Holiday House Books, and Stepmothers, and Shakespeare


aka Those Verney Girls

aka Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre

by Gwendoline Courtney

published 1948

[The stepmother arrives]

Elizabeth was reluctantly cleaning a cabbage in the kitchen, while Alison frowned anxiously over some pastry… when the door flew open and Georgie hurtled into the room.

“They’re here! The taxi’s at the gate!”

They saw a tall, well-groomed figure wearing a fur coat open over a beautifully fitting tweed suit, and a hat that made the elder girls gasp with unwilling admiration.

[… the stepmother organizes some shopping]

For Alison – exclamations of envy arose from all three younger girls as, after a coat and afternoon dress had been shown and then laid aside, an evening dress of white net was displayed, yards and yards of it, with little touches of snowdrop green on the heart-shaped bodice, and here and there on the foamy skirt.

“What’s in that box?

Nan opened it without a word, and again shrieks arose from the younger girls as a small hat, of the type Alison had sworn she would never have the nerve to wear, was displayed.

commentary: My friend Christine Poulson wrote entertainingly here about the books you find on that random shelf on holiday. The feeling is, I would suggest, that you are welcome to help yourself, and leaving behind your own grubby paperbacks is encouraged. On Twitter there was recently a very funny thread of ‘holiday cottage book bingo’ run by @brokenbiros – guessing what the books will be: this will give you an idea:

There is another aspect to this: what if your holiday rental is actually someone’s house, or seems to have a real person’s books in it? What are the ethics or borrowing (=stealing) or swapping books there?

I recently stayed in a very nice and expensive hotel, with big selections of books in all the rooms. I got halfway through one and asked at reception if I could take it home – I suggested I could make a donation to charity, or even buy it from the hotel. They looked absolutely horrified (was I really the first person ever to do this? I suspect others had just taken books) and said they couldn’t authorize that. PERHAPS I could take it home, and then post it back, but they would have to check first. I was surprised: there were literally hundreds of books throughout the hotel, and surely you would keep your most valued books to yourself. So I gracefully left it there, and bought another copy. (William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell? And well worth the effort.)

A recent long weekend in a fabulous Airbnb in Wales was slightly different. This, a gorgeous country house, was definitely someone’s home, and they had left a wonderful and wide-ranging collection of books and magazines. The most irresistible bookshelf for me was a set of children’s books very much of my era, very much someone’s personal collection, and I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking them away. But I did rip through a number of old favourites during the stay – such as Jane Shaw’s Crooks’ Tour, about a teenage girl on a trip to Europe seeing villains wherever she looks. I loved that book when I was young, and still remembered the plot, and that it had introduced me to the artist Utrillo.

Then I started reading this one, Stepmother,  and was enchanted by it, so before I left I had ordered my own copy to arrive at my house just after I did. I wasn’t at all surprised that the marvellous Girls Gone By Books had re-published it, with fascinating extra details. (GBBP highly recommended for anyone looking for lost masterpieces of their youth.)

The edition at the holiday house was from The Children’s Press, and was called Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and (infuriatingly) was undated – GGBP suggest the edition was mid-1960s. The book was also published as Those Verney Girls. Stepmother was the original title.

GBBP say that Gwendoline Courtney is one of their most popular republished authors, and I’m not surprised – although I AM surprised that I had never come across her before. This book was a delight in its very-much-of-its-time way. It is sweet and charming even if there is a lot of emphasis on housekeeping, and girls’ opportunities and life choices are not what they should be...

It is the story of four sisters who are shocked by the news that their long-widowed father is remarrying. They live a dreamy life in a big house in the country, reading and planning and doing amateur theatricals.

(There are definite hints of the Pamela Brown Blue Door books, and Little Women, and I Capture the Castle, with some sprinkling of Noel Streatfeild.)

The girls are ready to reject Nan, the new wife, and to cause all the trouble they can. In fact that doesn’t amount to much, because Nan is obviously lovely, and is tremendously nice to them, and turns everyone’s lives round in a quiet way, while also making them improved and more social beings. And everyone’s acting opportunities are dramatically increased with the introduction of one of the leading actors of the day. You keep thinking ‘Courtney can’t possibly be planning X as the next plot move’, but she always is.

One curious thing – my holiday house version had the girls going crazy about a ‘film of the moment’ of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In the original, Stepmother, this is Hamlet (and that is how GGBP has republished it.) Hamlet is a lot more likely in terms of a wildly successful Shakespeare film with a superstar actor as hero – it’s hard to think why they would have changed it for the later edition. Laurence Olivier’s real-life Hamlet film came out in 1948, and was a huge success, with Olivier most definitely a heartthrob actor. I wonder if the editors thought this was too close to reality and possible confusion? Would it be libellous to suggest Laurence Olivier was rushing round getting friendly with schoolgirls?

There is a youngest sister Georgia whose role is to be the most annoying child in all literature. I wanted to throttle her. She is a one-track character, whose USP is that she makes tactless and infuriating comments at every juncture. She is just plain badly-behaved and self-centred and should have been sent to the naughty step at frequent intervals. She was obviously meant to be charming and slightly attractive as a truth-teller. I did not find her so.

At one time I used to collect intriguing literary medical diagnoses from books: now I am looking for my list so that I can add this one:
The doctor declared that Elizabeth had been overgrowing her strength, and decreed that she should not return to school that term but should be out of doors as much as possible.
Teenage wish fulfilment if ever I saw it, imagine how interesting and important that would make you feel.

Stepmother is the most complete fairy tale and farrago, but (or ‘and thus’) quite quite splendid.

