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A World of Girls by L.T. Meade

A World of Girls (1886)

by L.T. Meade

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This book is really quite ridiculous, from start to finish, and I enjoyed every melodramatic minute of it! First published in 1886, it is an early example of the girls' school story (though by no means the earliest!), and one can detect certain themes - the adoration for the wise headmistress, the illicit midnight feast, the false accusation and assumed guilt of an innocent girl, the self-sacrificing nobility of the wrongly accused, and the near-fatal illness which brings about the necessary climax and turn-about to the tale - that would continue to appear with some frequency in the genre, into the Edwardian era and beyond. Some themes, by contrast - the emphasis on religious devotion and prayer, the sermonizing of both headmistress and local vicar, the forbidden "racy" novel (which, in a scene that simply delighted me, turned out to be one of my own personal favorites, Jane Eyre!) - had more of the feeling of the nineteenth century, and would slowly fall from popularity, save in evangelistic works. This combination, of themes that would later be more fully developed, and those that would largely fall out of use, gives A World of Girls: The Story of a School something of the feeling of a transition piece, which only adds to its charms. Informed readers will realize that Meade's work stands as a kind of bridge between old and new, and will find it all the more fascinating.

The story itself is full of twists and turns, and like The Girls of St. Wode's (the only other Meade title I have thus far read), begins with one heroine as its narrative focus, and concludes with a second. One wonders if this were a peculiarity of Meade's style, or something commonly to be found in popular fiction of the time. In any case, the tale opens as young Hester Thornton, still in mourning for the death of her mother, bids her beloved baby sister Nan goodbye and unwillingly departs for Lavender House, a boarding school in Sefton, run by one Mrs. Willis. There, an unlucky first encounter with the irrepressible Annie Forest - a somewhat wild, but goodhearted girl, whose charm and vivacity had made her the favorite of the school, despite her flaws - leaves Hester with a firm conviction that this fellow pupil was "a horrid, vulgar, low-bred girl," and sets in motion an antagonistic relationship with unforeseen results for the entire school.

What follows is an entertaining tale of school-girl rivalries, schemes, adventures, and scrapes, eventually culminating with the crisis and heart-break necessary to teach everyone (well, almost everyone) the error of their ways. Illicit novels are confiscated (oh, Jane Eyre!), school-girl property is destroyed, false accusations are made, and suspicions are aroused. Into this mix comes baby Nan, whose innocent love for Annie exacerbates the problem, causing Hester to be wildly jealous of her darling (the sister left in her care by her dying mother!), and Annie (resentful of unjust treatment!) to be deliberately provocative. Naturally, accident and brain fever can't be far behind, in this situation, but even these dramatic contretemps are put in the shade by the appearance of nefarious gypsy woman Mother Rachel, and the kidnapping of baby Nan!

If this all sounds distinctly absurd, it is. I was very conscious of (and amused by) its melodrama, and also of its heavy-handed religious sentiment, as I was reading. I was also wincing, as ever, at the all-too common inclusion of baby-snatching gypsies in the story. I really should start keeping a list... That said, if one can accept that it is very much a product of its time - and it doesn't, in my view, transcend that time as some works do - it is actually quite enjoyable. I was surprised to find how very much I liked it, despite the above criticisms, especially since I didn't appreciate The Girls of St. Wode's (my only other foray into Meade's work) nearly as much. Definitely one that school-story fans will want to read, as I think it captures an important moment in the evolution of the genre, and is also this prolific author's most well-known title, A World of Girls is a book that, when approached on its own terms, has much to offer. I think I may have to track down the sequel, Red Rose and Tiger Lily. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Apr 1, 2013 |
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First published in 1886, this early school story tells of the boarding-school life of Hetty Thornton, a studious, proud girl, and her various associates, most notably: warm-hearted, mischievous, lazy Annie Forest, the favorite of the school, and Hester's enemy.

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