Monday, 17 March 2014

5 October 1901 - 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' by Mrs George de Horne Valzey - Chapter 1 (and an Introduction to YA in the G.O.P.)

I have thought for ages about whether I would include one of the serial stories in this blog and have ultimately decided that yes, yes, I will. The YA is a very important part of the paper, and out of the 20-odd years of papers I've collected 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' is one of my favourites, thus earning it a position in a blog entitled, um, Highlights from 'The Girl's Own Paper'. It also serves as a hat trick because the three main genres of GOP serials stories are (1) school stories and (2) family dramas and (3) romances, and 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' has a bit of all three!

'Pixie O'Shaughnessy' is interesting in that the main character, Pixie, is a child as opposed to a young woman, and the plot doesn't end with her marrying someone. Believe me, this makes it stand out from the crowd. She is also Irish and ugly as sin, which unfortunately is supposed, I think, to be hilarious to the GOP's loyal readers.

Pixie, a.k.a. Patricia Monica de Vere O’Shaughnessy, is the youngest of the O’Shaughnessy brood. Father is a benevolently negligent retired major deeply in denial about his family's financial straits, mother is (SPOILER ALERT) dead at the end of Chapter One. The large family live in genteel poverty in a castle in the Irish countryside. It’s decided that because Pixie will never marry well - because she’s ugly, see - that she should be sent to an English boarding school where she can be educated and set up to have a reasonable chance at life, as per her mother's dying wish. 

Look, if you’ve read any kind of old-fashioned English-boarding-school YA, you have an idea of how the first half of ‘Pixie O’Shaughnessy’ pans out. Pixie’s Irish, ugly and poor, but she’s also smart, sociable and spunky as shit, so she turns the prim and stuffy school upside-down and everyone ends up loving her, but there are, of course, disasters along the way.

The second half of the story takes place back at Castle Knock when Pixie returns home for the holidays, with a friend from school in tow. Pixie’s big brothers play lots of pranks. Pixie’s older, beautiful blonde sister is sweet and patient. Pixie’s older, beautiful brunette sister is tempestuous and wilful. Being so poor the O’Shaughnessys have to make their own fun, and there’s one chapter with a fancy dress party where everyone has to make their costume out of a bed sheet. (Toga parties! So 1901!) And then handsome stranger moves in next door. OH WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT??

Like I say, the fact that Pixie O’Shaughnessy’s being Irish is a joke in and of itself is pretty typical of the era and the middle-to-upper-class English demographic the ‘Girl’s Own Paper’ is slanted towards. But Pixie is a singular character in that she is distinctly unattractive - and genuinely so, not in a Bella Swan “Oh, I tell you how ugly I am, but I describe myself as ‘pale’ and ‘slender’ as opposed to ‘pasty’ and ‘scrawny’ and every boy in the universe wants me” way - and is unashamed of it, and is not punished for it by the author. She just bounces her way through the story, causing chaos and leaving a trail of mayhem in her wake, and teaches everyone salutary lessons about how it's what’s on the inside that counts - not through painful sermonising or being annoyingly saintly, but just through the mere act of being.

So without further ado here is Chapter 1 of 'Pixie O'Shaughnessy'. Enjoy.

Pixie O’Shaughnessy was at once the joy and terror of the school. It had been a quiet well-conducted seminary before her time, or it seemed so, at least, looking back after the arrival of the wild Irish tornado, before whose pranks the mild mischief of the Englishers was as water unto wine. Pixie was entered in the school-lists as ‘Patricia Monica de Vere O’Shaughnessy’ but no one ever addressed her by such a title, not even her home people, by whom the name was considered at once as a tragedy and a joke of the purest water.

Mrs O’Shaughnessy held stern ideas about fanciful names for her children, on which subject she had often waxed eloquent to her friends. “What,” she would ask, “could be more trying to a large and bouncing young woman than to find herself saddled for life with the title of ‘Ivy’, or for a poor anaemic creature to pose as ‘Ruby’ before a derisive world?”

She christened her own first daughter Bridget, and the second Joan, and the three boys Jack, Miles and Patrick, resolutely waving aside suggestions of more poetic names even when they touched her fancy and appealed to her imagination. Better err on the safe side, and safeguard oneself from the risk of having a brood of plain awkward children masquerading through life under names which made them a laughing-stock to their companions.

So she argued; but as the years passed by it became apparent that her children had too much respect for the traditions of the race to appear in any such unattractive guise. “The O’Shaughnessys are always beautiful,” quoth the Major, tossing his own handsome head with the air of supreme self-satisfaction which was his leading characteristic, “and it’s not my children that are going to break the rule.”

And certain it is that one might have travelled far and wide before finding another family to equal the O’Shaughnessys in point of appearance. The boys were fine upstanding fellows with dark eyes and aquiline features; Bridgie was a dainty little lady, petite and delicate as a French miniature; while Joan (Esmeralda for short, as her brothers had it) had reached the superlative of beauty, so that strangers gasped with delight at the sight of the exquisite little thing, and the hardest heart softened before her baby smile.

