The Twins at St Clare's
Review by Laura Canning (September 28, 2005)
Twins in Blyton are naturally inseparable, and Pat and Isobel O'Sullivan are no exception (see Antonia Forest's Kingscote series for a much more realistic account of twins at boarding school). They have been head girls at Redroofs, their posh prep school, and when we meet them are with their friends from there, Mary and Frances Waters. Mary and Frances are being sent to the exclusive Ringmere School (sounds like a fungal infection), but Pat and Isobel are being sent to the sensible St Clare's. To be fair, Ringmere, while 'exclusive', does sound much better than St Clare's—great food, individual bedrooms and evening dresses for dinner—so the twins decide to badger their parents to see if there is any chance they might go there.
Alas, their parents have become (justifiably) concerned at how spoilt and brattish their daughters are becoming, and, in a typical Blytonesque move, say that a dose at a sensible school will sort them out. It's not fair! storm the twins, as they maintain they will go to the school if they must, but will jolly well do their worst there.
The reluctant and rebellious new girl is a theme that is always handled excellently by Blyton, as she shows how frustrated the other girls get while keeping up sympathy for the newcomer (Margery in the second book, The O'Sullivan Twins, is a good case in point, as is Mirabel in Second Form at St Clare's). Personally, I'm always cheering the new girl on as she is rude to mistresses, scorns the ethics of the other girls and declares loudly that she couldn't give a monkey's about the Dear Old School. Pat and Isobel, while handled fairly sympathetically by Blyton in this first book, are a bit too spoilt to be as sympathetic a character as either Margery or Mirabel (perhaps it's an M thing). Case in point: Isobel's comment, 'I didn't even bother to look at the lacrosse sticks Mummy bought for us, did you?' Oh, the little brats...
So the twins arrive at St Clare's, sulky and determined to fail. They don't think much of the girls at first (the feeling is mutual), but grudgingly concede that the big school itself is 'not so bad'. But the old girls such as Janet quickly see through the twins' posing and nickname them 'the stuck-up twins'. Janet says that a cousin of hers went to the twins' old school Redroofs and 'fancied herself' so much when she came home that she 'couldn't even bear to sew a button on!' (I think I remember this line being 'sew a button on a shoe'?, so Egmont have obviously changed it. Again, very annoying. Shoes had buttons in the 1940s, 21st century readers would clearly understand that, why change it?)
[Update: I've checked my older edition and yep, it does say 'a button on a shoe'. Who's for rising en masse and firebombing Egmont's offices?]
The twins find to their disgust that despite their wish to be 'somebodies', the style of work, and even the games (lacrosse instead of hockey and tennis), are different at St Clare's, so they score somewhat less than average compared to the other girls in their form. And when sports captain Belinda Towers sends for the twins to clean her boots and make her toast, it becomes clear that they can't do that either. Pat storms off in a huff but Isobel stays, since Belinda has said that the girls can't go into town if they don't do the chores. If one twin does the work that's OK, since they're identical and Pat can pretend to be Isobel if she needs to go into town... An 'identical twin pretending to be the other' story in a boarding school tale? Bring it on! I love this plot device in boarding school stories—even the sacred Antonia Forest uses it in her Kingscote books—although as far as I remember this is the only time the twins do it in this series.
The plan fails though when Pat has her first taste of St Clare's decency— Belinda puts her into the team for the upcoming lacrosse match and Pat feels guilty at Belinda being such a jolly good sport. She goes to fess up, and Belinda, while scornful, says this does not have any bearing on Pat's remaining in the team. Pat speeds back to the first form common room, delighted at Belinda's reaction. I'll clean her old boots and light her old fire any jolly time she wants, she vows. One-nil to St Clare's.
The twins strike back though with their battle with the French mistress, who is constantly going into Gallic-style rages at the twins' 'abominable' French. When they are told they must rewrite badly done homework even though they have booked seats at the cinema, Pat says they will go to the film anyway and get up out of bed that night to do the work. Mam'zelle said to bring her the work after supper, she points out, she didn't say what time after supper... Good point, but to the twins' horror the headmistress Miss Theobald is in the room with Mam'zelle and tells the twins to report to her the next morning. Knock-kneed, the twins go along, but find Miss Theobald prepared to listen to their woes of Mam'zelle's strictness and how difficult they are finding a different way of teaching. Miss Theobald arranges for extra coaching in French (Mon Dieu!), the twins apologise to Mam'zelle, and all is well again.
The next excitement, and one that sees the twins much more settled at St Clare's, is the 'ragging' of the temporary history mistress Miss Kennedy. Janet decides to throw firecrackers into the classroom fire, which upsets Miss Kennedy so much that she writes a note to first form mistress Miss Roberts pleading illness, and leaves the classroom. Miss Roberts arrives at her classroom determined to find out what goes on, unfortunately just after Janet has accidentally shaken all the remaining squibs onto the fire. As strict teachers are wont to do, Miss Roberts immediately knows what goes on and lays down the law. The girls must apologise to Miss Kennedy and clean the form room. The twins, however, become much more liked by their form when they insist on going with Janet to 'own up', as they say they were equally responsible. Aw...
Miss Kennedy becomes briefly more popular when she finds out about the girls' midnight feast after a bit of horseplay sends furniture flying and makes an almighty crash. Miss Kennedy comes to the dorm, switches on the light and sees a ginger beer bottle on the floor. However, she agrees with Hilary that perhaps the noise was mice. The girls think she is a jolly good sport and are a little better in her class from then on.
