The scourges of St Trinian’s
Civil servants dressed as schoolgirls cause trouble in the Lord Chancellor's department.
Why do St Trinian’s tributes send feminists into such a stew?
On Boxing Day 2002, the legal correspondent for the UK Independent reported an in-house row at the Lord Chancellor’s Department – which has responsibility, among other things, for overseeing judicial appointments, the Legal Aid scheme, and the court service (1).
Some civil servants took exception to the front-cover of the Department’s in-house magazine, hearsay, which in October 2002 reported a charity ‘five-a-side’ football match. Its front cover showed a picture of one team, which had (enterprisingly enough) dressed up in the style of St Trinian’s, wearing open-necked shirts, ties askew and short skirts, to raise a laugh and (more importantly) inspire charitable donations.
A member of the Lord Chancellor’s Legal Advice and Litigation section sent a letter, published in the next issue:
‘I find the image depicted on the front cover of October’s hearsay demeaning to women in general. Further I am very uncomfortable with the use of such an image for a different reason.
‘It is my view that the promulgation of the “Lolita” image is offensive and disrespectful to all children and their parents in that it appears to sanction the sexualisation of female children/childhood for heterosexual males and to cater to the predilections of paedophiles.’
The letter went on: ‘I think an apology to those of us of both sexes who truly believe in equality and to children, parents and women as a group would be appropriate.’ (2)
This could have been an amusing tongue-in-cheek spoof of PC attitudes. But seemingly the author (one Elizabeth Kingsmill) was serious. What was she reacting against, exactly?
Ronald Searle, the originator of the St Trinian’s world, was a soldier imprisoned by the Japanese between 1942 and 1945. This ghastly experience found expression in his blackly humorous caricatures of schoolgirl existence. ‘Hand up the girl who burnt down the East Wing last night’ was the caption to the second Trinian’s cartoon. Another shows two Victorian schoolmarms marching briskly over schoolgirl corpses in a corridor, with the caption: ‘Cleaners getting slack, Horsefall.’
One cartoon, without a caption, shows a girl sawing another girl in half. Searle himself described the St Trinian’s girl as ‘sadistic, cunning, dissolute, crooked, sordid, lacking morals of any sort and capable of any excess’ – so, not PC then. But, he added, ‘good company’. In the end, Searle got so fed up with his creations that he finished off the school in an atomic explosion (3).
The ensuing cult led to five St Trinian’s films, of which the first is reckoned to be closest to Searle’s cartoon creations. They mock stereotypes of well-behaved females. In one, an authority figure asks a pupil, ‘do you know what morals are?’. ‘Uh…’ comes the reply, ‘morals is not going out with boys after dark’. In the first, The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), one of the sixth formers is secretly married.
The headmistress (Alistair Sim in drag) explains campily: ‘You see, in other schools girls are sent out quite unprepared into a merciless world, but when our girls leave here, it is the merciless world which has to be prepared.’ Health and safety are not understood: ‘You will be careful with that nitro-glycerine, won’t you?’ (4)
One commentator, Alan Foale, comments on the first three movies: ‘Like Searle’s cartoons the films assume that the natural state of children is not characterised by innocence, charm and love of one’s fellow humans; rather, it is marked by selfishness and violence.’ (5)
So where on earth does Nabokov fit into this? One has to ask. Many regard Lolita as one of the twentieth-century’s great novels. It’s a complex work, tracking one man’s private obsession with a 12-year-old girl; but without (as one of its earliest reviewers noted) the use of a single obscene term (6). It’s far removed from Searle’s satiric vision of children, and from a comedy like The Belles, where far from sexualising children and encouraging paedophiles, the sexiness of the St Trinian’s sixth form is matched only by the malevolent frumpiness of the fourth formers.
It looks as though the Lord Chancellor’s critic has perversely misread the amiable tribute paid by a group of cheerful women to the cult of St Trinian’s, commemorated in hearsay’s October issue. This would be funny, were it not for the Stalinist undertones.
Logically, if a passing reference to St Trinian’s or even the thought of Lolita is so offensive, shouldn’t the books and films themselves be suppressed, so that right-thinking people can sleep more soundly at night?
Barbara Hewson is a barrister at Hardwicke Civil
spiked-issue: Free speech
(1) ‘Anger over ‘Lolita’ pictures in civil service magazine’, Robert Verkaik, Independent, 26 December 2002
(2) hearsay, December 2002 issue
(3) See Ju Gosling, Virtual Worlds of Girls, 1998, Chapter 8, The Parodies of Girls’ School Stories, II. Ronald Searle and the St Trinian’s Cartoons; and Alan Foale, The St Trinian’s Cycle and British Film Comedy, Close Up (The Electronic Journal of British Cinema), 1993, chapter 1, The Origins of St Trinian’s
(4) Ju Gosling, Virtual Worlds of Girls, 1998, Chapter 8 III, St Trinian’s Film Comedies; and Alan Foale, The St Trinian’s Cycle and British Film Comedy, Close Up (The Electronic Journal of British Cinema), 1993, chapter 3
(5) Alan Foale, The St Trinian’s Cycle and British Film Comedy, Close Up (The Electronic Journal of British Cinema), 1993, conclusion
(6) Charles Rolo, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, Atlantic Monthly September, 1958; Volume 202, No 3; page 78
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