Mary-Lou – The Defence
“The girls who are leaders can make or mar a school. Thank God, so far all our leaders have led the right way; but, apart from Joey herself, Mary-Lou most of all.” (Theodora and the Chalet School p107)
Mary-Lou is a character that seems to be universally hated; a champion ‘butter-in’; a cheeky brat; a know-all; a goody two-shoes; interfering; pi; all these epithets and many more have been applied to her. Many people say that they have a liking for her when she appears in ‘Three Go to the Chalet School’ and during most of her junior days and then grow to dislike her as she becomes more and more the ‘Perfect Chalet Girl’ that we see held up as an example in books such as ‘Ruey Richardson – Chaletian’. However, I think she has a defence, one based internally, that is on events within the books rather than externally i.e. saying that Brent-Dyer intended her to be loved and respected.
When we first meet Mary-Lou she is a rather odd character. 10years old, taught by her mother and grandmother and while having a strong enough personality to be able to twist her mother around her little finger, she is in turn well disciplined and taught by her Gran. She lives at this point in a small Cornish village and has had until recently no friends her own age, dismissing girls as silly. In the past year two other children, Tony and Clem Barrass, with Clem being about 3 years older enter her life and they become friends, despite the eccentricities of the Barrass parents. Clem, significantly, is her first true female peer friend. An insight into the three children is given here “Never in all her (Mary-Lou’s) life had she even thought of taking care of mother, though she was always ready to run errands and wait on her if she were told what to do. But Clem and Tony saw things and did them without being told”(Three go to the Chalet School p17)
In this book Mary-Lou also meets the other person who has a major influence over the rest of her life. Joey Maynard, nee Bettany. After only a few meetings Mary-Lou is calling her Auntie and spending time with the whole clan prior to starting school. She sees the extended family in the same way Joey did, most at home with the Triplets and disliking Sybil, and is completely won over by Joey, a mother who would play hide and seek and could still climb trees. This is at a time, remember when she has left the only home she ever knew, the only friends she ever had and is about to start school for the first time, a period of immense change and upheaval for her. This influence is then reinforced later in the book, when after an illness caused by over study in an attempt to catch up with Clem, Mary-Lou is told, by Joey, that her father has died. Joey does not simply break the news to her, but when Mary-Lou brings up the manner of her father’s death with Joey, she uses the opportunity to drive home a moral lesson about living up to the standards her father set. This was at the very least an ambiguous thing for Joey to do, as anything said to a vulnerable child (and don’t forget she was only 10) at this point was bound to have a massive effect on her. In effect she was told that she needed to spend her life thinking of other people, taking care of them and living up to a hero.
This was reinforced at various points, such as by Clem when she and Tony asked Mrs Trelawney to include them when she was telling Mary-Lou about her father, “I’d like to know as much as I can about such a splendid man” Three go to the Chalet School p228 We see the influence it has had on her a few books later in Shocks for the Chalet School when she is caught using an old pair of scissors to prune roses because secateurs were forbidden. It was the head who administered the rebuke this time and the scene is recounted thus: “'You knew perfectly well that if you weren't being utterly disobedient to the rule, you were being deceitful about it. I know that scissors aren't secateurs, but you knew as well as I do that you weren't supposed to use anything of the kind. I didn't think that you, of all girls, would ever turn shifty, Mary-Lou!'
That had hurt! Mary-Lou's father had been an explorer who had given his life to help his friends when they were attacked by wild natives up the Amazon. He was one of her heroes and, under all her sinful ways, there was the resolve she had taken when it had happened - three years ago, now - to try to grow up into the kind of girl Father would have wanted her to be. She felt that this scissors business wasn't at all the sort of thing he would have liked.” (Shocks for the Chalet School p84)
This theme is continued when we learn in Bride Leads the Chalet School that “Mary-Lou was the child of an explorer and had fully made up her mind to follow in the footsteps of her father when she was grown up” (p53 paperback) and later in The Chalet School and Barbara we learn that she is a great admirer of Capt Oates. This was the explorer known for giving up his life in the hopes that his companions would be able to survive when they didn’t have to look after him, A parallel maybe in her eyes to her father.
