Saturday, March 29, 2008

Belles' epoch

Girls behaving badly is nothing new. The first will probably never be known, but certainly the first recorded example appeared in a 1941 edition of Lilliput magazine. It marked the beginning of a decade-long series of St. Trinian's cartoons by Ronald Searle.

His cartoons suggested that, contrary to popular belief, English school girls were not as proper as they were touted to be. Searle's girls were cigarette-smoking, gin-guzzling hellraisers who could wield a field hockey stick with the deadly force of a police trunchant. Being a teacher at St. Trinian's was a far more dangerous career move than being appointed the new Master of the Dark Arts at Hogwarts.

Searle's appallingly appealing belles are now collected in St. Trinian's: The Entire Appalling Business (Overlook Press $29.95). The darkly comic collection chronicles the vices of boarding school young women in the only way Searle knew how: a whirlwind of lines evoking merry mischief.

Searle's horrid little girls captured all "isms" the English feared were being taught to young ladies behind boarding school gates: feminism, lesbianism and anarchism; some cartoons portrayed the students as downright demonic. But the mayhem so delighted the general public that the first St. Trinian's collection appeared in 1947. That collection resulted in St. Trinian's novels and later St. Trinian's movies (Note: St. Trinian's, a film starring Rupert Everett and Colin Firth was released in the UK in 2007).

But Searle's found that St. Trinian's was overshadowing everything else he did, and the Establishment began blaming his cartoons for inspiring real mayhem in schools.

Searle ended the series by having the school evaporated by an A-bomb. To accompany the end of an era, C. Day Lewis wrote "A Short Dirge for St Trinian's" in which he said: "Though St Trinian's lies in ruins, the St Trinian's spirit will arise from her ashes, like a vulture from the feast."

More than half a century later, the belles of St. Trinian's continue their glorious, criminous behavior.

Now let us all sing:
Whack it up, girls! Bung the ball
Thro' Life's goalposts at the call.
Who can stay the Island Blood?
Rub their bustles in the mud!
Gallant hearts and bulldog pans,
Floreat St Trinian's!
(from The Terror of St. Trinian's by Timothy Shy)

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