When I was in about Year 9, my friend Roxanne introduced me to the Dimsie schoolgirl books by Dorita Fairlie Bruce. The books in this series had riveting titles such as Dimsie Moves Up and Dimsie Moves Up Again. Dimsie, like many a good schoolgirl heroine, was always “barging in” on things and “getting into scrapes”. And there also was Mabs, who was bound to become a journalist with her ear for gossip, Angela whom could never be trusted on the hockey field with her hot Spanish blood, and so forth.
We read Dimsie with lashings of irony, I hasten to add.
My mother, somehow remembering this schoolgirl craze, gave me a copy of Philip Larkin’s Trouble at Willow Gables for Christmas. Yes, that’s right: Philip Larkin. It seemed he shared our fascination with adolescent schoolgirl literature, including the fortunes of Dimsie.
I’m not sure why I expect you, dear reader/fellow blogger/lurker to share our fascination with both Mr Larkin and the schoolgirl genre, but never mind. As it is, other readers, lurkers, etc, may know more about the foibles of the youthful Mr Larkin. I am, however, dependent on the notes provided by James Booth to the Faber and Faber edition.
Things start out well: Mr Booth writes: “Throughout the 1940s Larkin’s ambition was to be a novelist.” After that, they get a bit murky. It seems that while Larkin was trying to find his voice as a writer at about the age of 21, he was a lot more comfy writing in the third person intimate as Brunette Colman, author of Trouble at Willow Gables, Michaelmas Term at St Bride’s, and other odds and sods including poetry and an essay on the schoolgirl genre titled “What are we writing for?”
His other purpose in dabbling with this genre seems to have been to exploit its lesbian potential - as (what was described by Mr Booth) a cross-gendered man. Larkin underwent an interesting sexual evolution: he wrote to Kingsley Amis during his Brunette Colman phase: “homosexuality has completely been replaced by lesbianism in my character at the moment.”
Writing under a feminine persona in a highly feminine genre may have been protective or even nurturing for a man uncomfortable with traditional masculinity during a hyper-masculine wartime era. Booth also suggests Rosemary Auchmuty’s feminist defence of the schoolgirl genre may have been applicable to Larkin.
Auchmuty writes: it “offered me as a young woman a temporary escape and refuge from the profoundly heterosexual society I lived in.” Another possibility here is that Larkin was rather self-consciously drawing on Woolf’s notion of the artist’s androgyny, and there seem to be some covert references to Woolf in Michaelmas Term at Bride’s.
There was, however, not enough lesbianism in the genre for Larkin. Writing to Amis about the completion of Colman’s essay on the genre, he states:
Girls’ stories are not bad, but they are obviously not written by people of erotic sensibility. There is lesbianism in them, but not enough, and it is treated too casually. It’s nice when the girls kiss each other and get into each others’ beds and quarrel and twist each others’ wrists, but in between there is an awful lot of waffle, and the authoresses are very stupid women, without a grain of humour in their tiny little minds …
So speaks the voice of brutish male youth, trying to cover his tracks.
There’s also been some speculation as to whether these early works by Larkin might be classified as pornography (Kingsley Amis dubbed them “obscene and soft porn fairy stories”), but if anything they seemed more “Carry on”, at times, to me. Schoolgirls frequently rip tight-fitting trousers during japes to reveal alabaster botties and so forth.
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