Tag Archives: Period story

Rosie at Thorndale Hall [1983]

Thorndale Hall cover

Published: Judy Picture Library #240 [1983]

Reprinted: Bunty Picture Library #400 [1993]

Artist: David Matysiak

Writer: Unknown

Plot

Rosie Cooper is not a popular girl at Meadowdale Hall School. She is an extremely gifted girl who excels at everything, but she is spoiled and selfish and never helps anyone or shares her skills. Even the staff find her unbearable, but don’t speak out because her father is the chairman of the board of governors and her family have old ties with the school. For this reason the staff give her favourable treatment and bend a lot of rules for her.

Thorndale Hall 1

Then prefect Kay Easton decides enough is enough. She orders Rosie to clean out a lumber room and won’t have any of Rosie’s threats of what she could do because her father’s position. Rosie realises she has met her match in Kay and grudgingly starts cleaning.

While cleaning the room, Rosie stumbles across a picture of what looks like the school in its early days, but under a different name: Thorndale Hall. Rosie gets a strange feeling the picture means something to her, and it’s creepy.

It’s creepy all right: next moment the picture vanishes, and everything starts spinning and dissolving. When it stops, Rosie finds the school has changed and so have her clothes: “what coarse old rubbish”. A fearsome-looking Victorian woman named Mrs Grimm (the Thorndale headmistress) appears and demands to know why Rosie hasn’t scrubbed the floor. Rosie’s arrogance resurfaces, making her usual threats about her father being the chairman of the governors. Thinking Rosie has lost her mind or something, Grimm and her assistant, Trimlett, inform her that she is an orphan who is boarding at Thorndale Hall, all paid by her “scapegrace [wayward] guardian”. Grimm and Trimlett make it very clear that they are capable of handling Rosie with extreme cruelty; Trimlett has already broken one girl’s arm. Later we learn Trimlett’s punishments killed another girl. Cowed and bewildered, Rosie is forced to scrub the floor, realising she has somehow gone back in time to Thorndale Hall, which is clearly run on the lines of Wackford Squeers.

Thorndale Hall 6

In the dining hall Rosie is introduced to another cruel assistant, Mr Bludge, who wants her to help with very substandard and meagre portions for the pupils. It is here that Rosie begins to find that she is no longer quite so good at everything. She clumsily breaks the jar of dripping and in punishment is given just dry bread. One girl, Lucy Dawlish, takes pity on her, and Rosie makes a friend for the first time in this story.

That night Rosie tries to run away, but finds there is a guard dog, which raises the alarm. Bludge almost catches her, but Lucy creates a diversion by screaming and feigning night horrors. This enables Rosie to slip back without being caught, but the cruel staff say Lucy’s nightmares are due to too much food and don’t let her have any breakfast. (Any excuse to make them go short, obviously.) Rosie tries to slip Lucy her own food, but Trimlett catches her.

Pupils are forced to do all the work around the school. There are lessons, but Rosie is in for a shocking surprise in class – she is no longer able to read! Grimm calls her a “useless slut”, but instead of teaching Rosie to read she puts Rosie back to more menial work, saying that’s all she’s good for. (Another excuse for more slave labour, obviously.)

Rosie still wants to escape, and realises the first step is to make friends with the guard dog. So she takes scraps from the larder to feed to the dog. Lucy envies the dog for getting more food than they do, but it does the trick: in a matter of days the dog no longer barks at Rosie.

Thorndale Hall 2

However, when Rosie gets too close to a room with blacked-out windows while window cleaning, Bludge acts like this has spooked him and he rants at her. This arouses Rosie’s suspicions. She gets even more suspicious when she finds the door to the grimy window room is always locked. Grimm and Trimlett also go into a rant when they catch Rosie at the door, which makes her even more suspicious. The cruel staff are getting suspicious of Rosie and are watching her closely.

Rosie and Lucy now try their escape. As they do so, they are surprised to see a horse trap arrive with two men, who carry a box into the school. The dog does not bark at them, so it must know them. The girls take advantage of the men leaving the gate unlocked to make their escape.

Thorndale Hall 4

They find a Peeler, but he does not believe their story and brings them back to Thorndale Hall. He tells the staff that he will call back to check in a week or so, which makes the staff too scared to punish the girls. Instead they tread a cautious line of better treatment for the girls (such as more food for the pupils) until they are sure things are safe again. But Rosie senses they are in danger because the staff suspect they saw the men and there are signs the staff are wary, such as the dog being moved closer to the grimy windowed room. Rosie keeps watch for the men and sees them creeping around the room with the box, and then somehow reappear without it. She realises there must be a secret entrance that is concealed by greenery.

Rosie does not realise the men saw her spying. When the staff hear about it, they decide to advance their plans to do away with Rosie and Lucy. Rosie is listening at the door (and narrowly escapes being caught doing so) and realises they must escape. But in view of what happened before, they must go with some form of evidence so the Peelers will listen this time.

So Rosie heads to the secret room for some. When she pulls back the greenery she finds a small hidden door and a silver medallion. Hearing footsteps, Rosie hides with the medallion in time – but not in time to put the greenery back. Bludge sees it has been moved and is now alerted, which means Rosie and Lucy have to make an instant escape. They do so, but Grimm sends Bludge and Trimlett out to find and silence them, or it will be Newgate Prison for all of them.

Thorndale Hall 3

Trimlett and Bludge do catch up with the girls, but the Peelers catch them red-handed and arrest them. The Peelers explain they half-believed the girls because it tied in with other things they had observed, such as the two men, but they had to wait until they had checked things out.

At the school, the Peelers force Grimm to open the door to the secret room, which reveals a counterfeiting operation that forges coins with stolen silver. Grimm feigns innocence, but she goes wild when Rosie furiously counters with the truth. Grimm locks the Peelers in the room and then goes after Rosie with a poker. She is almost upon Rosie, but then everything starts spinning and dissolving again…

Rosie now finds herself back in her own time, and in her own clothes. Kay gives Rosie full marks for her excellent cleanup of the lumber room (how did it get cleaned up?). Rosie wonders if it was a dream, but when she checks the school records it corroborates everything she experienced at Thorndale Hall. The school was exposed, Grimm was imprisoned for theft and forgery, and her school closed down. Thorndale was exposed by…Rosie Cooper.

Rosie is at a loss to explain it. Was it a dream or what? But everyone is surprised and delighted at how Rosie has suddenly become a kind, friendly and helpful girl at the school. Rosie is now making friends and becoming popular.

Thoughts

This story could still stand on its own if it was just a straight out period piece of Rosie being a 19th century girl being put through the experiences of Thorndale Hall, bringing it down, and going on to become one of the founders of its more savoury successor, Meadowdale. After all, there must be some connection between Rosie Cooper exposing Thorndale Hall and the Coopers having long-standing connections with Meadowdale. However, that aspect is never explained. Instead we’ve got the added dimensions of a spoiled 20th century girl who needs a lesson and gets it at 19th century Thorndale, and a time travel element that nobody can understand or explain. This makes the story even more exciting, intriguing and mysterious than if it was just a group slave story set in a cruel and secretly criminal 19th century school.

Thorndale Hall 4

We have to wonder if the time travel creates some sort of paradox. Is 20th century Rosie the same Rosie who exposed Thorndale Hall in the past and (presumably) established her own ancestral connections to Meadowdale? Or is it some weird combination between 20th century Rosie and 19th century Rosie (as implied by retaining her 20th century memories yet becoming unable to read)? Or was 20th century Rosie somehow reliving the experiences of 19th century Rosie while still retaining a portion of her own consciousness? Or was it some supernatural power reaching out to punish Rosie for her arrogance? It is stretching credibility to say the whole thing was in Rosie’s imagination.

