Revisiting my childhood

malorytowers

When I spotted a battered old hardback of First Term at Malory Towers in a book shop last week, I knew I had to buy it. I was obsessed with the Malory Towers stories as a child; I’d read them over and over again, enchanted by the descriptions of boarding school life. No parents, no washing up duty, no annoying brother and sister; instead, life was one long jolly of midnight feasts, pranks on teachers, swimming in the fresh sea water pool and laughing and joking in the common room. I wanted to go to Malory Towers so badly that I pleaded my parents endlessly to send me to boarding school. I could think of nothing better; as a child who adored every second I spent at school, being there 24 hours a day with boundless opportunities for fun and feasting seemed like a dream existence. My parents were obviously far too sensible to agree to the demands of a 10 year old who based her ideas about life on Enid Blyton books, and I went to the school down the road, just like my brother and sister. However, I never lost the dream, and I chose my university based on the amazing halls of residence that rather resembled Malory Towers. Within a matter of weeks, I realised that my parents had saved me from a horrific 7 years. Enid Blyton didn’t write about the evils of sharing a bathroom with 40 other girls, the terrible lack of privacy, the bitchiness and the mess. There was fun and there was feasting, but it didn’t make up for having to stand in a shower stall that was swimming with other people’s hair every morning. Enid Blyton was certainly selective with her truths.

I was excited to open the pages of Malory Towers for the first time in sixteen years. Would it cast the same spell on a sceptical adult? Would I be enchanted once again by tales of a childhood spent in the idyllic surroundings of a Cornish stately home where nobody actually seemed to do any school work and got afternoon tea served to them every day? Well, I enjoyed it, but more for nostalgic reasons than its literary merit. Whenever I reread books I loved as a child, I am always surprised that I didn’t end up becoming a frightful bigot. Enid Blyton’s clear belief of the supremacy of the British white middle class oozes from every word she wrote, and she has no sympathy for those who are unable to embody her rather pre war public school boy values of selflessness, courage and self sufficiency. Anyone who isn’t perfect or able to admit that they’re not perfect and be very humble about it is dismissed as selfish, stupid, unkind or weak. Deviance from the middle class code of acceptable behaviour is usually down to ineffectual parenting by silly, indulgent mothers with painted nails and fur coats. Sensible mothers, who wear tweeds and brogues and are married to equally sensible fathers with good jobs and solid red brick detached houses in smart suburbs produce sensible, hardy, intelligent children who are Good and Kind and Brave and held up as an example to all the little boys and girls reading at home. At times, it’s toe curling.

However, I still loved every minute. It’s so bad, it’s good. Every cliche of mid century boarding school stories is here. There’s no nonsense Matron in her starched white apron and cap, handing out doses of vile tasting medicine with twinkly eyes; firm but fair favourite teacher Miss Potts, with her neat bun and stylish dresses; blustering Mam’zelle, who is always getting her English phrases mixed up, and wise, sensible Headmistress Miss Grayling, who dispenses advice from behind her bureau with the air of a god. The ‘dormys’ contain spotlessly clean rows of beds with cheerfully colourful eiderdowns, the comfortable and spacious common room is within a turret with a glorious view of the sea, the classrooms are bright, attractive and contain very interesting acoustics that allow for girls to spend their lessons talking, passing notes and plotting pranks without being heard by their teachers, and nobody ever has to do any homework, but instead can spend their free time swimming, playing tennis, lying about in the sun or taking bracing cliffside walks. If only all of us could go to a school like this, eh? No wonder I attempted to bankrupt my parents by nagging them endlessly about packing me off to the halcyon world of Malory Towers.

