Blyton for Grown-Ups: Class by Jenny Colgan

This is my first Blyton for Grown-Ups post – all the rest were written by Stef.

To preface – I am always looking for books set in bookshops and libraries. I recently found The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan which fitted the bill. It’s about a woman who, after losing her library job, moves from Birmingham to a tiny (fictional) village on the banks of Loch Ness where she opens a mobile bookshop and slowly brings the locals around to the idea. There are two more books in the series which focus on other newcomers to the village, but the bookshop is always in the background.

I liked the writing but didn’t particularly fancy any of her other titles which mostly fall into the category of woman opens (or returns to her families’) teashop/bakery/café after going through some sort of personal upheaval, and then falls in love with a local man who is either bad-tempered, secretive or who appears to already be in a relationship. Sometimes all three. I don’t mind those sort of stories but I prefer them when they have at least have the added interest of a bookish theme.

And then I spotted Class, which she originally wrote under another name and which unfortunately meant it wasn’t as popular as her other books.

It’s not set in a bookshop or library but it is set in a girls’ boarding school…

Promises fulfilled

How often have you been lured by the promise ‘perfect for fans of…’ printed on a books’ cover? Thankfully I’m pretty cynical and don’t often fall for it. Sometimes, of course, the book is wonderful, oftentimes, it’s not.

Class – and its two sequels Rules and Lessons – promise quite a lot.

Just like Malory Towers for grown-ups
Sophie Kinsella

If you were a fan of Malory Towers or St Clare’s books in your – ahem – youth, you’ll love this

These are the endorsements that I’m often suspicious of. But I do love Sophie Kinsella’s books and I knew I already like Jenny Colgan’s writing.

Colgan herself doesn’t doesn’t mention Blyton in her note to readers at the beginning of Class or Rules, but there’s also an introduction for some reason in Rules,

When I was growing up… I was obsessed with boarding school books… Malory Towers, St Clare’s…

Unfortunately she also had to follow that with a swipe at Blyton –

As a voracious adult reader, I realised a couple of years ago that I still missed those books. The prose of Enid Blyton jars a little these days (and they do horribly gang up on and bully Gwendoline for the sole sin of crying when her parents drop her off).

I had already finished the first book before I read that, and having thoroughly enjoyed it was too invested to let that put me off. Perhaps she was just being trendy, who knows. She does have her main character mention Noddy, and the Bookshop series in based in Kirrinfief so I think she still likes Blyton, really.

As Colgan lists several boarding school series as childhood favourites it is impossible to say that any parts of her own series are directly influenced by Blyton. There are several things I picked up on, though, that I feel I recognise.

The story

Descriptions I had read of the first couple of books suggested that there would be a strong romance element to the stories, but in fact that plays quite a small part. The story being planned to stretch over six books perhaps accounts for that. Usually the best part of romance novels is the will-they-won’t-they part anyway.

Maggie Adair is our main adult character, and the series begins with her applying for a job at Downey House, a girls’ boarding school on the coast in Cornwall. Her boyfriend, Stan, isn’t happy. He thinks she should stay at her inner city Glasgow school, the school they went to as teenagers themselves.

Nonetheless she goes for the interview and gets the job. Her parts of the book are about her adjusting to the world of rich girls, a stark contrast to the deprivation she witnessed in Glasgow, trying to keep her relationship with the unsupportive Stan going and ignoring the fact she rather likes her ‘opposite number’ – the English teacher at Downey Boys boarding school just along the coast.

We also see quite a lot of Veronica Deveral, a headmistress with a long-kept secret, and Mam’selle Crozier, a young a fun-loving French mistress who is having man troubles of her own.

Significant parts of the story are actually about the girls themselves, focussing on a few of the girls in Maggie’s first year guidance class.

There’s new girl Felicity who’s determined she’s going to hate boarding school life
Also new is Simone, a scholarship girl who struggles to fit in
And Alice who’s cool and cutting and encourages Felicity to behave even more badly than she already is.

The Blytonisms

Downey house is very like Malory Towers. The girls arrive by train or car, up the sweeping drive to the castle-like building with four towers. The girls are divided into the four towers, but they are entitled Tudors, Plantagenets, York and Wessex, rather than compass points. There’s even an outdoor swimming pool, though we don’t see them using it.

The school is led by the very competent Miss Deveral who has a Miss Grayling-worthy speech to give to her new girls.

I want you to take advantage of everything we can offer you. Downey House isn’t just about books and exams, although those are part of it. It’s about becoming a confident, rounded young woman. It’s about being able to take on the world. So I don’t want you to chain yourself to the library. I want you to get out there; to enjoy the fresh air; to make good friendships with the other girls; to participate in as many sports and societies as you can, and to throw yourself into everything with as much enthusiasm as you’ve thrown yourself into getting in here.

You’ll get a lot out of Downey House—as long as you give a lot back

Felicity’s determination she doesn’t want to go to boarding school is rather like Elizabeth Allen in The Naughtiest Girl. She doesn’t act out at every opportunity, however. Instead she just doesn’t put effort into her work, has a slight attitude in English class as she particularly dislikes Miss Adair, and allows herself to be led astray by Alice (somewhat like Darrell and Alicia in their first form). She makes one grand gesture at the Christmas concert which backfires rather badly on her, and she is offered the choice to go back to a regular high school if she stays until the end of her first year. Of course, by then she has learned she rather likes the school…

There is a plot about thefts in the school, with the culprit revealing she has been kicked out of a few schools for theft before. Unlike Daphne she doesn’t get a second chance. The thefts also prompt a dramatic night-time rescue of a girl from the snow covered wilderness that surrounds the school.

There’s a big prank played by the girls which – as it’s played outside of class doesn’t garner too much of a punishment even though the main culprit owns up as she wants the credit!

There’s even the same element of Blyton’s dodgy maths when you compare the number of pupils to the number and teachers. There are just over 350 pupils, with the girls only beginning at year three, and going on to sixth form. That makes 80-90 students a year, yet there are only two English teachers, one French, Physics, Maths, PE, Music and Drama. The only way it could work would be if each year was split into two classes of 40-45 pupils (very unlikely at a prestigious private school) as that would give eight classes between eight teachers. The classes we witness (always Maggie’s) seem significantly smaller than that.

Of course it isn’t a carbon-copy of Malory Towers. Apart from the adults’ storylines it’s also set in the 2000s. Mobile phone use is quite restricted but the girls are a bit more worldly and certainly a lot more interested in boys than any of Blyton’s pupils were. But then this is a book for adults.

I had a little confusion trying to identify all the books in the series. Colgan says she wants to write six but it seems she has only done three so far, the third being titled Lessons.

The first book – Class is often subtitled as Welcome to the Little School by the Sea so the series is sometimes known as Little School (or just School) by the Sea. It’s also called The Maggie Adair series, and for some inexplicable reason Fantastic Fiction, usually a pretty reliable source, has it as the Maggie series (2 books), Maggie Adair series (4 books, all Lessons as this was published in 3 parts as well as in one volume), and Little School by the Sea (3 books). Some sites also call it The Muir Island series which must be a mistake that keeps getting copied.

Regardless of what anyone’s calling it the first book is an enjoyable read, which for me, was particularly fun because of all the Blytonian elements.

This entry was posted in Book reviews, Other Authors, Reading Recommendations and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Blyton for Grown-Ups: Class by Jenny Colgan

  1. Suzy Howlett says:

    Oh, interesting – I think I’ll give “Class” a go. Thanks, Fiona!


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