Thorndale Hall 5

The villains are predictably cruel Victorian people who run their school in a Squeersian style manner. But it’s not just to take advantage of girls for profit. The villains also using the school as a front for a secret counterfeiting ring. It would be interesting to know if they set up the school that way in the first place and they were criminals to begin with. We get a hint that this may be so when Grimm’s lessons suggest she does not care all that much about educating the girls. One-eyed Bludge does not give the impression he is the teaching sort either.

Matysiak’s artwork makes the villains really terrifying and the stuff of nightmares. For example, the close-up of the two mystery men (above) still keeps their faces indistinct. Their faces are rendered in an impressionist manner that makes them even more frightening than if their faces were shown clearly. In another panel (below), Grimm is made even more alarming by a stripe of dark highlighting that goes right down from her forehead to her collarbone.

Thorndale Hall 7

The artwork is a perfect fit for rendering this intriguing and powerful story. Matysiak’s artwork is brilliantly atmospheric in conveying the grimness of the school and its Victorian setting, the evil of the school staff, the covert operations at the school that provide the mystery that must be unravelled, and the supernatural time travel elements of the story. It’s done through ingenious applications of inking rather than linework or hatching. It produces real beauties, such as in the two panels mentioned above.

 

Wendy at War [1976]

Wendy at War logo

Published: Debbie #186 (4 September 1976) – #198 (27 November 1976)

Episodes: 13

Artist: Terry Aspin

Writer: Unknown

Reprints: none known

Plot

In 1940, the Channel Islands become the only German-occupied British territory of World War II and the Germans put it under martial law. Wendy Lee’s father is away fighting. The Germans turn Wendy and her mother (and their cat Snuggles) out of their home because they want the place for their Army Staff Quarters. They send the Lees to a “more suitable” place – a rundown house that is almost a ruin. Appalled at such treatment, Wendy declares to her mother’s face that she is going to fight the Germans every which way she can until the Channel Islands are liberated from them.

Wendy at War 1

As the occupation takes its grip, life becomes harder for the villagers because of blockades and rationing, food, fuel and medical shortages, and repressive measures against any form of resistance. Among them is a total ban on outside photography except for the German armed forces – because they use the photographs for propagandistic purposes in Germany that they have conquered the whole of Britain instead of small British islands. Another is taking 60% of the fishing catches while having all island shipping vessels registered, numbered instead of named, and being painted in army camouflage.

The Germans suffer too, such as having to resort to horse-drawn power because of the fuel shortages. The Germans also have the islanders help them win the war, such as handing over spare rubber for their war effort. Some of the islanders comply willingly, much to Wendy’s disgust. Worse still are the informers and collaborators she encounters.

But Wendy has not forgotten her vow to fight the Germans. Her first case comes incidentally when she sets lobster pots in defiance of the German oppression with the aid of her father’s boat, Dancing Dolphin, which she has hidden from the measures imposed on fishing vessels described above. But it’s not lobsters she finds but a left-behind British Commando. They almost get caught because of an informer, who is also responsible for the arrest of a farmer who tried to help the Commando as well. Wendy manages to get the Commando away before the German forces arrest them too.

Next Wendy acquires some tissue paper to make sketches of the occupation to help the Allies, and then send them off in bottles in the hope someone on the mainland will find them. She starts with sketches of slave labourers who have been captured from other occupied territories and being forced to build shore defences. She gets discovered by a German soldier, Helmut Silbernagel. However, Helmut is a friendly German who does not agree with Nazism or the treatment the labourers are receiving. Wendy is surprised to learn from Helmut’s example that some Germans are good, and she continues her secret sketches with his connivance. Helmut is able to help Wendy even more when he is billeted at her house.

Wendy at War 3

A friend of Wendy’s, Henry Green, is arrested and deported to a labour camp for composing an anti-German dance tune, The Victory Waltz. Wendy wants to save him and turns to Helmut for help, but there is nothing either can do for Henry. All Wendy can do is watch Henry put up a brave show as he is taken aboard, along with several other people being deported for even the slightest act of resistance.

Later, Wendy steals the opportunity to do some sabotage against the slave labour, but the Germans go after the saboteur. Henry’s brother Ben helps her, but then Wendy goes into hiding because she thinks Ben is going to betray her. She camps out at an old market garden with the help of her mother, Helmut, and a poacher named Bill Parton. Mind you, Parton charges fees for his services in aiding people. It is also revealed Parton is aiding German soldiers who have deserted and gone into hiding because their superiors’ rules are too harsh.

Eventually Ben convinces Wendy that she got things wrong and he did not betray her. In fact, the Germans take advantage of his newspaper reporting to report their amazing progress in building sea defences. Moreover, Ben also received a letter from Henry saying that if he wants help in speeding up the defeat of the Germans, turn to “W.L.” for help. Henry can be referring to only one person.

Wendy at War 5

It’s not until several months later that Ben does turn to Wendy for help. Two Frenchmen trying to escape occupied France got shipwrecked on the islands. They need a boat, but the Germans have them all under close guard. Wendy points Ben in the direction of Dancing Dolphin. As one of the Frenchmen can’t row because of an injury, Ben has to do it. He will take the men back to France because he does not think Dancing Dolphin can make it to Britain, and the men will try again. It will turn out to be a one-way trip for Ben and Dancing Dolphin, because Ben stays on in France.

To help Ben and the Frenchmen get away without interference from German troops, Wendy starts a huge bonfire as a diversion. It backfires when she gets trapped in it, and then the Germans discover her while they are fighting the blaze. Wendy tries a cover story that she was trying to rescue a cat, but the Germans are not convinced. They lock her in the cells. Eventually they let Wendy go after receiving her character references, but warn her that they will be keeping a close eye on her.

This means Wendy’s secret resistance is under threat, and more so when Helmut is sent to the Russian Front. The German they billet now, one Sergeant Sturm, is your typical bully Nazi hulk, and Wendy suspects he has been planted to keep an eye on her. Then Helmut suddenly returns, and when he sees Sturm’s bullying he sends him packing – at gunpoint. However, this and another act of rebellion against the German military (disillusionment from the horrors Helmut had seen at the Russian Front) get Helmut arrested. Sturm goes back to billeting with the Lees.

Wendy at War 4

Helmut had dropped hints that the Germans are losing. The hints turn into open news bulletins. Street celebrations erupt at the news that Hitler is dead, and Sturm is floored at this because the source for this news is reliable. Reports of more Allied victories come, and Mum and her Red Cross workers use it to persuade the German authorities not to execute Helmut, lest the Allies hear of it when they come. When liberation comes in May 1945, the German forces surrender to the returning Allied troops. And Dad is among the returning soldiers.

Over thirty years later, an adult Wendy wraps things up for us. The Channel Islands recovered from the occupation, though it took a while. Helmut was not executed, but he did have a spell in a British POW camp. He now runs a successful vineyard in the Rhineland and still keeps in touch with Wendy. Ben Green became a reporter for a French newspaper and married a “glamorous Parissienne”. Henry Green returned, married Wendy in 1952 (awww) and still plays The Victory Waltz.

Thoughts

This story is an overlooked gem from Debbie that is now receiving attention through forums on girls’ comics and becoming highly regarded. It certainly deserves to be. It is an impressively strong story, very well written, thought provoking, and shows so much realism in its portrayal of the Channel Islands occupation. Either the writer did a lot of research to make this story as realistic as possible or they had some personal connection to the Channel Islands, perhaps even growing up there during the occupation years.

Wendy at War 6

It is one serial that features one aspect of World War II that does not get much attention in girls’ comics: the occupation of the Channel Islands and reminding us that the Nazis did occupy some British territory, even if they never succeeded in conquering Britain itself. Seeing British people being oppressed by Nazis is even more disturbing than stories that use settings of occupied continental countries. It is a microcosm of what Britain could have become had Hitler succeeded in invading it. There may be more serials that feature the occupation of the Channel Islands, but currently this is the only one mentioned on the Internet.