Well might Mrs O’Shaughnessy waver in her decision! Well might she suppose that she was safe in relaxing her principles sufficiently to bestow upon baby number six a name more appropriate to prospective beauty and charm. The most sensible people have the most serious relapses, and once having given rein to her imagination nothing less than three names would satisfy her - and those three the high-sounding Patricia Monica de Vere.

She was an ugly baby.

Well, but babies are often ugly. That counted for nothing. It was really a bad sign if an infant were conspicuously pretty. She had no nose to speak of, and a mouth of enormous proportions. What of that? Babies’ noses always were small, and the mouth would not grow in proportion to the rest of the features. In a few months she would no doubt be as charming as her sisters had been before her; but, alas! Pixie disappointed that expectation, as she was fated to do most expectations during her life.

Her nose refused to grow bigger, her mouth to grow smaller, her small twinkling eyes disdained the lashes which were so marked a feature in the faces of her brethren, and her hair was thin and straight, and refused to grow beyond her neck, whereas Bridgie and Esmeralda had curling manes so long that, as their nurse proudly pointed out to other nurses, they could sit on them, the darlints! and that to spare. There was no disguising the fact that she was an extraordinarily plain child, and as the years passed by she grew ever plainer and plainer, and showed less possibility of improvement. The same contrariety of fate which made Bridget look like Patricia, made Patricia look like Bridget, and Mrs O’Shaughnessy often thought regretfully of her broken principle. “Indeed it’s a judgment on me!” she could cry, but always as she said the words she hugged her baby to her breast, and showered kisses on the dear, ugly little face, wondering in her heart if she had ever loved a child as much before, or if any of Pixie’s beautiful sisters and brothers had had such strange, fascinating little ways.

At the age when most infants are content to blink, she smiled accurately and with intent; when three months old she would look up from her pillow with a twinkling glance, as who would say, “Such an adventure I’ve had with these cot curtains! You wait a few months until I can speak, and I’ll astonish you about it!” And when she could sit up she virtually governed the nursery. The shrewdness of the glance which she cast upon her sisters quite disturbed the enjoyment of those young ladies in the pursuance of such innocent tricks as making lakes of ink in the laps of their clean pinafores, or scratching their initials on newly-painted doors, and she waved her rattle at them with such an imperious air that they meekly bowed their heads, and allowed her to tug at their curls without reproach. The whole family vied with each other in adoring the ugly duckling, and in happy Irish fashion regarded her shortcomings as a joke rather than a misfortune.

“Seen that youngster of mine?” the Major would cry genially to his friends. “She’s worth coming to see, I tell you! Ugliest child in Galway, though I say it that shouldn’t.” And Pixie’s company tricks were all based on the subject of personal shortcomings. “Show the lady where your nose ought to be, darling,” her mother would say fondly, and the baby fingers would point solemnly to the flat space between the eyes. “And where’s the Mammoth cave of Kentucky, sweetheart?” would be the next question, when the whole of Pixie’s fat fist would disappear bodily inside the capacious mouth.

“The Major takes more notice of her than he did of any of the others,” Mrs O’Shaughnessy would tell her visitors. “He is always buying her presents!” – and then she would sigh, for alas! the Major was one of those careless, extravagant creatures, who are never restrained from buying a luxury by the uninteresting fact that the bread bill is owing, and the butcher growing pressing in his demands. When his wife pleaded for money with which to defray household bills, he grew irritable and injured, as though he himself were the injured party.

“The impudence of the fellows!” he would cry. “They are nothing but ignorant upstarts, while the O’Shaughnessys have been living on this ground for the last three centuries. They ought to be proud to serve me! This is what comes of educating people beyond their station. Any upstart of a tradesman thinks himself good enough to trouble an O’Shaughnessy about a trumpery twenty or thirty pounds. I’ll show them their mistake! You can tell them that I’ll not be bullied, and indeed they might as well save their trouble, for, between you and me, there’s not a five-pound note in my pocket between now and the beginning of the year.” After delivering himself of which statement he would take the train to the nearest town, order a new coat, buy an armful of toys for Pixie, and enjoy a good dinner at the best hotel, leaving his poor wife to face the irate tradesmen as best she might.

Poor Mrs O’Shaughnessy! She hid an aching heart under a bright exterior many times over as the pressure for money grew ever tighter and tighter, and she saw her children running wild over the country-side, with little or no education to fit them for the battle of life! The Major declared that he could not afford school fees so a daily governess was engaged to teach boys and girls alike – a staid old-fashioned maiden lady, who tried to teach the young O'Shaughnessys on the principles of fifty years ago, to her own confusion and their patronising disdain. The three boys were sharp as needles to discover the weak points in her armour, and maliciously prepared questions by which she could be put to confusion, while the girls tittered and lazed, finding endless excuses for neglecting their unwelcome tasks. Half-a-dozen times over had Miss Minnitt threatened to resign her hopeless task, and half-a-dozen times had she been persuaded by Mrs O'Shaughnessy to withdraw her resignation. The poor mother knew full well that it would be a difficulty to find anyone to take the place of the hard-worked, ill-paid governess, and the governess loved her wild charges, as indeed did everyone who knew them, and sorrowed over them in her heart, because she saw what their blind young eyes never noticed – the coming shadow on the house, the gradual fading away of the weary, overtaxed mother.  Mrs O'Shaughnessy had fought for years against chronic weariness and ill-health, but the time was coming when she could fight no longer, and almost before her family had recognised that she was ill, the end drew near, and her husband and children were summoned to bid the last farewell.

