Some children’s writers have stood the test of time better than others. Enid Blyton, Capt. W. E. Johns, E. Nesbit, Angela Brazil and Elsie J. Oxenham, to name but a few, are still very popular today, decades after their deaths. Even writers who never actually existed, such as Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene, of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew fame, respectively, continue to shift books from the shelves, and their works are constantly reissued and reworked for television and the cinema. But for every Angela Brazil, there are dozens of writers who fall by the wayside, almost forgotten. Although considered successful in their day, the likes of Valerie Hastings, Hilda Boden and Arthur Catherall do not create waves of nostalgia today; nor do they attract the attention of literary historians.
And how well has Jane Shaw fared? Has she left a legacy that puts her up there with the greats? It should not be all that difficult to gauge the popularity of a deceased writer. All that is required are the answers to a few questions: Are the writer’s books still in print? If so, how well do they sell? Has a biography of the writer been published? How much online activity and how many websites are devoted to the writer, and how popular are they? Is there a club or society for the writer, and how active is it? Finally, what do people think of the writer’s stories and characters? Let us look at the answers to these questions:
Are the writer’s books still in print?
In the last ten years, three of Jane Shaw’s books have been reissued by Bettany Press, although they do not appear to have sold very well. The last three titles of the Susan series were put out in paperback and also made available for the Amazon Kindle. As of march 2014, Susan’s Kind Heart is number 1,174,248 on the Amazon best seller rank. Where is Susan? and A Job for Susan rank at 1,246,076 and 1,180,946, respectively. Susan and Friends is doing a little better at 889,504. As far as I can tell, there are no plans to reissue any other titles.
Has a biography of the writer been published?
In 2002 Bettany Press published Susan and Friends: The Jane Shaw Companion. It is a combined biography, literary review and short story anthology. Originally issued in paperback, it too was made available for the Kindle. Reaction to this book was highly favourable.
How much online activity is dedicated to the author?
When I started reading Jane Shaw, there was very little available online about the books and even less about the author. After finishing Crooks Tour I wanted to read more, and took to the internet. Online searches mostly led to second-hand book shops. Only one website, Collecting Books and Magazines, had any information about the author: an incomplete bibliography with some scanty notes on the author’s books and life, some of them not quite accurate. However, there was enough information to give me some pointers about how to proceed with my reading of the oeuvre. But websites exclusively dedicated to the author were non-existent. After over a year of solid reading of Jane Shaw, in late 2010 I decided to start a Jane Shaw group on Yahoo!. It never attracted many members, but it got me in touch with some fellow readers who provided some interesting facts and viewpoints concerning the author and her work. In early 2011, I set up Wichwood Village, which has now been going for over three years.
With the blog activated, I imagined I could begin to gauge the enduring popularity of Jane Shaw by the number of visitors to the site and the number of comments and/or messages I received. The number of hits soon lost its meaning. Many of the “visitors” are from Russia, China and the Ukraine and their aim is to direct blog writers to spam sites. There are even automated visitors from the USA who deposit links to adware and spam. The comments and e-mails I receive, although few in number, are more helpful. I have received some positive feedback, and sometimes readers write to me with questions or to clear up doubts. But at best the response could be described as enthusiastic but limited.
Is there a club or society for the writer, and how active is it?
While there is the Enid Blyton Society, the Elsie J. Oxenham Appreciation Society and the Narnia Newsletter site for C. S. Lewis fans, where readers enthusiastically debate and reminisce about the Famous Five, the Abbey books and the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on a daily basis and devour official bulletins, there is no similar society for Jane Shaw. People are not as enthusiastic about visits to Binic and Arran or the doings of Susan and Penny as they are for the places and characters of the other authors mentioned above. Now that we have the internet, starting an appreciation society is no longer an arduous or expensive operation. Even so, following the demise of the Yahoo! Group, I was reluctant to begin anything similar. But a couple of readers asked me to open a group on Facebook. So far, after almost three months, it has attracted twelve members and not very much activity.
This leads to another question: Why is Jane Shaw not as popular today as might be expected for someone who sold so many books for so many publishers?
