BBC Radio 4, 8-10 March 2011
These three classic tales, read by Helen Mirren, Lisa Dillon and Joanna
Lumley, represented the best of girls' fiction during the mid-twentieth century. The first tale, Brazil's "A Midnight
Revel" (1926), told of a midnight feast organized by the girls of Hardwick Hall school. The second "Jemima Keeps Them Guessing,"
a Bessie Bunter tale from 1939, told of an eccentric Bertie Woosterish female student endeavouring to protect her classmate
Clara from disgrace. The third, Enid Blyton's "The Cheat" (1947) explored Susan's agonies as she contemplated the dire
consequences of cheating in an exam.
All three tales were written in "jolly hockey-sticks" style, with a
liberal use of adverbs, and a tendency to describe the girls' feelings in superlatives ("frightfully," "terribly," and the
like). In the 1980s there was a successful West End comedy Daisy Pulls it Off, which spoofed these kinds of tales;
one wondered whether producer Martin Jarvis had wanted to achieve the same effect through these readings. As I listened, however,
I understood that in spite of their dated styles, all three tales contained searching psychological analyses of the problems
experienced by young women spending most of their lives away from home, in an environment that prioritized companionship,
strength and academic success. "A Midnight Revel" showed how the girls worked as a team to create the midnight feast; Jemima
concocted an elaborate scheme to ensure that her best friend Clara did not experience humiliation; while Susan went through
agonies of guilt, as she realized that her dreams of obtaining a scholarship (and entering college) by legal means might have
We were thrust into a world where good and evil were clearly separated, where loyalty
mattered, and where religion - not necessarily Christianity, but a belief in God - could provide the girls with some kind
of solace, particularly during periods of loneliness. This world might no longer exist, but the stories offered some good
advice about the importance of sticking up for one's friends, especially during adverse situations. I thoroughly enjoyed listening
to all three tales.