Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The 'Dimsie' books - Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) was one of the 'big three' of English girl's literature - the other two being Elsie J. Oxenham of The Abbey Girls series and Elinor Brent-Dyer, who write the Chalet School books. You can read my recent post about the Abbey books here. I read the odd Chalet book during high school, but never really got into them, and I've never collected them.

The Abbey books, while fitting into the English girl's boarding school genre, aren't dominated by the school itself as much as the community of girls who meet there and form the central group of characters. Bruce's Dimsie books are all, bar the final story, based in the school, The Jane Willard, which is based on Bruce's own school, Clarence House. It gives the books a completely different feel - we get to know the girls completely within the school environment, and it is their relationships with each other that are the focus rather than their places within their families, who are, with the exception of those who have sisters and cousins at the school, largely peripheral.

We meet Dimsie - a diminutive made up of the initials of her name, Daphne Isabel Maitland, used so as not to confuse her with her cousin Daphne who is also at the school - when she first goes to Jane's. She bonds with a group of girls who become her boon companions and something of a force at the school from their earliest days when they stand up against a plot against Daphne in the face of the whole school. In the second book of the series, they form the 'Anti-Soppist League' - a secret society they feel moved to create when they are moved up a form into a group of girls who are prone to crushes on mistresses and senior girls, pronounced to be, by Erica Innes, the forceful leader of the group, soppy. The others, Jean Gordon, Pamela Hughes, Mabs Hunter and Rosamund Garth, fall in willingly, initially, but it is dreamy, easily influenced Rosamund who gets caught up in a web of petty revenge being enacted by a nasty senior, Nita Tomlinson. All comes out in the end as, regardless of her sometimes unorthodox methods, Dimsie has a knack for managing people and situations - involving girls and teachers alike - and this one is no different, earning her, in the end, even the dastardly Nita's grudging respect.
Moving through the series as the girls move up through the grades, Rosamund's young niece, Hilary, arrives at the school with tumultuous effect, being a much indulged young lady who has garnered her knowledge of boarding schools almost entirely from boy's adventure stories. Out of control at home, and totally beyond Rosamund at school, Dimsie takes her on. She cracks Hilary by coming to understand that if the child is forbidden something absolutely, she won't do it, not that it stops her finding plenty of pranks that no one would have considered needing to forbid! But Hilary also has a strong sense of honour and fair play, which is what eventually comes to be Dimsies strongest avenue of appeal.

Dimsie makes prefect, along with the other Anti-Soppists, and eventually, when Erica has left school and Jean, as senior prefect stepping up automatically to take her place as head girl fails miserably, is appointed head girl by Miss Yorke, the headmistress. Mabs has also left school, so the original group are down to four, and have two other girls from outside their circle as fellow prefects - neither of whom are particularly congenial or much respected by the body of the school. Undercurrents that began under Jean's haphazard rule start to surface and Dimsie is faced with some enormous challenges. As usual, via some less than conventional methods, she gets to the bottom of them - from the strike against the two dis-favoured prefects to Hilary and Co's. nursery for stray animals hidden in the secret passageways of the school, transgressing the no pets rule!
Eventually, Dimsie grows up and leaves school, becoming engaged to Peter Gilmore, and planning, in the wake of the death of her father, to take over the old family home in Scotland and begin a commercial herb garden. However, Miss Yorke has not been well. Dimsie's set all having left school, the overall tone has lowered, and Miss Yorke asks her to come back, not as a mistress, but as an Old Girl, to both pick up some secretarial requirements and perhaps find a way to reinvigorate the old spirit of the school. This is where the changing influences of modernity start to creep into the old style of the school. There are social forces afoot, illicit makeup is being experimented with, banned card games are being played behind closed doors, and worse... Hilary is now a senior, and while she retains all the admiration she had as a child for Dimsie, she's not inclined to 'barge in' as was Dimsie's wont. So, where she might have been the leader Dimsie once was, she isn't, which Dimsie soon discovers. Complicating matters is another precocious new girl, Lintie Gordon, Jean's niece, who Dimsie brings with her to begin school. Accompanying Lintie is the inimitable Jeems...a feisty West Highland White terrior, who quickly becomes the terror of the school. Clashes between the junior school and their all too healthy mischief and the indolent, disinterested seniors are inevitable, and Dimsie is caught in a nether world of having no actual position to fall back upon. Her strength of character prevails, and eventually the tangles are untangled, the juniors reinstate the Anti-Soppist League, and all settles again.

