LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
set around 1954/55
Caroline changed. Unbuttoning her brown skirt, she turned it inside out and slipped it on again – and in a twinkling she was wearing a blue one, for she had had it specially made and it was reversible. Off came her brown tie and a bright brooch was fixed in its place. Then the wig, navy beret and the nylons. At last she was ready. Tucking her school clothes [away] and covering them with bracken, she set out for the village. She shivered as she went, then laughed at herself.
‘I never thought the day would come when I should regret wearing nylons,’ she exclaimed to herself. ‘But after those school uniform lisle stockings these lovely fifteen denier creations are just plain cold!’
observations: I’m always ready to mock JD Salinger/Buddy Glass for the line ‘The Great Gatsby… was my Tom Sawyer.’ Probably because The Clue in the Castle was my Middlemarch when I was a young thing. Someone gave me the book when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I read and re-read it over and over, and can remember every detail of the plot. (Well inasmuch as anyone can, it is very complex.)
I was reminded of it last week, when guest blogger Colm got into a discussion with keen blog friend Lucy Fisher on the subject of lisle stockings – ‘the colour of strong tea’ as Lucy memorably described them in the comments.
Proust-like, I was taken back to this book and the lines above. And so I re-read it, enjoying every minute. And understanding finally that although it is a school story (my favourite genre as a child) it is also a crime story (favourite genre for many years since).
Joyce Bevins Webb seems to have written nothing else, and I have realized why: she must have used up every single plotline from her head in this one book. The story – which is only just over 200 pages long - involves all the following features:
- Castle Monastery School – a girls’ boarding school which was formerly a castle AND a monastery (this is the school I want to go to, narrowly beating out Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, which has dormitories in the towers and a rock swimming pool filled by the tide)
- A secret passage inside a hollow pillar, leading to a hidden room.
- Threat from the sea, which is eroding the cliffs and threatening to wash away the ruins, and perhaps the odd bounds-breaking schoolgirl.
- Three characters who are impersonating others, or are not who they seem to be.
- The young woman above who is 29, but who is at the school pretending to be a Sixth former.
- [SPOILER, but cannot miss this out:] the 29-year-old discovers to their mutual shock and surprise that one of the other pupils at the school is her daughter.
- A good selection of wigs, disguises, haircuts, and dying skin brown - all of which change anyone’s appearance so much that they can easily avoid recognition.
- A heroine, Nita, who has ‘well-brushed hair tied back with a brown bow like a highwayman’s’ (oh how I longed for such a look back then…)
- A games mistress with black hair and red lips, who wears ‘a rich red twin set, and a pleated skirt of grey and white diagonal checks which swung with an arrogant air’ … which is how I would like to look now – see below (an illo from the book) for glimpses of both these:
- Pyjama trousers adapted to be worn as hiking shorts.
- A girl pretending to be a boy, wearing said shorts.
- Flashback to an air raid that caused a train crash: ‘at that moment the second bomb dropped… and we looked again and there was no train to return to. It had vanished.’
- Fully three different babies who get lost, mixed up or wrongly assigned – even Shakespeare would have made do with two.
- A runaway bride of 16, and a possible murder.
- A wicked and dishonest old man who is hoping to get a reward for nabbing a murderer.
- Romance for a lonely old doctor
The climax of the book comes at a school event which is going to combine a performance of Midsummer’s Night Dream (sadly under-featured) and a confirmation ceremony for the girls. During this, the police turn up to arrest the fake schoolgirl for murder – but luckily, by chance, the bishop who performs the confirmation is able to suddenly remember that he met her thirteen years before for about two minutes, and is thus able to give her an alibi. At this point the ‘very beautiful and dreadfully bad-tempered’ Games mistress breaks down and turns herself in because, again by chance, she happens to be responsible for the original death (manslaughter rather than murder.)
All that’s left after that is the recovery of a runaway, a confrontation in a cottage, a decisive romance and another lost-child-reunion.
Inexplicably, I have never met anyone else who has read this book. I hope this blogpost might uncover someone, and perhaps also reach out to a publisher, who can give it a new life. Think of the TV series – there would be actresses queuing up to play these parts…
Fabulous book, fabulous picture. From the Library of Congress, that top photo has this unbelievably fabulous caption ‘Shopping for cotton hose in a Hollywood store, Rita Hayworth finds that the shop-girl, too, is wearing hose much the same type she plans to buy. Miss Hayworth is inspecting a diamond pattern lisle stocking, personally selected for her by Hollywood's famed designer, Howard Greer, to accompany her afternoon ensemble.’