This is the first main point in Mary-Lou’s defence. At a young age and an time of immense vulnerability she was given an heroic role model to live up to and put under a lot of pressure to behave in certain ways. This was then reinforced as she grew, both explicitly by her family, friends and Joey, and implicitly in the way Chalet Girls were taught to be selfless, serving and sacrificial.
The close relationship between Clem and Mary-Lou is seen throughout the series. I have already mentioned that Clem was her first real friend, and that when Clem joins the school Mary-Lou made herself ill working to try and catch up in form with Clem. Later Clem and Tony live with the Trelawney’s while their parents are travelling and after their parents’ death. It was Clem who encouraged Mary-Lou in her first piece of ‘butting in’ during Three Go to the Chalet School when Mary-Lou is trying to help a friend and is wondering what to do, Clem suggests that she tackles Plato. In the end she doesn’t have to as the situation is resolved, but this time at least, Mary-Lou was acting on Clem’s suggestion and under her influence when she was butting-in. Clem having advised her that this was the best way to deal with the situation. It was Clem who from the time that Mary-Lou first knew her saw things that needed doing and did them; Clem, who while not having a major role in any of the storylines, is seen as a constant ‘good influence’ on Mary-Lou. In The Chalet School and the Island Clem calls her a ‘moke’ and reminds her that ‘Auntie Doris’ has had to pay for her lost umbrellas; In The Wrong Chalet School Clem explains to a new girl that she lives with the Trelawney’s and keeps and eye on Mary-Lou. In Shocks for the Chalet School she adds to the Head’s rebuke, “Clem, her first and greatest pal, even though there were three years in age between them, had told her bluntly that she had cheated. Mary-Lou thought a good deal of Clem's good opinion. That young lady and her much younger brother, Tony, made their home with the Trelawneys while their parents were in Central Africa on a painting tour and was as good as an elder sister to Mary-Lou. For Clem to say that she had cheated was almost as unpleasant as Miss Annersley's rebuke.” (p84) In Bride Leads the Chalet School when Mary-Lou owns up to sending a message down the line in assembly she knows she will have to face Clem’s thoughts on her behaviour as “Clem in gratitude for the home that Mrs Trelawney was providing for herself and her brother…had constituted herself as an elder sister to Mary-Lou and was seeing to it that she was well and truly brought up” (p227 paperback) This is the girl who was her first friend, and who in essence acts as an older sister, a role model to the younger Mary-Lou of what a friend should be. Clem is someone who because of her family situation had a highly developed sense of responsibility, taking care of her younger brother, often of her parents and then later adding Mary-Lou and Verity-Anne to that mix. This is the second point in Mary-Lou’s defence. She was heavily influenced by the friendship she had with Clem, which provided her with a role model of taking on responsibility and thinking of others.
I have already mentioned the strong influence Joey had on Mary-Lou, first gaining influence when Mary-Lou was without friends and providing her with an extended family full of friends and an easy introduction into school for the first time. This influence seems to have grown stronger and stronger as Mary-Lou grew older. While the school is still in England (or Wales) Joey is the Trelawney’s neighbour and various small comments make it seem as if the children often played together, age differences notwithstanding. Mary-Lou is invited to tea, to play, or romp in the garden, is driven to school, attends Daisy’s wedding, and takes part in some of the generalities of Maynard family life. Her mother and Gran approve of this, and in return are seen occasionally having Joey to tea or looking after Michael, the baby of the time. This gave Mary-Lou an adult outside the immediate family to relate to, to talk to, to emulate even. When the school moved to Switzerland this influence grew. Mary-Lou misses not the triplets or the other children but ‘Auntie Joey’ when she goes home for the holidays and says that it is queer without her at Plas Gwyn (The Chalet School Does it Again) We see Joey calling Mary-Lou in to speak with her in the same way she does the triplets when she visits the school and Mary-Lou beginning to see Freudesheim as another home. This is the period when the staff begin to pass comment that she is just like Joey all over again (Nancy Wilmot in The Chalet School and Barbara) or slated for Head Girl (Biddy O’Ryan in the same book). There is little internal evidence, but from what we can see of their relationship, it does seem likely that Mary-Lou had begun to act in a way that would bring Joey’s praise and this is most evident in Mary-Lou of the Chalet School in an event that will be discussed later. This relationship grew again when Mary-Lou had her toboggan incident and it was Joey and not her mother who sat by her side for five days while she was unconscious and was there for her when she woke to pain. It was Joey who looked after her during her recovery and she spent that Christmas at Freudesheim. After this Joey is seen very much as an adult friend, and one to whom Mary-Lou takes all her problems. For instance we learn that she has discussed her adult attitude with Joey.