I am certainly not the first person to raise this question. In Susan and Friends (page 20), Rosemary Auchmuty marvels at the lack of appreciation of the author in literary circles:
But turn to the critical literature on children’s books and what do we find? Apart from Alison Lindsay’s articles in Folly and The Encyclopaedia of Girls’ School Stories, there is no reference – no reference at all – to Jane Shaw’s work in any historical or critical study of children’s literature ever published… So I repeat: What has happened to Jane Shaw’s reputation? How can she have been so comprehensively overlooked, when her books continue to be so much in evidence?
Rosemary’s response to these questions is that there is clearly a need for “much more naming and (re-)instating” and that Jane Shaw’s work deserves to be right up there with the best of them. As a fan, her reaction is that we are dealing with a great writer and her greatness should not be overlooked, and if only a few memories could be jolted… My instinctive reaction is to agree with her. After all, how could anyone resist those great stories?
But others have a less positive view. Not so long ago, I came across the stub of an article published in 2003 by Sheila Ray entitled The Strange Case of the Invisible Jane Shaw. While Ms. Ray was a librarian in the 1950s and 1960s, she came across the works of Jane Shaw, but they did not make much of an impact on her or those around her, as shown in her following surprising statement:
Her [Jane Shaw’s] name became familiar to me after I began working with school and children’s libraries in 1958, but her work was not highly regarded in the library circles in which I moved – not condemned as were books by Enid Blyton, W. E. Johns, Frank Richards or Richmal Crompton, each of whom had a bad press from time to time, but certainly not up there with Alan Garner, William Mayne, Leon Garfield and the other bright lights that began to twinkle in the late 1950s and 1960s.
So, there were some in literary circles who were dismissive of not only Jane Shaw but also the authors of the Famous Five and Biggles. This could make it very easy for us to shake our heads in dismay and bemoan the high-brow tastes of academics. I did indeed receive a comment along those lines on the blog:
It sounds as if JS was popular with readers, but was probably too entertaining and “feel-good” a writer to be rated by the literary folks. It’s not unusual to prefer the more difficult and socially relevant books over the plain reads-for-fun. (Comment submitted to Wichwood Village by Sally on 9 February, 2013).
Such sentiments are not unusual in any sector of the entertainment industry and there is often a great deal of truth behind them. On the other hand, although people may be quick to make light of harsh words from the critics, I’ve yet to see anyone do the opposite and disregard or reject their praise. But in the absence of the sagacity of the experts who have chosen to ignore her, to answer the question of why Jane Shaw is not given the credit that her admirers believe she deserves, I turned to the readers of her works for their opinions, both by asking in forums and combing the web. Could it indeed be that Jane Shaw is adored by readers despite being shunned by the “literary folks”?
What do people think of the writer’s stories and characters?
There were many enthusiastic comments. Pam from Cape Town, one of the first people to correspond with me about the author, thinks that the stories are a lot of fun:
I like Jane Shaw for her humour! I think very fondly of the scene with the three boyfriends of Charlotte’s who all appeared dressed as Father Christmas; of the scene where Midge fell asleep whilst in a school play and had to wake up and of Aunt Lucy and Charlotte who have passionate interests, at least for a time.
The Surfeit of Santas episode in No Trouble for Susan also remained in the memory of Kerry in wet West Sussex:
I love the Susan books and was thinking about reading the Christmas ones this week: who could resist the subordinate Clauses?
This is a common sentiment among readers. Many recall particular plots, scenes or characters that they enjoyed. Kay has this to say about a particularly funny scene at St. Ronan’s:
Susan terrified and Tessa muttering “We’ll be expelled, we’ll be expelled”. I might have that for my reading-in-bed book tonight, except I’ll probably laugh too much.
Monica also has a favourite Susan book:
For me it is Susan Interferes. My grandpa gave it to me on my 5th birthday before I could even read, and I still have the same tatty (spine hanging by a thread) CP edition!
Tweety on Goodreads has this to say about Crooks Tour:
I loved this book! The characters felt real and did things I could see them doing in real life. My Favorite character was Fay. For some reason she stood out. Ricky was unstoppable. Whatever popped into Ricky's head, Ricky did. Julie was the one who brought them all back down to earth and fixed their scrapes, usually.
