Michael, the Rector's son, who offers plenty of sound advice to the twins, and later to Tony. But now we must turn our attention to Aunt Grace. She has a slightly puzzling background. The story opens with the aunt arriving on a train, worrying over her belongings in case she's forgotten anything:
"My big brown bag. My little blue one. Sukie the parrot. My umbrella and sunshade. My electric kettle. My mackintosh. My odds-and-ends. Yes, they're all there."
This is in the second paragraph of the first chapter. It goes on to say that the odds-and-ends are things that Aunt Grace had decided to take with her at the last minute, and include a few fading flowers from her garden. All this suggests a woman who has just come from her home to stay with the Farrells, and yet it's established on the very next page that she "travels from one or other of her relations, staying a month here and a week there, giving everyone what she called a piece of her mind." Later it's further established, or perhaps confirmed, that she has no home. Lizzie says:
"You make so many journeys, don't you, Aunt Grace? Always going here and there. If you hate [journeys] so much, why don't you get a little cottage of your own and settle there with Sukie?"
This is a very odd contradiction, especially in the first few opening pages. By the end of the book Aunt Grace announces she will stay on at House-at-the-Corner as a paying guest, further evidence that she has no home of her own. Incidentally, Sukie plays almost no part in this book, apart from a few quips here and there; and it struck me as funny that a pet would be included in the list of things Aunt Grace might have forgotten!
Anyway, with that little quibble out of the way, I have nothing but praise for this novel. Anyone who liked the Six Cousins books should like this too, as it has a lot in common; a family saga in which personalities clash and problems arise, much of it to do with the selfish and foolish personalities of Pam and Tony. There are some really nice moments like when Lizzie starts writing stories in secret (encouraged by Aunt Grace) and dreams about seeing her name in print – her real name, Elizabeth Farrell, and not plain and ordinary Lizzie. And then there are awful moments like when Mr Farrell is involved in a car crash. The future looks bleak, both emotionally and financially, and unfortunately this is where Pam and Tony's self-inflicted crises really let the family down. Everyone must pull together to make things work...
Pam's crisis is due to her believing she can breeze through the final exams and win a scholarship to college, while at the same time rehearsing for a large part in a play. In her own mind she's not too worried about the exams, because she's so confident about passing with flying colors; and even if she doesn't win the scholarship, well, her father can easily pay for her to go college.
Well, we can all see where that's leading! Tony, meanwhile, is spending much of his school time messing about playing jokes and acting the fool – much to the delight of his classmates and the annoyance of his form masters. Oddly, Mr Farrell doesn't seem too worried about his son's bad grades; he knows his son can pass all the exams when he buckles down and tries, and Tony promises he will do so in the final year!
The incident with Tony's "greatest trick" turns his life upside down. He spends ages developing a very nasty smell that he can release with the use of a spray bottle. He plans to use it in old Blinky's class, because Blinky is so easy to tease. The trick comes off well enough, and the class struggle to stifle their giggles while Blinky almost chokes in a terrible stench; he rushes to the window and gasps for breath. But the strict form master, Mr Lehman, enters to see what all the fuss is about – and while he's distracted Tony throws the bottle out of the window.
Unfortunately the classroom is on the second floor, and the bottle hits a poor boy on the head, knocking him out. Suddenly everything is not so funny any more. The boy goes to hospital, and Tony – too scared to own up – finds himself suddenly very unpopular with his classmates. Worse, the teachers find out what happened... and Tony is expelled!
What with Pam finding herself floundering with more rehearsal time than she expected, and Tony very quiet and worried, and the twins wanting to go to Whyteleafe Boarding School* so they won't be separated anymore, and Lizzie secretly making a name for herself by writing stories for the local newspaper, there's certainly plenty going on! Blyton very deftly winds everything to boiling point and then delivers the blow – the car crash, in which Mr Farrell breaks an arm and damages his hand. Will he ever work again?
With financial problems suddenly a very real threat, the prospect of Tony being expelled from school seems worse than ever, and Pam's failure at winning her scholarship means she may not get the chance to go college at all. The twins can't go to Whyteleafe like they wanted either, and plan instead to take over the gardener's job to help save money. Lizzie now announces her success as a part-time writer, and offers all her money to the family. Meanwhile Pam must get up early and help with the cooking and chores – mostly her own fault because she'd been rude to Greta, the maid, and sent her packing earlier in the book.
This is Six Cousins all over again, but is just as satisfying and well written. Yes, it's a little predictable; you know that Tony and Pam are going to be reformed characters; you know that good old plain, gawky Lizzie will bloom into "really quite pretty" Elizabeth; and you know that the twins will get to do what they love most, which is to tend the garden and earn money.
You also know that John Farrell will eventually return from hospital and announce he will be able to work again in about a year – plenty of time for the children to continue developing character and pulling together before returning to a more financially secure lifestyle.
Aunt Grace spends the story offering gentle advice to Lizzie, snapping at Pam and Tony, and ticking off Mrs Farrell for her continued babying of the twins. On the surface Aunt Grace is an aunt that lacks grace, an interfering busybody, and it's true that she's quite prepared to put people in their place – but she does manage tact on several occasions, and virtually all of what she says is sound. She's full of quotes and sayings, like telling Mrs Farrell she should have been tougher on Pam and Tony: "Lucy, you want more backbone – you've got your wishbone where your backbone ought to be!"
Anyone criticizing Enid Blyton for being simple and shallow has most likely only read a few of the more popular, well-known books. Novels like House-at-the-Corner and Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm prove how good she was when she wasn't churning out the much-demanded Famous Fives!
* Whyteleafe Boarding School is of course the popular boys-and-girls school that Elizabeth Allen goes to. The Naughtiest Girl books were written in 1940, 1942, and 1945, and House-at-the-Corner followed in 1947.