Nakul Krishna on Malory Towers

by Harry on April 28, 2016

I was a late reader (late enough to cause considerable worry, I now understand). But when I did read, it was all I wanted to do. I read every comic I could get my hands on (I stayed with the Beano till I was 13 or so — my dad let me get a weekly delivery of Thunder [1] (which quickly merged with Lion, which quickly merged with Valiant, which…) on condition that I also get Look and Learn (which I devoured as enthusiastically as I did Thunder, so it was a smart move). Jennings and William were the cordon bleu of children’s writing, obviously, and later on I got to Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, John Rowe Townsend, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, Peter Dickinson; and all of those were, rightly, approved of by all adults. But I read everything Enid Blyton wrote. Including the Malory Towers books which, I vaguely realized, must have been aimed at girls (being books about girls in a girls boarding school), but just didn’t care. They were so embedded in my head that when, in my teens (early, not late, I’m glad to say), I graduated from the Beano to Marvel comics, I wondered (and still do) whether Peter Parker’s girlfriend was named after the awful (but pitiable) Gwendolyn Lacey. What was so appealing about them? Nakul Krishna has a wonderful, contemplative and adoring, but sharp analysis, at Aeon, which explains it all. Read it there, but feel free to discuss it here (I am really curious how many of our readers read the Malory Towers books in childhood).

[1] Link is to a site with almost every single Adam Eterno strip. Mergers of comics were frequent, but Lion and Thunder was a rare case in which the junior, second billed, comic, provided most of the stories to the new title — several survived into Valiant and Lion, even after Lion’s name was off the masthead. Most notably, the brilliant Adam Eterno.



StephenTJohnson 04.28.16 at 6:48 pm

That was a great piece by Nakul Krishna. I loved Enid Blyton as a child – “the Five” books if I recall correctly. I remember an intense longing for their lives from my own London childhood, but also the delight of the words. Come to think of it, I think I still have one of them, across 50+ years, along with my Winnie-the pooh and Alice boxed set.

Oh, and if someone (or ones) have been maligning Enid, I think they should be subject to some humorous but lingering fate, involving boiling oil or melted lead – no,scratch that, she wouldn’t have gone for that, just send them to Coventry.

Thanks for triggering a surprisingly emotional memory.


Henry Farrell 04.28.16 at 7:21 pm

I did too (stealing my younger sisters’ copies – living in a small provincial Irish town with a limited selection at the library, and the nearest bookshop 20 miles away, and books expensive too, I was always on the lookout for something – anything – to read). But the one I want to focus on in your list is Henry Treece – I get the sense that he’s been basically forgotten (the Viking saga seems to be long out of print e.g.) but he was really very, very good. Also – Joan Aiken, obvs.


Henry 04.28.16 at 7:28 pm

Also, this from M. John Harrison’s “The Horse of Iron” is mocking, but the mockery is clearly based in deep and intimate acquaintance.

“Despite this I always looked forward to Long Eaton, as if I hoped each time that the enchantment would be maintained. Then one day I glimpsed, fleetingly, through the windows of a train speeding in the opposite direction, a station called Haywards Heath (it was on the line between London and Brighton), and realized immediately that both it and Long Eaton were references to a lost type, that intimate little station of middle class children’s fiction forty years ago. Conifers and sandy soil; foxes and owls and stolen ponies; gorse and gypsy caravans in a rough field: then some mystery about a pile of railway sleepers near the tracks, shiny with rain in the green light at the edge of the woods.”


Neville Morley 04.28.16 at 8:28 pm

Any love out there for Malcolm Saville’s Lone Pine books? I’d take Trease over Treece for historical fiction – but put Rosemary Sutcliffe before both. Andre Norton for the first SF I encountered, followed by the Stainless Steel Rat. The only Blyton I really loved was the X Of Adventure series – but a case could be made that the Malory Towers books offered a more realistic view of school life than, say, Jennings.


des von bladet 04.28.16 at 8:59 pm

I happily read my sisters’ Mallory Towerses, having been primed by Famous Fives and Secret Sevens and Marvelous Mersenne Primeses that Blyton was a safe pair of hands.


Chris Brooke 04.28.16 at 9:32 pm

Hurrah for Nakul!


MilitantlyAardvark 04.28.16 at 10:29 pm

Saville is one of the most enjoyable children’s writers to remain relatively unknown, despite having a society of devotees who keep his books in print. It certainly helps that he set his work in Shropshire, which remains the loveliest of English counties.

I am not sure why Treece has apparently vanished, since he was a genuinely gifted writer – Viking’s Sunset seems to me to be as good a piece of historical fiction as anything produced for ‘adults”.

I do find the picture of Blyton’s work wildly over-romanticized, although Malory Towers is probably the best of it.

No love for Arthur Ransome?

