Summer Term at St Clare's

Review by Laura Canning (October 24, 2005)

Another good one. We have five new girls to contend with, including a Mystery and a Baddie. And some attempted snobbery is nicely turned on its head when a new girl is revealed to be not quite what she seems...

Summer term books in Blytonworld always have lots of happy looking forward to all the smashing games and swimming to do that term. Alas, in this book the twins have to go back late, as they are put in quarantine for measles towards the end of the holidays. The doctor chuckles madly to himself at the twins' despair at being stuck at home when they could be back at jolly school, but finally pronounces them fit and back they go. All this is all very well, but I'm a bit unclear as to why this narrative technique was used. It's done well enough, and it doesn't spoil the story in any way, but it doesn't seem to be used as a particular plot device—there are no consequences of it and it's not referred to again. Perhaps because there are five new girls in this book, Blyton thought it would be easier and less clunky to introduce the twins to them, rather than the other way round? Perhaps it was just for variety (although that's not usually an issue in Blyton's work). Perhaps I'm theorising too much about it and should just get on with the review? OK, OK...

The first new girl the twins see is Sadie Green, an American who is obsessed with clothes/hair/nails etc. Naturally this means Alison has palled up with her—'I thought she looked a bit more feather-brained than usual,' says Pat. Poor Alison... Next is Roberta, or Bobby, Ellis, whom Janet introduces as the 'bad girl' of the form; then Carlotta, a Spanish girl, who, as with all Blyton's non-English characters, provides us with a healthy dose of national stereotyping (although she is a positive character); Pam, a quiet studious girl who is 'only' thirteen; and Prudence, a vicar's daughter who is clearly going to be the Baddie. Prudence is hypocritical and judgemental, and sparks are soon flying between her and Carlotta.

The first few chapters of the twins' return mainly deal with the new girls and develop their characters a little more. Prudence clashes with Bobby and Sadie reveals herself to be a heiress, making Prudence latch on to her. A little, but very sloppy, blooper in this section—there is a speech by Janet at the end of a chapter saying how strict Miss Roberts is this term, where Janet refers to all the girls ticked off or punished that morning. Unfortunately she also says 'Janet ticked off for talking twice'. The royal pronoun or a mistake? I think we all know the answer to that... There are a few bloopers in this book, including, oddly, one or two in the illustrations which themselves are really quite poor in this edition (Armada 3-in-1, 1990), both in the drawing itself and in its consistency. Girls in gym class in the 1940s did not wear shorts!

More moaning and nitpicking in chronological order... meanwhile, Bobby plays the first trick of the term by getting the class out of an oral arithmetic test (a hero, that woman). She forges a note asking Miss Roberts to go to the staff room, and then puts the hands of the clock forward ten minutes. Miss Roberts comes back, says there's no time for the test, and scoots off to her next class (which should surely still be having the end of its last lesson, thus Arousing Suspicion?). Flushed with success, Bobby and Janet try a similar trick too soon, getting Janet called out of prep so she can go to the cinema. But Prudence lets the cat out of the bag, and makes a real enemy in Bobby. She storms off to Prudence in the common room and lets her know what she thinks of sneaks. Prudence turns to Pam for comfort, and the two become friends (because Prudence wants to copy from Pam's work. Tsk!).

Next excitement is Carlotta, who hates Mam'zelle and is as rude to her as she dares. (When Carlotta is daydreaming and looking out the window, Mam'zelle asks her if she is waiting to hear the cow outside moo. 'No,' says Carlotta, 'I'm waiting to hear her bark.' Hee hee!) Carlotta is very restless and surprises the girls with an acrobatic display in the gym, after which she mutters mysteriously that she said she wouldn't and she has... The mystery is solved by Prudence, who follows Carlotta out of the grounds one day and sees her going to a circus. A bit of sneaky investigation work reveals that Carlotta was once in a circus, and Prudence delightedly drops this bombshell to the girls. But they are envious and intrigued by it instead of disgusted at such low-down antics, and Prudence is unpopular once more. Pam, meanwhile, is making herself ill with stress and worry as she doesn't want to be friends with Prudence, but can't bring herself to stand up to her.