The most enthusiastic response is from Jane Lee, a member of the Facebook group:
I think I like everything Jane Shaw has written equally, though I particularly like her books set in Europe, for example, Breton Adventure, Bernese Adventure, Looking after Thomas, and so on. I love the domestic details, descriptions of meals and food (and the immobility and soporific effects brought about by over indulgence in it), the humour and descriptions of human foibles and eccentricities (Midge's love of sleep, for example.)
Besides the idiosyncrasies, the author’s sense of place, one of the greatest aspects of her writing, is also noted by readers. Her ability to make a house, school or city a major character in a story does not go unnoticed. Wichwood Village and the Carmichael residence in particular are fondly remembered. Barbara has this to say:
I loved Susan Pulls the Strings, probably because I had it as a child and have read it so often. Also, the Carmichaels’ house is just about my dream home.
Pam from Cape Town also likes the house on Tollgate Road:
What about the Carmichael’s house do you like so much? I would love to be in the shabby schoolroom with them all.
The sense of place is appreciated by Elizabeth Lindsay from Australia, who has a special take on Bernese Adventure:
I've just finished reading 'Bernese Adventure', the second book in the Sara and Caroline Storm series. It's certainly more entertaining and suspenseful than 'Breton Adventure'. It was published in 1940 but clearly depicts Western Europe in happier days than at the time of writing in the late 1930s, when the Third Reich was getting ready for war. There's not a Nazi in sight! Once again, I surmise that Jane Shaw has created a fantasy time for her readers. An enjoyable tale. The only word I had to look up was 'triptyque'. It's a customs permit for the temporary importation of a motor vehicle.
Food plays an important role in Jane Shaw’s stories. I loved reading about the Cornish splits that Mrs Pengelly makes for Fiona and Katherine in the Moochers stories. Leslie Smyers prefers the food north of the border:
I'm enjoying Susan Muddles Through, especially where Susan and Midge are on holiday in Scotland eating girdle scones.
But the comments concentrate on the characters more than any other aspect of the stories, and the most commented character was Susan. Although there were more stories about her than any other of JS’s creations, the biggest surprise I had while preparing this piece was to discover that she did not always go down as well with the audience as I had imagined. I have to say that I have always liked Susan. People have said that she is too unreal. But there they are wrong. Like Jane Shaw (and Susan herself) I’m from Glasgow and grew up there, and I can assure you that if you go into any school yard you will find a Susan there: cocky and sure of herself, ready to voice an authoritative opinion on subjects she knows nothing about and more than willing to stick her nose into other people’s business, but always with good intentions. As Pam from Cape Town says:
Susan is Susan and she always means well.
Nevertheless, not everyone is willing to give Susan so much leeway. Although many readers enjoy Susan and her antics, it has to be admitted that she is far from universally popular. In fact, there is even some hostility towards her, and also to some of Jane Shaw’s stories. Pam K has this to say about Susan and her enemies the Gascoignes:
I have to say I’ve always found Susan rather irritating, and the Ghastly Gascoignes truly ghastly and unbelievable as characters.
I agree about the Gascoignes. In my opinion, Jane Shaw’s biggest mistake was to keep them in the series past the first book. If they had moved away from Tollgate Road at the end of Susan Rushes In, the ensuing stories would have benefitted greatly from their absence. Other readers are quick to concur. Leslie Smyers from Canberra particularly detests Peregrine:
I can tolerate Gabrielle and Adrian, but I just can’t ‘thole’ obnoxious Pea-green (as Susan would put it)… Pea-green nearly did me in Susan Muddles Through. Susan should have buried that gun, not tried to hide it on top of the wardrobe!
Elizabeth Lindsay once again has a different take, disliking the Gascoignes, but recognising them as a necessary evil:
They are irritating but they add ‘flavour’ to the books, don’t you think?
Returning the focus to Susan, Rona says in response to Pam K:
I don’t like the Susan books either (think I have only tried one once, but that was enough).