Also, why do people making movies insist on messing with perfectly good plots and inserting dreck of their own uninspiration? I am thinking of the mediocre recent version of Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, as well as the wretched tripartite Hobbit that dragged its turgidity across our screens.


harry b 04.29.16 at 4:13 am

I agree about Treece — he was great and his books were pervasive, and then he disappeared. Similarly difficult to find Ronald Welch (I see some of his are on kindle now, but… that’s not how I want to read them. Geoffrey Trease’s first book was Bows Against the Barons, which was the first book to represent Robin Hood as the socialist hero he became in the Richard Greene/Hollywood blacklist TV adaptation in the 50s. Trease’s books also have boys and girls as more-or-less equals.

The most fun I had in college was writing a very long review of a non-existent literary biography of Blyton — the non-existent book (according to my review) argued that Blyton was a lifelong socialist with Trotskyist sympathies, and drew on her (purported) correspondence with Trotsky and Max Schachtman as evidence, as well as illustrating claims about her class-consciousness with numerous details from her books. The college magazine published it, and numerous people — including several SWPers — were genuinely fooled. I WISH I COULD FIND IT (It would be the Kings London college magazine from 1984 or 1985 if anyone as that sort of thing to hand).

I never read a word of Saville. Then, ten years ago, I read one to one of my kids, and felt that I wasted a lot of my childhood.:

I loved Blyton, but am well aware of her flaws. A bit like the Berenstain bears — lovely world building, but not great writing. I’ve just read a bunch of famous fives, and secret sevens, and am struck thaat the secret sevens are less exciting, but also less class-ridden, and less sexist.


Neville Morley 04.29.16 at 4:53 am

Thanks so much for the link to your Saville post – long predates my discovery of CT, so I hadn’t seen it – and for the post itself. I’ve never read that book, and I thought I’d read them all when I was young, but my immediate reaction is that you’re absolutely right about the egalitarian undercurrent; in the Lone Pine books, the differences between the lead characters’ backgrounds isn’t glossed over and can be a source of tension. On the face of it, a series written to a formula (Famous Five meets Swallows & Amazons); in practice, really great, especially in sense of place – in the past I’ve visited Shropshire, Rye and Dartmoor in part because of the books, and have always been amazed by how well Saville captures them.


David 04.29.16 at 12:04 pm

When I was nine or ten, the highlight of my week was the arrival of the boys’ magazines – “Wizard” and “Hotspur” as I recall, though I think they merged later. They were actual magazines, not comics, and had thousands of words of story with some black and white illustrations – something unthinkable these days. They disappeared some time in the 1960s, I believe . I read Blyton’s books like everyone else, until quite suddenly one day at the age of ten (I still remember it) I thought the ten year old equivalent of “this is crap” and put the book back. After that it was Malcolm Saville, scandalously underrated, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece (different bloke) and Ronald Seth, who’d been in SOE or something during the war and could actually write realistic thrillers for children. Most of all, though, it was science fiction, in the age when it seemed actually possible that you could have an uncle who was an inventor and would take you to Mars. Hugh Walters, WE Johns (the Biggles man), William Temple, EC Elliot….
But there’s actually a serious point about Blyton, or at least the Five novels. Adults are scarcely to be found, and often appear as rather indistinct parents, or as jolly policemen who arrive after the children have already caught the criminals and tied them up. The focus is on the children themselves, and on their independent adventures free of parental control. In one book, the Five (two boys, two girls and a dog) went off on a caravan holiday on their own – something which I suspect would get you arrested if you even suggested it today. But the books came from a conception of society where children were expected to grow and mature, and to progressively acquire agency and the ability to deal with life as they did so. All the children’s books of my youth followed that pattern, not treating children as people to be given “safe spaces” and hovered nervously over in case something bad happened to them.
Oh and I can’t resist one more thing. One of the girls, Georgina, actually self-identified as a boy, and wanted to be dressed as a boy and called “George” That was sufficiently common in my youth that we had a name for such girls “tomboys.” It was no big deal, though I have no idea which toilets the character in question used in the books.


oldster 04.29.16 at 12:27 pm

“The focus is on the children themselves, and on their independent adventures free of parental control.”

E. Nesbit, Treasure Seekers aka Wouldbegoods aka Bastable children.


Tom Slee 04.29.16 at 2:05 pm

I did not read Mallory Towers, but for years I have wanted to find a place to say this and this is the best chance I will get.

Henry Treece was much better than Geoffrey Trease.

Thank you.


Tom Slee 04.29.16 at 4:51 pm

Actually reading the comments now: it will be no surprise that on Treece I concur with Henry #2 and Aardvark #7, while disagreeing with Neville Morley #4. I have my copy of the Viking Trilogy RIGHT HERE. I re-read it a few years ago and I think it stands up very well.

That said, each generation has their own, and Treece had a long run compared to the shelf life of many of today’s inventive children’s writers.


Neville Morley 04.29.16 at 5:45 pm

I’m now imagining a World Championship of Classic Children’s Authors; the consensus may be that Treece beats Trease in a straight fight, but what if Treece gets drawn against Joan Aitken in the quarter-finals, while Trease gets matched against Angela Brazil..?


harry b 04.29.16 at 7:14 pm

Hotspur and Wizard lasted into the 70s — in fact Hotspur may have made it to the 80s, and merged with Victor. I think Hotspur and Wizard both started before WWII (ok, looked it up — Wizard started in 1922!). Even The Beano in the early years had real (not comic) stories — they gradually gave up space in all comics/magazines until comic strips took over completely.