This plot takes a back seat for a bit, with one that Blyton uses a few times in her school stories, that of money going missing from girls in the form. At first the girls think they have just lost it, but it soon becomes apparent that someone must be stealing. And when a certain someone starts throwing money around and treating the others, it seems clear who the thief is. She goes too far though in stealing from one of the senior girls, Rita George, who says she will go to Miss Theobald and demand expulsion. The twins find the culprit crying in the dorm and they go to Miss Theobald to explain that the girl only stole because she couldn't bear not to have pocket money like the rest and not to be able to buy things for the others. In her wise and kindly headmistressly way, Miss Theobald sorts out the problem, and all is well.
Next is the continued ragging of Miss Kennedy by the irrepressible second form. When they find out Miss Kennedy is terrified of cats, they hide one in the form room cupboard for it to jump out at the teacher during a joint first and second form history lesson. Still chuckling at their trick, Pat, Isobel and classmate Kathleen are having tea at a shop in town when in comes Miss Kennedy and a friend. She doesn't see the girls because of the partition between cubicles, and so starts pouring her heart out to her friend. Her mother is in a nursing home and Miss Kennedy's wages are paying for her care. But she feels she must resign as she is no good as a teacher and can't manage the girls.
Horror-stricken, the three creep back to the school and tell the others what they have overheard. After the obligatory lecture about eavesdropping, it is decided that all the girls will write a letter of apology to Miss Kennedy and resolve to do better in her class.
The twins are now well settled at St Clare's, even telling their mother that it's 'not a bad school', and so their rebelliousness sadly ends. But happily there's still a bit of teenage rebellion in them ,when they sneak out with Kathleen and Janet to go to the circus. An official trip had been planned, but when a window is broken and no-one 'owns up' to it, Miss Roberts says that the girls must give their money towards mending the window instead. The twins, Kathleen and Janet go anyway, having a great escapade trying to climb up ladders to get back into the dormitory, but alas, the next day it turns out that the window-breaker was taken ill the same evening the window was broken (handy, that) and so did not 'own up' as she did not know the whole form was being punished. The first form is to go to the circus after all!
The term is drawing to a close now, and the only real bit of excitement left is when Kathleen finds a shot dog in the fields close to the school and smuggles it in to look after it. She keeps him in the warm box room for some days, sneaking food for him from the dinner table and smuggling him down wrapped in blankets for his evening walk/unmentionable. The dog escapes one day, Miss Theobald finds out, and Kathleen is allowed to keep him.
There is one quite distasteful piece towards the end of the book though, which even as a kid had me quite indignant. One girl, Sheila, is disliked by the rest of the first form for putting on 'airs and graces'—fair enough. But one day she commits the cardinal sin of saying 'You didn't ought to...' and Janet explodes. 'Haven't you learnt by now that decent people don't say "Didn't ought to"!...you talk like the daughter of the dustman!' And what's wrong with talking like the daughter of the dustman, I ask? I really don't like this whole incident, especially how Sheila is then portrayed as having taken things a bit too seriously, and told not to take Janet at face value. All calms down when she is made prompter for the first form Christmas play, and head girl Winifred James explains to the twins that Sheila is insecure because her father made a lot of money and so she doesn't fit in with the more genteel St Clare's girl. She's right to be insecure, I reckon...
And that's it for the twins' first term. This is one of my favourite St Clare's books, because of the twins' brattishness at the start and because of the way the character of Kathleen is gradually drawn out, but it is pretty much the end of any personality for the twins (and we don't see much of Kathleen for the rest of the series either). It's also a packed book with loads happening in it (and means reviewing it has seemed to go on for ever. And I haven't even mentioned the geography exam!).
The main bad point is just how slappable the twins are during their rebellious phase—turning up their noses at everything and loftily declaring they wouldn't even know how to clean boots. Why they can't just sneak off with a bottle of cider like I did at fourteen I don't know...
The Twins at St Clare'sReview by Shagufta Naaz (February 2, 2006)
Meet the O'Sullivan twins: Pat and Isabel. Cheeky, obstinate and determined to make pests of themselves at St. Clare's. Blyton has used the 'rebels against new school' formula time and again, and it works each time. It's probably more fun to read about anti-establishment children than about earnest ones keen on making a good impression.
So we start with the twins' arrival at school and their resistance to all St. Clare's customs, especially 'fagging' (and I don't blame them). However, instead of being developed into the main story, this rebellion is pretty short-lived, and by the sixth chapter or so their attitude has undergone a complete transformation.
An incident of petty theft follows, which shows potential for further development. Unfortunately, it is resolved quickly and the story moves on. Blyton has a similar plot line in Second Form at Malory Towers, but that was developed in far greater depth and detail. This (along with St. Clare's haphazard format) leads me to believe she treated St. Clare's as sort of an experimental series and polished quite a few of the same ideas for Malory Towers. Sadly, along the way, I feel the carefree tone and spontaneity that characterised the St. Clare's series was lost.
While The Twins at St. Clare's is a good introduction to the characters, it lacks the flow and cohesive plot of the later books. The story moves from one episode to the next, and Blyton resolves each plot thread in turn rather than weaving the strands together.
Though Twins may not be a great book, it has its moments. Blyton does try to address a few issues, such as the fact that teachers too can be vulnerable and suffer at the hands of thoughtless students. This we see when the girls' organized ragging brings the history teacher to the brink of losing her job. Through the Sheila Naylor incident, she tries to underscore that 'money and servants and cars didn't matter at all. It was the person underneath that mattered'. Unfortunately, this message gets a bit garbled in its delivery and the St. Clare's girls often come across as snobs rather than the sort who espouse such sentiments.
But despite its weaknesses, The Twins at St. Clare's is a lot of fun and a good start to a fabulous series.