Book name: Bosom Friends
Author: Angela Brazil
Format: ebook, print
Genre: School stories, vintage children’s fiction
Publication Date: 1910
Star Rating: 4/5
Today's 'Way Back Whensday' takes us all the way back to Edwardian times. My copy of this short children's novel, by one of boarding-school fiction's best-loved authors, tells its own unique tale.
In 1930, Doris Turnbull was awarded a hardback copy of 'Bosom Friends' for regular attendance at the Albert Hill Wesleyan Methodist Mission Sunday School in Darlington.
The city is about two hours' drive south of where our family lives, and about ten years ago I picked the book up at Barter Books. I had read a number of stories by Angela Brazil already and was intrigued by a seaside tale: a break from her more regular boarding-school fare.
I can only imagine that Doris cherished her copy until she died, whereupon it made its way to Barter Books looking for a new owner, and I acquired it.
On the eminently sensible grounds that children don't always want to read about school in the holidays, Brazil set about crafting a story for girls aged between about eight and fourteen that is centred around a stay at the seaside.
Reading habits were particularly gendered back then, and this book is definitely aimed at a female audience. I was struck by how pronounced that was by comparison with modern children's fiction.
Isobel Stewart and her mother travel north to Scotland for a seaside holiday. On the train they encounter immaculately and fashionably dressed namesake Belle Stuart, who soon grabs the reader's attention with her spoilt ways and slender capacity for loyalty.
The girls are thrown together in what is evidently a very comfortable middle class group of children spending six weeks by the sea, but generally unrestrained by too much parental attention and discipline as the adults are too busy paying social calls and going on excursions to spend much time with them.
Isobel's steady demeanour and general decency are set in sharp relief against Belle's demanding and self-centred manner. By sheer bad luck, but essential to the plot, Isobel's estranged grandfather mistakes Belle for his granddaughter and is less than impressed by her, but meeting Isobel anonymously he wishes she were his granddaughter instead.
Bosom Friends was in every way a product of its time. Despite being published right at the end of the Edwardian era it retained a decidedly nostalgic Victorian feel throughout. It reminded me of novels by G A Henty for boys, which had much the same style of approach.
It was fascinating to see exactly what was expected of popular literature for children more than a hundred years ago, but the modern reader inevitably views it through a lens of the values of today.
The contents were certainly very positive about the glories of preparing young people to head out into the Empire to subdue the native population and seize more land for Britannia.
Several scenes compared the boys and girls sailing out to an island and laying claim to it with the behaviour of settlers in the British Empire. There is evident praise and approval for this action.
Reading it in 2022 made for an uncomfortable experience given the gung ho nature of its support for colonialism, but that is a reflection of when it was written. This was, however, made worse by the presence of outmoded ways of referring to ethnic minorities on three or four occasions.
The copy I have acquired was printed in 1930, and these references would be altered in a modern reprint to more acceptable terms.
Bosom Friends was never derisory or negative about ethnic minorities. Its support for Empire was a product of the times, and it should be read in that context. I'm so glad that things have changed since.
On a more positive note, the characterisation in Bosom Friends was very strong. I would definitely recommend giving it a try. Isobel, her widowed mother and the crabby grandfather you know will turn out to be a hidden gem were all delights.
The story was sympathetic without being overly saccharine, and the novel moved along at a good pace with excellent descriptions of the locations moderating the development of the fairly simple plot.
Bosom Friends absolutely captured the general concept of being young at the seaside and making the most of every moment of the summer. That was what I liked most about it.
Thank you for reading my review of Bosom Friends by Angela Brazil.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of For the Sake of the School by Angela Brazil.
Or you might like to take a look at my review of The Trebizon books by Anne Digby.
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.