The last book is set in Scotland some years later when Dimsie is married to Peter (invalided in WWI and working as the local doctor) with two small children and WWII is in progress. Lintie - now a senior at Jane's - makes a brief appearance, as do Erica and Pam, also married and living not far away, while Jean, now a published poet is a little further off in Edinburgh. It is Dimsie's young assistant, Anne, and her boon companion, Primula, who get caught up into a spy drama that is linked to a nearby secret submarine base. This book has quite a different feel to the rest of the series, but it's great fun to have the glimpses of the girls all grown up.

Bruce wrote two other school series with different settings, and there are cross overs. I have a couple of the Springdale books - I've been hunting for the rest for years to no avail - and Dimsie appears on the fringes of those, as the school is set in Scotland so there are various social links that come into play.

It is widely thought that many of the adventures and incidents that make up the school based stories were taken directly from Bruce's own schooldays, and they are such marvelously wholesome stories that have a timeless quality that make them immensely appealing even now. It's books like these that made me wish I'd got to go to boarding school, in fact - something my mother considered for me for high school but decided against, not having ever actually consulted me!

While many of the more common Abbey books are still readily available, Dorita Fairlie Bruce's smaller output are very hard to find. It took me years to acquire the full set of Dimsie books, and I still remember the absolutely spine tingling thrill of coming across the last of them - Dimsie Intervenes - which was published out of reading order, and is the rarest of them. I'd been told with utter confidence by a member of a book group I was involved with that I'd never get it, and even if I could find one, I'd have to pay and absolute fortune for it...and there it was, on the shelf of a Salvation Army thrift shop in Port Fairy one summer for the grand sum of $2.00!! THAT was a good day. The black and white illustration in this post is from that book. For lovers of vintage girl's fiction, these are gems; just as priceless and rare, but SO worth the hunt.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Libraries in airports

Well, many thanks to The Librarian for this little gem -

The article looks at a whole pile of different library options being rolled out in airports around the world - from mobile device friendly downloads via onsite libraries being trialed across America, to this one at Schiphol Airport near Amsterdam, that's an actual hard copy book library, which, while it doesn't circulate, offers a range of goodies for people hanging around waiting for flights.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Which book species are you?

A little bit of fun, posted by a book site I follow on Facebook, Reading Habit. Click on the link to see just what species of book you are!

Monday, 22 July 2013

'Turning on' a book...

Oh, for the things that make us laugh, because laughing is a truly wondrous gift! Many thanks to The Librarian for this one, 'stolen' from her Facebook wall...although, like all the cartoons with this theme - and I've shared a few of them here in the past - there's a worrying twinge amidst the laughter.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Dangers of reading...

The many and various benefits of reading are getting quite a bit of press at the moment - among other things, the longer one has been reading, and the amount one reads, is being assessed as one of the critical factors that could help offset things like Alzheimers. However, according to this cartoon posted on Facebook today by The Tasmanian, there are many perils of which to be aware... So, for your edification and amusement:

Saturday, 13 July 2013

The 'Abbey' books - Elsie J. Oxenham

There are times that comfort reading is an absolute must - when life gets too hectic, when you need nurturing, when you don't want to think, and when you're ill. The last few months, I've been dealing with the latter of these and my previous busy, very highly thought provoking reading hit a huge nose-dive because due to the nature of the illness, and the drugs I'm now adjusting to taking, I've just not had the mental focus to deal with anything that requires too much energy. So, a recent orgy of vintage English girl's literature - deliberately gendered, given it comes from a period when kid's literature was largely gendered.
Elsie Jeanette Dunkley wrote under the pen name of Elsie J. Oxenham - borrowing the surname from her father, who wrote as John Oxenham. She was born in 1880 and lived most of the first half of her life in West London, moving later to Sussex. In London, she got involved with the revival of English folk dancing, one of many taking part in official classes and holiday schools that happened as the movement gained momentum and became more formally organised. She was also involved in Camp Fire - a girl's movement that shared some commonalities with Girl Guides, but which had slightly different base values and utilised much more pageantry than guiding.