You have to, of course, read this sort of stuff with a pinch of salt and your rose tinted glasses on, and keep reminding yourself that Enid Blyton was the product of a different age. Despite her questionable ethics, she certainly knew how to spin a yarn, and I was gripped by the pursuits of Darrell Rivers and her motley crew of friends as they navigated their first term of boarding school. I spent a very happy couple of hours in bed with this book, a cup of tea, some custard creams, and my childhood memories. I want to get the rest of the set now, and save them up for when I need a bit of indulgent comfort reading. I also want to go and work at Malory Towers, because my workload would dramatically reduce and I’d get a view of the sea from my classroom. All I need is some extra long hair pins, some pince-nez and some court shoes and I’ll be good to go. Malory Towers, here I come!

33 comments

  1. You’ve put this all so well, especially “It’s so bad, it’s good.” As a Canadian kid, an English boarding school was even farther out of my reach, but I longed to go to Malory Towers or St. Clare’s as a kid. They’re such terrible books, and I (still) enjoy reading them _so_ much. I own the whole set, and they’re stored at my parents’ house, but I can’t bear to give them up.

    Enid Blyton is funny – as you say, its a really good thing so much of her message is lost on the kids who read her books, but even as an adult, it’s easy to slip into that world and take comfort there. I have a harder time doing this with other authors – C.S. Lewis comes to mind. I loved Narnia is a kid, but I can’t turn my analytical brain off when I read them now, and the allegory is practically bludgeoning the reader.

    I have a bad feeling I would have been represented poorly in an Enid Blyton school story. I’m so terrible at tennis and hockey that I gave up trying!

    1. Hahaha – I love how much so many of us longed to go to boarding school due to these books. And they’re all lies! And so awful! But children don’t notice those things – they just see the food and the lack of work and think – take me there!

      Yes, reading favourite books as an adult can be a little sobering. Thank goodness those values didn’t sneak their way into my consciousness as otherwise I’d be in trouble!

      Oh yes, me too – I would have had no team spirit and probably been a swot in the library rather than one of the cool kids!

  2. I loved Mallory Towers as a child, although i haven’t read it since. I must say that I went to boarding school and absolutely loved it! There is a perception that it must always have been terrible and I am sure some were but by no means all.There certainly was feasting and fun, but lots of rules and prohibitions as well. However, it was very equalising because we were all in it together regardless of our home circumstances and great friendships were made and continue today after more decades than I care to countI

    1. I’m glad you had a brilliant time at boarding school, Marion – I’m jealous! How wonderful that you’re all still friends. I think with the expense of boarding schools these days, they have become the preserve of the wealthy only, and there is very little mixing of children from different backgrounds. You get the idea from Malory Towers that most girls were just comfortably middle class, much like I was as a child – but you’d have to be a lot more than comfortably middle class to afford to pay £30,000 to send a child to school nowadays!

      1. Sadly I fear you are right, Rachel and I am sure the schools will be poorer for it!. I wasn’t aware that anyone in my school came from a rich, let alone super rich family – or if they did they were very discreet about it. Ostentation would have been very frowned upon!

  3. I was so thrilled to stumble upon “Book Snob”- wonderful to finally find someone who reads and enjoys the same books as I do. Malory Towers! what memories that evokes,running home from school in small town New Zealand to Mum’s home baking and a glass of milk and into that idyllic world. For years I thought that every English child lived in Enid Blyton’s created world,and although I never aspired to go to boarding school,I found the stories incredibly compelling,total escapism. Of course Enid Blyton was of her day and class,cringeworthy now,but a huge part of my wonderful childhood. Simply love your blog and really encourage you to continue writing it if you possibly can.

    1. Hi Beverley, thanks for commenting! It’s lovely to hear from you! So glad you loved Malory Towers, too – yes, far from a typical life for an English child, but wonderful escapism nonetheless! Thank you very much – so glad you’re enjoying reading and I do hope to still be here in some shape or form for many years to come, don’t worry!

  4. I loved Malory Towers as a child too, but after going to boarding school myself I’m not sure that I could bring myself to reread it again! Boarding school in Australia in the 2000s was a very different experience.

