Wednesday 14 November 2012

Five From the Archive (no.11)

It's been a few weeks since I last did a Five From the Archive, and perhaps My Life in Books has brought a few new readers (hello!), so I'll quickly explain what it is.  Once I'd been blogging for five years, I had a glance back at the hundreds of books I'd written about, and thought that it was a shame that wonderful titles would be lost in the annals of my archive.  So every week now and then, I'll pick a theme and choose five great books from my review archive to fit it - it's fun finding unexpected connections between much-loved books.  An index of all previous Five From the Archive posts can be found here.  This week, inspired by the wonderful school scene in Blue Remembered Hills, I have picked an apposite theme:

Five... Books About School

1.) St. Clare's series (1941-5) by Enid Blyton

In short: I could fill this list with children's school stories, but I'll stick with this series which I loved as a child - mischievous (but, of course, good-hearted) twins Pat and Isabel get up to schoolgirl antics.

From my review: "Blyton appears to have had a pathological hatred of 'tell-tales' (which always seems to me to be invented as an excuse for teachers to ignore the majority of children's squabbles) and a fervour for sport, and Janet (in the 'good egg' category) is so bluntly rude that I wanted to push her down a well - despite all these things, I've been joyously reliving my youth through these books."

2.) More Women Than Men (1933) by Ivy Compton-Burnett

In short: My favourite ICB novel so far, the politics and in-fighting of a girls' school provide a perfect setting for Compton-Burnett's characteristic wit and discord.  There is only one line of dialogue from a pupil...

From my review: "Would people talk like this?  No, definitely not.  Would people act like this?  Probably no.   But would people feel like these characters feel?  Yes - absolutely - and it is Ivy Compton-Burnett's genius that she can interweave the genuine and the bizarre."

3.) Curriculum Vitae (1992) by Muriel Spark

In short: I would pick The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie if I'd ever reviewed it here - so this is the next best thing.  Spark's brilliant autobiography includes wonderful sections on Miss Christina Kay, Spark's teacher and the inspiration for Miss Jean Brodie.

From my review: "There are definitely signs of Spark-the-novelist in the structuring of the autobiography.  Her usual trick of playing around with time makes an appearance, but it's the enticingly disjointed beginning which made me realise Spark-the-autobiographer was no real distance from Spark-the-novelist."

4.) Dusty Answer (1927) by Rosamond Lehmann

In short: We follow only-child Judith Earle through childhood and emotional student days (I'm stretching a point), as she is forever tethered to the family that lived next door.

From my review: "It takes a talented writer to write about childhood without the novel feeling like a children's book, and Lehmann achieves this wonderfully."

5.) The Well-Tempered Clavier (2008) by William Coles

In short: A cross between Othello and Notes on a Scandal, an affair between pupil and piano teacher at Eton becomes a study in jealousy.

From my review: "The Well-Tempered Clavier is a beautiful book, managing to use a simple narrative voice without a consequently bland style - honesty, beauty, and passion pervade the novel, but so do humour, youthfulness and energy."

As always - your suggestions, please!


  1. I loved St Claire and Mallory Towers as a kid and recently re-read them in the original language. It was quite a different experience.

  2. Ok, something from my country – Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz. A 30-year-old writer is visited by his former teacher and taken back in time, back to high school. Of course it’s more than that in the book. It’s about a life of an individual in society, about different masks people put on when dealing with different people, about conformism... well, there is a lot in this book. Ferdydurke was first published in Poland in 1937 and soon after that it was banned. In 1957 it was reprinted but after selling about 10000 copies it was banned again until 1987. It’s a really weird book, written in strange and not always beautiful language but it’s interesting and funny and different and definitely worth reading.

    And one more: Madame by Antoni Libera, a novel about young student’s fascination of his French teacher (this is just a base of the story). It’s not a love story, but it’s written in a beautiful language and it’s just a wonderful book with plenty of references to different books, which I found really interesting.

    If anyone wonders... both books were translated into English.

    1. And now I have the chance to read Madame, thank you Agnieszka! Thanks for your lovely comment - lots to make those books very intriguing...

  3. Apparently Virago number 1 - Antonia White's Frost in May - is the most awful Catholic girls' school story ever. I have it on my TBR but am waiting for the right moment. I loved school stories in my youth (Chalet School; the Blyton series; Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Dimsie - Rosemary Auchmuty has written two interesting books on the appeal of these books as women's worlds [and discusses spinster teachers]) but for more adult tastes it would have to be Colette's Claudine at School.

    1. I've heard about Frost in May - it does not appeal at all - but your other suggestions sound much more fun. And I must, must, must get around to reading some Colette.

  4. Oh, and what about Charlotte Bronte's Vilette?

    1. I read that a couple of years ago, didn't get around to reviewing it, and now it has almost completely left my mind...

  5. Ooh! I am sold on your comparison between 'The Well-Tempered Clavier' and 'Notes on a Scandal' - which is, in my own humble opinion, one of the greatest novels I have ever read (certainly the best novel of the twenty-first century thus far). I will definitely have to give that a go - especially since I haven't found any good bedtime reading for some months now (I try to refrain from middlebrow stuff at night, sets my brain into work-mode, not rest-mode :( )

    1. High praise for Notes on a Scandal indeed! I think you might well enjoy Well-Tempered Clavier, in that case - let me know what you think.

      Thankfully for me, I am able to indulge in middlebrow, and turn on whatever critical acumen I may have when need be(!)


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