Anti-romantic romantics

The Town In Bloom by Dodie Smith

The Town In Bloom – Dodie Smith (1965)


I never got round to reading I Capture The CastleDodie Smith’s much-loved coming-of-age novel – until I’d been of age for many years. It was on my bookshelf, I’d even opened it a few times, but somehow was never in the mood for a story that began with the famous first line: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

When I did get round to reading it properly, like many others I fell in love – with the book, the setting, with its 17-year-old narrator Cassandra Mortmain.

So I was delighted to find another Dodie Smith novel with a similarly young protagonist, The Town In Bloom. Not because I was looking for one, but because this reissue presented itself to me, on face-out display in my local library. That is the beauty of libraries – they give you gifts you didn’t even know you wanted. (The same with proper bookshops.)

Expecting the same sort of enchanting comfort read, I was, in a way, disappointed. It has a charmingly wayward heroine, nicknamed Mouse, and wonderful detail that makes her 1920s London come alive: the residential Club for ladies, the ‘brown dinners’, the penny-pinching, and the clothes! The bulk of the plot concerns Mouse’s adventures when she arrives in London, aged 18, hoping to make a career in the theatre. Despite being young, diminutive and provincial, Mouse is far from mousey. Brought up by a very forward-thinking aunt, she confounds many of our received ideas about just-post-World War I attitudes and morals. She meets three other young women inventing their own independent lives and the four become friends. So far, so good. But once Mouse falls in love things change.

As a (failed) actress and then successful playwright Dodie Smith was very familiar with this world. It’s a long way – in tone, at least – from the seedy theatre milieu Jean Rhys knew and wrote about, but it’s still not exactly a romp. All-too-adult compromise, subterfuge and manipulations abound.  There’s not much of the withheld – and then delivered – gratification for the reader that makes a romantic book, of whatever quality, satisfying to its reader. This is different, more realistic, anti-romantic in many ways. Independent young women don’t live fairy-tale lives after all.

I Capture The Castle may be shelved as a YA book these days, but I can’t see The Town In Bloom pleasing a similar readership. For one thing, the love interest. The men the four girls get involved with – all substantially older than them – are really not appealing, at least not to modern teens (I hope!) A philandering actor-manager, a career clergyman, a boring-but-decent chap – they’re thinly written and unsurprising. They’re pretty much all rotters, too. Another I’d pinned my hopes on only disappoints (as so often in real life, dear reader).

The second problem lies in the structure of the novel. Most of it revolves around Mouse’s first mad year in London, book-ended by two sections set in a later period, looking back. Three of the friends meet at five-year intervals (there’s a mystery with Zelle, the fourth). Looking back is fine – but how far? It turns out to be 45 years, which is huge stretch. Problematically, the women don’t seem to have changed much or feel like women in their late 60s – and in the 1960s, sixty wasn’t “the new forty”, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine my teenage self identifying with them and the paths their lives have taken.

But as a grown up reader I found this a fascinating if slightly unexpected period novel.


Totally invented or – um – slightly real?

I posted this on Girls Heart Books last month, so as keen recycler, here it is for a slightly different audience…


Whenever I’m asked if I base my characters on real people I always reply firmly ‘Nooo!’ But when I was creating a key character in my next book, I found my knowledge of a real person creeping in. Not someone I actually know, but a girl who lived in Victorian times, when the book is set.

Agnes Glass is one of the leads in The Dangerous Discoveries of Gully Potchard. To start with all I knew was that she was lonely and isolated, over-protected and ‘in delicate health’, as they used to say. I tend not to work out everything in advance. Once I begin writing I find that the characters muscle in of their own accord, giving me information about themselves that I’m not necessarily expecting. (I love this aspect of writing!)

When I wrote Agnes’s first scene, it suddenly became clear that her favourite time of day is when…

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Modern heroines – kick ass or convincing?

When writing for adults I’ve been perfectly happy creating flawed, even unlikeable, main characters. I still like them! But it seems to me that in writing for children there’s a complex responsibility to writing heroes – and even more so heroines.