  5. I grew up with Enid Blyton and the Malory Towers were my favourite – like you, I longed for a boarding school but in the end my rather lovely old fashioned grammar school ended up being a decent substitute. It’s easy to criticise her attitudes in hindsight, but her stories (the Adventure series also) were gripping and exciting when I was young – you’ve rather made me want to revisit her now!

    1. Yes, I attended an old fashioned grammar too, and had a lovely time. I don’t regret it, but I do still long for a Malory Towers experience! Do revisit if you can – I loved every minute of reading the first book again!

  6. Your post made me smile! I read and adored all of Enid Blyton’s school stories as a child, and desperately wanted the same school experience for myself, with little realisation that as a non-white, albeit middle-class, person who is not at all fond of games or swimming I likely would have been ostracised and viewed with Deep Suspicion. And yet, as an educated and experienced 20-something, I still find these books comforting reads and intend on passing on my carefully preserved collection to my future-daughter! Wilfully naive or just plain stupid? Go figure!

    1. Yes, they weren’t very inclusive worlds…and still aren’t, really! They are still lovely comfort reads though, and well done you for preserving your collection – I have no idea where mine went!

  7. I loved Malory Towers too! It was so exotically different from my own life that they might have been on another planet. But I remember enjoying not understanding it, if you know what I mean – Darrell would say things like “You are a dark horse, Alicia!” and I would have no idea what she was talking about but enjoyed it all the more because it was so odd. I also particularly remember Darrell and parents tutting disapprovingly because someone had come back from the hols with a perm – and they were only 15! Outrageous! Blyton certainly did have a very fixed sense of correct behaviour.

    1. Oh yes – the phrases she uses are so old fashioned! I must have skipped over those bits as a child. My abiding memory is of midnight feasts – but they didn’t even have one in the first book!

  8. What a good post! It made me feel better about my 7 yr old self – after all these years!

    Remember I told you about being run over when I was little (in New Eltham)? I have the clearest memory of the surgeon, who was about to mend my nasty internal injuries, bending over me and asking what I would like as a gift when the op would be over. I asked at once for a book: an Enid Blyton book.

    How I have blushed since then – stupidly, I know. I was an early reader and loved many different authors but I chose EB. Never mind. Now I feel comforted by your assessment of her. And I especially enjoyed your last few sentences!

    1. Oh Chrissy! You wanted a comfort read, you poor little thing! Nothing to be ashamed of at all – I’d probably have asked for exactly the same thing!

  9. I must go visit Mallory Towers and St Clair’s again. I went to boarding school in England when i was 10 and I read these for research. While my school was not bad – it was not as good as these.

    Love your comments.

    1. How lucky you were, Sally! I never read the St Clare’s books – I don’t think I could read them as an adult minus any childhood memories to justify it – but the Malory Towers books I am going to devour as soon as I can get hold of them!

  10. I loved Enid Blyton and read everything she wrote. My favourite being The Magic Faraway Tree which our teacher read to us only if we had been good. She read little bits and we longed to hear more. I was sad to read that she was such an awful person especially as a mother. We all wanted to go to boarding school but I think the reality would have been different. Being named Enid has caused me lots of fun as a friends child was convinced I was the writer and kept asking when I was writing a new Noddy book. Also I was once introduced by a ditsy lady as Enid Blyton. !!!!! Many of the children I taught enjoyed Mallory Towers and there seemed to be a resurgence of popularity .

    1. Hahahaha – you should have said you were her! I loved Enid Blyton with a passion and had loads of her books – Famous Five, Secret Seven, Malory Towers, all the Adventure books, and yes the Magic Faraway Tree was a huge favourite too. I tried reading that to my nephew and he was enchanted but I was insufferably bored – I can’t believe I used to re-read it practically once a month! I wish I still had my old copies – I have no idea what happened to them!

