Rather than being predictable and surprising no-one with a simple review of Miss Mitchell’s cracking When Last I Died (though fear not, that review is coming shortly), I’ve elected to delve into a far more obscure corner of her oeuvre, and discuss one of her novels for girls and boys, The Seven Stones Mystery. Between 1940 and 1960, Mitchell wrote a number of stories for a more juvenile audience, in addition to her regular one-per-year Mrs. Bradley habit. The Great Gladys was nothing if not a workhorse.
The mystery begins when Pamela Stewart learns as her summer holidays are ending that a tragedy has struck her beloved school of Cairnstones: a careless workman with a cigarette has set light to the place, leaving the girls with no option but to attempt to find places at other schools for the upcoming autumn term. Scrambling to find a place, she ends up at Mannerings, where she will have the unenviable task of being a new Prefect in the Upper Sixth, trying to find her place.
Fortunately, luck is on her side, for in addition to combining natural scholastic ability and athleticism, Pam is an outgoing girl of the right sort, not in the least mouse-like, who makes friends easily. Her sporting ability makes her popular, and her “hooker,” a younger girl called Glenda who is detailed to see to Pam’s meals, baths, and so on, is almost immediately devoted to her. The description of the modified version of the “fagging” system may be bewildering to some readers, but it is a tradition that is well-documented. Equally the division of Mannerings into Houses should be not entirely unfamiliar, as the concept has most recently appeared in popular juvenile literature and film in the guise of stories regarding a boy wizard, the titles of which elude me at the moment.
The “mystery” itself surrounds events which begin as a series of seemingly insignificant, although sometimes monetarily valuable, thefts in the school. Pam, despite her popularity and clear example as the “right sort” of girl, is initially suspected, largely on the grounds of being new to Mannerings. When she learns of the “treasure” of the school, a 16th century Papal presentation cup in gold and seven gemstones (the “seven stones” of the title, purely by virtue, it seems, of Mitchell only naming seven different gemstones which adorn the cup), Pam suspects that the cup may be a target of the thieves, but her warnings go unheeded. The entire school is therefore dismayed when, predictably, the cup is in fact stolen. As is usual in this class of story, it is up to plucky Pam and her cohorts to solve the mystery and recover the missing goods, all while keeping up with their academics and their sporting commitments. But can they do so before the nefarious thieves escape and flog their ill-gotten treasures abroad?
Well, of course they can: because in this sort of story, the right sort of people win, and the baddies are in for a lengthy stretch in prison. The clear, grey-free shades of morality of this class of tale are reassuring, if in many ways completely useless to us. However, the general sense of innocence is somewhat infections: by the end of The Seven Stones Mystery, I was almost able to read the term “Pam’s hooker” with a straight face. This purely juvenile volume is almost entirely devoid of hints at a wider, more salacious world. Instead, it brings to life a very narrowly-expressed conception of right-thinking Englishness, set in what used to be considered that most English of institutions, the public school. One telling remark suggests that “all religions could be accommodated by the village and the school chapel, every stripe of Christianity…” provided you belonged to one of four or, at a push, five Christian denominations (two of which are merely the same identical Anglicanism, but with vicars of wildly differing temperaments and views on preserving the church roof), and had not been tainted by the stain of atheism (this note struck me as possibly satirical, for apart from comical curates, Mitchell’s work ran more to the pagan than Christian end of the spectrum). Unfortunately, satire has killed that culture, and I’m not entirely convinced that the replacement one of Burberry tracksuits, wide boys, Essex girls, and the incomprehensibly-accented is entirely up to the same standard.
There are a few characteristic traces of Mitchell despite the clean-limbed, straight-laced, honest and pure narrative. Chapter IV is entitled “The Crime Wave at Mannerings,” hearkening as ever to one of Mitchell’s favourite authors, the also quintessentially-English P.G. Wodehouse (vide “The Crime Wave at Blandings” in Lord Emsworth and Others). Pam’s family heritage is an echo of Mitchell’s own, with Pam’s family being shown to celebrate Hogmanay at year’s end, on account of her Scottish father. Other echoes of Mitchell are the proficiency at and love of games, with the descriptions of gymnastics and field hockey demonstrating an easy mastery of these arcane arts. The portrayal of the school in general is one that springs from the pen of a woman who taught for many years, and who retained a deep affection for the institution. And there’s even an unreliable curate, which character reminded me of a certain Noel Wells; even if the name was different, the general lack of competence was distinctly Wellsian.
Even when the jaundiced modern eye wanders over the text, all is written as far more innocent than we might expect. Yes, Pam dresses up in male costume for the big end-of-term dance, and takes the pretty half-American girl as her date (with her hooker — snort — Glenda costumed as their blackamoor servant! Okay, so that bit’s clearly just wrong, to 21st century eyes), but it’s only in the interests of winning the costume competition prize. There is a brief scene in a locker room, but there’s never a hint of anything so crude as a pair of knickers, although one girl does have her shorts stolen, for reasons which remain unclear to this reader. Perhaps they were very fine shorts indeed, as the narrative seemed to imply, but it still seems a damned peculiar item to thieve.
At its heart, this is very much an lily-white and pure mystery tale; even the villains of the piece still play by the rules, as far as things go. Of course, they’re not above a casual spot of murdering, and there is a nasty attempt or two on the lives of our heroines: a sawn-through climbing rope results in a nasty fall, and Pam is attacked in the dark with a bat. However, she defends herself with a hockey stick and escapes with little more than some bruising. American readers will find The Seven Stones Mystery most reminiscent of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew mysteries (particularly the latter), right down to the curiously childish illustrations by Alice Bush. A mystery, combined with the sort of setting found in improving books for young minds which littered the landscape in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s (and some of which were set in schools), makes for a tantalisingly nostalgic package. Clearly, I was not the intended reader of this tale (may the gods help me, I almost wrote “target audience”), but I found it entertaining nonetheless. It is always good fun looking in Mitchell’s books for the clues, hints, and familiar tropes that she nearly always left for the attentive reader. The mystery, such as it is, proves almost secondary to the actual story, most of which is about Pam fitting in and making a contribution to her new school. Even when she meets up with a couple of Cairnstones friends in the Christmas break (Gillian and Hillary, from the previous “Pam” volume, Holiday River), and learns that she will perhaps be able to return to her school, Pam still concentrates on giving her best to Mannerings, because that, for the time being, is where her allegiance must lie.
I would be interested to know what led Gladys Mitchell to the writing of books for young people, having already tried historical fiction without overmuch success in the 1930s. Furthermore, in the end, I found myself wondering how much of Pam was autobiographically based upon Mitchell herself, and how much was invention. But without a proper, definitive biography of Mitchell, or at least a volume or two of her letters, those questions will have to remain unanswered, for now. Regardless, The Seven Stones Mystery is a charming read, one that doesn’t demand a great deal of the reader, and a pleasant echo of a time seemingly not too far distant, but nevertheless almost as remote from us as the Renaissance, or the glory that was Rome.