I suppose the St Clare’s books were mainly aimed at girls, and I probably wouldn’t have read them as a child had I not had five sisters, four of them older than me, and so I inherited their copies. For some reason they either did not like or did not have Malory Towers books. Anyway, I read them and one of the things which appealed to me about them was that, like many of Enid Blyton’s books, there are clearly signalled heroes and villains, or, in the case of St Clare’s, heroines and villainesses.
In St Clare’s, heroines range from plain decent Hilary Wentworth and Lucy Oriell, to decent – but flawed – Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, to decent – but a bit cheeky – tricksters Bobby Ellis and Janet Robins, to cheeky – but fundamentally decent – French minxes Claudine and Antoinette.
But, actually, Blyton was more subtle than that, and in St Clare’s there are several characters who initially appear to be villainesses (like Mirabel Unwin and Margery Fenworthy) who turn out to be heroines. I can’t, though, think of any who travel in the opposite direction, from heroine to villainess.
Anyway, I must confess that reading them as a child my main enjoyment was in seeing the villainesses ‘taken down a peg or two’, as Blyton might have put it. So, here, in ascending order of badness, are my top five St Clare’s villainesses along with any mitigations there may be for their faults.
Alma Pudden (Fifth Formers at St Clare’s)
Alma, demoted from the Sixth Form, steals food from the midnight feast cupboard and when Alison realises that someone is pilfering, leading to the cupboard being locked, she plays nasty tricks on her. Then, after Antoinette realises that Alma is the pilferer and humiliates her for her greed, Alma sneaks to the Mirabel, the Games Captain, about the planned feast.
Mitigation: In my memory, Alma was most dislikeable, but thinking about it now, I feel she was unfairly depicted. She was certainly wrong to sneak, but it does seem as if she had an eating disorder and, really, her main ‘sin’ is being fat. Blyton eggs us on to dislike her for that reason alone by naming her ‘Pudden’, which of course leads to her being nicknamed ‘Pudding’ by the other girls (there was actually a recipe in Mrs Beeton’s Cookbook of 1861 for ‘Alma Pudding’).
Elsie Fanshawe (The Second Form at St Clare’s)
Like Alma Pudden, ‘Catty’ Elsie should be in the form above, although in her case she was not put up rather than being dropped down, but is made co-head of the second form. She abuses that position to indulge her spiteful nature, leading a campaign of nasty tricks against Mirabel Unwin which she tries to blame on her fellow head girl. However, the form turns against her and decide not to accept her as co-head, leading to Elsie’s humiliation. Despite attempts to reach out to her, Elsie tries to ruin Carlotta’s birthday party but fails, in the process exposing herself to a dressing down from Miss Jenks. However, with the form’s support, Miss Theobald allows Elsie to move to the third form.
Mitigation: It’s hard to forgive Elsie’s spite against Mirabel, especially, but, to her credit, she seems to understand her shortcomings when Miss Theobald proposes to move her up to the third form, despite her behaviour. She’s also quite nice to Gladys at the end, so we should probably accept Miss Theobald’s judgement.
Erica (The O’Sullivan Twins)
Having found out about it by bullying Gladys, a maid, Erica sneaks on Tessie’s midnight feast by waking up Mam’zelle. Then, when sent to Coventry by the form for having done this, she takes her revenge on Pat (who had most keenly encouraged the punishment) by ruining her knitting and stamping on her nature work. Erica allows Margery Fenworthy to take the blame for this, until Margery rescues her from a fire, at which point she confesses. Miss Theobald then expels Erica from St Clare’s.
Mitigation: Erica (unless I’ve missed it, we are not told her surname) does confess in the end, so at least she has a conscience. In the end, though, the decision to expel her weighs against her, because we know that ‘wise’ Miss Theobald rarely makes mistakes.
Miss Quentin (The Second Form at St Clare’s)
Miss Quentin is the only mistress in this list. A flamboyant Drama teacher, she actively encourages ‘featherhead’ Alison, the O’Sullivan twins’ cousin, to idolize her. Alison is then devastated to overhear her idol speaking contemptuously of her behind her back, including comparing her to a ‘pet dog’. Whilst it’s true that Alison is far too given to heroine-worship, Miss Quentin, as an adult, should not have led her on, and her remarks about Alison to other teachers were spiteful and unprofessional. And although she was within her rights to give the best part in the play to the best actress, rather than to Alison, she could have handled the situation much better.
Mitigation: Miss Quentin leaves at the end of term, having received an invitation to pursue a career on the stage, so it seems that her heart was never in teaching and she was just at St Clare’s as a stopgap. And she did not know that Alison would overhear her conversation. Even so, as a teacher and an adult, Miss Quentin has to be judged against a higher bar than the others in this list.
Prudence Arnold (Summer Term at St Clare’s)
Prudence ‘Sour Milk’ Arnold sneaks on the tricks that Bobby and Janet play, spies on Carlotta the ‘circus girl’ hoping (though failing) to turn the other girls against her for her ‘common’ background, and sucks up to rich American heiress, Sadie Greene. Worst of all, she enters into an abusive ‘friendship’ with Pam Boardman, making the girl ill. When her wrongdoings are exposed, she shows herself to be a coward, sobbing to Miss Theobald to ‘let her go home’. Miss Theobald confirms that Prudence will be expelled.
Mitigation: Very little can be said in Prudence’s favour. We know she is a Vicar’s daughter, and perhaps her overly ‘pious’ ways can be attributed to that, but there’s really no excuse for her behaviour.