For this post, I have lighted on a book that pre-dates the Landing Bookshelves by many years as it is one that my mother had as a child. You might recall that I have previously included one of her old books, A Coach for Fanny Burney so I thought that I would dig out one or two more titles as Landing browsing from time to time. Dimsie Among the Prefects by Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) is part of a series set at the fictitious Jane Willard school, which begins with Dimsie goes to School published in 1921 (original title: The Senior Prefect). Among the Prefects was published in 1923, though my mother’s green cloth bound hard back edition is an Oxford University Press reprint from 1940. I assume that it must have had a dust jacket at one time but I’m not sure; I certainly don’t remember it ever having one.
The edition is by this stage rather elderly and battered, as you can see from my scans, so it wouldn’t fetch the price that some of the higher quality copies can command. I was surprised to discover that the earlier Dimsie editions can be quite pricey (a 1923 edition of Among the Prefects for £88, without a dust jacket), however ABE also had a 1940 edition in good condition for £9 For instance, which isn’t too bad. I am tempted to order the first in the series as I’ve never come across a copy in my second hand bookshop moochings.
When I was younger, I had a somewhat lukewarm relationship with boarding school stories. I wasn’t a devoted fan by any means, yet I was drawn back to them every now and then. I dipped in and out of various series over the years; the idea of boarding schools had a fascination for me. I suppose this was because it was something that I knew nothing of in real life; for me boarding schools were just places to be found in stories, much like secret gardens and mysterious islands. Maybe it was just that as one of four siblings, I liked the idea of going off by myself somewhere. I also enjoyed adventure stories and school stories often involved adventures of some sort. I loved the boarding school part of the Katy series, when Katy and her younger sister Clover go away to school (What Katie did at School). It seemed a terribly grown-up thing for them to be doing.
I first read Among the Prefects more years ago than I care to remember and I haven’t really looked at it since then, despite seeing it on the shelf every time I visit my mother. I was trying to re-capture the pictures in my mind from that first-time round, but it’s a bit like trying to recall memories of the first time you visited a certain location or to recapture a dream. The impression is there perhaps but the detail remains tantalisingly out of reach. I remember liking the camaraderie between Dimsie and her friends. I must have been quite young when I read the story as I have retained the impression of the girls being terribly grown up and sophisticated. Of course, I also liked the tuck boxes and teas in the study aspect of boarding school life (not realising that this was a privilege only for the older girls) and not for the grubby lower school!
This story then is a further instalment of the adventures of a now seventeen-year-old Dimsie Maitland and her friends, who have all been members of a society called the Anti-Soppists since their Lower School days. This was explained as, ‘a league for the suppression of anything and everything that they considered to be “soppy”. Many and varied were the things that came under their ban’. One of the banned things was writing poetry, particularly morbid verse. In this episode the members of the league are shocked to discover that one of their number, Jean Gordon has been furtively penning poetry. As her accuser points out, ‘I counted a dozen poems, and in every one of them somebody is dead! And she has the cheek to think she can go on being an Anti-Soppist after this!’
At the start of the book, Dimsie is appointed to be one of the six school prefects. She is a very popular and admired figure amongst the younger girls and is trusted and valued by the headmistress Miss Yorke. I don’t think it’s really plot spoiling to say that Dimsie is well on her way to being Head Girl in a later instalment. For anyone interested in the series titles in order, there is a Wikipedia page on Dorita Fairlie Bruce, but the reference given to an author page is sadly now defunct. I have searched for an author society or a fan page but no avail. If anyone knows of one, I would be interested to hear about it.
In this episode, the main strand of the story concerns Dimsie’s mentoring of new girl Hilary Garth (niece of Dimsie’s friend Rosamund), who is a devotee of school stories and thinks that life will be just as it is in books. She arrives at school under the firm impression that school will be just the place to have lots of adventures. Also culled from books are Hilary’s ideas about school meals. She is amazed that the girls have jam for tea, rather than just illegally at midnight feasts. As one of her new schoolmates points out, ’Those books you’ve been reading are all wrong…Perhaps you haven’t noticed that plate of buns lower down? And twice a week we have cake – fruit always.’ A useful lesson indeed for all of us school story afficionados. Dimsie undertakes to keep an eye on Hilary, which proves to be no mean task as the new girl is determined to extract her quota of adventure from her new school. Naturally, this all leads to a dramatic crisis towards the close of the book, at which time moral lessons are learned, bonds forged and even the despised poetry (though a more uplifting variety!) finds a role.
Anyway, it’s probably now about time that I had a re-read! Are there any Dimsie fans out there? Drop me a line in the comments if so.