Claudine at St Clare's
Review by Shagufta Naaz (September 7, 2006)
It's summer term again and the St Clare girls have taken a quantum leap into the fourth form, skipping the third entirely. One can understand how Blyton might overlook niggling details, considering the number of books she wrote, but didn't the publishers ever point out that the students skipped a whole year? No matter, Claudine at St Clare's is still one of the most delightful books in the series.
This time the old girls have four new students to contend with, not to mention an evil Matron—an interesting change from the wise and just authority figures that generally govern Blytonian schools.
Anyway, to get on with the introductions, first, and in her own opinion, most important is the Honourable Angela Favorleigh, as beautiful as an 'angel' but a 'disgusting little snob' all the same. (Blonde hair and blue eyes spell disaster in Blyton's school world; right from Gwendoline Lacey in the Malory Towers series to Arabella Buckley in The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor. Prospective students are advised to choose practical brunettes and fiery redheads as mates, especially ones with plenty of freckles.)
Angela arrives at school, complete with three tennis rackets and a handbag 'with gold initials' to boot, all set to lord it over the commoners. In this, however, she gets fair competition from Pauline Bingham-Jones 'an envious snob' as Isabel calls her, who vies with Angela, boast for boast. Be it the number of bathrooms ('We've got seven' declares Angela, 'We've got nine' counters Pauline); or tennis rackets, the rivalry between the Bingham-Joneses and the Favorleighs leads to some very amusing conversations.
Perhaps the only thing they both agree on is labelling Eileen Paterson a 'charity student', since she's the daughter of the new Matron. Eileen retaliates in the only way she can; by telling tales to her mother who obligingly hands out loads of mending as a punishment to the offenders. Oh dear; the girls are adept at handling unpleasant students, but who can deal with a spiteful Matron?
Mam'zelle's pert and perky niece, Claudine, is in my opinion, one of Blyton's most inspired schoolgirl characters; perhaps because she refuses to be pigeon-holed into any of the usual categories. She's not the prankster of the form, like Bobby or Janet; yet the tricks she plays are far more bold and daring. She isn't a rebel like Margery Fenworthy or Mirable Unwin, yet, in her quiet way, she bends the school to her will far better than any other girl. As the teachers despair 'You never knew what Claudine wanted until she had got it, and then it was too late to do anything about it.'
Appalled by the English girls' passion for 'cold water, hitting balls and rushing about madly', she manipulates Matron into giving her an extra load of mending as punishment, and gets a legitimate excuse to miss games. She finds an ingenious way to punish Angela's mother for being rude to Mam'zelle at half-term and it's Claudine again who keeps Matron at bay and prevents her from spoiling their lovely midnight feast. As Pat sums it up, she does 'the most awful things for perfectly good reasons.'
At first the girls are horrified by Claudine's 'un-English ways'—she thinks nothing of copying answers from someone's book, for instance. But Claudine follows her own code of ethics; even her deceptions are carried out in a straightforward way. 'Cheating is a secret thing, you all see me copy the answers', she claims. And when Angela scorns her for sampling some strawberries set aside for the half-term tea she retorts that taking a few strawberries is not as dishonourable as telling untruths about someone behind their back.
While Claudine's delightful antics dominate the book, the other new girls also have their parts to play. Why does Eileen's brother come to meet her secretly? Why don't the Bingham-Joneses visit their daughter at half-term? And who is stealing money from Matron's room? These are some of the tantalizing plot threads that keep you turning the pages, and it takes all of Miss Theobald's wisdom to unravel the tangles.
Along the way we receive a lesson in the evils of snobbery, and a look at some awful mothers and how they make their children's lives miserable. And though by the end of the book Claudine concedes the point that the 'English sense of honour is a fine thing', this reader is left with the impression that the French girl's brand of honour is far superior to that of at least some of the English girls.