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The Bandon born author who pioneered girls school tales

Monday, 10th November, 2014 9:30pm
The Bandon born author who pioneered girls school tales

Asked to name some fictional girls’ schools, one might think of St Trinian’s, Malory Towers, Whyteleafe, maybe Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. But LT Meade’s Lavender House was admitting pupils much earlier.

When she died, one hundred years ago, Meade had published at least 280 books, plus innumerable short stories and articles. She had also edited the girls’ magazine Atlanta.

The spirited, girl-centred nature of her books is evident from their titles: Polly: A New Fashioned Girl; A Princess of the Gutter; and A Girl in Ten Thousand.

In her bestseller, A World of Girls (1886), she introduced ideas that we associate with later girls’ school writers: pranks; vendettas; objects (and people) going missing; viscious dogs; visits from the police; and midnight picnics with ginger beer.

Elizabeth Thomasina Meade was born in Bandon in 1844, and grew up in Nohoval. She spent her childhood in a ‘lonely’ windswept house.

But the inhabitants of even this remote spot knew of women’s emancipation, and there was one girl ‘who was all too ready to take up the spirit of revolt’.

Meade had a gift for storytelling and by seventeen was determined to write for a living. The prospect horrified her father, the rector of Killowen, near Bandon. No lady in the family had ever worked for money.

In her late twenties she moved to London where she married Alfred Smith; but she never used her married name.

Each day in the British Museum Reading Room she would write 2,000-5,000 words. As a professional writer, she wrote whatever her publisher asked for. ‘If he asks for a girls’ story, he gets it; and if he asks for a novel, he gets that … I never wait for inspiration. I might never write a word if I did.’

Meade empathised with the ‘Wild Irish Girls’ who disrupted the strict atmosphere of English boarding schools – girls like Kitty Malone in Wild Kitty, sent to England to be ‘tamed’ into a respectable lady. Kitty could not take the rules of Middleton School seriously, and dressed from head to toe in bright clothing. She dreamed of running away with a fellow pupil to Ireland – an exciting land of opportunity. So unlike England, described by Kathleen O’Hara in The Rebel of the School, as ‘a cold, dreary, abominable land… prison.’

Critics have accused Meade of churning out juvenile fiction with stereotyped characters and predictable incidents. One has suggested her books be used for loft insulation, or simply tossed on a bonfire. But Meade had discovered a market for books about girls’ schools, and became so popular in her time that she was voted favourite writer by Girl’s Realm in 1898.

Besides children’s books, she wrote historical novels, adventures, romances and detective stories – with female villains and gangsters. When she collaborated with Robert Eustace to write Stories from the Diary of a Doctor, she invented a new genre: the medical mystery. Although this incredible diversification benefited her commercially at the time, it has probably been the biggest factor in obscuring Meade since.

In her final years, as an active member of the Pioneer Club, Meade spoke out in debates on female education, votes for women, careers and marriage; and argued how a ‘School of Fiction’ would help younger novelists improve their craft.

‘No readers are more delightful to write for than young girls,’ she declared. ‘When [my readers] cease to buy … I shall to cease to write, but not before.’

LT Meade died on 26 October 1914. As one of the most prolific writers Ireland has ever produced, she surely deserves to be better remembered.

For more on LT Meade, see Veronica Buckley’s article Elizabeth Thomasina Meade, Novelist, 1844 - 1914, in the Bandon Historical Journal Issue 30, 2013.