Book name: The Leader of the Lower School
Author: Angela Brazil
Publisher: Blackie and Sons
Format: ebook, print
Genre: Vintage children’s fiction, school stories
Publication Date: 1922
Star Rating: 5/5
The Leader of the Lower School by Angela Brazil was originally published well before World War Two, but my own copy is a later edition from the war years. The page opposite the contents reassures us that this book has been produced to Book Production War Economy Standards.
This makes the dedication on the first page (Happy Birthday to Pat from Daddy) particularly poignant. Who was Pat and did her father return from fighting in the war?
Every Angela Brazil book I’ve been able to buy contains personal stories such as these, adding to just how special the reading experience becomes.
Gipsy Latimer is new to Briarcroft Hall, a boarding school up in the Lake District in northern England. She and her father were shipwrecked on the way from South Africa, but the irrepressible Gipsy merely regards this as an adventure to be shared with the engrossed gaggle of girls who surround her when she arrives.
Gipsy’s father must return to South Africa, his business plans in tatters due to the loss of some legal documents that went down with their ship. In the meantime, Gipsy is left to align her values and expectations of life with that of England, which she is visiting for the first time.
Gipsy’s natural sense of fair play and democracy soon identifies tyranny within Briarcroft Hall. The juniors pay a shilling subscription to various guilds: Art, Drama, Music, Photography and Athletic.
Yet these juniors have little to no voice or influence, but are merely used as sources of funding for the seniors to make decisions that benefit themselves alone. A developing machine that only committee members can use and costumes for a play for the seniors’ roles, leaving juniors to provide their own costumes, are given as examples.
Gipsy speaks up, even though she is a new girl at Briarcroft Hall, and this frankness earns her both friends and foes.
As The Leader of the Lower School progresses, Gipsy’s situation becomes much more precarious and there are some truly dark moments. Her father’s letter, providing information about how Gipsy’s school fees can be paid, goes astray.
The headmistress, who is a pretty hard-hearted woman and who treats Gipsy increasingly badly, appears more concerned about the finances than about the welfare of a stranded and vulnerable young woman.
I couldn’t help but long for the compassion shown in the Chalet School series, where Elinor Brent Dyer’s headmistress would never put money before humanity. I like the way that Angela Brazil calls out the sort of everyday cruelty that, when it goes unchecked, can make a schoolgirl’s life a real misery.
I also really appreciated Angela Brazil’s presentation of the values of countries such as New Zealand, South Africa and the US, as having much to teach the British.
By focusing on the injustice left to rankle inside the school over the guilds, and clearly presenting Gipsy’s experience in the colonies as the source of her sense of natural justice, we see a very concrete example of how unfairness can take root within school life.
Not all boarding school fiction of this time was quite so open minded.
Gipsy’s growing concern over her father, who isn’t heard from for six months, sparks desperate measures as the narrative develops. However, there is a happy ending. As I read this book, I often wonder whether Pat’s father came back safely, too.
That we will never know the outcome of this real-life story weighs heavily, but I think we have to believe that he did. Certainly, reading The Leader of the Lower School will have given Pat hope that he would come back safely during the dark years that lay ahead before the war was over.
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