The Abbey series - almost 40 of her 87 published books - follow a group of girls from their mid teens until their daughters are about the same ages. Set 'between the wars' - WWI gets light mentions in a few of the early books, but isn't really a presence - in mostly country England, the stories centre around the Shirley girls, Joan and Joy, who we first meet in The Abbey Girls, which is actually the second of the series - the first being Girls of the Hamlet Club. Joan and Joy, with Joan's mother, are living in the little rooms in what is mostly ruins of an old Cistercian Abbey in the Buckinghamshire country house - modeled on Cleeve Abbey in Somerset. The girls' fathers were twins and are both dead, as is Joy's mother. They meet the girls of the Hamlet Club from the big school in Wycombe, the nearest sizeable town, when the Hamlet Club girls visit the Abbey one weekend on an excursion.

Cicely and Miriam, the two leaders of the Hamlets, the former being the president - a title that stays with her throughout the series despite other presidents coming and going - are surprised to be guided by Joan, a girl their age, having expected an adult guide. Bit by bit over the course of the story, Joan and Joy's background is revealed, including joy's relationship with the owner of the Abbey and the nearby 'big house'. By the end of the book, they and Joan's mother are resident in the house, old Mr Abinger - Joy's grandfather - having left his house to Joy and the Abbey to Joan. Meanwhile, through the Hamlet Club, first Joy and then Joan are able to start going to Miss Macey's school at Wycombe with Cicely and Miriam, and join the Hamlet Club.
From 'The Abbey Girls'
The Club, with its foundation in social equity - formed in the first book to counteract a social division in the school between the town girls and those who live in the surrounding hamlets, with its motto borrowed from Shakespeare, 'To be or not to be', forms the core of the narrative across all the books. It is the Hamlets that start folk dancing at the school, and the annual crowning of a May Queen - and in that first year of Joy's at the school, she is crowned Queen; as the new girl, she can't be expected to have any strong allegiances to the divided school. Later Joan, too, is crowned, leading a long line of Queens to come from the Abbey as the series goes on.

Oxenham introduces herself via several characters - the 'Writing Person', who we meet in London in a few of the 'town' based books, and later in the character of Mary-Dorothy Devine who we first meet in the London books, but who becomes a fixture at Abinger Hall when Joy, as an adult, needs a private secretary. Other characters are based on real people Oxenham got to know through folk dancing - 'Madam' and 'the Pixie' were based on people within the official organisation. The much loved figure of 'Jenny-Wren', AKA Jen (Janet) Robins, who comes to the Wycome school from Yorkshire, and is adopted by the Abbey girls, becoming Joan's maid of honour when Joan is crowned, and later, Joy's sister in law when they marry, is based on another friend of Oxenham's.