There have been plenty of serials about girls conducting one-girl wars against the Nazis. But unlike Catch the Cat or The White Mouse, Wendy does not adopt a costumed identity to become a symbol of resistance and a constant bane to the town Commandant. Nor is she part of any resistance organisation. She is just an ordinary girl who uses determination, quick wits, and whatever resources she has to hand to fight the Germans any way she can. Unlike The Cat or the White Mouse, who invariably win with whatever they do, Wendy does not always succeed. For example, she wants to help free Henry Green, but finds that there are some things that are beyond her power, or even that of the friendly German soldier. And so Wendy’s resistance is more realistic and believable than that of The Cat, because it is more like how it would have been with real-life resisters against Nazi occupation.

The story takes time out to explore the impacts of the occupation on people and how it is bringing out the best in some people and the worst in others. We see people who comply with the Germans for one reason or other. For example, Wendy encounters boys who give the soldiers rubber for the war effort because their father says the sooner the war is over the better, no matter which side wins. Next panel Wendy looks on in horror at the slave labour on the beach and marvels at how anyone can think “no matter which side wins”. There are downright traitors and collaborators, who are epitomised in the informer who betrays Wendy and the Commando to the Germans and gets a farmer arrested. Some people are turning the war to their own advantage, such as Mr Begley who takes advantage of the shoe shortage to charge exorbitant prices for resoling. And while there are people who resist the Germans, not all of them are doing it gratis as Wendy does. Bill Parton charges fees for his services in helping people. But as he is also a poacher, his principles may not be the highest to begin with.

Wendy at War 2

Having Wendy being aided and abetted by a friendly German soldier is quite a surprise and twist. It reminds us that not all Germans were bad. There were Germans who did not approve of Hitler or Nazism, and some even formed resistance groups such as The White Rose. Good German soldiers (always in the Army, never in the SS or Gestapo) appeared quite regularly in the Commando war libraries, but they did not feature so much in girls’ serials. Helmut’s disapproval stems from him not forgetting his humanity and is horrified by the sight of slave labourers being treated so cruelty by bullying German soldiers. Later it is compounded by the horrors of war. We also see glimpses of other German soldiers who have become disillusioned by the oppression of Nazism and harsh superiors and have deserted and now live in hiding, depending on covert resisters like Wendy for survival. Perhaps the soldiers became resisters themselves. A stark contrast to the more stereotyped bully German soldiers like Sergeant Sturm who conduct the typical Nazi oppression, not only on their prisoners but also the locals of the islands they have invaded.

Where Have All the Children Gone? [1985] / Where are the Children? [1996]

Where are the Children cover

Published: as Where Have All the Children Gone? Judy Picture Library #272

Reprinted: as Where are the Children? Mandy Picture Library #243

Artist: Mario Capaldi

Plot

In Victorian times, Flossie Ford is a poor slum girl that has made good and now runs her own florist shop in Cheapwell. The gentry are among her clients, including prim Miss Courtney and her bookworm brother Algernon Courtney. Flossie is particularly known for her buttonhole flowers. Still, Flossie has not forgotten her origins or her family, and can revert to Cockney, which she had to take special lessons to overcome.

Street children start disappearing from Cheapwell. Homeless, uncared-for waifs are the targets, but one exception is Flossie’s cousin Frankie Ludd, so it is personal for her and her Aunt Ada. Superintendent Spenser of the police recruits Flossie’s help because she can operate as both a Cockney in the slums and a respectable florist among the smart society; the police suspect someone in the smart society is behind the disappearances.

As the latter Flossie notices something odd when she arranges the flowers for Miss Courtney’s dinner party: one of their guests, Mr Warby-Bellowes is “one of their kings of industry”. Flossie is a bit surprised at this because Warby-Bellowes does not seem to be the sort who would appeal to the Courtneys, but she thinks nothing of it.

As the former, Flossie picks up a clue from the mudlarks that Frankie was buying a pie at Beck’s Wharf before he disappeared. At Beck’s Wharf, Flossie learns an old woman named Ma Jiggs bought the pie for Frankie, and she is now buying another pie for another waif. When Flossie asks Jiggs about Frankie, Jiggs denies all knowledge of him and says she just buys pies for waifs out of charity. However, Flossie senses Jiggs is mealy-mouthed and false, and therefore the sort who could lure children away with seeming kindness. But there is as yet no proof of this, and all Flossie can do is tell Spenser about Jiggs.

Where are the Children 2

Next day Flossie is arranging flowers for a wedding at the home of another client, Mrs Leighton, where she sees Warby-Bellowes again. A maid named Carrie tries to tell Flossie she just found out something about Cheapwell while she was home in Blackscar, a town a long way from Cheapwell. But before Carrie can say more, Mrs Leighton expresses disapproval at her maid wasting time talking to tradespeople. Later, Warby-Bellowes visits the florist shop and also asks Flossie what Carrie was trying to tell her. Flossie finds this suspicious and says they were just talking about the wedding.

At the police station Flossie finds the police are questioning Jiggs, who denies any connection with the missing children and stands up to interrogation. They are forced to release her, but both they and Flossie are suspicious of her. Then Carrie stumbles into the station, all beaten up. Carrie falls into a coma and can’t be questioned, but Flossie reports what passed between them.

A week later, Flossie goes back to Beck’s Wharf in Cockney disguise, where she finds Jiggs is no longer buying pies for the waifs. Jiggs tells Flossie she lost a good job because of her. Flossie retorts what good job that could be. Yes, what could it be – luring children off, maybe? Flossie reports this to Spenser.

At the hospital Carrie regains consciousness but is too scared to tell Flossie and the police anything. The police think the kidnappers may lie low after the scare they had, but they are wrong. The disappearances merely shift to a new section of Cheapwell, Nine Arches, and friends of the disappeared children insist they must have been kidnapped. By now the disappearances are sending waves of fear and paranoia through the street waifs and the slum dwellers of Cheapwell.

Flossie hits on a plan to flush out the kidnappers. She sets herself up as a target at Nine Arches, along with her cousin Alfie and friend Bert, and the police will be shadowing them. The kidnappers take the bait. A man named Wilkes (evidently Ma Jiggs’ replacement) approaches them. Wilkes is dressed more respectably than Ma Jiggs but looks sinister and evil, and is soon tempting them away with promises of food and warm clothing at a shelter full of “sad little souls” like themselves. They allow Wilkes to lure them away and to a closed wagon, where he locks them in and says they are going to be put to work. Flossie peeks out through the cracks in the wagon and is stunned to learn that Wilkes is in the pay of none other than the prim Miss Courtney! Presumably Algernon is involved too.

Where are the Children 4

The wagon takes them to (surprise, surprise!) Blackscar. They are put to work as (presumably unpaid) slave labour in a factory under a cruel overseer. They find Frankie, who has been badly beaten for trying to escape. They can’t escape without Spenser’s help, but he has lost the wagon and the trail. Fortunately the police pick up the wagon again and track it and Wilkes down to Warby-Bellowes. They overhear Wilkes telling Warby-Bellowes that the consignment was delivered safely (Spenser realises what this must mean) and more is promised. Spenser tackles Warby-Bellowes, who denies all knowledge about missing children. Spenser tells Warby-Bellowes he wants to pay a visit to his factories in the morning.

When the overseer is informed of this he hides the children. But Flossie leaves her calling card for the police – a buttonhole flower she put on the overseer. Spenser spots the clue immediately, orders an immediate search of the factory, and finds the kidnapped children.

The racket is exposed and stopped. The horror makes shock waves in the press, with photographs of the three racketeers on the front page. To reduce the chances of a repeat, Aunt Ada offers a home for homeless waifs. Flossie finds her shop is now even more popular and people keep asking her to tell the story over and over.

