So today’s Tomes from the Olden Times – the feature in which I re-read a book from my ancient past and pass on some insightfully insightful insights into the experience – has gone off the rails a little bit. The reason for this will become apparent as you read on. I did intend for this to be the crème de la crème of Tomes of the Olden Times posts; a real ripper that shot you straight back to childhood and in a way, that could still happen. It did for me while I read this offering. And afterwards, it has left me wondering if I don’t have some kind of early onset senility. But anyway, on with the show!
Today’s tome is The Third Form at St. Clare’s, part of Enid Blyton’s wildly popular boarding school stories (the other of course being Malory Towers, in which I also indulged long ago), featuring twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan as the main players. Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
The holidays are over and twins Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan are dying to get back to school. The big question on everybody’s lips is, who will be head girl? But a terrible accident and an hilarious school play show the true leaders in the third form, but they also show up the cheats and cowards.
Sounds like a typical Enid Blyton adventure, right? Well, my friend, I thought so too. But herein lies the confusion. This title is, in fact, NOT part of the original series, but an add-on penned by Pamela Cox as a way to flesh out the original Blyton series.
So was I. Not so much by the fact that another writer had been called in to modernise Blyton’s work, but by the fact that I would have sworn blind that I had read this book as a kid. And yet I couldn’t have, because it was written in 2000. This was the bit that had me scratching my head and trying to remember the number for the Alzheimer’s hotline. As I was reading this story, I even deluded myself that I knew how it was going to turn out (due, of course, to my incredible ability to recall children’s literature). I predicted correctly, but I suspect that this was because the story follows the expected Blyton formula, rather than the fact that I had read it before (which I obviously hadn’t).
Yes, me too. So it turns out, on further research, that for some reason Blyton didn’t stick to the one-book-per-year formula found in most boarding school series (including her own) for the girls of St. Clare’s but instead wrote three first form stories, one second form story, skipped third form altogether, wrote one apiece for forms four and five and left sixth form out. Cox was brought in around the time of the series’ latest re-release to pen tales for the missing form years and it was one of these gap-fillers that I managed to pick up in my search for a blast from the past.
On the surface, everything appears as it should be. All the familiar characters are there, including wild circus gypsy girl Carlotta (who was a favourite of mine back in the day) and the book obviously reads enough like a Blyton to have tricked me into thinking I had already read it. There are a few little signs along the way that the story has been brought into the new millennium, with mention of coffee shops (Egad! Surely tea is the only reputable beverage in an English boarding school!) and a few turns of phrase that didn’t ring quite true to the old stories. There are also the old favourite plotlines of practical jokes, midnight feasts and sending people to Coventry.
I did feel that the retribution of the girls toward one particular wrong-doer in the story read entirely differently in a contemporary setting though. As the entire form decide to punish a girl for her underhanded behaviour by sending her to Coventry (ie: completely ignoring her and actively excluding her from membership of the form group), I did get a strange sense that this scene might come off seeming far more sinister to modern-day youngsters than Cox might have bargained for. As a youngster, when I had read such a scene in Blyton’s works, I’m sure I didn’t bat an eyelid and probably cheered along at such justice being done to an obviously guilty party but on reading it with the current social climate in mind, the scene felt uncomfortably like mass cyberbullying of the sort that sends young people to mental health wards or, in some tragic cases, suicide. It’s probably lucky that the St. Clare’s girls didn’t have access to social media or things could have gotten completely out of hand.
Overall, I think Cox has done an admirable job in penning a story that could slot right into the series without a second thought and young contemporary readers discovering Blyton’s school stories for the first time will no doubt be thankful that the series has been given these additions.
As a “Tomes from the Olden Times” pick, this turned out to be an incredibly disorienting experience. I feel mildly cheated that I haven’t actually re-read a St. Clare’s book and so now I have to go and seek out another one (although I suspect I’ll jump ship back to Malory Towers – you know where you are with the Malory Towers girls).
I’d love to know from any of you though: What are your favourite St. Clare’s moments? And have you read any of Cox’s new additions? What did you think?
Until next time,