Sunday, June 08, 2008


It's a rainy day, so you rifle through your bookshelves.... Dames by Elizabeth North is randomly chosen, the kind of boarding school novel you might read as a girl (i.e., by Enid Blyton, a writer alluded to by North in the clash between the faculty's snobbery and the girls' tastes), except the characters are sophisticated and it chronologically jumps back and forth over a 25-year-year period. It's a bit like a subdued English version of Mary McCarthy's The Group, except it begins at a boarding school instead of a Seven Sisters college. At Dames School, the teachers dislike the group called the Ambers. These five girls scorn anyone “public-spirited, hearty and conscientious...” They nonchalantly mock their English teacher, pretend they’re menstruating in gym class, and skip chapel.

The rebellious Erica becomes a hip but worried mother of children who follow a guru in California. Mousie, the most overlooked member of the group, is at the center of the novel and becomes the least conventional. A woman in her 30s, Mousie has fallen in love with a married man and travels to Ethiopia to take over a mission connected with Dames.

The headmistress of Dames, Miss Bedford, is also unconventional. Disillusioned, she believes the school is outdated. She is defeated by the Ambers, the new kind of girl admitted by the school. Half of her doesn’t care about their skipping chapel; half of her realizes she must punish them, though the punishment will have no impact. An older Mousie, Miss Bedford is half in love with her late best friend’s widowed husband and meets him in Ethiopia when she spends her holiday at the Dames mission house.

So one single woman is in love with a married man; the other with a widower.

There is a coolness and cleverness to the subtle, witty style, which is so minimalist it stays in the background. There is an odd connection between the privileged Dames school and the patronage of the mission in Ethiopia. Sadly, this seems to be a forgotten book.

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