On the face of it, the books published by the Schoolgirls’ Own Library should have come with a warning sticker: ‘This book can seriously damage your enjoyment of reading’. What schoolgirl, or indeed schoolboy, could be expected to wade through 64 pages of poor-quality paper (post-war paper shortage, people) with tiny print, in columns, no illustrations, no reader-friendly white space, nothing to make reading easy or pleasurable other than the words?
Even in the entertainment desert of the 1950s, surely this was more punishment than pleasure. But no, we loved them.
The publisher, Amalgamated Press, based in London’s Farringdon Street, resumed printing this series after the war, and between 1946 and 1963 produced 410 issues with such enticing titles as:
- Secret Enemy of the Fourth Form Review
- The Imposter Sports Mistress
- Her Outlaw Friend In Mexico
- Rivals For The School
- Her Secret Mission At The Kennels
- Girl Rider Of The Rockies
These stories hit many spots — schoolgirl protagonists, rivalry, conflict, closed societies, secrets, animals, hobbies such as photography and film-making, a range of sporting activities, theatre, drama and a good dash of what we would have called foreign settings.
The writing is brisk and and sometimes lively, and the authors have a sure-footed way with a plot. In the time-honoured fashion of children’s fiction, the stories show youngsters pitting themselves against adult tricksters, wrongdoers, criminals, and coming out on top.
The female characters present a range of admirable characteristics. They’re clever, daring, strong, quick-witted, inventive, determined. They survive physical dangers, personal attacks, sabotage, kidnapping. Any slightly jarring reference to a girl’s ‘pleasant smiling face’, or ‘pleasantly merry face’, or to her ‘chatting pleasantly’ is offset by descriptions of what these girls actually do when they are fighting against a scheming property developer or tracking down a jewel thief or taking on smugglers in the South Seas.
Revisiting some old favourites all these years later throws up some unexpected pleasures which were probably not appreciated at the time. There are the nice little vignettes of Mr Parr, a teacher in the Queenscourt Co-Ed series, who ‘was often at work well into the small hours of the morning, typing his thriller, his spare-time occupation’, while the head teacher of the school sat up late at night ‘reading his favourite Greek author’.
Kitty, one of the sprightly co-eds, or ‘cheery chums’ as the strap-line puts it, bets that Mr Parr’s thriller starts ‘Crash! came the sound of a split infinitive.’. A female colleague suggests to Mr Parr that he should turn his hand to writing romances, which make for more worthwhile reading.
The robust nature of the subject matter in the Schoolgirls’ Own Library output makes the encouraging assumption that girls like to read about other girls (and some boys) who are engaged in bold and intrepid activities. You can look nice, wear a pretty dress and film-star sunglasses, but your appearance doesn’t define you.
There is no room in these stories for life-limiting self-consciousness — there’s too much to do, too many experiences to savour, too many adventures to be had. The world they present to young girls is wide, encompassing funfairs, circuses, mountains, prairies, rodeos, cavaliers, princesses, as well as schools in familiar and unfamiliar settings. Girls can claim their place in these worlds. They can do anything.
So it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that some favourite Schoolgirls’ Own Library authors — Hazel Armitage, Anne Gilmore and Elise Probyn among them — were actually men writing under women’s names. Rats.
Oh dear. Were we fooled, all those years ago, into accepting and embracing male ideas of what a female should be like? If we were, we weren’t alone. From the early 20th century most of the writers for the schoolgirl market in books, annuals and stories were men. The market for girls’ stories took off after the First World War, when one of the editors at Amalgamated Press noticed that not only were girls reading the boys’ publications, but the readers’ letters that they wrote to the boys’ papers showed that girls were more opinionated, more talkative and more open than their buttoned-up brothers. To cater for this emerging audience, the publishers stuck to the tried and tested formula of boys’ stories, and continued to employ the writers they knew could deliver.
So it may be the case that those who wrote for the Schoolgirls’ Own Library were actually imposing a male world view on female protagonists. However, in these books the nature of the female products of the male gaze, as we say nowadays, is surprisingly heartening, and we could actually set aside our knowledge that the stories were penned by males.
The girl characters may show some traditional ‘female’ behaviours, but they are not limited by them. The young heroines exhibit admirable qualities. They are physically and mentally brave. They stand up for themselves, and for others. They value loyalty. They oppose the exploitation of the weak, and fight discrimination on grounds of class and culture. They acknowledge authority, but aren’t scared to challenge it.
We have to say hats off to the Trixies and Bettys and Fredas and Peggys of the mid-1950s. Creations of an era before the explosion of pop music and teenage culture, they are of course quaintly old-fashioned. Yet at the same time, in their refusal to accept what is wrong, these sparky young women can be seen as showing the way forward for their later sisters.
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