Yes, I’ve been doing a lot of reading. This time it’s The Strictest School in the World: Being the Tale of a Clever Girl, a Rubber Boy and a Collection of Flying Machines, Mostly Broken, by Howard Whitehouse.
14 year old Emmaline Cayley is an adventuress, an aviatrix, and an engineer. She loves building flying machines in the same vein as her ancestors, and following in their footsteps. There are just a few problems with her hobby: her fear of flying and her mother’s determination to turn Emmaline into a proper 1800’s lady who’s concerns lie more in line with manners and deportment, rather than lift and drag. When Mrs. Cayley ships Emmaline to St. Grimelda’s School for Young Ladies, she hopes that Emmaline will be cured of her decidedly unlady-like behavior.
Before term starts, Emma stays with her eccentric Aunt Lucy, and meets the ‘rubber boy’ Robert Burns who’s bones never break. With their help and support, she builds and tests her first flying machines, with Robert as the pilot. But Emmaline’s fun is interrupted all to soon when she is locked into the prison-school of St. Griela’s with the warden-like headmistress and terrifying teachers who aren’t afraid to use corporal punishment to correct traits deemed unacceptable.
Add to the horrifying school atmosphere the terrifying secret of “the birds” which are used as punishment (and enforcement of the rules to keep the girls in line.) All Emmaline can think of is escape; she dreams about it, plans and plots. But, no one has ever escaped from St. Grimelda’s, and other girls are encouraged to tell on those misbehaving. Emmaline soon realizes that the only way out is to make some unexpected friends and face her greatest fear.
What I liked:
This book was great fun to read. It was written a similar style as other fiction novels in the 1800s which pretended to be about real people with names and places — out, in order to protect those involved (naturally). Like, Princess Purna of –. I liked that Emmaline was a strong female character, as was Aunt Lucy, despite eccentricities. The story moved briskly along, and was even more fun once Emmaline had gotten to the school.
I really enjoyed how the stereotype of attractiveness and size was challenged within the story. It was also interesting how the issue of competitiveness and rivarly between girls was addressed–especially since it wasn’t in terms of beauty or competition for male attention. There wasn’t much, if any, romance within this novel, except for sincere friendship.
What I didn’t like:
There were some stereotypes thrown into the novel that should not have been there. This particularly bothered me because there were some other examples of thwarted stereotypes that were really great–the gypsies. However, what bothered me most was the portrayal of Princess Purna. I felt she was a stand in for 1800s stereotypes British holdings in India. There were nonsense words being passed off as actual language, which just seemed insulting and unnecessary, as well as the depiction of unnecessary brutishness and violence which seemed out of character. Again, this is my opinion, but one I thought should be addressed.
Over all, this was a very enjoyable book. I would recommend it for a quick read.