Moira Shearer dancing (Vicky Page in the film The Red Shoes, 1948) seemed the closest thing to Alison’s new dress. Women in the kitchen – I suspect it is actually meant to look like a nice kitchen? –the cream hat, and the black and white hats, all from Kristine’s photostream, all from 1948.


  1. I've always loved the idea of take-a-book-leave-a-book in holiday homes and hotels, and in other places, too, Moira. I actually tried to start a program like that in the community where I live, but I was told, 'Well, people might take the books and keep them, and then the owners wouldn't have them.' I tried to explain how it works, and that I'd happily put together a flyer, so that people would know what to expect, but was told, 'no, thanks.' *sigh*.

    Anyway, to the does sound good. I like the interplay of personalities, and sometimes, fairy tales do work well as stories...

    1. Sometimes a fairy tale is just the job, especially when the reader is enjoying a weekend away.
      I love the ide of your book program - what a pity it didn't get the enthusiasm it deserved, I'm sure it would be popular. Most book-lovers are only too delighted to share their favourites and give them away, thrilled if they can make such a gift.

  2. Hints of Little Women and I Capture the Castle with some sprinkling of Noel Streatfeild (I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the Blue Door Books) - that is absolutely intriguing! I MUST read this book!

    1. I know, it was so much my kind of book I couldn't believe I'd not encountered it before. I so hope you will enjoy it.

      The Pamela Brown Blue Door Theatre books are about a group of teenagers who decide to put on plays in a local church hall - it is comfort reading of the highest order, and greatly helped by the fact that the author was only 16 (or so - accounts vary) when she wrote the first book. It shows, in a rather sweet way, it is very teenaged. The first one is called The Swish of the Curtain, and that book and its successors are all over the blog.

  3. Oh, for the joys of books in holiday lodgings! I discovered Ngaio Marsh as a child in a Scottish boarding house during a vacation when we had two or three days' of solid rain (and this on the east coast, not the west). Her Scales of Justice was the only book in the place, so I was given it to shut me up. Which it did -- while starting a lifelong liking for her work.

    It sounds as if you've been equally lucky with Gwendoline Courtney. Thanks for such an entertaining account of the book.

    1. I know, there's something so thrilling about a 'found book' isn't there, and we don't know how influential it might be. My first Agatha Christie was a holiday find - from a 2nd hand shelf in a gift shop in the West of Ireland, not actually a holiday house, but the principle holds.

      I liked Scales of Justice, a good Marsh to start with.

  4. I think that was a surprising response from the hotel, Moira. I really liked the William Goldman too - his Adventures in the Screen Trade is great, too.
    I love the serendipity of finding books in hotels and other places. I found a copy of Elizabeth Taylor's A View of the Harbour in a second-hand furniture store in Peckham years ago and went on to read everything she has written.

    1. Yes, I thought it was very surprising. And yes, this book is a followup to Adventures in the Screen Trade, which was why I was so keen to read it.

      Elizabeth Taylor is a great author to have discovered that way.

  5. a) oh, that linoleum! So familiar.

    b) I did find a book I craved in a hotel, and I asked at the desk, and they had no problem. Take it, enjoy, they said.

    1. a) I have now paid the lino the attention it deserves. So much of its time!

      b) Well exactly, that's what I was fully expecting.

  6. I saw the title of your post and thought it was going to be about books set in holiday houses. The recollection of dreamy/intense/significant Summers past spent in beautiful holiday houses seems to have inspired so many authors. I was thinking Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet books, Mary Wesley's Camomile Lawn, and Mrs Dalloway repeatedly harks back to the summers at Bourton before the war. But what you did write about was very entertaining to read. I never seem to find anything I like when I stay in houses with books.

    1. Oh what a great topic that is, I must have a think - would make such a good blogpost, thanks for the idea. There are quite a lot of crime books with that theme - the summer many years ago, the crime and the secrets that ended the joy - I once wrote a piece for the Guardian on that.
      But the more domestic books would make a great theme.

  7. Oh, happy day. This is on Open Library and I'm on the waitlist for it.

    You really do terrible things to my TBR list, you know that.

    1. Wanted to add: I hope that girl in the velvet skirt is wearing an apron for whatever it is that she's doing over the stove.

    2. Thanks Shay and - sorry? But this is tremendous fun, and won't slow you down, a nice quick read. Yes, see what you mean about the velvet. But exactly what the girls in the book would've done - risked their best clothes to do some not-very-good cooking.

    3. I've loved The Swish of the Curtain since I was a child. I think probably it's one you have to read when young to enjoy as an adult. Courtney I only discovered as an adult. I had a reread a while ago and found that I no longer liked Elixabeth etc.. I was annoyed with the father for his benign neglect and thought he'd done the girls no favours. My favourite Courtney, indeed one of my favourite books, is Sally's Family. It's about a young woman trying to make a home for her orphaned brothers and sisters after they've all been scattered during the war. Top comfort reading!

    4. You are probably right about The Swish of the Curtain. And I think the fact that the young reader is so close to the age of the author helps a lot (even though I, for one, did not know Brown was so young back then).

      There are certainly criticisms to be made of Verney family life...

      And now I HAVE to read Sally's Family - thanks for the recommendation.

  8. I have swapped books at places we have stayed before - pre-Kindle days. Usually after I've exhausted my reading stash. Don't you long for the days when your holiday suitcase comprised half a dozen books. I used to sneak a couple more in after my wife had vetted my packing...

    1. My Kindle makes me SO HAPPY for exactly that reason! It has revolutionized holiday reading...

  9. I am surprised at the response from the hotel (but even more surprised that they had so many books available). If I saw books in a room I would assume they would be meant for taking if not finished. And swapping books sounds just the thing. Take some and leave some.


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