Illness, Accidents and Death in the works of E L Haverfield
E L Haverfield's school stories were published between 1898 and 1933  and her books, featuring a plethora of fatherless children, self-sacrificing saints, caring amateur nurses and desperate courage in the face of severe pain, more details below, illustrate a move away from Victorian maudlin sentimentality towards a more robust attitude to the schoolgirl of the 1920s and 1930s.
Deathbeds, swooning and sainthood
Haverfield's earliest children's books are Victorian in terms of plot as well as their date. Our Vow (1898) is a cautionary children's tale in which naughty Alison is reformed as a result of being burned in a hayloft fire and finally drops her vendetta against her cousin who has saved her life. Its sequel, Blind Loyalty (1900), features a traditional Victorian deathbed scene. Georgie Sykes suffers influenza, initially brought on, according to the doctor, by too much sight-seeing (Westminster Abbey followed by St Paul's Cathedral and lunch in an "aerated bread shop" followed by a concert). When she goes down with the disease again later in the term, her guardians are unwilling to pay for the sea voyage said to be her only chance, telling the headmistress that "[her] prospects in this life were so very poor; it might be a solution of a difficulty were she to go." On the brink of death and with nothing to live for ("School can't go on for ever, and if I lived, what would become of me at the end of it? No, it is best as it is.") Georgie reveals to Alison that Hylda, who Georgie would love for her chum, secretly prefers Alison and longs to be her friend. She also touchingly asks Alison to look after her cat when she is gone. This is the only case of near-death of a pupil from disease in the books (Georgie, by the way, undergoes a miraculous recovery following the arrival of a rich but estranged grandfather who can afford to take her on a cruise).
In the early books several girls are described as delicate, Georgie above being one. The children in Our Vow have run wild because their mother is an invalid who spends her days on a sofa and mustn't be worried. We never learn what she is suffering from but it doesn't seem particularly fatal as she is still alive and still delicate in the adult novel Rhoda when her children are grown up. There is another delicate mother in The Mascotte of Sunnyside (1906) although she has more excuse, having spent over ten years in a prison camp in Siberia.
Schoolwork is too much for some. In Blind Loyalty, The Ghost of Exlea Priory (1905) and The Mascotte of Sunnyside (1906) girls suffer headaches and teachers worry that they are suffering from exhaustion. In the latter Ella breaks down from trying to compete with an over-educated new girl. In Blind Loyalty the headmistress notices that Alison looks ill and worn with fretting and later in the book she is told to lie down in the head's study with a headache. Georgie in the same book is sick with trying to learn and in The Ghost of Exlea Priory, there are fears that Molly will wear herself out from getting up at five a.m. to catch up with her classmates. Molly's mother the school principal, herself goes down with "brain fever" due to her anxiety over the future, the strain of taking on the post "and the incessant work it entailed". We don't see her doing very much work, she certainly doesn't teach, but presumably even being a figurehead is too much of a shock to the system of a woman not brought up to work. These early characters are delicate blossoms who need constant vigilance if they are not to collapse with the rigours of school.
Haverfield characters faint at the drop of a hat but if the examples are examined, it can be seen that girls in the earlier books are more likely to faint due to emotional strain while their later counterparts do so for physical reasons. In Sylvia's Victory (1910) Phyllis faints from the strain of keeping secret the fact that she caused her delicate cousin's illness by forcing her to swim for too long and is brought round by Fräulein, who has "a drastic method with fainters". This would indicate that fainting was quite a common occurrence and the classroom even comes equipped with a sofa handy for lying unconscious pupils on. Alison in Blind Loyalty faints on discovering that the gypsies who accosted her were in fact her brother and his friend in disguise and Sybil in The Mascotte of Sunnyside (1906) faints after being told her mother is alive.
Twenty years on, however, fainting has become far less common. In The Madcap Trio (1927) and Meriel's Choice (1933) no-one faints at all, although Meriel almost does, and in Just a Jolly Girl (1922) the only faint is after falling out of a crashed aeroplane, which would seem understandable. Swooning appears to have died out, whether due to the decline in the wearing of corsets or a change in attitude in which the schoolgirls of the 1920s are seen as far more robust than those at the start of the century.
The way in which Haverfield's schoolgirl martyrs are described also changes as the century progresses. If we compare two rescuers, firstly Elsie Brown in The Ghost of Exlea Priory (1905) who has to have three fingers amputated after she pushes Molly Stanton out of the path of an oncoming car, only to fall into the road herself and be run over by a dray, and secondly Dorothy Waylett in The Girl from the Bush (1920), who atones for having thought Hilary was a member of a gang of thieves taking advantage of the kindness of her headmistress, by saving her from a burning Christmas tree, there are interesting differences in the way the girls are portrayed.
Elsie, who has looked on over Molly as a kind of "guardian angel" all term ("I would have given my life to save yours, and I have only had to give a little bit of one hand. It's nothing Molly dear"), is a saintly character exuding calm and happiness. She is described as "beautifully patient and serene" with shining eyes and a "beautifying" smile. With her injured arm strapped and bandaged on her breast and Molly kneeling by the bed, the image is almost a religious one. And when Molly is worried about her ill mother, visiting Elsie calms her: "Elsie was so strong in her beautiful faith, so sure of the goodness of God, so serenely happy in her belief, that just to listen to her inspired confidence and hopefulness". Incidentally, her selfless rescue also appears to have cured her stutter, previously her distinguishing character trait.
Dorothy in 1920, although she thanks God for letting her save Hilary and make amends and each time she regains consciousness "[raises] a thankful heart and [says] to herself that the suffering was well worth while", is not portrayed as an influence for good and when Hilary visits her, rather than being calmed by her saintliness, she just tells Dorothy never to speak of it again and to go to sleep. Dorothy also gets to return to school, albeit with bandaged hands, as Hilary's friend, while poor Elsie, martyrdom achieved, vanishes altogether for the rest of the book.
In later books there is far less sentimentality. The attitude of Lady Fitz-William in Meriel's Choice (1933), bed-ridden after slipping on a polished floor, could not be further from the saintly Elsie. Meriel offers to live with her and nurse her but Aunt Fitz will have none of it. "I've always hated being paddled after. I'm an impossible invalid. I loathe having my pillows smoothed. I like them in lumps to fit my corners." That said, Aunt Fitz and "Puck", the brother of Meriel's estranged friend Rosalie and one of Haverfield's many road accident victims, do both experience miracle cures and are able to walk again.
-- Kate Lambert -- ________________________________________ Girlsown mailing list [EMAIL PROTECTED] For self-administration and access to archives see http://home.it.net.au/cgi-bin/mailman/listinfo/girlsown For FAQs see http://www.club-web.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/girlsown/faq-0.htm