Thoughts

The racket is not unlike the one in Girl 2’s “Slaves of the Nightmare Factory”, in which a racket targets and kidnaps runaways and uses them as slave labour in a dress factory. The ways in which the children are kidnapped in both stories is very similar (lured away by false charity before being thrown into a vehicle and carted off to the slave factory) although one is set in Victorian times and the other in modern times.

Where are the Children 3

Unlike Nightmare Factory, this story is not told from the point of view of the abducted children and their struggle to survive, escape and expose the racket. It is told from the point of view of the people who are trying to find them. This gives the slave story the perspective of a detective story and a mystery that needs to be unravelled and a different take on the group slave story formula, which makes a nice change.

Again unlike Nightmare Factory, the abductees are lucky that the disappearances are noticed as soon as they start and alert people. The racketeers clearly played on the notion that nobody cared about homeless waifs, so nobody would even notice they were gone. If Wilkes has anything to go by, they may even have justified their actions in their own minds with the excuse they were doing the waifs and society a favour by clearing them off the streets and giving them employment. Of course the real reason is greed and making handsome profits by using slave labour instead of paid (if cheap) help. But they made the mistake of taking children who were not homeless waifs, such as Frankie Ludd, which did get noticed and raised the alarm. (This mistake is similar to the one the racketeers in Nightmare Factory eventually make.) The racketeers also made the mistake of assuming nobody would care about the waifs. There were people who did, including Flossie and the police.

Where are the Children 1

Flossie would make the old tried-and-true serial of a poor girl who rises above her poverty to become a great success through her talent for floristry if DCT had gone down that avenue with her. Instead, they give her the perfect vantage point to turn detective on behalf of the police in tracking down the disappeared children. Flossie has the best of both worlds for the job, with her slum origins that enable her to investigate the slums and her floristry reputation and connections to high society that enable her to investigate the gentry. She picks up clues at both ends, without which the police would never have cracked the case. And Flossie did it so well that none of the racketeers realised the florist and the slum girl were one and the same. The flowers do their part as well. Arranging them gives Flossie access to the homes of the gentry to do investigating, and Flossie’s trademark buttonhole flowers enable her to leave a call for help on the cruel overseer without making him suspicious.

Unfortunately the Courtney racketeers put on such convincing shows of respectability that Flossie did not suspect them. Flossie was completely fooled by Miss Courtney’s conduct of being a prim old maid who was so absorbed with her house, while her brother Algernon never seemed to do anything other than read books. Flossie thought Miss Courtney had probably never even heard of homeless waifs, much less know anything about the missing ones. When Flossie finds Miss Courtney out, she learns the hard way that appearances can be so deceiving. Fortunately Warby-Bellowes was not as clever as the Courtneys and made mistakes that made Flossie suspicious.

If Flossie had been a serial, there was scope to use her in more detective stories on behalf of the police, using her slum background to move among the slum areas, her floristry to probe the gentry, and leave flower trails for the police to follow. But she was a picture story library, which have few sequels.

The Girl in the Mask / The Mask

Plot

After Dorinda Lacey’s parents die, she is taken in by her wealthy Aunt Clara. Aunt Clara tells Dorinda she is frightfully ugly. So Dorinda has to wear a mask at all times and every mirror in the house save the one in Aunt Clara’s room is removed.

Mask.jpg

Notes

  • Artist: Claude Berridge

Appeared

  • The Girl in the Mask:  Mandy: #875 (10 October 1983) – #890 (4 February 1984)
  • Reprinted as The Mask – M&J: #58 (20 June 1992) – #73 (3 October 1992)

 

Slaves of the Teasets (1987)

Slaves of the Teasets cover

Published: Bunty Picture Story Library #292 (1987)

Reprinted: Bunty Picture Story Library #438 (1997)

Artists: cover – unknown; story – Terry Aspin

Plot
In Victorian times, Peg Ashton’s father has died owing rent, so the landlady throws Peg out. It looks like Peg has nowhere to go but the workhouse. But then she is picked up by Mrs Grimble, a sweet-talking lady who offers her “the daintiest job” in the world, which is making dolls’ teasets from pewter.

However, when they arrive at Mrs Grimble’s teaset factory, Peg begins to get warning signs that the job is not as dainty as Mrs Grimble depicts when she sees the place is infested by rats and hears someone say “old mouldy Grimble has found another fool to slave for her”. (“Old Mouldy” is the girls’ nickname for Mrs Grimble.) Reality becomes even more apparent when Peg sees how pale her fellow workers look, and the meals consist of very substandard and badly prepared food. To add insult to injury, the girls have to pay for the food out of their own wages. If they don’t have the money, they go without.

Slaves of the Teasets 1

Peg soon finds out how unhealthy, gruelling and dangerous the working conditions really are in the “daintiest job in the world”: lack of ventilation; blistering heat for whoever operates the furnace; risk of injury from molten pewter; each girl having to make 2000 pieces in a day; no regulation on the long hours they work (no clocks to tell them when it’s time to stop); improper feeding and endless hunger; substandard bedding; picking pewter scrap out of rubbish tips; and, of course, the constant threat of lead poisoning. When a girl does get lead poisoning, which is called “the sickness”, Mrs Grimble does not bother to get any medical attention for her. Peg’s friend Tansy dies because of such neglect, but Mrs Grimble just blames Tansy for being such a weakling. She shows the same callousness when another girl, Sarah, gets her arm badly injured from the molten pewter, and fines Peg a penny when she steps in to help Sarah. Regardless, both infirm girls have to carry on working. Added to that is May Blossom, a worker who is Mrs Grimble’s toady and likes to bully the other girls. May takes a dislike to Peg, particularly after Peg tries to please Mrs Grimble so as not to lose too many wages for meals. May likes to cause trouble for Peg where possible.

At first Peg plans to seek work elsewhere when she saves some money. Then she decides to expose the working conditions instead. So when the King of Belagora visits Britain, his aide commissions Mrs Grimble to produce a dolls’ teaset for the king’s daughter, Princess Vesna. Peg seizes this opportunity to get a message out. She secretly stamps letters on the teaset cutlery to spell out “Princess help us poor pewter girls!”. Unfortunately, when Mrs Grimble catches Peg smuggling in medicine for Tansy’s lead poisoning, she does not allow Peg to finish the order. This means Peg can’t arrange the cutlery in the correct order for the letters, so the message gets jumbled.

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After Tansy dies, Mrs Grimble advertises for a replacement. An applicant arrives, and Mrs Grimble gives her the same sales pitch about the job that she gave Peg. Peg offers what help she can to the new girl against Mrs Grimble and May Blossom. The girl also asks the others if teaset making is what they really want in life. This prompts several girls to express what they would really like to be, which includes being dairymaids and embroiderers.

Then, when May causes the girl to drop and damage a tool, Mrs Grimble threatens to beat the girl. Peg intervenes and a struggle ensues. Suddenly, the aide from Belagora appears, and tells Mrs Grimble that Peg just stopped her from striking Princess Vesna. Yes, the girl is none other than Princess Vesna! Princess Vesna found the odd letters and unscrambled the message. She came to the factory in order to go undercover and collect evidence on the working conditions. The aide orders the constables to arrest Mrs Grimble and May Blossom. Princess Vesna takes the girls to more wholesome jobs in Belagora where they can fulfil the career choices they expressed earlier. Peg herself becomes Princess Vesna’s lady-in-waiting.

Thoughts

This story brings attention to an aspect of Victorian times that was so pervasive – household products out of dangerous and poisonous substances. Goods containing lead, arsenic and other harmful elements (found in wallpaper, house paint, clothes and children’s toys to name but a few) permeated the Victorian home. Even where the dangers were known, manufacturers seemed to give little thought for the wellbeing of the higher-class people buying the products. So what thought could there have been for the lower-class people who made them?