Ellen Page as Juno in the 2007 film Juno

Ellen Page as fast-talking quirky heroine Juno

Much as I love quick-thinking smart-mouthed lead characters, I think most people are only smart-mouthed in their heads. Me included. That witty put-down, that perfect quick-fire response? Half an hour too late. Always.

Katniss Everdeen heroine of The Hunger Games

Katniss, of course

Much as I love strong, skilful, intrepid heroines, I am not and never will be one of them. Me and most of us, I think. (I would love to write a thriller about someone who can’t drive and is useless at climbing over chain-link fences! But it may not even be possible…)

I have never like mimsy* good-girl heroines, particularly the needlessly self-sacrificing type, and I quickly tire of them being strikingly beautiful, too. I don’t think that’s a desirable role-model.

So, my choices about creating lead characters I, and I hope readers, can identify with – though not extensively and perfectly thought out – are going to be loaded with these thoughts, feelings, intuitions.

Currently my children’s repertoire is historical, slightly over-the-top, adventure stories. However exaggerated some of it may be, this world must have its own logic. The emotions, strengths and weaknesses of the main players have to be convincing. (Ok, for the sake of my argument I’m selectively forgetting a sprinkling of psychic powers.) When I began writing The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth I had the set-up, some of the twists and turns, and I knew that it needed to turn out well in the end. Somehow. And of course it was up to me to make that happen.

So, how do you solve a problem like Clemency? She’s small, unworldly, and isn’t used to speaking up for herself. She’s had a conventional childhood in colonial India: brought up by servants, educated by English governesses, and pretty much ignored by her parents. Privileged, yet neglected. And she has never kicked against this system, partly because before the start of the book she’s never known anything else. Then – due to the dastardly interventions of the author – she finds herself parentless, penniless, and far from home.

Clemency from The Mysterious Misadventures of Clemency Wrigglesworth by Julia lee

Clemency, as depicted on the cover by Ross Collins

Writers are advised not to create passive heroes. They’re much harder to prise out of their difficulties, and readers find them unsympathetic if they’re too pathetic. But Clemency was already Clemency in my mind, and besides, just how kick-ass would a typical middle-class Victorian girl be? I couldn’t make her a superhero or give her a personality transplant. How could I turn her around without breaking the bounds of the story’s internal logic?

As events progress Clemency finds herself in deep and perplexing danger. She needs help. But I felt very strongly that I didn’t want a heroine who simply got rescued. However much I rallied the cavalry (almost literally) on her behalf I still wanted her in some way to rescue herself. She doesn’t start out with much in the way of resourcefulness, unlike some of the other young characters who have had to be self-reliant, persistent, and cunning, just to get by in life. Yet the working title of the book was originally The Wrigglesworth Rebellion, because I knew that eventually she rebelled against all that had kept her a quiet, polite, obedient Victorian child.

What could I do with her? When she was trapped, cold, lonely and hopeless, what could she do? What would I have done as an 11-year old? Cried, of course. Fallen in a miserable heap, probably, and never got up again. Not heroic at all. But falling apart at the seams wouldn’t be exciting or uplifting to read about, and I needed hope.

My lifeline came when I began to think about injustice. Clemency has been treated very unjustly, and I believe that all children feel very strongly about this. It might be personal injustice – remember how incredibly frustrating it was when your whole class was punished because of something one person did and wouldn’t own up to? Or it might be witnessing someone else being treated unfairly and feeling furious on their behalf. Children burn with a sense of injustice. And it’s helpful for girls and women to make use of their anger, even though they may be trained not to, rather than turn it inwards and feel depressed. Clemency gets angry – she can’t do anything yet but her burning rage stops her from dissolving into a waterfall of tears and actually physically warms her up when she most needs it.

From there I had my key to getting her up and active, finding her voice and answering back, running risks. And then discovering that, although it’s often scary, taking matters into your own hands is energizing and sort of fun. It’s certainly fun to write about.

There’s also a kind grown-up who Clemency meets early on, an expert on how children’s minds work and how adults often discount them. In the edits I was able to plant some more positive thinking into Clemency’s head from the encouraging words Mrs Potchard says to her about having ‘inner resources’. Not super powers, or some kind of unjustifiable ninja skills, just inner resources. A growing self-belief.