The eyes of the dying woman roamed from one to the other of her six children – twenty-two-year-old Jack, handsome and manly, so like – oh, so like that other Jack who had come wooing her nearly thirty years ago; Bridgie, slim and delicate – so unfit, poor child, to take the burden of a mother’s place; Miles, with his proud overbearing look, a boy who had especial claims on her care and guidance; Joan, beautiful and daring, ignorant of nothing so much as of her own ignorance; Pat, of the pensive face and reckless spirit; and last but not least, Pixie, her baby – dear, naughty loyall little Pixie, whom she must leave to the tender mercies of children little older than herself! The dim eyes brightened, the thin hand stretched out and gripped her husband by the arm.

“Jack!” she cried shrilly – “Pixie! Give Pixie a chance! Take care of her – she is so young – and I can’t stay. For my sake, Jack, give Pixie a chance!”

The Major promised with sobs and tears. In his own selfish way he had adored his wife, and her last words could not easily be put aside.

As the months passed by, he was the more inclined to follow her wishes, as the few thousands which fell to him at her death enabled him to pay off his more pressing debts, and enjoy a temporary feeling of affluence. Jack went back to his office e in London, where he had betaken himself three years before to the disgust of the father who considered it more respectable for an O'Shaughnessy to be in debt than to work for his living in the City among City men. Pat and Miles remained at home ostensibly to help on the estate, and in reality to shoot rabbits and get into mischief with the farm hands. Miss Minnitt was discharged, since Bridgie must now be occupied with household duties, and Joan was satisfied that her education was finished. And the verdict went forth that Pixie was to go to school.

“Your mother was always grieving that she could not educate your sisters like other girls, and it was her wish that you should have a chance. I’ll send you to London to the best school that can be found, if I have to sell the coat off my back to do it,” said the Major fervently, for there was no sacrifice which he was not ready to make – in anticipation, and he hoped to discover a school which did not demand payments in advance. He patted the child on the shoulder in congratulations, but Pixie was horrified, and opening her mouth, burst into howls and yells of indignation.

“I won’t! I shan’t! I hate school! I won’t go a step! I’ll stay at home and have Miss Minnitt to teach me! I won’t! I won’t! I won’t!”

The Major smiled and stroked his moustache. He was used to Pixie’s outbursts, and quite unperturbed thereby, although a stranger would have quailed at the sound, and would certainly have imagined that some horrible form of torture was being employed. Pixie checked herself sufficiently to peep at his face, realised that violence was useless, and promptly changed her tactics. She whimpered dismally, and essayed cajolery.

“It will break me heart to leave you. Father darlin’, let me stay! What will you do without your little girl at all?”

“I’ll miss you badly, but it’s for your own good. That brogue of yours is getting worse and worse. And such a fine school, too! Think of all you will be able to learn!”

“Me education’s finished,” said Pixie haughtily. “I know me tables and can read me books, and write a letter when I want, and that's all that's required of a young gentlewoman living at home with her parents. I’ve heard you say so meself – a hundred times if once.”

It was too true. The Major recognised the argument with which he had been wont to answer his wife’s pleas for higher education, and was incensed, as we all are when our own words are brought up against us.

“You are a very silly child!” he said severely, “and don’t understand what you are talking about. I am giving you an opportunity which none of your brothers and sisters have had, and you have not the decency to say as much as ‘thank you’. I am ashamed of you. I am bitterly ashamed!”

Such a statement would have been blighting indeed to an ordinary child, but Pixie looked relieved rather than otherwise, for her quick wits had recognised another form of appeal, and she was instantly transformed into an image of penitence and humiliation.

“I am a bad, ungrateful choild, and don’t deserve your kindness. I ought to be punished, and kept at home, and then when I grow older and had more sense I’d regret it, and it would be a warning to me. Esmeralda’s cleverer than me. It would serve me right if she went instead.”

It was of no avail. The Major only laughed and repeated his decision, when Pixie realised that it was useless fighting against fate, and resigned herself to the inevitable with characteristic philosophy.

Her outbursts of rebellion, though violent for the time being, were of remarkably short duration, for she was of too sunny a nature to remain long depressed, and moreover it was more congenial to her pride to pose as an object of envy rather than pity. On the present occasion she no sooner realised that go to school she must, than she began to plume herself on her importance, and prepare to queen it over her sisters.

Unfortunately my copy of this paper is missing the last page of the issue, with the final few paragraphs of the chapter and this week's Answers to Correspondents. There is an illustration on the penultimate page which I have scanned and added below. Filling in the blanks between the above and the start of Chapter 2, it looks like Pixie first gloats over her coming adventure, and then just as she's about to be sent off dashes into sister Bridget's arms for a final hug and vows to do her best. Or something.


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