Dimsie Goes to School by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

aka The Senior Prefect

published 1921

Dimsie Goes to School

[A new headmistress has come to the Jane Willard Foundation boarding school for girls, and is going to make some changes]

‘After all, you’re girls, and you’ll grow in time into the women whom men marry, and on whom they will depend for the happiness of their homes…

‘This war has left our country, and our schools, too, very different from what they have been. Before the war, girls learnt and played much as the boys. Games mattered above everything, and then, perhaps, study came next. Now, there is a third thing which was always important, though very much overlooked, and today we can’t overlook it any longer. Do you know what that is, Daphne?’

Dimsie Goes to School 4

Daphne’s thoughtful grey eyes met the speaker’s full [on], and a sudden flash of intelligence lit them.

‘Cooking’ she replied with simple brevity.

Miss Yorke gave way to an explosion of laughter. ‘I was going to give it a grander name,’ she answered. ‘I thought ‘housecraft’ would sound more attractive to the cultured ears of the school. Not only cooking, but sweeping and dusting, you know, and laundering. You are taught needlework already.’

commentary: This seems an unlikely and unexpected response to WW1, and not one that you often find in books of the era.

A DIVERSION: It is comparable with the hat crisis discovered in an excellent 1930 play, Nine Till Six by Aimee and Phillip Stuart:
The War made it necessary for women to do men’s work; men’s work made it necessary for them to cut their hair; short hair made it impossible to pin on large hats – and so we came to the felts… It was hard on the milliners.
As I said in my blogpost on the play, ‘Of all the knock-on effects of the First World War, this is probably the least imaginable – and not one that provokes much sympathy.’ In a strange connection with a recently-featured author, it was claimed that the play was ‘a women’s counterpart of Journey’s End; its field of battle is the business world’. RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End is an all-male play about the tragedy of the First World War, set in the trenches with all the unhappiness that suggests, and Sherriff’s wonderful The Fortnight in September was on the blog last week.

Back to Dimsie. Dorita Fairlie Bruce wrote many school stories for girls, and the Dimsie series is probably the best known: this is the first one. It was originally published as The Senior Prefect, the name changed in 1925, you would guess because of the success of the series. And it has to be said, Domestic science and Domestic economy feature a lot in her otherwise very jolly books – in a later entry, one of the school houses will win a special prize because of concentration on the importance of housekeeping, there’s some big deal about embroidering a tablecloth IIRC.

I read the Dimsie books when I was, I suppose, 10 or 11, and liked them very much. But, I was completely convinced they were set in Scotland – although Dimsie herself is Scottish, they are very much English. And, I never dreamt for one moment they dated back so far.

DIVERSION 2 A few years ago (2014) I started trying to do the Century of Books challenge, where bloggers try to read a book published in each year of the 20th century. I abandoned this, for no particular reason, but the other day found the spreadsheet of the books I had read, and realized that I didn’t have to do much more to complete it, though the gaps I now have are not the easiest to fill. Looking for a book published in 1921, I was absolutely astonished to find Dimsie – I actually thought it must be a mistake, and had to check several times to believe it.

Dimsie Goes to School 2Dimsie Goes to School 3
In fact when you read it, it is full of references to the War, and internal evidence (Armistice Day is on a Tuesday) shows that it was set in 1919. All this must have gone right over my head at the time. And there are more very specific wartime memories, as in this splendid passage:
Daphne began telling Dimsie the tale of how Sylvia Drummond had rescued Jean Gordon from the Hun spies when Westover was a naval base. 
‘How perfectly ripping!’ cried Dimsie, with shining eyes. ‘Sylvia was lucky to get the chance.’
In a recent discussion over at Margot Kinberg’s Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog, the question of coming late to a story arose, and I said this:
I’m going to quote from one of my favourite book reviewers, Nick Hornby. He was talking about Denis Lehane (of whom he is a great fan) but discussing joining a series well into it: 
in the book under discussion, series character Patrick Kenzie says ‘Three years hiding the damage delivered on the worst night of my life…’ 

Hornby says: Hang on a moment. The worst night of your life was three years ago? So what am I reading about now? The fourth-worst night of your life?

Dimsie made me feel the same way.

However the plot of this one was still very complex and exciting, though rather depending on the unlikely event of two different mother-daughter pairs all having the first name of Daphne. There is theft and burglary, an aborted midnight feast, a strike by the schoolgirls, cheating at cards, and a lost mother. Quite surprising mental health issues are dealt with in the book, in a romantic but serious way, if you can imagine that.

Dimsie is an excellent heroine, even though she would have been a complete pain in real life, with her penchant for involving others in her wrong-doing, then absolutely insisting on owning up and landing everyone else in it too.

It is a good book, but still cannot compete with my favourite ever school story, The Clue in the Castle by Joyce Bevins Webb (which is advertised on the end flap of my 1960s edition of Dimsie). My blogpost on The Clue in the Castle is one of my all-time favourites, and one of my most popular. Three years on I still get occasional new readers who have Googled this very obscure book and arrived at my blogpost – a new comment arrived at the end of August this year.

Pictures from a schoolgirl annual of the era.


  1. First, thanks for the kind mention, Moira. This book sounds like such an interesting look at the times. And I had no idea that 'Housecraft' was like that at that time. It reminds me of when I was a girl, and girls learned what we called Home Economics. Funny how that aspect of education didn't change much for a long time.

    1. The thing is, and I'm certain we feel the same - no-one, surely, thinks it a bad thing for everyone (m & f) to learn how to cook and keep house. It's when it becomes a girls'-only thing, or an excuse to stop people doing something else, that I am bothered.

  2. Domestic Science here - you could do an O Level in it. So why were girls learning Home Ec after WWI? Because they were all being forced back into the home after having a great time as policewomen, nurses, bus drivers etc? (My step-grandmother was a despatch rider on a motorbike.)

    Women had had such fun (and much better wages, hours and treatment) working during WWI that they were reluctant to return to domestic service. So more women were having to fend for themselves.

    I have a WWI cookbook somewhere.

    1. "So more women were having to fend for themselves."

      Exactly. Girls were learning Home Ec after WWI because the "servant problem" was brought home to middle-class households. It certainly was the case in the US.

    2. Lucy and Shay: I have often seen that referenced after WW2, don't think I've read much about it post-WW1. It's always both invigorating and depressing that the kitchenmaids found life SO much better working in munitions factories (bullied, dangerous, long and difficult hours) but they did vote with their feet, and good luck to them.

  3. Very interesting. I love the illustrations.

    1. I do always love pictures of schoolgirls, from all eras. I am lucky enough to have some schoolgirl annuals from the 1920s, a great resource for the blog. Sarah Ward was asking me about 1920s dressing gowns for something she is writing, and I was able to send her some pictures...


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