I’m with the Treece crowd, but Trease was also great — good enough to win in Neville Morley’s pythonesque imagined scenario — and reading him to my eldest daughter a while ago I was really struck by the strong female characters, even in Bows Against the Barons (his first).

Before too long I’ll write something separate about Dickinson, who just recently died at a very old age.

David’s right about Blyton. And about George. And, in the Mallory Towers books, the girls are definitely not preparing to be housewives, whatever they will actually end up doing.


dave heasman 04.29.16 at 8:30 pm

Wizard and Adventure came out on Tuesdays, Hotspur & Rover on Thursdays. Wizard featured Wilson the uber-athlete born 1795 who emerged every now & then to break records, run a 3-minute mile etc. Rover featured Britain invaded by the Imperial Kushanti Oligarchy, and also the Earth catching fire and (not at the same time) menaced with superfast-growing funguses. Rover or Hotspur had a young cricketer “Chained to his Bat”, trained by “coach” on a Scottish island and unleashed to devastating effect on the County Championship. Also Bouncing Briggs, the goalie who only ever let in one goal, his team including Ishmael the gypsy striker (sorry, centre-forward) who played barefoot.
God we were credulous/bored.


ZM 04.30.16 at 11:13 am

The Mallory Towers series is one of the only Enid Blyton series I haven’t read. I loved the essay though. I read Blyton’s St Clare’s boarding school series, and also the Naughtiest Girl In The School boarding school series. My parents met teaching at an alternative state school in Melbourne and I was named after the daughter of one of my dad’s teaching influences, A S Neill of the Summerhill School in England, which was an alternative school where children had a lot more free range.

While my dad had the Neil! Neil! Orange Peel! autobiography book, this never really impressed me very much, and it was only many years later I found out that the Summerhill School was the inspiration for how the school is run in the Naughtiest Girl In The School series. That is somewhat of a departure from the St Clare’s school series, as it includes elements like all the students surrender their allowances which are pooled and everyone gets the same allowance, and students have to apply to the regular student meeting for funds for other expenditures, and that sort of thing.


Frances 04.30.16 at 2:57 pm

What about Alf Tupper the Tough of the Track who was a plumber and middle distance athlete and trained on fish and chips to beat the public school “toffs”. I seem to remember he inspired Ron Hill and other Brit runners of the 60s and 70s.


empty 05.01.16 at 6:46 am

I read every single Enid Blyton book. Couldn’t get my kids turned on to them though. I even got the Magic Faraway Tree for them but they preferred Harry Potter or some such. Did anyone hear read the Billy Bunter books?


David 05.01.16 at 3:06 pm

I read many (most of?) the Bunter books, I think, although I have very little memory of them. In my case, at least, it was a question of what was available in the school library – buying books was beyond my resources, and those of my parents for the most part. My world opened up when I joined the local public library, where I received a good part of my actual education, as well as a good grounding in science fiction. The other thing of of course, at least for boys, was Second World War stories – the Dam Busters, the Wooden Horse, Sink the Bismarck, and any number of other tales of plucky British derring do.


Helen 05.02.16 at 3:41 am

Thanks for the memories! +1 to the independent kids – where the Swallows and Amazons would have to be the ultimate in hands-off parenting. In “We Didn’t mean to Go to Sea”, they sail, accidentally, across the English Channel.

I was wondering the other day why Paul Gallico is not longer a thing? I still have my copy of Thomasina in the bookshelf – a wonderfully dark and complex story of lost identity and what it is to care for animals.


Neville Morley 05.02.16 at 3:03 pm

Worth noting that in Ransome, at least, the dangers are not under-played; We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea is, I think, genuinely terrifying as things slip out of control, and you’re given a very clear sense of what could happen, but in other books, the risks of sailing at night, or ice-yachting in a blizzard, or messing about in disused mines, or whatever, are made very clear. Of course you know nothing is actually going to happen to them, but it’s not the total absence of meaningful peril or suspense found elsewhere (e.g. Blyton passim). But all with the acceptance that this is part and parcel of growing up. It’s a shame that, afaik, Ulrich Beck didn’t incorporate Swallows and Amazons into his analysis of Risikogesellschaft as evidence of changing parental/societal attitudes…


Jim Buck 05.03.16 at 2:08 am

Alf Tupper! Trained on fish & chips but turned it all into fast-twitch muscle:


Nickp 05.05.16 at 1:43 pm

Me too. Swiped my sister’s copies of Malory Towers and St. Clare’s when I ran out of my own things to read.

With Neville Morley (#9), I liked Treece well enough but loved Sutcliff. I still have a few of hers on my shelf and find that they hold up to re-reading very well. The Lantern Bearers and parts of Dawn Wind can still make me cry. However, I read The Eagle of the Ninth out loud to my kids a few years back, and we found it hard going. Then, we stalled part way through The Shield Ring. I think her beautiful descriptive prose is better for silent reading; I often ran out of breath before the end of a sentence.

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