The games this term is tennis, and the twins are delighted when they are chosen as the first form pair to play in the tournament against St Christopher's. Bobby gets a shock when games captain Belinda Towers asks her if she would like to be reserve—if so, says Belinda, you need to practice. No, Bobby says, too much like hard work and reserves never play anyway. Alas for Bobby, Isabel sprains her ankle during the game and reserve girl Janet makes a muck of partnering Pat, so that the first formers lose. Bobby knows her 'don't-carishness' cost St Clare's the game, and feels the first stirrings of conscience. Her dose of St Clare's continues over the next few days. When Mam'zelle is so outraged by a trick Bobby plays that she explodes and sets a French exam for the next day, Bobby and Carlotta catch Prudence sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to find the test and look up the answers. The noise they make alerts Miss Theobald who orders all three to come to her in the morning. Another blooper here—Bobby is so cutting to Prudence that Prudence puts her head down on the desk and cries, tipping over a pile of books. It is this noise that alerts Miss Theobald, but the text says that she arrives just in time to hear the end of Bobby's speech. Which was made before the books crashed... sigh.

Bobby tells Miss Theobald the next morning that she can't bear cheats, but the headmistress gives her the shock of her life by saying that Bobby too is a cheat. Her parents have sent her to a 'fine school' and she is cheating them by not doing her best. She is of course also cheating the school, and (wait for it) herself too. Bobby reels off to think about it, and decides that Miss Theobald is right. She decides to Turn Over a New Leaf and works much better from then on.

Prudence is similarly shocked by what Miss Theobald has to say to her. If she does not improve, the head tells her, she will be expelled. She has until the end of term to make up her mind whether she is prepared to 'face up' to herself. But what does the silly moo do next? Decide to spy on Carlotta after a very dodgy man gives her a letter outside school and asks her to deliver it. Ha, thinks Prudence, Carlotta must be sneaking out tonight so I'll follow her and find out where. This is the start of an excellent chain of events—not so much in themselves but in the consequences they have for Prudence—as it turns out the letter wasn't for Carlotta but was for Sadie. Carlotta gives it to Sadie once she notices the mistake, and Sadie wonders why she is getting a letter from her old nurse wanting to meet at midnight. But off she goes... Prudence, who has followed her comes back in hysterics saying Sadie has been kidnapped. We'd better call the police, says Pat. The police? ses Carlotta. Pah! She rings the circus people in the next town (handy, that) and goes off on horseback to join in the fun. When she catches up with the circus, she finds an unconcerned and rescued Sadie (doing her hair), and takes her back to St Clare's with her. Time to duck as I moan again—the illustration here of Sadie and Carlotta with the horse shows them both in full school uniform. With ties. I mean, come on. One does not wear a tie to be kidnapped, nor to be a kidnap-rescuer.

Anyhoo. Miss Theobald manages to keep the whole affair quiet, but the police have to interview all the girls involved, and Prudence has the worst time of her life. She natch doesn't take in those sharp boys in blue, and finds herself getting a real grilling. Let me go home, she sobs to Miss Theobald, who sternly replies that oh yes my dear, you will be. Sadie is also leaving, after her horrified momma found out not only had she been kidnapped yet again, but that the average Blytonesque schoolgirl does not wear makeup or polish her nails, and Pam is much happier after becoming friends with Carlotta. The term finishes with a brief introduction to Miss Jenks, the second form teacher, and a reminder that the girls will be moving up next term. 'What will happen to them when they are important second formers?' the books asks us. 'Ah, that is another story altogether!' And another review...

Altogether a good book, even if the kidnapping stuff does get a little silly (I always prefer standard normal schoolgirl drama, like Pat and Erica's feud of the term before), and even if it is my least favourite of the three first form books. Bobby is a good character, as is Carlotta, but alas, Margery is now in the second form and hardly features in this book (boo!). But there is another sulky rebel in the fourth book in the series, Second Form at St Clare's, with the arrival of Mirabel Unwin...