Perhaps the danger of the poison itself is the reason the teaset slavery is less sadistic and over the top than in other “slave stories” (stories where a girl or girls are slaves of a racket, prison or unpleasant business/institution). Sure, the working conditions are dangerous, gruelling, unhealthy and cruel. Yet we don’t see outright torture being inflicted on the girls or tortures being piled on one after the other on the protagonist, as has often been the case in so many other “slave stories”. Nor do they appear to be actual prisoners who are constantly finding a way to escape the factory, as they often are in similar stories. Mrs Grimble seems to beat her slaves far less often than a lot of her counterparts in other stories, though she is capable of it when she gets angry enough. We never find out what the penalty is for not meeting the quota of 2000 pieces a day either, so it is a bit hard to gauge just how far the cruelty goes there.

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The relationship between Peg and Mrs Grimble never has the acrimony that most protagonists have towards the main slaver in “slave stories”. Usually the main villain develops a particular hatred towards the protagonist because she is a rebel who refuses to break and is determined to bring the slaver down. This is what drives the story until the protagonist finds a way to escape the slavery and raise help. However, although Peg does rebel (mainly in getting medicine for the sick and injured girls while Mrs Grimble does not even bother) and plots to get a message of help out, the story does not go in the usual direction of the protagonist being a constant thorn in the slaver’s side. Nor does Peg ever really incur any vicious, sadistic vengeance from Mrs Grimble for constant rebellion as a lot of protagonists in “slave stories” do. This makes a nice change from the usual slave story formula. The focus of the story is more on making a statement about appalling and often dangerous working conditions of Victorian times.

The animosity Peg encounters in the story comes more from May Blossom the toady than Mrs Grimble the slaver, which is unusual for this type of story. Just what May gets out of being the favourite is unclear as we never see her get any special privileges from Mrs Grimble. The only thing May ever really seems to get out of it is bullying the other girls – which is what puts her in prison alongside Mrs Grimble when the tables turn.

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Mrs Grimble is one of the more intriguing and curious slaver in girls’ comics. There can be no doubt she has a heart of stone and cares little for the wellbeing of her workers. Yet she can be quite the charmer and sweet talker, and really knows how to sell the job to an unwary new girl before the girl discovers the reality. Even while the girls are working, Mrs Grimble speaks to them in an almost caring, motherly way instead of being cold and harsh. For example, when Peg goes out her way to be a model worker, Mrs Grimble praises her. Mrs Grimble’s appearance also lends itself to her mother figure; when we first see her she looks every inch a sweet, kind, motherly lady. When she gets riled, it looks almost out of character for her. However, we know that Mrs Grimble is just showing what she is really like underneath a mealy-mouthed façade of motherliness and kindness that makes your skin crawl.

The resolution is an impressive one. The prospective helper not only steps in for the rescue, but actually goes undercover to do it, and subjects herself to the same conditions and unpleasant people who run the teaset factory in order to gather enough evidence. Moreover, she is a princess who not only poses as a working class girl but also subjects herself to squalid and dangerous conditions of working and living in the pewter factory and virtually starving on substandard food. That must have been a particularly dreadful shock for a princess who had only known the lap of royal luxury, but she didn’t flinch from it.

The plotting is tight and well paced. It avoids several of the clichés that the slave story formula often follows, which is refreshing. It seems to prefer to let the working conditions and callousness of Mrs Grimble speak for themselves, and have the added threat of constantly working with a dangerous and poisonous substance take the place of over-the-top tortures that so many “slave stories” go in for. It’s also more realistic for the Victorian setting, as back then working with poisonous substances was all too common.

“Ma Budge’s Drudge!” (1987)

Ma Budges Drudge cover

Judy Picture Library: #286

Published: 1987

Artist: David Matysiak

Plot

In World War II, Jill Durrell has just completed training in the Land Army, which consists of girls who work on farms in the place of men who have gone to fight. Now it is time for the girls to be sent on their various farming assignments.

The girls are expected to go where they are sent, but the instructor does not want to give anyone the assignment from Mrs Budge: “Mrs Budge works single-handed on a smallholding with neither electricity nor running water, situated at the back of beyond. She’s a cantankerous, demanding, slave-driver, and no girl has ever stayed there more than a week!” He cannot believe his ears when Jill insists on volunteering for Mrs Budge’s assignment.

Jill arrives exhausted and hungry because Mrs Budge could not be there to meet her at the station at Geronwy Junction. Mrs Budge is not impressed to see the replacement for her farmhand Owen (who is in the catering corps) because Jill looks too small and not strong enough. Jill begs to be given a chance, so Mrs Budge has her prove it by preparing the stall for a newborn calf. Jill is tired and hungry, but completes the job because she is a stubborn girl. Later, she tells Mrs Budge that she won’t leave on the next train leaving Geronwy Junction.

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And Jill doesn’t, despite how tough it is working for Mrs Budge. Mrs Budge is not only the cantankerous slave driver the instructor warned her about, but also insists on doing everything the hard, traditional, old-fashioned way: hand scythes and sickles, hand water pumps, doing laundry in copper boilers, oil lamps, candles etc. “They were good enough for my great grandfather when he bought this farm, and they’re good enough for me, now!” She won’t have a bar of modernisation, modern farming methods, or any other labour saving devices. She won’t even have electricity or running water. She throws a fit when she sees Jill borrowing a combine harvester from a neighbour, Mr Wheldon, and only agrees to let Jill keep her job on condition she complete the haying her way – the old-fashioned way. The same obstinacy also extends to medicine; she doles out her own homemade potions and she won’t call in doctors or vets. On Mr Wheldon’s farm, Mrs Budge has a reputation for running her farm in the “dark ages” because she is too mean and tight-fisted to modernise. Mr Wheldon has his own team of land girls, who call Jill “Ma Budge’s drudge” (hence the title of the story), but they are friendly with her.

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Jill, however, is under the impression that Mrs Budge sticks to the old ways out of pride rather than miserliness – that and just plain stubbornness. Throughout the story, Jill is appalled and exasperated at how stubborn Mrs Budge is, and Jill is pig-headed herself. For example, when Mrs Budge sprains her ankle, she won’t listen to Jill’s urgings to call in a doctor: “Why waste money when a swollen ankle will heal in its own good time?” Nor does she take it easy because of her swollen ankle; she turns to jobs that she can do while sitting down. When fully able-bodied, Mrs Budge works even harder than Jill, and she works Jill far harder than necessary because of her insistence on old-fashioned ways. And Jill notes Mrs Budge never has a word of praise for her; she treats Jill in a grumpy fashion, especially when Jill doesn’t quite come up to the mark at times.

But Jill refuses to leave Mrs Budge, and nobody can understand why. The neighbouring farmer thinks she is a “rum ‘un” for declining his offer to leave the drudgery of Mrs Budge and join his own team. At times, Jill herself is tempted to walk out on Mrs Budge – except for… but she doesn’t reveal what. Even Mrs Budge asks why, and Jill replies: “Some day, I’ll tell you. I-I’m afraid the time hasn’t come yet, though.”

The time comes when two letters arrive. The first, for Mrs Budge, says her old farmhand Owen is being invalidated out of the catering corps. He will now be returning to the farm, so there is no further need for Jill. Jill is dismayed that she is leaving, but the second letter, for her, puts her mind at rest. It says that her father has been released from a Japanese POW camp. Jill then explains to Mrs Budge that when her father was captured, she made a bargain with herself to find the toughest job she could find as a land girl. She believed that if she did not quit, her father would keep fighting to survive as well. “Dad and I are two of a kind, you see. Not very big or very strong, but plenty pig-headed!”

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Mrs Budge finds it a bit of a cheek that Jill used her farm for a substitute prison camp. But she decides to take it in good part because she realises she got the best of the bargain. They hold a celebratory toast together.

Thoughts

It is refreshing to see a World War II story tackle the subject of Land Girls, something that doesn’t get much attention in girls’ comics. More often, their WW2 stories deal with female soldiers, resistance fighters, fugitives, evacuees and war orphans.

