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Archive for the ‘Joan Austen-Leigh’ Category

Where was Stephanie by Joan Austen-Leigh when I was twelve or thirteen? (Answer: probably on the very same shelf at Central Branch where I retrieved it on Saturday).  As diverting as I found it now, I would have adored it at that age when I liked nothing more than a coming-of-age story and would have been ecstatic to find one with a local setting.    

Stephanie tells the story of Stephanie Carruthers-Croft from the age of eleven to eighteen as she grows up on Vancouver Island during the 1930s.  The story is set primarily in Victoria, the provincial capital, for although Stephanie leaves to attend a boarding school up island, her time there is barely covered except to stress how much she loves it.  The real focus is on her life in Victoria and her struggles there to live up to her mother’s expectations for her.  As the story begins, eleven year-old, red-headed, bespectacled Stephanie is already chaffing against the strictures imposed upon her.  She is awkward and ugly, dreading the future her mother has planned for her: boarding school in England, followed by a debutante season back in Victoria where she will be expected to find a husband as quickly as possible.  Stephanie dreams of what it would be like to be a boy instead, what freedom she would have then!, and composes wild adventures for her alter-ego, the creatively-named Stephen.

Most of the novel is taken up with her scrapes: getting a neighbourhood child stuck up a tree, making inappropriate friends, running away from home all the way to Vancouver, etc.  The typical, entertaining stuff of which all coming-of-age stories are made.  The writing is straight forward and engaging, but not particularly artful.  The characters are two-dimensional and the most intriguing ones – Stephanie’s father’s cousin Winifred, a spinster who has always supported and encouraged Stephanie and whose career, albeit as a secretary, shows Stephanie that women do have more options than marriage; and Stephanie’s next door neighbour Alice Taylor, a quiet, well-behaved girl, much admired by adults but with a deceptively strong will of her own – eclipse our heroine, showing glimpses of depth and mystery than Stephanie doesn’t even come close to matching.  Still, Stephanie is relatable as far as young heroines go, if not brilliant.  This is just the kind of book I would have gobbled up in my adolescence or early teens, particularly given the time period.  The references to current events are hardly subtle but they’re perfect for a young audience, increasing their awareness of the Depression and the escalating tensions in Europe with some level of nuance.   

I did really enjoy Stephanie’s (briefly chronicled) escape from stuffy Victoria for the freedom of boarding school.  The financial impact of the Depression meant, to Stephanie’s delight, that she could not be sent ‘home’ to Cheltenham Ladies’ College, as intended.  Instead, she is sent to the (I believe) fictitious Westcliffe, which she adores.  I loved her description of life there, of how much there was to do all the time, how much to be excited about, because it very much echoes my own high school experience (I was also rather pleased to see my own school mentioned as Westcliffe’s field hockey opponent):

‘I don’t understand Maggie,’ I confided to Sheelagh, ‘she didn’t use to be like this at all.’

‘A phase,’ said Sheelagh loftily.  ‘Typical boy-crazy high school girl.  Here at Westcliffe we’ve lots better things to occupy our time.’

Was it better, I wondered?  I, who had sworn never to get married, was hardly one to judge.  Our time was occupied indeed.  How could we think of boys when our minds were freighted with the up-coming hockey match against Crofton, the swimming gala in the town pool, the Christmas concert of the choir, the next expedition of the Girl Guides, the school bazaar for which we were knitting, and a hundred other absorbing projects.  All this in addition to six hours of lessons a day, plus two hours of prep in the evening.  The school prospectus promised character-building.  Characters, presumably, were not built at public schools or on Saturday night dates.  (p. 232)

What I loved most about Stephanie is that it is a local novel, set on the Island.  It captures Victoria’s spirit as a colonial outpost, a place renowned for being more English than England, full of families who still send their sons and daughters to boarding school and university back ‘home’.  This spirit persisted long past the 1930s and I’m not entirely convinced that the Empress Hotel doesn’t still have some old relics seated behind palms, accessorized with topees and few gin and tonics, convinced that the sun still hasn’t set on the Empire.  But then particularly, the British influence was taken for granted by the upper middle classes.  In a city with no real culture of its own and no university, London was still Mecca, an icon of refinement and a source of pride, even for those who had never been:

I began to think what it might be like if we lived in London.  I knew all about London, of course.  I’d read books, and I’d listened to my parents talk.  They spoke of it always as if it were a holy city, some sort of paradise, the heartbeat of the England for which they existed, and where they would one day return. (p. 7)

Stephanie’s mother, in particular, is a terrible snob about her surroundings, distraught that her daughters, both born inVictoria, might grow up to sound Canadian.  Poor Mrs. Carruthers-Croft, what an awful character.  There is nothing remotely redeeming about her and not a whiff of sympathy is directed her way.  She is unrelentingly cruel to Stephanie, openly stating her preference for her younger daughter Sally, only speaking to Stephanie to criticize her, and completely unwilling to take her daughter’s wishes into consideration when it comes to Stephanie making her debut after graduating high school.  She is a terribly flat character, which seems like such a wasted opportunity! 

The novel ends hopefully, with an eighteen year old Stephanie about to embark on a lengthy trip to London(in the summer of 1939…timing is everything).  After having indulged in a debutant season, even being so successful as to bag a fiancé before all the other girls, she comes to her senses and realises that this is not the life she wants.  All through high school, she had been dreaming of being a writer and had worked diligently to improve and practice her skills.  She had abandoned that dream after graduation, unwilling to oppose her mother and perhaps afraid of trying to achieve something she wanted so much but which seemed so far away.  But, with some less than gentle prodding and insults from cousin Winifred and Winifred’s flatmate Miss Grainger, Stephanie comes to her senses, breaks her engagement (her one-time fiancé is far from distressed), and sets out on an adventure not of Stephen’s but of her very own.  Happily for Stephanie’s fans, this adventure is chronicled in Stephanie at War which I’m off to start reading now!

Parliament Buildings, Victoria, BC

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