Oxenham was a Protestant, her family being Congregationalists (for Aussie readers, one of the three Protestant groups who merged to form the Uniting Church, the others being Methodist and Presbyterian), and this informs many of the values that run through the books. While essentially being books for young girls, there is a moral imperative in Oxenham's writing, and various characters, when faced with difficult choices or life experiences, end up puzzling their way through the greater mysteries of life and faith in various one on one conversations. Mary-Dorothy comes into many of these. She's an interesting character - discovered by Jen at age 30, working in an office, and fast losing control of her bright and frustrated much younger 15 year old sister, Biddy. Jen drags her into dancing and gently bullies her into participating into living again...thrusting her into teaching a class of children, carting her, with Biddy, off to the Abbey for visits - showing her that life has many more possibilities than she thought, and encouraging her to grasp it and follow her dream of writing. Coming to this richness later in life, Mary finds herself questioning many things, and her responses to what she experiences are a marked contrast to those of the younger girls.
I do love these books. I have about half of the series - a few precious early Collins editions, lots of later more modern Collins reprints, and a couple of more recently re-published paperbacks (the latter by a publishing company in the UK - Girls Gone By - who have been working on re-publishing many of these vintage writers who have long been out of print). They are exactly what they set out to be - wholesome stories about girls and their concerns of the time - modern teens might find them laughable, but I'm old enough to remember my great aunts (I never knew my grandmothers). These are their books, and they are portraits of that era...
Interestingly, there are societies all around the world based on this particular series - I belonged to the South Australian chapter of the Abbey Girls of Australia. I never join groups - ever.... The online community I'm creating via this blog is the closest thing I've come to a group in ages! I did join the Abbeys in Adelaide - amazing group of women. Monthly meetings were spent eating lunch/extended afternoon tea (the egg sandwiches, with many variations, were legendary), discussing the books - sometimes as a structured discussion with a particular theme, sometimes less formally. All of us collected the Abbey books, and then there were the rest of our collections. Then there were the reasons that people collect - which I found endlessly fascinating. I'm sure there's a post-grad sociology thesis in there somewhere, if it's not been done already. There were people who collected because they'd become obsessed with collecting - and they collected anything and everything that was vintage and kid's lit. Others collected as many editions of the same books as they could lay their hands on. Then there was one woman who collected them for the dust jackets - she wouldn't buy a book without a dust jacket. I became very close with a woman who had a collection that was most like mine - she'd been a school librarian forever so she, like me, also had a large collection of more contemporary kid's lit - well, contemporary to my generation and that of my boys'! She obtained for me - she was also a dealer - the copy of The Far Distant Oxus, which I wrote about in this post. She also, like me, had a huge number of books by authors who were part of a golden era of Australian kid's lit - like Eleanor Spence and H.E. Brinsmeade.

I read, as regular followers of this blog know well, a highly eclectic range of things. Basically, if it has print, I'll read it - once at least! There are some things that I come back to for particular reasons. I love Elsie J. Oxenham's Abbey books because they're safe. They speak of a bygone era when things were simpler; of a time when our roles as men and women were more clearly defined. They have been the subject, along with other books in this genre, of enormous amounts of feminist research - people have written PhD theses just on these books!! They do provide much fodder for academics.

However, during these past few weeks, they've given me succour, and for that, I'm eternally grateful to these writers. I can't remember the last time I actually read them in order - I don't try and do it often, because then I become all too aware of where I have gaps in the series. I've been dodging around with favourites. I'm just about at the end of this, perhaps, stay tuned for a similar post on Dorita Fairlie Bruce, because that's where I usually head after Oxenham.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Banning books

Books are powerful things. Writing, as I do most of the time, for other book junkies, I know I'm preaching to the choir - we all know just how much a book can change us, our lives, our outlooks, transport us, transform us, etc.

That's why, when I came across this link shared on Facebook this morning, I felt it was important to share it on via my blog. The blocking of books to a reading public is a step towards the destruction of books. There is the famous quote:
“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”
Heinrich Heine
It is prominently displayed at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum, and I remember standing at the part of the display of books representing those burned in Nazi Germany - one of those seminal moments in my life. The sense of death was strong there, as in other parts of the museum.
When we censure writers, we potentially silence the voices of all of us - the writers who speak for those who cannot craft the words they wish to say into written text,  those visionaries who see the things we maybe only sense and find the language with which to voice them. This list of books that have, at various times been banned, and the reasons why they have been banned seem, to me, outrageous. Here's the link - have a look, tell me what you think...and this isn't some 'backwards' netherworld. These books have been banned in America - so called bastion of the 'free world'.

O.M.G. ... it's a BOOK....

Could NOT resist this cartoon that The Tasmanian posted on Facebook....