Dress Down Sunday: The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb



LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES


published around 1961 (uncertain)

set around 1954/55



Clue in the Castle 4

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.


clue in the castle 2Clue in the castle 3

‘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 - any 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:

Clue in the Castle 5








  • 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

[MASS SPOILERS BUT CAN’T RESIST]


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.’



Comments

  1. Rather naughty pic of Rita Hayworth! I think our school stockings were nylon imitating lisle. And of course they were hardwearing and practical, and utterly unglamorous.

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    1. Exactly as school stockings should be. And of course warm, as Caroline says above. The junior girls wear yellow ankle socks, you'll want to know. In a book where so much else is happening, one of my favourite bits is where she explains why a character has white socks and extra pyjamas - 'in case the laundry should be late. Sometimes it was.' This author had the whole world of this school mapped out.

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  2. *gasps* Must read! This sounds like the book of my dreams. Still laughing back at "she must have used up every single plotline from her head in this one book" - perfect.

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    1. Vicki, I thought of you when I was reading it, you were the person I thought would most enjoy this. Please try to find a copy and report back. I think quite soon it's going to be your fictional favourite school too.
      Surprisingly, there is no-one with consumption at the school - it is the only thing she missed out.

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  3. I'll definitely have to make room for this one, Moira. That list of plot elements just boggles me! And your line about it is priceless. Interesting how we have those books that we re-read again and again... Love that reversible skirt too. Those kinds of things aren't as popular now, but I know they had a vogue.

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    1. Yes indeed, the book is full of real details, while at the same time having these wholly outrageous plotlines. If you ever do get the chance to read a copy I urge you to do so!

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  4. I probably will never read this book but if I were to, I would not want it to be spoiled, so I skipped a lot. It does sound fascinating, though.

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    1. I'll be astonished if it turns up at a booksale in California Tracy, but you never know! Do grab it if you do see it....

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  5. Curiously, neither the book nor the author are in the British Library catalogue.
    There was an instance a few years ago of a man of twenty nine disguising himself as a sixth-former, taking his exams and being accepted as a medical student before his age was discovered. He'd become a medical student in the past, dropped out and was trying to regain his lost life...

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    1. I vaguely remembered that news story when I was reading the book, but couldn't remember the details - thank you! There was a lot of discussion in the papers then about how an older person could get away with it.

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    2. "Brandon Lee" - he even went back to his old school, risking being recognised by teachers. When found out, he said he'd try again somewhere else. I wonder if he did? (Surely you can do A Levels as an adult?)

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    3. Yes, you feel there was more to that than met the eye. Of course in this book the woman concerned has personal reasons for going back to that school. There's that Drew Barrymore movie isn't there, Never Been Kissed, where she goes back to High School.

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  6. Ah ha!
    It's in Spotlight Adventure Stories for Girls, an anthology published by Spring Books. According to BL it is 1961. All the same, the mystery of the author's identity remains...

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    1. Well-discovered Roger. I actually have the Spotlight book, and a normal hardback copy of the book. It was published by Spring Books, who did a lot of school stories I think, in an imprint called The Halcyon Library. There is no date, and it was printed in Czechoslovakia. The address given is Spring Books, Spring House, Spring Place, London NW5. (Sounds invented!).

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    2. I just checked - Spring Books no longer seems to exist, but Spring House and Spring Place are still there in Kentish Town.

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  7. Glad you enjoyed, but I think I can live the rest of my life without this one on my stacks.

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    1. It's about as noir as an old-time school story could get, but probably still too mild for you....

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  8. Moira, you're not having us on, are you? Surely this is too good to be true. Can such a book really exist? - and then the difficulty of tracking it down . . . If it was April 1st, I'd feel certain.

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    1. You really made me laugh, Chrissie - a very valid suggestion, but I promise you, it was for real. I wonder if ever since first reading it I've been hoping to find a book that mixed genres and plotlines so lavishly... at the age of 8 I had no idea how unusual it was.

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    2. I'VE READ THIS! I found it just now because I was actually googling the title. I was heavily into girls' school stories when I was about 12 (it's OK, I really was and still am a girl LOL) and it was one of a whole load I bought with my Christmas money. I do remember the breakthrough point was when the Bishop said what his "official" church name was (I'll say no more, may have spoilt it already) Linda ff

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    3. Whoo, fantastic! I knew there must be someone else out there. Although it is absurd and preposterous, and the plot is outrageous, I still absolutely love it, and when I re-read it to write this piece I thought what a lively and impressive piece of work it was...

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  9. I never really got into 'school stories', but your review has made me feel I've missed out! And it brought back memories - short, white socks were only for the summer, with long, grey or fawn ones for the winter. We signed a petition asking to wear long. white socks in both seasons!

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    1. The colour of your socks is so important at that age - but then, white socks do sound nicer. I loved school stories with a great passion, either in spite of, or because, they couldn't have been more different from my own home & school life. But they were a good basis for very child-centred adventures.

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  10. What was "well-brushed" hair, mentioned in so many books mid-century? Why were TPTB trying to persuade us that brushing our hair would improve its appearance? Possibly true in 1850, hardly in 1950, 60 or 70, when we'd be frantically setting and backcombing.

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    1. YES! One of my trigger words, always annoys me. What is now called virtue signalling - it was always the nice, good girls who had well-brushed hair. Charlotte Bronte is always obsessed with people being neat and clean, can't remember if she does well-brushed.

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  11. I read this at school and absolutely loved it, re-reading it many times. I still have a copy which my sister quite coincidentally bought at a school jumble sale and which I quickly stole! I will never part with it. Preposterous though the plot is (to an adult!) the quality and verve of the writing carry the story along at a cracking pace and the author really makes the reader care about her characters. It's great to encounter another fan!

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    1. YES! another fan! It IS a fabulous book - clever and absolutely rattling along. I don't know what happened to my childhood copy, but once the internet came along, and secondhand books became easy to track down, it was one of the first ones I got hold of. I know have two copies, for safety, and like you I will never part with them. So glad the internet has found me another reader also....

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    2. Hello..

      I, too, read this book as a child (now a VERY long time ago) and absolutely loved it. It took me forever to track down a copy - which I did eventually. Sad to say, though, it is festering somewhere at my ex-husband's house; don't have room where I live currently for the 40 boxes of books I had shipped over from Belize when I moved to the States..

      Even though it might be far-fetched in some instances, it is still a wonderful read and shows just how enterprising some of forebears were - not to mention more worldly-wise in some respects.. Many of today's teenagers (not all though), are complete wusses in comparison...

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    3. Hi there - how lovely to hear from yet another fan - we are a very small elite group. Sorry you don't have your copy, let's hope it will turn up one day and you can re-read with joy. And great point about those active, take-charge girls - what they achieve is impressive.

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