“Well-mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone”
A talk given at the New Chalet Club AGM at Hereford, October 2009.
It looks from your programmes as though I’m going to talk about Murder at the Flood but beyond saying that this is our latest Greyladies title, and Mabel Esther Allan’s only published book for adults, (please admire the lurid 1950s B movie cover, with the girl’s immaculate make-up in the wind and rain and storm in the dark sodden churchyard), I’m not. I’m going to stick to what Joy originally asked me to talk about, which is ‘School Stories published by Greyladies’.
Because of the way we came into being, with the idea of publishing adult books with a link to children’s books, school stories for adults (not ‘adult school stories’) were an obvious choice.
There aren’t that many of them, not when you’re as picky as I am. I’ve always been quite determined only to publish books that I love, and what I love in a book is intelligence and eccentricity. A high level of clear grey-eyed integrity is taken for granted when you’ve got the slogan ‘Well-mannered Books by Ladies Long Gone’.
Our very first book, Lady of Letters, by Josephine Elder is largely a school story. It has intelligence and integrity in spades as you’d expect from Josephine Elder, and friendship. These are her themes; friendship, love of learning and being true to oneself.
For those of you who haven’t read it yet, it follows the academic career of Hilary Moore from young girl being taught at home by her schoolmaster father, through her university days, to her teaching history in a girls’ school and later as a university lecturer.
The main core of the book is about her friendship with Elinor, an older science mistress at her first school. And of course with this adult perspective on the girls’ school story, you get the shift of emphasis from the girls to the staff - and more scope for individuality and eccentricity. The staff don’t have to be respected and above reproach; the Headmistress especially is very far from the perfect Miss Annersely type – she only got a Third from Cambridge and seems to care more for appearances – cardboard cut-out staff – than anything else.
When Hilary leaves the school (still with Elinor) to take up a university lectureship, she moves from friendship to romance. Romance with a young doctor (!)
As some-one said to me, eyes gleaming (it was one of the Edinburgh Chalet group):
“It’s brilliant – it’s like Evelyn Finds Herself - with sex!”
Don’t all swoon on the floor. Do remember that these are well-mannered books, by ladies . . . but you can all rush to buy it.
The only other school story we’ve done so far, although there are more in the pipeline, is Summer’s Day by Mary Bell.
This is in one way a more traditional school story, yet in others, quite unique.
It’s set in a traditional girls’ boarding school in the late 1940s, and was originally published in 1951.
It gives equal importance to the schoolgirls, the teaching staff and the domestic staff as it follows their separate lives in parallel through the summer term.
Again, with the adult perspective we get a different view of the school. There’s none of the emphasis on obedience and conformity almost universal in girls’ school stories of this period. There’s no overt rebellion - Sophie and Jasmine, the two main schoolgirl characters, are discreet and well-mannered while blithely ignoring rules and timetables, and the Upper Fifth, with no interest in Classics at all, at least pay the elderly Miss Meadows the civility of pretending to attend to her lessons.
And, what I really like – there’s no corporate passion for games. In fact the Games Mistress borders on being a figure of fun – “She looked like a bolster in her short tunic, which, although pleated, was not designed to contain a large bust.”
No, instead of games, these characters enjoy the non-team player pleasures of – reading.
So the Housemistress is a fan of detective fiction, with half her mind on the problem of the bloodstain below the viscount’s window as she takes roll-call; a sixth former reads Shelley behind the pavilion instead of watching the cricket; Miss Truscott asks to borrow one of the confiscated copies of Forever Amber as her young man has accused her of becoming a bluestocking and she thinks it might act as a counter-irritant; and, the Headmistress and Miss Meadows, after a trying day, discuss Sappho, for a rest.
To me, it’s an absolutely perfect book; very well written, poignant, sad, gentle, witty and understated. I love it.
Now, before I finish, just a word about another two sort of school stories to be published early in 2010.
One is Summer Term by Susan Pleydell (don’t confuse it with Summer’s Day) and its sequel
A Young Man’s Fancy, which we hope to do later in the year. It’s set in a boys’ public school, but the central character is the Housemaster’s daughter – it’s definitely a female book. It’s got all my own requirements – intelligent writing and characters, and it’s absolutely bursting with ingrained integrity – it’s a good old-fashioned read.
