School stories formed a significant part of children’s literature in the early 20thcentury, especially schools for girls. Angela Brazil is one of the writers famous for popularising this genre. Joan’s Best Chum, published in 1926, begins as a school story, but develops into a novel about surviving without parents or income after the First World War.
This is the third post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme is beginning to emerge. This is the third book in which parents have been absent. One could say that boarding school novels are predicated on the absence of parents. In this example parents are absent through death. Will this trend continue with books later in the series?
The story of Joan’s Best Chum
Joan is 14 and a keen tennis player. She wants to be in the school team, and even more she wants to board at Allendale School in Pemberton. She has an older sister Ursula, and brother, Rex. For several years Joan and Rex have been in the care of their sister, who depends upon a small legacy in the charge of their solicitor uncle. Looking to the future in post war Britain, Ursula sees that she will need to earn a living and so goes to train in the secretarial arts while the younger ones go to boarding schools.
Meanwhile Mollie, the best chum, arrives at Allendale and is nominated as Joan’s chum or buddy. She too has no mother and her father has only a sporadic interest in her. They have arrived from Australia and he leaves her in Pemberton. On her father’s death she becomes part of Joan’s family. When the boarding facility (hostel) is closed at Allendale School the girls have to live at home. But money is tight, the investments having disappeared, and eventually Rex runs away to sea and the girls move into the YWCA. The resourceful headteacher finds an occupation for Mollie, in Menton, near Nice. Here Mollie finds Rex and the truth about her origins.
It all ends satisfactorily with Mollie able to realise some worthy dreams everyone paired off.
Being poor but middle class in the 1920s
Angela Brazil reflects on the independence required of young women in the years after the First World War.
Ursula was working away grimly at the Commercial College, as determined as a female Dick Whittington to become a bread-winner and make the family fortune. She knew that post-war girls have to depend upon themselves. The old, easy, sheltered days of reliance for support upon fathers and brothers have passed away for all but a favoured few. The majority must shoulder their share of the world’s work, and trust to their own hands and brains. (54-55)
The girls in this novel all have spirit and determination, even if from time to time they become weary or depressed. The school ethos encourages this capable attitude, and there is no suggestion that marriage is the answer to the girls’ problems, or that any of the young women aspire to a husband.
The values that are lauded in this book include always telling the truth, helping one another, being positive, mucking in and so on. Joan wants to become a tennis champion, and Mollie is good with delicate young children. They all do their bit at organising bike rides, a special pet day, encouraging friends who enter natural history competitions and so on. The adults are resourceful in helping the young people to solve their problems, and have limitations themselves (school governor’s decisions, absence through sickness for example).
Loyalty to friends is a major theme, and is reflected in the title. A chum is a close friend, mostly used in the UK. The origin of the word seem to be in sharing rooms at Oxford University in the 17thcentury, chum coming from chamber-fellow.
The middle class world is very safe. Twice Mollie goes off to France. She has care of two children even though she is only 15. Rex disappears quitting his opportunity for a career as a solicitor and leaving a note lacking in all specifics. Even though he is only 16 everyone assumes he will be all right.
It is also a stratified social world, and even though Ursula, Joan and Mollie are so poor they cannot give each other presents, a trip to the very poorest part of Pemberton points up the contrast between their lives and those of the slum dwellers. In France there are servants in the hotels in Menton near Nice, and women who look after the mules.
Despite a very small degree of liberation (women over 30 had been given the vote in 1918) the world favoured men, and if they needed to work young women trained, as Ursula had, to work in offices, servicing the men.
This prolific writer lived from 1888 to 1947. She had written 50 books, mostly set in schools, by the time she died and many short stories. She did not write for moral instruction, and believed in a liberal approach and a certain amount of freedom for young women. As a result, there were people who sought to ban her books, but they were popular with the readers. Her readership came mostly from the UK. She had already published 29 novels since 1904 when Joan’s Best Chum appeared.
Joan’s Best Chum by Angela Brazil, published in 1926 by Blackie & Son Ltd. 320pp
The Decade Project in 2019
In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1930-1939. I plan to read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. Suggestions for further decades are welcome.
Here’s the link to the first two books in this year’s Decades Project focusing on children’s literature, which were
Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)