A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
I know you probably haven’t heard of it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a classic.
Evelyn Finds Herself might sound like some kind of hippy-dippy Californian memoir from the late 1960s, but it’s not. In fact it’s a 1929 school story, published by the Oxford University Press, by the author Josephine Elder, who also wrote adult fiction. She was a doctor, qualifying at a time when it was difficult and unusual for a woman to do so. I sometimes wish she had written more books, but if she had they might not have been so good.
And Evelyn is her masterpiece – well-written, thoughtful and original. Evelyn is in the fifth form at the Addington Girls’ High School when we meet her, bright, earnest, popular, successful at work and games, with a best friend in Elizabeth. We follow her fortunes through the last few years of her school career as she negotiates the vicissitudes of friendship and finds – well, herself, as the title suggests. It is a reflection on the demands of the heart versus the steadier rewards of the intellect. There are no dramatic events; the action is contained on Jane Austen’s ‘two inches of ivory’. In fact, it’s very much the kind of school story Jane Austen might have written, had she been around in the 1920s.
Much of the action is internal, as Evelyn wrestles with working out how other people tick, and what sort of woman she wants to be. Her growing apart from best friend Elizabeth is one of the most realistic and unsentimental accounts of a friendship changing that I have read anywhere. And when Evelyn discovers the ‘cold sparkling joy’ of hard intellectual work – she is a scientist who is about to go up to Cambridge at the end of the book – I recognise the feeling from my own love of study, and wish that I had got to know Evelyn when I too was a somewhat over-serious eighteen year old, and not as an adult school story aficionado.
Why do I describe it as YA? Well, Evelyn is older than most school story heroines, in her late teens, and it’s very much a coming of age story in the Bildungsroman tradition. The intensity of Evelyn’s feelings for her friends and the inspirational teacher Miss Yeo is as deep and complex as anything in contemporary YA.
And a classic? The entry for Josephine Elder in The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories (ed. Sue Sims and Hilary Clare) says ‘its excellence has been justly appreciated by critics and other authors alike.’ The blurb for the reissue of the book in 1952 says ‘its liveliness and realistic viewpoint will help to confute those who declare that there can never be a girls’ story to equal the schoolboy classics.’ Yet for many years Evelyn was out of print, and largely forgotten. Of course this is the fate for many books, but I think Evelyn deserved better, and I suggest that part of the trouble was that it was seen as ‘merely’ a school story, and a girls’ story at that. I tracked it down, at some expense, on the second hand market for my PhD research, and it was only in 2006 that small press Girls Gone By reissued it.
If you like thoughtful, leisurely books which foreground female relationships, then I’d recommend Evelyn Finds Herself without reservation.
What forgotten classic would you bring back?