The moment we see the cover, we expect to be geared up for a story where a cruel slave driver works a poor hapless Land Girl to the bone. So, along with everyone else, we are taken aback when Jill volunteers for the Budge assignment while already knowing what she is getting into (unlike a lot of unsuspecting heroines who discover too late that they have ended up with an abusive slave driver). And we also have to wonder why Jill won’t quit her job as she learns just how tough and gruelling it is. When we find out why – to parallel with her father’s suffering and struggle for survival in a Japanese prison camp – we have to applaud, but do we laugh or cry about it as well?

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When we see Mrs Budge on the cover, we expect her to be a cruel, slave driving abuser, like countless other villains that have appeared in girls comics, such as Gert and Jed Barlow from Tammy’s “Bella”. So it is a surprise and delight to see that once we (and Jill) get to know Mrs Budge better, we find she is a more complex, layered character who is difficult but not totally unlikeable, and she is not a cardboard villain. There is no denying that she is cantankerous, demanding and slave driving, and she makes it all the harder by clinging to old-fashioned methods and eschewing modernisation. It is easy to see why no Land Girl had stayed with her more than a week until Jill volunteered. We also have to wonder why Owen the farmhand stayed on with her until the catering corps called him up. But she only demands of them the same thing that she does herself, and Jill admits that Mrs Budge works even harder than herself. Mrs Budge makes no allowances for herself either; when she sprains her ankle, she insists on carrying on. And when the accident happens, she insists that Jill do the milking than tend to her: “Leave me be! The milking’s more important than I am!”

The story is also a clash of wills between two people who are both pig-headed; Mrs Budge in her obstinacy about clinging to traditional ways and Jill in her obstinacy to stay, despite how tough it is. It is hard to say who was a match for the other in stubbornness, but we are all rooting for Jill’s stubbornness to win out against Mrs Budge. And it does, because Jill’s tenacity was motivated by love for her father while Mrs Budge’s stubbornness was motivated by pride and extreme conservatism (and perhaps fear of change and new technology).

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There is a dash of eccentricity about Mrs Budge’s obstinacy and stick-in-the mud ways that gives her a touch of humour. For example, she always wears the same raincoat, regardless of the weather. And while she always seems to be a grouch, signs of her having a heart do slip through. One of the most touching is when Mrs Budge tends to Jill when she burns her arm on the steam thresher: “Girl, girl – I wouldn’t have had you hurt, not for all the world.” Jill is really astonished at this tender remark after having endured Mrs Budge’s grumpiness with never a single word of praise. And when Mrs Budge find out why Jill stuck out at her job, she really does show that she is a human being: “Fancy using my farm as a substitute prison camp. There’s cheek for you! Still, I reckon we ought to celebrate – because to my way of thinking, I was the one who got the best of the bargain!” We see that Mrs Budge has come a long way from first dismissing Jill as “a tiddler” and setting her extra-tough tests to drive her off to liking and respecting her, and appreciating Jill’s work on the farm after all. We get the impression that Mrs Budge is really going to miss Jill when she goes.

The Shop at Shudder Corner (1983)

Shudder Corner cover

Debbie Picture Library: #64

Published: 1983

Artist: Norman Lee

Plot

Jean Marsh and Sheila Hawkins are best friends. Sheila’s uncle runs an antique shop at Shudder Corner, and they earn extra pocket money from cleaning the antiques.

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One day Sheila loses a lens from her torch in the shop and quickly finds a replacement on the floor. She does not realise the lens has a strange, mystical design.

Edited to add: the origin of the lens is slightly different from the original. In the original version, the girls found the lens beside a lightning-struck bush.

But the girls soon find that the lens turns the torch into a time travel device. Whenever it shines on an object that has a strange history attached to it (and in an antique shop, they are surrounded by such objects), the torch transports them to that moment in the past, where they become part of that particular chain of events. They have to stay for the duration, because the torch will not allow them to return – by being switched on again – until the adventure runs its course. Afterwards, Jean’s uncle (who is unaware of the time travel adventures) provides them with context on the object and their adventure.

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Jean is always telling Sheila not to use the torch in the shop in case it shines on something with a history. But of course Sheila always ends up turning the torch on for some reason or other. And then they are off again…

In this story, the girls go on three time travel trips with the torch:

Trip 1: The Danson dog collar

In the 19th century, Sheila and Jean meet Bettina Danson. She is running away because her guardian, Sir Charles Danson, is out to kill her and claim her inheritance. There is a legend in the Danson family about a demon dog known as the Hound of the Dansons. Sir Charles capitalises on the legend to unleash a vicious dog (who is wearing the collar) on Bettina as a fake ghost dog to kill her. The dog and Sir Charles trap Bettina and the girls at the edge of a quarry, but then they find a ledge and start climbing down it. Sheila blinds the dog with the torch, and it gets such a fright that it knocks Sir Charles over and he falls to his death in the quarry.

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Back in the present, Uncle tells the girls that the dog collar belonged to the Danson family. There is some tale about a ghost hound and a wicked guardian who was out to inherit a fortune by killing the rightful heir. But “something went wrong” and he “came to a sticky end”. The girls know what went wrong but can’t tell him.

Trip 2: The rose goblet

Sheila shines the torch on a crystal goblet with a rose motif. They are transported to an 18th century manor called Rose Manor, and roses are everywhere: the garden, the hedges, and even the stonework. But then an unpleasant servant takes them for gypsies and seizes them. The master, Squire Allwood, is just as surly and thinks they are gypsy kids who belong to “Mad Meg”. He is about to lock them in the cellar and send for the magistrate when Mad Meg shows up. The squire had driven the gypsies off and Mad Meg takes revenge by cursing Rose Manor with – roses. Immediately the roses start growing and spreading at terrifying rates that threaten to overwhelm the manor. People start fleeing, but Sheila and Jean are trapped in the manor with the roses threatening to smother them. They escape via a secret passage, but outside the nasty squire is about to recapture them. However, the torch comes back on and they return to the present.

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Uncle tells them the goblet came from an 18th century manor that became overwhelmed with roses; it was the gypsies’ revenge when the squire upset them. Ironically, the site where the manor once stood is now part of a famous rose nursery.

Trip 3: The horse brass

Sheila and Jean are working in the antique shop while pondering over a challenging homework assignment on chimney sweep boys. Jean’s notes go under a chest of drawers, and when Sheila pulls out the torch for them, the light shines on an old horse brass that got lost there.

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The girls arrive at a canal at a time when horses pulled narrow boats. The women of the narrow boat are cordial and offer them some food. The girls offer to sell some pegs in return, and the women suggest the big houses. On the way they encounter a climbing boy and his cruel master. The girls overhear the sweep telling the boy to help him and a man named Hobbs steal from the big house, or else. The girls report back to the women, who say the crooks are taking advantage of the boy being small and nimble to break into the house. They hatch a plan to foil them.

So, when the crooks head to the house that night, the girls distract them, rescue the boy and bring him to the narrow boat. But then the crooks seize the girls and force them to help with the robbery in the boy’s place. The girls strike back by throwing the bags of loot downstairs to knock the crooks down, but it rouses the household. The crooks are captured, and claim the girls are their accomplices. The girls are climbing their way down the wall, but the owner sees them and says the magistrate will decide their fate. Fortunately the torch comes back on and everyone below is stunned to see them just disappear.

Back in the present, Uncle is very pleased that the girls have found his missing horse brass, and they will be rewarded. He tells them it comes from a narrow boat, whose master used to be a climbing boy. “By some miracle he bettered himself” and became “quite famous”. The girls realise that the climbing boy stayed with the narrow boat women and “made good”. And their encounter with a real climbing boy helps their homework assignment so much that the teacher is impressed with the end result.