Summer Term at St Clare's

Review by Shagufta Naaz (July 14, 2006)

What do you get when you put Don't-Care Bobby and Wild Carlotta in the same form? A very exciting Summer Term at St Clare's. In the third book in the series, Blyton broadens her canvas by introducing five new girls, each with a unique personality.

There's mischievous tomboy Bobby Ellis who outdoes every girl in playing tricks (forget Mamzelle, Bobby even manages to fool the hawk-eyed Miss Roberts), and at the other extreme there's shy and studious Pam Boardman. There's the fashion-conscious American heiress Sadie Greene with her permed hair and polished nails, and then there's "wild" Carlotta Brown—who, says Blyton, could "hardly be bothered to run a brush through her hair". And last but not least there's Prudence "Sour Milk" Arnold, who passes up no chance to tell tales about the girls, and trying to spread mischief among them.

One might have thought Blyton would use this marvellous spectrum of characters to create a clash of personalities and high drama, but she decides to concentrate on a single arch-villain—Prudence—and plays her off against the rest.

So we see nasty Prudence sneak on Bobby and Janet and get them into trouble, bully poor Pam so she can "pick her brains", suck up to Sadie because she's an heiress, and spy on Carlotta to ferret out her secret. Phew, it's a wonder she gets any time for schoolwork.

Perhaps Prudence would have been a more believable character if she had at least one redeeming quality, but we must also remember that one main facet of Blyton's world is that baddies are utterly and unambiguously bad, so one can hate them from the bottom of one's heart and guiltlessly gloat at their comeuppance.

While Prudence is busy setting everyone's backs up, Carlotta isn't finding things easy either. "She seems such a common little thing in some ways... yet she's so natural and truthful and outspoken that I can't help liking her," says Pat, charitable as ever. At St Clare's, labelling people as "common", "low-down", "charity-student", etc, occurs rather more often than one would like to see, but that's Blyton's way of highlighting and condemning snobbery, something that must have been a great deal more common in the 1940s. And the "low-down, common" girls usually go on to become the most popular in the form, proving "it's what you are underneath that matters".

As for Carlotta, the half-Spanish girl with a fierce temper finds it hard to settle down in a sedate boarding school, and this leads to some first-class rows. Indeed, "when she puts on a fierce scowl, lets her curls drip all over her face, and screws up her mouth till her lips are white, she looks like a regular little tornado". Carlotta's secret past is revealed when Prudence follows her and sees her magnificent performance on horseback. That evokes memories of another Blytonian circus girl, with a similar name...

In fact, Carlotta has a lot in common with both Lotta from Galliano's Circus (and also Barney from the "R" mysteries). Brought up in the circus, she is "discovered" by her father and whisked off to St Clare's in an attempt to turn her into a lady; and her father begs Mrs Theobald to keep her background a secret. Thanks to Prudence's spite the secret is soon out, but instead of making the girls despise Carlotta and avoid her, she only succeeds in making them admire her! Who dares say St Clare's girls are snobs?

Apart from Carlotta, Bobby Ellis is the only new girl to win the wholehearted approval of the form. A friendly and sincere girl, Bobby goes "her own sweet way, regardless of rules or punishments". Her attitude earns her the title of "Don't-Care Bobby", which she flaunts with pride—until Miss Theobald gives her a shock by accusing her of cheating. "I never cheated in my life!" denies Bobby hotly. Ah, but there are many kinds of cheating, and Bobby realises that by avoiding her duties and responsibilities she's cheating everyone, and most of all herself. "Always be honest with yourself [and] know your own motives for what they are, good or bad", are Miss Theobald's words of wisdom; a pretty thought provoking lesson for a young girl, or an adult for that matter.

And what of fashion-conscious Sadie? Her doting mother whisks her back to America, partly because of an attempted kidnapping but mainly because she likes girls to be "cute". And St Clare's girls are independent, responsible, kind and intelligent but they're not taught to be 'cute' enough. Thank you very much!

Summer Term at St Clare's is a delightful read for its sheer diversity of characters and heaps of action. The only thing missing is a midnight feast, but we can pardon the omission—there's a brilliant feast coming up in the next book.