The Sheer Horror of 1920s' School Stories
Posted 1 March 2011 in Books by Catriona
Part of the fun of reading old books is finding the unconscious traces of old social, economic, even sartorial practices—like reading a nineteenth-century novel and discovering that train timetables were much more malleable than they are today. As long as you’re not reading this on a railway platform while waiting for a train that’s thirty-five minutes late, this is all great fun.
Then sometimes you read something that reminds you that our (over-inclusive pronoun warning!) ancestors were, well, jerks.
Like these passages from Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s The Rivals of the Chalet School (1929), in which another English headmistress has the temerity to bring her school to the banks of the Tiern See, in the Austrian Tyrol, inspiring a seemingly unnecessary degree of homicidal insanity from the pupils of the incumbent Chalet School.
Cornelia Flower, another American child, jumped to her feet. ‘Let’s swear a feud against them,’ she said.
‘Mademoiselle said we weren’t to,’ objected Margia.
‘Well, call ourselves the Ku-Klux-Klan, and then it isn’t a feud,’ put in Evadne. ‘it’s fighting for our right—and things.’
Margia knew very well that it would mean a feud only under another name, but she easily stifled the voice of her conscience, and nodded. ‘It seems an idea. What can we do? What did the American Ku-Klux-Klan do?’ (p.50).
You … what?
But, wait! Margia clearly doesn’t know what the Ku-Klux-Klan do. She doesn’t even know that the second wave of the Klan is peaking in the very 1920s in which she is speaking, rather than being the historical entity that she seems to think it is. So maybe we should cut her some slack. Let’s wait and see what she thinks after she reads about the Klan in that well-known and unbiased historical text, Elsie’s Motherhood (1876), fourth in the long list of Martha Finley’s rather dreary Elsie Dinsmore books.
The account of the doings of that far-famed ‘Klan’ as given in Elsie’s Motherhood thrilled them all, though they sometimes stumbled over the long words used and were bothered by the very elaborate style of the book.
‘Cut all that,’ commanded Margia when the reader came to any preachy bits. ‘Get on to the fun.’ (p.52)
It’s true, the ‘preachy bits’ really slow down the otherwise exciting record of homicidal xenophobia.
After Kaffee und Kuchen, they returned to their amusement, and by the time the bell rang for them to go upstairs and change for the evening, they knew all they wanted about the original Ku-Klux-Klan.
‘Only we can’t go round beating people or sticking up coffins against their back-doors,’ said Margia regretfully.
‘No; but it gives us a general idea of what they did,’ said Evadne. (pp. 52-53)
You … what?
I’ll tell you something, Margia. With an attitude like that, there’s an organisation coming your way in the next decade that you’re going to just love.
(All quotes from the 1952 Australian Dymock’s edition of the text.)
(For the record, Finley’s book doesn’t present the main characters as sympathising with the Klan, nor does it suggest that the Klan was a good or a necessary force during the post-war Restoration. So the blame is more on the schoolgirls themselves than on poor, dreary, pious Elsie Dinsmore.)