So the third point in Mary-Lou’s defence is that she was trying to act in a way that would bring Joey’s praise and was influenced by the school’s first and ultimate ‘butter-in’. (The question of Joey and whether or not she was as good a Head Girl as she is later portrayed, and if she was really a ‘butter-in’ at school is a separate issue here, and one I did not go into for the purposes of this article, although it is an interesting one.)
The final part of Mary-Lou’s defence is really an extension of the points already made, and comes through looking at various situations where she got involved in other people’s lives. An early example is in The Chalet School and the Island when she takes Cherry Christie under her wing. Although the fifth formers talking to Cherry’s sister had already identified Mary-Lou as a good person to introduce her to, in this instance it was Joey who got her involved by specifically asking her to take Cherry and introduce her to her friends and look after her. Mary-Lou did a simple sheepdogging job, and at Joey’s bidding. This was another time when she saw how Joey expected her to behave and how Joey’s expectations included helping other people. Once Mary-Lou reached senior school Joey began to get her involved in other situations. In Mary-Lou of the Chalet School Mary-Lou is late starting school because her Gran, who was another huge influence on her life has just died. We learn that Mary-Lou had spent a fortnight at home while her Gran was dying, spending time with the old lady and having a lot of disturbed nights, as her Gran could not sleep well. Mary-Lou returned to school almost directly after the funeral. On returning to school she meets a new girl who shuns her and is obviously unhappy. While she makes the standard enquiries about her among her friends and says that this is a situation that should not carry on, it is Joey who gets her intimately involved. At a time when she is grieving, when she is again vulnerable, Joey tells her the private details of another girl’s life and gets her to agree to try and help this girl. Mary-Lou does it simply because she knows that if she refuses she will be letting Joey down. “She’ll always feel disappointed in me And I’ll feel a complete and utter pig for letting her down like that. Oh hang!” (Mary-Lou at the Chalet School p36) Her ‘butting-in’ was born from a desire to please Joey. In A Problem for the Chalet School it is Mary-Lou who sees a situation that needs some extra help and tries to seek Joey’s help. In fact she gets help from Jack as Joey is indisposed, and after getting the advice, again thinks long and hard before deciding what to do, and once again her decision is made partly to please the Maynards.
The final situation I want to consider is one where she is often criticised for being interfering. It is the situation with the triplets in The Chalet School and Theodora where Margot Maynard is jealous of the friendship between Len and Ted and tries to blackmail Ted into breaking off the friendship. Mary-Lou was told some of the situation by Len and Con, saw more of it herself, and arranged to be on the same half term expedition as the triplets and their friends so she could intervene if things blew up. Then when they did she took the triplets and their friends into the prefects room on return to school and told them all some home truths that had a huge effect on them. The first thing I can say here is that Mary-Lou recognised her limits and took Margot to the Head, a point in her favour. Then she got involved initially because Con and then Len told her what was happening and asked directly for her help. These were two girls she had known from childhood, girls she had grown up along side, and been included in their family. Girls that she could have seen as being like sisters to her, and the only example she had of a sister was Clem, who was happy to tell Mary-Lou home truths. Another influence on her at this time was having heard that Joey was ‘not to be worried’ and whether or not she understood this to mean that Joey was pregnant, she would know that at very least Joey was not particularly well, and given her liking for that lady would not want to worry her with the triplets problems.
This leads to me saying that the fourth point in her defence is that she got involved in many situations not because of her own desires, but because she was either asked to directly, or was trying to please Joey.
In conclusion, this is a defence of Mary-Lou. I am not arguing that her actions make her loveable, nor that she would be a comfortable person to have around, especially when viewed by an adult reader and not a child. I am arguing that her actions are understandable, that she was heavily influenced by her hero worship of her father, by her friendship with Clem and by her relationship and desire to please Joey.
All quotes in italics. All book titles underlined. All books refered to are cited in text.