This is one of the novels of the Abbey School series. I’ve owned the book for several years, having bought it when pursuing an interest in the girls’ school story genre, but I’d quickly decided that the genre was not for me and so I hadn’t read this novel or any of the others in the series before.
In this novel, we follow the story of Cecily Brown, a girl with an unclear and partly French background adopted by two Girl Guide leaders. She is found to have a talent for music and eventually she joins the Abbey School so that she can formally study the subject.
I found the novel interesting if not particularly enjoyable: exposition is mainly through dialogue, and I prefer writing that concentrates on individual thoughts and feelings. But this is a novel about relationships, and so an emphasis on interactions between characters is appropriate.
Men are mentioned but do not speak until about 70% of the way through the novel. When they are mentioned, it is often to explain their absence; and in their place is a rich network of relationships between women (the novel certainly passes the Bechdel Test.) Cecily’s two guardians are both young women; her friend and music teacher Sandy is widowed at a young age and then bereaved again, but now has a measure of independence. There are two Ladies Marchwood, sisters-in-law; one inherited the title via her husband when the other was widowed, and the relationship between them is close. The present Lady Marchwood lives with Mary-Dorothy Devine, an author of girls’ stories, who is god-daughter to the Lady Marchwood despite the latter being ten years younger.
Adolescence is clearly not treated in the way a modern reader would expect: when one of the adults expresses curiosity about how Cecily (who is 15) came to be adopted, she is sent out of the room to play with a five year old girl, and does not protest.
The novel is largely set in the region of the Sussex Downs–Chanctonbury Ring is mentioned often–but the description of landscape appeared to me to be brief and often colourless. For example:
Standing in the road, her eyes on Chanctonbury’s distant ring of trees crowning a smooth sweep of down, she piped the tunes she knew.
The ending, as one would expect for a children’s novel, is happy, and not only for Cecily, who is reunited with her mother and who (reinforcing the theme of the importance of relationships between women) is thereby made complete:
Cecily, walking among the flowers by a narrow path, high on a ledge above the Swiss valley, felt it must be a dream that a week ago she had not known she had a mother. The last three days seemed a lifetime, but a new life. In the old life she had been Cecily Brown, with no mother. Cecily Ruth Perowne was a new person, rich beyond words[…].