The other is by Gladys Mitchell – Convent on Styx – with an elegantly intelligent introduction by Rosemary Auchmuty. It has the most eccentric cast of characters yet, and the formidable intelligence of Mrs. Bradley. It’s set in a convent and its girls’ school and though there’s not much about the girls, there’s a lot about the staff. And of course, Gladys Mitchell, with her long career as a teacher and a headmistress, absolutely knew what she was talking about.
I hope you’ll enjoy all of them!
ARTICLE originally published in Folly Magazine, Autumn 2008 :
The new publishing arm of The Old Children's Bookshelf
I was looking for a new project for the New Year; something nice and undemanding that I could potter at in my spare (?) time, an extra interest on top of the bookselling in the shop, catalogues, and bookfairs that are my main business.
Three things combined to lead to Greyladies; the realisation that we are selling more and more adult books as customers complete their collections and are looking for something a bit different; my delighted discovery of Slightly Foxed, a brilliant quirky literary review, rather like an adult Folly, that I wished I'd thought of first, and my finding a copy (with lovely period dustwrapper) of The Encircled Heart by Josephine Elder, to read on the train from Edinburgh to London.
Publishing! I thought. Publishing adult books by children's authors! My new project!
Kirstie (the red-haired ex-children's librarian helping me in The Old Children's Bookshelf), was relieved. "It could be worse," she said. "I thought we'd have to write the books ourselves." (Now, there's a …. )
If you have read Elder's Evelyn Finds Herself, currently available asone of Girls Gone By's 'Fun in the Fourth' series, you'll know what an excellent writer she is. Although most of her books are girls' school stories, she herself was a GP in Surrey and in The Encircled Heart she writes about what she truly knows - the joys and problems of being a young woman doctor in the 1930s and 1940s. This is it, I thought. The first book!
Others disagreed. "You can't have as your launch title one that begins with gruesome childbirth!" said Vanessa of Fidra Books. Oh yes I can (and it's not really gruesome anyway) … But I didn't, having at the eleventh hour located a copy of Elder's earlier book, Lady of Letters. This was maybe more like it. Clothes on, no screaming, academic minds, girls' school, even a young doctor thrown in. So we started with Lady of Letters, and The Encircled Heart is now scheduled for next February.
Were I a person to write in clichés, I would talk about the scarily precipitous learning curve here. But I'm not. So, thanks to generous advice from Vanessa Robertson of Fidra Books, and Joy Wotton, editor and general publishing guru, we were on our way. Rights and licence agreements, scanning, formatting, proof reading, cover design, colophon, introductions and printer's jargon were all successfully navigated, though I do admit "the next one'll be a doddle" was a phrase frequently forced through gritted teeth.
Choosing a name took the longest. 'Canongate Books' was already taken (even though unlike us they're in the High Street and not the Canongate); 'Girls Gone By' would take some beating (Girls Grown Up? Girls Gone Grey?). We also rejected Old Bag Books, Candlemas Books (my birthday and the date of the train journey with the Josephine Elder), and Mighty Maidens (Mighty Maiden with a Mission at the women's university in Gilbert & Sullivan's Princess Ida? No?). And eventually Greyladies was born.
Even then, the birth was not easy. Delivery was four days later than expected, and the printers sent us a pallet of poetry while Lady of Letters ended up in Devon. The correct delivery came only a day later, but by then I was on holiday in the remote north-west Highlands with no reliable mobile signal, Kirstie was in A&E in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary after a terrifying reaction to antihistamines, and there was no-one in the shop. Heroically she staggered back to her post after lunch, and luckily the carrier was held up by the traffic chaos surrounding the Royal Garden Party at Holyrood (thank you, Ma'am) so Greyladies books arrived safely just in time for tea.
"The next one" was indeed a little easier, and Poppies for England, one of the light romances that Noel Streatfeild wrote under her 'Susan Scarlett' pseudonym, arrived a month later. We are delighted to have acquired the rights to the Susan Scarlett books, and hope to publish all twelve in due course.
The third Greyladies title, due in September / October, will be Summer's Day by Mary Bell. This is a unique gem of a book, set in a girls' boarding school just after the Second World War. The characters, the teaching and domestic staff and their families, and three or four pupils, are beautifully drawn as their lives and outlooks intertwine through the term.
Greyladies isn't quite the gentle little project I thought I was looking for, but it's the best excuse I've come up with yet to hunt for and read books all day long. I hope you'll like them too.
© Shirley Neilson 2008
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