I thought I knew what to expect from Angela Brazil’s A Patriotic Schoolgirlof 1918 – a Daisy Pulls it Off sort of flag-waver, with plucky girls unmasking spy-rings and saving the country. It isn’t quite like that. There is a spy plot of sorts, but the unravelling of it is no thanks to the heroine, and leaves her much more saddened than triumphant.
In fact, this is a girls’ story that takes quite a complex look at the War. (Warning – this summary contains a few spoilers.)
It all begins as a standard boarding-school novel, with sisters Marjorie and Dona heading off to Brackenfield College and ‘a breathless and confusing whirl of classes, meals, and calisthenic exercises, with a continual ringing of bells and marching from one room to another.’ Angela Brazil sensitively describes the new girls’ initial loneliness, and Marjorie’s continued difficulty in finding a real friend. What she and her readers really seem to enjoy, though, is the study of of boarding school anthropology: the customs, the rituals, the laws, written and unwritten, the dormy feasts, the japes and the slang. A lot of the book is devoted to Marjorie’s gradual assimilation into the culture of the school.
Marjorie was intensely patriotic. She followed every event of the war keenly, and was thrilled by the experiences of her soldier father and brothers. She was burning to do something to help—to nurse the wounded, drive a transport wagon, act as secretary to a staff-officer, or even be telephone operator over in France—anything that would be of service to her country and allow her to feel that she had played her part, however small, in the conduct of the Great War.
This patriotism finds little outlet, however, beyond the knitting of socks; this is not the kind of book where schoolgirl pluck confounds the nation’s enemies. For most of the book, Marjorie is no more than a fan of the war, and her patriotism is just one enthusiasm among others:
In Marjorie’s dormitory the taste was for celebrities. Sylvia Page, who was musical, adorned her cubicle with charming photogravures of the great composers. Irene Andrews, whose ambition was to “come out” if there was anybody left to dance with after the war, pinned up the portraits of Society beauties; Betty Moore, of sporting tendencies, kept the illustrations of prize dogs and their owners, from The Queen and other ladies’ papers. Marjorie, not to be outdone by the others, covered her fourth share of the wall with “heroes”. Whenever she saw that some member of His Majesty’s forces had been awarded the V.C., she would cut out his portrait and add it to her gallery of honour.
She is deeply fired, though by a speech given by Winifrede, the head girl (She was eighteen and a half, tall, and finely built, with brown eyes and smooth, dark hair):
When this great war broke out, people had begun to say that our young men of Britain had grown soft and ease-loving, and thought of nothing except pleasure. Yet at the nation’s call they flung up all they had and flocked to enlist, and proved by their magnificent courage the grit that was in them after all. Our women, too—Society women who had been, perhaps justly, branded as ‘mere butterflies’—put their shoulders to the wheel, and have shown how they, too, could face dangers and difficulties and privations. As nurses, ambulance drivers, canteen workers, telephone operators, some have played their part in the field of war; and their sisters at home have worked with equal courage to make munitions, and supply the places left vacant by the men.
This was the uplifting story that upper-class England liked to tell itself during the War, and Marjorie identifies with it completely. When a new school craze arises – for secret societies, she and her friends organise the Secret Society of Patriots, without realising that their organisation’s initials – S.S.O.P. – suggest soppiness. They are, however, at something of a loss for ways in which to express their patriotism (except for suspecting an unpopular mistress – Miss Norton, nicknames ‘the Acid Drop’ – of being a German spy). Angela Brazil then takes her story in a direction that links it with those that, while thoroughly endorsing the War, warn against letting war enthusiasm govern all one’s life, at the expense of other considerations (and such stories are actually quite plentiful during wartime).
At home, Marjorie’s aunt announces a project of writing letters to lonely soldiers: ‘Some of our poor fellows never have a letter, and the chaplains say it’s most pathetic to see how wistful they look when the mails come in and there’s nothing for them.’ Marjorie secretly decides to write a cheery letter to the last on her aunt’s list, Private Hargreaves.
A few weeks later, she has almost forgotten about the letter when she is summoned to the headmistress’s study, and is handed a letter:
It was written on Y.M.C.A. paper in an ill-educated hand, and ran thus:—
“This comes hoping you are as well as it leaves me at present. I was very glad to get your letter, and hear you are thinking about me. I like your photo, and when I get back to blighty should like to keep company with you if you are agreeable to same. Before I joined up I was in the engine-room at my works, and getting my £2 a week. I am very glad to have some one to write to me. Well, no more at present from
It had never occurred to Marjorie that Private Hargreaves would write back.
To herself and the other members of the S.S.O.P. he had been a mere picturesque abstraction, a romantic figure, as remote as fiction, whose loneliness had appealed to their sentimental instincts. They had judged all soldiers by the experience of their own brothers and cousins, and had a vague idea that the army consisted mostly of public-school boys. To find that her protégé was an uneducated working man, who had entirely misconstrued the nature of her interest in him, and evidently imagined that she had written him a love-letter, made poor Marjorie turn hot and cold. She was essentially a thorough little lady, and was horror-stricken at the false position in which her impulsive act had placed her.
She is nearly expelled for what seems to the school authorities to be appallingly ‘fast’ behaviour, but, deeply ashamed, manages to explain that it all came from a misplaced desire to be useful.
This little episode seems to me to be Angela Brazil’s comment on the myth of the war as the ‘great experiment in Democracy’, the leveller that puts patriotism above questions of social class. Poor Marjorie has been innocently lured into being unladylike; she has let down the school, and the values of the school (and of her social class) should come first.
Her spy-hunting activities fare no better. She feels awkward when her friend Chrissie Lang steals letters from the unpopular teacher’s study, to find out whether or not she is a spy. The upshot is that The Acid Drop does indeed have a secret – but it is a far more innocent and sympathetic one than spying.
There is a spy in the school – but it is no other than Chrissie Lang herself (actually German, and Christina Lange) who is plotting to rescue her brother from the local P.O.W. Camp. Since Chrissie is the nearest that Marjorie has to a close friend in the school, the revelation is particularly painful. The book’s moral seems to be that to be ‘A Patriotic Schoolgirl’ is a very good thing, but it can lead to difficulties and to painful situations, and it is finally less important than upholding the values of the school, and being ladylike, in the best sense of the word.