Thoughts

“The Shop at Shudder Corner” was originally a serial in Spellbound. When Spellbound merged with Debbie, Shudder Corner only lasted a few episodes, which is a bit surprising. However, Shudder Corner later resurfaced in the Debbie Picture Libraries and also scored an appearance in the 1984 Debbie annual.

The picture library completely restarts Shudder Corner at the beginning. The origin of the time travel torch is shown to the reader, rather than its powers being briefly explained with a text box before girls plunge into their latest adventure. This is an excellent move that quickly brings readers up to speed with the concept, and those who are not familiar with the original can just enjoy the time travel adventures in the picture library without even knowing its Spellbound origins. The altered origin is also more effective than the original, because it is much simpler, straightforward, and tying the lens directly with the shop makes more sense.

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Storytelling about objects is not new. M&J’s “Jade Jenkins’ Stall” and “The Button Box” from Tammy both starred narrators who would tell the stories behind various objects, such as the items on Jade’s stall or the buttons in Bev’s box. But instead of narration, we see the story itself as the protagonists not only relive it but also become part of it, shaping the events themselves and the history of the object. This approach turns the concept into an adventure strip that makes it even more exciting. It also avoids the moralising and condescending tones that can permeate the narrative versions of “objects with a history” stories.

Time travelling to the moment in an object’s past is not a new concept. For example, Debbie had “Polly’s Patches”. Polly time travels to a period in the past in accordance with whichever patch she rubs on her trousers, which comes from that period. But while Polly is more of a lightweight story aimed at fun, Shudder Corner is a darker take on the concept, beginning with the shop itself. Its Tudor architecture makes it look creepy with the right atmosphere, and the name of the corner it stands on – Shudder Corner – makes it even more spine chilling.

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When you enter the shop, a lot of those objects – such as a stuffed raven in a cage or a necklace in a goblet – can make the ambiance even creepier, especially when you enter the shop while it is dark. This is not surprising for a story that began in Spellbound, and it also gives Shudder Corner a bit more of an edge as a time travel story. The artwork of Norman Lee also lends itself brilliantly to the spooky vibes and the period settings the girls end up in. Lee has long experience in drawing both supernatural and period stories, so he is a sensible choice to draw Shudder Corner.

The girls always end up in trouble and even risk their lives in whatever period they land in. The torch always rescues them when it’s time to go home – but not before then. Until then, they are in constant danger while they relive the history of the object. It is a shame that Shudder Corner was not carried much further in Debbie.

 

 

Eve All Alone (1996)

Eve All Alone cover

Published: Bunty Picture Library #425

Artist: Unknown

Year: 1996

Plot

Gemma Halliday comes home from school one day to good news – her father’s company wants him and mum to spend the summer in Hong Kong. But the bad news is that Gemma can’t come as well. The company isn’t paying for her and the parents can’t afford it. Instead, Gemma will be spending the summer with Great Aunt Lyn in the country. Gemma is very disappointed to hear she won’t be going with her parents and is bracing herself for a summer holiday of boredom in the countryside with a great aunt she hardly knows.

Aunt Lyn is very nice, but Gemma still wishes to be with her parents, and her boredom increases when bad weather sets in. Aunt Lyn suggests she go up to the attic for something to read. Gemma is not hopeful that there will be anything decent to read, but is pleasantly surprised to come across an old diary. It starts in September 1939, when a twelve-and-a-half girl called Eve writes that she has just decided to start it.

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Eve and her parents live in London. World War II has broken out, and there are tearful goodbyes to Dad as he departs to go into the army. Eve promises her father that she will look after Mum while he is away.

At school the teacher distributes letters for parents about children being evacuated to the countryside in case Germany bombs London. Mum declines the offer because she and Eve want to stay together. But then their home is destroyed in the Blitz. At this, Mum changes her mind and tells Eve that she is joining the next round of evacuees. Eve is horrified, but Mum is adamant. So Eve resolves to be brave and not cry over leaving her and going to an unknown fate.

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Lunch interrupts Gemma’s reading. But now she is feeling less upset because her own separation from her parents is nowhere near as bad as Eve’s.

Upon the resumption, Gemma reads that at their destination, the evacuees were all taken in except Eve – Mrs McDonald, who was meant for her, has been taken ill. Evacuee organiser Mrs Barford hastily sets Eve up with Mrs Pettigrew, a reclusive-sounding woman living alone in a big house with a housekeeper.

Right from the start, Mrs Pettigrew’s is not the place Eve wants to be; the house looks “gloomy and scary”. Mrs Pettigrew herself “looks like a witch” and doesn’t behave much better. She has never welcomed lodgers – Mrs Barford virtually blackmails her into taking Eve by threatening to get her house commandeered for army barracks or hospital services if she refuses an evacuee.

But Mrs Pettigrew immediately goes to spiteful lengths to show Eve how unwelcome she is. She gives Eve the attic bedroom (tiny and cold) when the more kindly housekeeper offered her the more plush spare room. When the housekeeper offers Eve porridge for breakfast, Mrs Pettigrew directs her to make Eve’s porridge with water because she wants all the creamy milk. Then she forces Eve to do the washing up although Eve protests that it will make her late for school, and she suspects that was precisely Mrs Pettigrew’s intention.

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Soon Mrs Pettigrew is making Eve work like a slave. All the while she allows Eve so little food that Eve cannot sleep for hunger, even though she is worn out because of the work. Added to that, Eve starts hearing strange noises (a door banging for no reason, mysterious footsteps) and Mrs Pettigrew starts winding her up about the house being haunted.

Meanwhile, an enemy plane is shot down and one of the pilots escapes. Now there is a manhunt for him and everyone is on the lookout, but so far the airman is evading capture.

In between reads, Gemma learns not to turn up her nose at food she doesn’t like (better than going to bed hungry like Eve), and introduces Aunt Lyn to bowling. She is delighted to see Aunt Lyn enjoying it and thinks her childhood must have been really boring. But Gemma can’t wait to get back to the diary; it is a riveting read now.

Now food goes missing. Mrs Pettigrew blames Eve and punishes her by allowing her no breakfast for a week, and the work gets harder. More food goes missing, but the kindly housekeeper agrees not to mention it to Mrs Pettigrew; she reckons Mrs Pettigrew is taking it herself. Where possible, the housekeeper shows Eve kindness.

Then Eve finds a man’s footprints on the kitchen floor she just cleaned, and they go straight to the larder. Eve realises there is a man creeping about in the house, which explains the strange noises and missing food. Assuming that Mrs Pettigrew is hiding the missing German airman, Eve goes to the police. But it is not the airman (who gets captured later) but Mrs Pettigrew’s son Peter. She had been hiding Peter in the cellar to keep him away from the fighting, but now he is arrested for “shirking”. Following this, Mrs Barford takes Eve away from Mrs Pettigrew, saying something else has turned up for her anyway.

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And in the next village, Eve is surprised to be reunited with Mum! Mum didn’t like being on her own, so she got herself a job as a cook at a big house in the countryside in order to be with Eve again. They are going to stay there until the war ends – and there ends the diary. Gemma wishes she could know if Eve’s Dad ever came home.

But next day Gemma discovers that Eve is Aunt Lyn (Eve and Lyn are short for Evelyn). Aunt Lyn does not mind Gemma reading the diary one bit. Yes, Dad did come home, and there was “quite a to-do” when she exposed Mrs Pettigrew and Peter. Recalling her earlier assumptions about Aunt Lyn having a boring childhood, Gemma realises how wrong you can be about people.

Thoughts

This story is certainly a lesson in expectations and not making assumptions about anyone or anything until you know more about them. Gemma came in with expectations of a boring, miserable summer with no parents, and she came away with a whole new appreciation for the things she has, her aunt, and also family history. And Gemma reciprocated her aunt as well, such as introducing her to bowling for the first time in her life. So grownups can learn from kids as well.

