aka Those Verney Girls
aka Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre
by Gwendoline Courtneypublished 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.