I'm afraid I also cannot [bring myself to] like the Susan books.
Pat Hanby from Reading:
Have to admit I don’t like Susan either! I quite liked Susan Pulls the Strings when I first read it age about 10, but it’s the only one I read as a child and trying a couple of others much later I found them difficult to finish – in fact I think I gave up on Susan at School before the end.
I'm not a huge Susan fan either, I've only kept one. I find bits funny but overall she's a bit too much.
Ann adds her more conciliatory opinion:
I am not a special fan of Susan. I don't DISLIKE the books, and there are some very funny bits (like the episode in one book where Susan has a cold, and her cousin is trying to practice her nursing skills while at the same time not getting close enough to catch any germs!). But I wouldn't go out of my way to get the books.
Another character who comes in for criticism is Sara from the Holiday Series. Commenting on Breton Adventure, Kirsti on Goodreads claims that Sara ruined the book for her:
The story is about two girls, cousins from what I can gather, visiting France in order to improve their French. They don't do much of that however, and spend most of the book muddled, eating, bathing or overexcited. I just couldn't get into it, and the stupidity of the character Sara probably had a lot to do with it.
Also on Goodreads, Cheryl in CC NV, despite enjoying Bernese Holiday, was not so impressed by the characterization:
Well. Definitely felt like I was coming into the story in the middle, as if Shaw assumed we'd read a book about the characters before this. But it was charming, and eventually I figured everyone out. Trouble is, the characters were more iconographic than real. And, um, all this gadding about by Brits across borders in Germany & surrounding countries in a book published in 1940? It must have been nostalgic, or something...
However, most of the people who said that they did not enjoy the Susan or the Holiday books said that they did enjoy some of Jane Shaw’s other works. One character who received no criticism at all is Penny. Once again, Pam from Cape Town gives her point of view:
I rather like Penny as it is very refreshing to have a heroine who does not push herself front and centre all the time. Actually, now I think of it, it was clever of Jane to create such opposite heroines.
She also says:
Susan Pulls the Strings was my first Susan book, my first Jane Shaw book too. I am a big fan of Shaw. I rather like Penny as a shy and diffident heroine in the other books.
Pam K also likes Penny and most of JS’s books, despite taking another dig at the hapless Susan:
My favourite series is the Penny series… I think the Susan books are my least favourite. I find the humour a bit forced, the characters a bit caricatured, and particularly hate how the Gascoignes nearly always come up smelling of roses. But I do like the Penny books (still looking for the final one) and most of her others.
The Moochers also receives some praise. Susan D was reluctant about reading this book, but soon warmed to it:
I was never a huge Jane Shaw fan so never bothered reading The Moochers when I found a copy then finally did later and adored it. I really enjoyed the heroines being a bit subversive and not your typical fervent-for-the-school type girl. Nice to see it not taken so seriously. This is by far my favourite Shaw… Although the Moochers Abroad is amusing, The Moochers is just SO much better. Probably because I prefer school stories to holiday/adventure but there’s so much more room to turn the typical school story on its head in the Moochers than the Moochers Abroad.
Despite the negative comments about the Gascoignes, it is only fair to point out that not everyone voices a negative opinion of them. Kay has this to say about Gabrielle:
Now I think Gabrielle Gascoigne is hilarious. The way she carries on and produces/directs Ronanson Crusoe, the pantomime written by Midge, is just brilliant.
Lindley Walter-Smith on Goodreads missed Gabrielle when she read A Job for Susan:
This feels like Shaw phoned it in, really - the characters just go through the paces, and most of the energy and humour of the early Susan books is missing. It's nice to have Tessa, but without the ghastly Gascoignes, there's no really satisfactory antagonist. The grumpy baronet is no substitute for Gabrielle and her ability to make Susan and Midge feel inferior and resentful.
As shown at the beginning of the above quote, there were also some criticisms of the stories. One reader complained of the lack of creativity, claiming that in The Crew of the Belinda there was nothing new, although the plot was not a total loss:
I have met most of the plot points in other books, but this does seem an interesting pastiche.