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It is also a story about two girls undergoing the pain of separation but being united through the diary. As Gemma reads, her own pain of separation lessens as she learns that there are others who are worse off than herself, including the girl she is reading about. Eve has no idea when – or even if – her father will return from the fighting. Then she loses her home in the Blitz and the forced separation from her mother to an uncertain fate as an evacuee. Things go from bad to worse when Eve endures starvation, drudgery and misery under the spiteful Mrs Pettigrew. Mrs Pettigrew’s motives for abusing Eve are more rounded than most adults who treat their charges badly in similar stories. She was clearly selfish and mean by nature, but she was also a reclusive woman who understandably resented having Eve forced upon her, and she was no doubt worried about her secret being discovered. But of course that is no excuse for her treatment of Eve or helping Peter with “shirking”. After the punishment of the Pettigrews, it’s a happy ending for Eve when her mother moves to the country to be with her. The diary is the stuff of fairy tales.

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Eve All Alone is an engaging story and one you could read again and again. World War II is always a theme that can guarantee engrossing stories about emotion, separation, hardship, courage, adventure and warfare, and this one is no exception. It also reminds us that the war didn’t bring out the best in everyone, especially if they were not the best of people to begin with. Eve’s story as an evacuee still resonates even generations later in her family, and the lessons it teaches come across in a heart-warming manner that is not preachy.

Curiously, the son Peter has exactly the same name as a Harry Potter villain – Peter Pettigrew. Yet Eve came out three years before Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. An anticipatory moment or a popular choice of name?

 

The Cat on the Trail of the German Flying Bomb (1976)

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Bunty Picture Library: #161

Artist: Mike White

Published: 1976

 Plot:

In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Marie Bonnet is despised for appearing to be over-friendly with the Germans, particularly the Commandant. Josee and Burnetta are two bullies who are always picking on Marie over it. Nobody suspects that the apparent collaboration is all part of Marie’s cover for her secret life as a costumed resister known as “The Cat”!

The story opens with The Cat robbing the Commandant’s safe. The silly old boy thought hiding the key in the flower vase (clichéd!) would make the money “as safe as it would be in the bank in Berlin”. Plus, he never thinks to make his window more secure though he knows how The Cat can climb.

The Cat gives the loot to the town bank manager to redistribute among the poor. The Commandant is furious of course, but his retributive measures against The Cat (searches everywhere and new “wanted” posters that double the reward money) are futile.

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Then fellow resister Henri puts out the signal for The Cat to call. When The Cat arrives, Henri says there has been a message from London to investigate happenings at the Chateau Villai. The chateau is heavily guarded, but The Cat infiltrates it (swimming the moat and then climbing the bell tower). She discovers a huge laboratory and fuel stores.

London orders a second infiltration, this time with a special camera they have sent, because they want photographs. The Cat gets the photographs (the laboratory, documents, scientists and the stores), but then a guard spots her and gives the alarm. She gets away on the top of a truck and slips into the woods. However, the Germans have now been alerted, which makes a third infiltration too risky.

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When the photographs are developed, they reveal that the scientists are developing V.1 rockets. The resisters believe that these rockets are to be used on London and send the photographs there immediately. When Marie tries to pump information out of the Commandant later with her ‘friendliness’, she gets confirmation of what they suspect, but little else.

In London, the military realise they need time to build defences against the V.1, but bombing the weapons sites are ineffectual because they are too well protected. So they decide to enlist the aid of The Cat once more, to sabotage the rocket and cause the Nazis a setback that would buy them time to build their defences. They also dispatch one of their own men and explosives to help The Cat.

The man arrives safely, but then the Germans detect the plane. It is forced to take off with the explosives still on board. So The Cat raids the Germans’ stores for some replacement explosives.

Cat 5

However, at the chateau the Germans have built the launching site underground, which poses a problem in how to plant the explosives. Then the air-raid siren sounds and there is a bomb strike on the site. The bombing is accurate, but cannot destroy the launching site because it is underground. It is up to the resisters to do the rest, and the air raid gives The Cat an idea – trigger the air-raid siren to draw the Germans out.

So next night, they rig the siren to go off. The Germans are drawn out and into the air-raid shelter, and the resisters barricade them in there. They proceed to plant the explosives. But the Germans rumble the trick and manage to force their way out. They catch the resisters just as they are about to detonate the explosives. The explosives are set off, but there are still enough Germans ready to fire on the resisters. The Cat resorts to launching the V.1 that was meant for London – they have destroyed its guidance system, which turns it into a runaway rocket. It ends up landing on the chateau, where it ignites the fuel stores and creates a huge explosion that is a definite setback for the Germans and helps the resisters to escape.

Two months later the V.1s are launched against London, but the British now have defences against them. The military are pleased that more than half of the V.1s are failing to hit their targets, and are so grateful to Henri and The Cat for the time they bought them to prepare their defences. They wish they could give The Cat a medal. But until the war ends, it’s daily bullying for Marie as part of her secret war against the Nazis as The Cat.

Thoughts

This is the only Bunty Picture Library that was inspired by the Bunty classic serial “Catch the Cat”. It is a pity Bunty didn’t produce more Picture Libraries on The Cat, because they would have been extremely popular. The Cat is one of Bunty’s best-remembered characters and one of the most proactive heroines ever produced. She doesn’t hesitate to rob the Commandant in a Robin Hood style, commit acts of sabotage, help blow things up, or commit other acts of defiance that thumb her nose right at the Nazis, including leaving her trademark Cat signature. The costumed identity also adds to the appeal, as does the fact that there are no super-powers or gimmicky weapons. In fact, she isn’t armed at all. The only weapons she has are her suction pads, her incredible acrobatic abilities, and her amazing wits that can get her out of any scrape.

Cat 4

The Cat’s Clark Kent identity also arouses readers’ sympathies for her, because of the daily bullying she has to endure as part of pretending to be a collaborator in order to infiltrate the Germans. She always tells herself “One day they will know the truth”, “If only they knew” or other words of comfort, but she always looks sad and never holds her head very high against the jeers and ostracism from her fellow classmates. Living a secret life as The Cat does not do much for her schoolwork either, and we have to wonder at how much sleep she gets.

We also wonder why everyone, on both sides of the war, always thinks The Cat is a “he”. Why can’t anyone see that The Cat is a female? Not even Henri realises, and he is the one who is in the closest proximity to The Cat. Is it chauvinistic attitudes, or is there something about Marie that enables her to pass a male when it’s not so obvious that she’s a female? Whatever the reason, it must help Marie to keep her secret.

Cat 2

The picture library Cat story certainly is a strong, racy one. We see acts of war against the Nazis that are truly spectacular and go beyond sabotaging vehicles, sending Nazi commemorative statues to a watery fate, helping the Allies to bomb factories and such. Rather, we see The Cat helping to blow up rockets! How many heroines get to have such fun as that? And even before she starts on the rockets, she’s committing a heist on the Commandant. And it’s a heist that could have gotten her killed, because she has to haul a huge, heavy bag of loot across rooftops. We can just see that bag is so heavy that it could easily fall and send The Cat plunging to the ground with it. And how can The Cat lug anything so heavy across a rooftop? But she pulls it off, much to the gratitude of the townsfolk and the fury of the Commandant (next time, use safe combinations, Herr Commandant!).

And in her Cat identity, Marie even gets a bit of her own back on Josee and Burnetta in this story! They unwittingly get in her way during her second raid on the chateau, and she shoves them into a stream to get rid of them. They end up having to face very angry parents about their messed-up clothes. The sneaky girls twist it around to Marie later and brag that they helped The Cat. Little do they know!

But nobody must know until the war ends, which is what The Cat thinks to herself as she goes back on the prowl against the Nazis yet again in the last panel. How wonderful it would have been to see more of her prowling in the Picture Libraries.

Cat 6