Claudine at St Clare's (by Enid Blyton)

A young friend of mine, currently aged nine, regularly borrows some of my children’s books. She has read her way through Enid Blyton’s ‘Mallory Towers’ and ‘St Clare’s’ books in order, and re-reads them apparently randomly. I don’t know what the appeal is about books set in boarding schools, but I used to enjoy these myself and it’s lovely to see someone else reading them.

Her most recent re-read was ‘Claudine at St Clare’s’, which was returned last night. I picked it up idly this morning and started reading the first chapter. It’s many years since I’ve dipped into these stories and I vaguely remembered this as one of my favourites in the series. I wondered what I would think of it now, probably around forty years after I last read it.

There are four new girls in the form, including Claudine of the title, who is the niece of Mam’zelle, the French teacher. Claudine is mischievous and likeable, brilliant at needlework but with a strong dislike of sports and swimming. Horribly caricatured of course; her lack of appreciation of the British ‘sense of honour’ could be seen as racist - and yet Claudine is an appealing character with her own strong sense of right and wrong.

Claudine is certainly the nicest of the new girls. The others are Eileen, daughter of the new and unpleasant Matron; Angela, who is beautiful, wealthy and snobby; and Pauline, who is also snobby and decidedly boastful. The book mainly focuses on these girls, with only cameo roles by the O’Sullivan twins, and their various classmates.

It’s old-fashioned, of course. The dialogue seems stilted, full of ‘I say!’ and ‘Look here!’ and contains some of the irritating style of discussion where one girl informs another girl of something which both would evidently know, for the sake of the reader. The situations are typecast (a stinkbomb ‘trick’, a midnight feast, a bit of tale-bearing, a half-term…) and most of the characters are excessively caricatured.

But I enjoyed reading it, with a hint of nostalgia, and the realisation that a good many moral issues are covered without preaching. Many of my values were formed in part thanks to Enid Blyton; I have a deep-rooted dislike of snobbery and cliquishness, and a horror of cheating. The shallow but good-natured Alison learns something valuable in this book, and it’s a lesson which I hope would still translate to 21st century readers.

This book was originally intended for girls of about 11-15; the main characters in the series are around eleven or twelve in the first book, ‘The Twins of St Clare’s’ (which I also re-read recently) and they are about fifteen in this one, going into the fourth form - what we would now call Year Ten. They seem a lot younger than today’s fifteen-year-olds, and decidedly naive in some ways. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, but it means the book is more likely to appeal to younger children such as my nine-year-old friend.

Re-published in 2005, and often found as part of a bigger collection of St Clare's books, this is regularly available second-hand, and now even has a Kindle edition.

Review by copyright 2014 Sue's Book Reviews

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