Throw in an increasing circle of friends and supporters, a happy coincidence or two, and a weapon I hadn’t even realised I’d placed there, all ready. Clemency had definitely become an active part in her story’s resolution.


*Mimsy is not in my dictionary or thesaurus. Who cares? It’s a good word.

Wolves still rule

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken Vintage Classics children's book

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

I read this as a child. I read it to my kids. I read it again recently and the magic is still there.

It’s full of my favourite ingredients for a period adventure: a happy quota of orphans and absent parents, an evil governess, resourceful children and wily adults, and tons of snow. Joan Aiken’s 19th century parallel universe revels in Victorian invention – according to her the Channel Tunnel, far from a 1980s vanity project, was really built in the early 1800s. It’s through this tunnel that the hungry European wolves come tearing in search of food!

There are also wonderful contrasts: freezing cold and warmth, hunger and hearty food, terror and comfort. Sylvia lives in great poverty with her old aunt in a Park Lane attic, while in isolated Willoughby Chase her cousin Bonnie has everything a child could wish for, including her own toyroom with a dolls-house large enough to get inside and with real canaries nesting in the roof. But Bonnie is a good-hearted child, and anyway it’s not long before all this is snatched away from her, in a reversal of fortune and test of character that follows one of the best traditions of children’s literature.

My favourite character is Simon, who lives a gloriously self-sufficient life in the woods and raises geese. He walks his geese from Willoughby Wold to market in London, a journey that takes two months. They leave in the snow and arrive in the April sunshine. The trip is also a daring escape for Sylvia and Bonnie and they are helped on their way by Mr Wilderness, who provides a memorable meal of porridge, eaten with ‘brown sugar from a blue bag and dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two red cows, who stood sociably outside the kitchen door as breakfast went on’. As well as the thrills and spills, it’s this kind of fond detail that I love in Joan Aiken’s stories.

The only element missing is Dido Twite, Aiken’s brilliant sarky, snarky, sneaky anti-heroine, who does not make an appearance until the next book in the sequence, Black Hearts In Battersea. I can’t wait to meet her again.

A (spiky) Little Princess…

A Little Princess Frances Hodgson Burnett Puffin

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. First published in 1905.

I think I was ten or eleven years old when I first read this book. Recently, when I wanted to re-read it, I was delighted to find this old Puffin paperback copy with the wonderful spiky, smudgy illustrations by Margery Gill that I remembered from first time around. They seem to fit perfectly with the story. That may be because pictures and story fused together in my imagination on first encountering both; or just because that is what the best kind of illustration does – enters into the essence of the story and embodies it.

Sara Crewe, the princess of the title, is an ‘odd-looking little girl’, reserved and quaint. Thin, with short black hair and green eyes, she thinks – mistakenly, yet without much angst – that she is ugly. Sara knows that beautiful girls are the ones with ‘dimples, and rose-coloured cheeks, and long hair the colour of gold.’ She reminds me of another of Hodgson Burnett’s creations, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden. Like Sara, Mary was born in India; she is thin, sallow, and ‘everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen’.

Our heroine is not at all princessy, then, in the way we think of it now. And Margery Gill’s pictures convey Sara brilliantly: her awkwardness and her appeal, her nature which is both stoical and optimistic – and stubborn! When Sara’s circumstances suffer a dramatic change the illustrations pull no punches. Gill’s scratchy style is well-suited to grim and grimy surroundings, to haunted and hungry faces.

Margery Gill died in 2008. In a Guardian obituary, Mathew Weaver, who knew her, wrote, ‘By the 1960s…her sometimes solemn drawings of children underlined a new attitude to the young. Children were no longer to be talked down to, but taken seriously.’

Gill’s illustrations for A Little Princess are still available in a recent Puffin Classic. There are various other editions of this book about, many with covers which don’t do Sara and the story justice. One shows three snub-nosed, well-fed, well-dressed cartoony girls – presumably Sara, Becky and Ermengarde in the attic. All the grime, grit, and worry hygienically disposed of and replaced with cute. Because that’s what a princess is. I think we need a few more ‘solemn’ drawings of children, please. For me, Margery Gill’s drawings will always epitomize A Little Princess.