  11. I had a similar experience with Gone With the Wind. I read it first as a 13 year old and am appalled to say that the racism bothered me not a bit. The book then got passed around to all my friends. No one was else was bothered by the racism either, but then if anyone was going to bring it up it should have been me, since I was the only one of color (this was in the US). Some books just have to be read by a certain age. I had not heard of Enid Blyton let alone read her until I was in my 20s and tutoring a child in English. The English-language children’s books available (in Finland) were few, and that’s when I discovered Blyton. What I remember now is all the food the characters were constantly cramming into their faces! I wonder did she write during WWII and afterwards when food availability and quality were an issue?

    1. Yes I don’t think children notice any of those underlying tensions – probably for the best! It is all about the food – that is what I remember most vividly about all of her books. The amazing picnics, the afternoon snacks – I felt very put out that I didn’t have a maid to bring me up a tray of crumpets and tea at 3 o clock!!

  12. It is fun and illuminating to revisit our childhood books and take time for “indulgent comfort reading”. I’ve sometimes cringed at the overt racism, sexism, and gilded lilies in books of yore, but, they stand as part of the cultural mores of the times they were written, don’t you think, and the good thing is that we recognize these things today.

    1. Yes they do – and I think it’s a shame that many of her books have been rewritten for a modern audience as we then erase that cultural history and sense of understanding of how we have developed in our attitudes as a society.

  13. I did not read the series by Enid Blyton. It may not have been available in Midwestern United States. The series that shocked me as I reread them was The Elsie Dinsmore series. Some of it does seem racist, but when I reread it as an adult, I realized how some of the people in the books struggled with the status quo especially during the Civil War. It would be difficult to write about a time and place but put in our cultural standards an political correctness. You have to tell about the time as the time was lived,not as it should have been lived. I love the old books from my childhood and am glad you found some of yours to enjoy.

    1. I have never heard of Elsie Dinsmore, Janet! Malory Towers might have been a little too British for American tastes! Yes I quite agree – as we change as a society, our attitudes change, and we can’t judge our forefathers by our standards today. I love reading books from my childhood – they always bring back such happy memories!

  14. I love reading your blog & this struck such a chord ! I was an avid reader of Enid Blyton & of school stories – especially the Chalet School books. I haven’t reread Malory Towers, but I did try the Chalet School again recently and I was a touch dismayed – I hadn’t realised how morally prescriptive they were – and oddly narrow in their conception of women and their roles. However, as discussed above, they are very much a product of their time. I just wonder what effect it’s had on me ! I was always so directly affected by what I read – my Mum remembers my ‘Laura Ingalls Wilder’ phase very fondly as for a couple of weeks I got up early every morning to make the family breakfast!

  15. There are now at least two small publishers who specialise in reissuing this genre of books, they are ‘Girls Gone By Publishers based in Somerset and Grey Ladies Publishing based in Scotland, their websites are worth visiting, they just brim with nostalgia and half forgotten writers. GGBP have a number of Malory Towers books. I urge everyone to visit their website and know I don’t work for them. We will miss you Rachel, hope you will be back soon.

  16. I enjoyed Malory Towers too, and have just rebought the books (the older paperback editions). However, like a lot of you, I find them elitist and rather bigoted. I think Darrell could be mean sometimes, like the way she reprimanded Catherine for being sensitive, and I think the girls were bitchy towards Catherine for being overly helpful – there are far worse things to be than that!

    There was also a lot of stereotyping – e.g. of Zerelda the American girl, and the “bad”/annoying characters, Gwendoline and Amanda, being overweight, as if overweight is being aligned with having undesirable character traits.

    Having said that, I still find the books entertaining, and they are ideal for relaxing and switching off. Also in a Famous Five book, Five go off to Camp, the Kirrin children mock Cecil for being a mummy’s boy/timid, and it isn’t portrayed as being unkind. I think this is bullying, but Enid Blyton put it across as being not only acceptable, but justifiable.

    Again, I enjoyed the Famous Five books for their adventure themes, and the innocence where children got out and about, hiked, camped, explored, and got plenty of fresh air.

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