Lindley Walter-Smith provides more details of her disappointment with A Job for Susan:
I spent years searching in vain for this book at dealers, and I was so happy to find out that Bettany Press released it as an ebook… When I finally got my hands on it, though, it took me three months to finish, while I've read other Susan books over and over… There are sparks of fun and humour, and it's not a bad book or anything, but it's completely forgettable, and made me think wistfully of better Shaw stories like Susan's Trying Term. I'm glad I read it, as a completist, but I can't imagine anyone who read it as their first Susan book going on to bother with any more.
Kirsty on Goodreads goes further in her criticism of Breton Adventure, although she recognises that JS is capable of writing better stories:
An alright book, I suppose. The writing was just so boring though! Stupid bursts of excitement followed by paragraphs of nothing. None of the characters really even stood out very much… There is a final, quick chapter in the end where the girls discover lost books and save the family they're staying with from financial ruin, but all in all, a very odd and boring book for its genre… Definitely not my favorite Jane Shaw work, she often writes better than this. Still, probably improved if you know a little French, or about the differences between French/British culture in the time the book is set.
But there is no shortage of positive comments. Lindley Walter-Smith has this to say about Where is Susan?:
It's a typically rollicking, humorous Shaw "kid thriller", with the fantasies of child independence, as Susan and Midge find themselves without adults or a hotel room in Venice, pursued by a beautiful Russian spy. So much fun.
On The Moochers, Dorian states that:
This is a mildly subversive and very entertaining school story… I found it a hugely enjoyable book.
Pam from Cape Town likes the Northmead books:
I have New House at Northmead, I rather like it.
My friend Ruth from Crail in Scotland is an avid Susan fan:
When I say I love Jane Shaw, what I really mean is that I love the Susan books. They were her best works.
Pam from Cape Town returns to the theme that the Susan books are a good laugh, although she voices some sympathy for Aunt Lucy:
I agree that the Susan books are more fun… I do feel sorry for Aunt Lucy who seems to have given up her hopes and dreams in order to take care of everybody but perhaps she feels happy in the domestic life. She just never seems to have a life of her own, somehow.
Catching up with Susan after a number of years, CL McLean was delighted with Susan’s Kind Heart:
I started reading all the "Susan" books available when I was eleven, and thoroughly enjoyed being able to read one new to me through Kindle all these years later. Straightforward good fun for eleven year olds and me, and I'm going to read another one.
So we can see that 45 years after the publication of her last book, Jane Shaw continues to be remembered, albeit by a small group of people. The statistics on Goodreads show that some of her works are hardly remembered at all. Titles such as Anything Can Happen and Venture to South Africa have received only one rating. Not surprisingly, the Collins books, such as Crooks Tour (15 ratings) and the Susan stories (10 ratings for Susan Interferes) fare better. But as of March, 2014 Jane Shaw’s books have received only 186 ratings on the site, an average of 4.72 per title, while Enid Blyton, Britain’s most popular children’s writer, has received 305,734 ratings, an average of 421 per book. The authors have similar average ratings, 3.99 for Enid Blyton and 3.92 for Jane Shaw (with The Moochers as the most highly rated at 4.61 and the lowest being Breton Adventure at 3.0).
This brings us back to Rosemary Auchmuty’s original question. Why is JS not celebrated today? The comparison with Enid Blyton is a valid one. Both wrote about middle-class children who solve mysteries and eat a lot, and yet one continues to sell by the truckload and the other is mostly forgotten. Enid Blyton message boards and forums are abuzz with activity, while online activity concerning Jane Shaw is almost non-existent. Of course, this question should be rephrased as “Why is Enid Blyton still so popular when so many writers of her time are forgotten?” We could also ask why the Beatles continue to be successful while most other music from the 1960s is forgotten, or why Casablanca is still such a popular film. Some things have an indefinable enduring appeal. If we knew what that mystery ingredient was, we could bottle it and sell it.
This post provides information about what people think of Jane Shaw today and how wide an appeal she continues to have. Admittedly, that appeal is much narrower than an enthusiast would like, and the popularity of her work has waned. But there are still a number of people who remember the happy times they had reading the works of Jane Shaw.