At the beginning of "Don't Knock the Corners Off", Antonia Rutherford is nine years old and going to school for the first time after having been educated at home by her eccentric parents. Antonia is a published poet with a vivid fantasy life that includes an imaginary, flying-horse-populated country named Felias ("where nothing happens nasty/and everyone is happy) on the roof of her house. Naturally, public school, where the girls spend playtime in the lavatory in order to avoid rampaging gangs of little hoodlums, and where Antonia sits next to a lumpy boy who is clearly off his head, is a shock to her. But she's got to pass the "eleven-plus", an exam which back in the day divided schoolchildren into two streams: academic or trade school, so she's got to go to school and prepare. But can Antonia, an artistic, creative, eccentric child, find her way through the mainstream school system without having her 'corners" knocked off -- and becoming just like everyone else?
Caroline Glyn has an amazing perspective for writing about an eccentric, artistic child: she is one. She wrote this book at the age of fourteen, and it's an amazing achievement; it's not just good for a book written by a child, it's good on its own merits. Antonia's struggles to remain herself in the face of overbearing teachers, conformist schoolmates, and math, are vividly real and often -- usually, in fact -- very very funny. Everyone at Antonia's school seems to be named Sandra or Valerie or Lynda (the name "Sandra" appears to have been the Brianna of its day) and few of them seem to care about getting an education. Roberts, who sits next to Antonia (and refers to her as "Buddersmud"), distracts her while she's doing sums by droning stream-of-consciousness doggerel about old men, dustbins and drains.
Antonia makes and loses friends who can't quite cope with the fact that she's much brighter than they are, but she's eventually befriended by another Lynda who is similarly bright, if not as creative. Antonia continues to write poetry, even getting it published pretty regularly in some prestigious magazines, and despite her complete lack of ability in maths, manages to pass the eleven-plus without much trouble.
And here, her troubles begin. She and Lynda start school together at the elite St. Rhadigond's, whose headmistress Miss Haversham is brilliant, driven, and sees Antonia -- whose father has whimsically changed their last name to "Bird" -- as an Oxford possible. But to be accepted at Oxford, Antonia's maths will have to improve -- and her form teacher, Miss Mildon, finds it impossible to believe that someone as bright as Antonia can't do sums. Antonia finds herself in a nightmare world of endless homework, punishments, failed tests and scoldings from Lynda, who has turned into the perfect little drone that St.Rhadigond's requires its girls to be. Antonia no longer has time to visit her rooftop country of Felias, can't write poetry while buried under hours of arithmetic homework, and finds herself actually in trouble for winning her Form's English prize while being at the bottom of the form in Maths.
Antonia's struggle to keep herself from being forced into conformity -- to keep her corners from being knocked off -- is the ongoing struggle throughout the book, which is narrated with such humor, originality and occasional whimsy that we find ourselves desperately pulling for her all the way. And though the book is set in 1960s England, it has something to say to today's students,many of whom are similarly overscheduled and not given time to just sit on a rooftop and sail flying horses across the street.
Glyn went on to write several more novels, one of which, "The Unicorn Girl", is about a misfit girl named Fullie who realizes that the fantasy world she lives in is in danger of swallowing her up. She's pretty sure that she went out one night, met Hermes the Hunter and almost got turned into a tree, escaping in the nick of time. In order to keep herself firmly rooted in the "real" world, she agrees to undergo a dreaded ordeal: a Girl Guides camping trip. But even in the midst of the most mundane camping trip in history, Fullie finds mysticism and adventure... and maybe a pagan god or two...
Glyn was the granddaughter of notorious 1920s writer Elinor Glyn, who gave us the "It" Girl, and who wrote books considerably naughtier than those of her granddaughter. Caroline herself was very spiritual, and loved nature mysticism and folklore. As a young woman, she had a full life -- she studied art in Paris, lived on a houseboat in England where she painted amazing pictures, and published five more novels. After writing several more books, she entered a convent, where she died at the age of 32 while scrubbing a floor. She had a congenital heart defect, and had known from an early age that she would probably die young.
Caroline Glyn was a remarkable talent who deserves to be remembered. I think "Don't Knock the Corners Off" is prime for a Persephone reissue... and, if not, used copies of this, "The Unicorn Girl" and "Love and Joy in the Mabillon" are not hard to find. Discover Caroline Glyn if you haven't already... you'll enjoy spending time in her world, and you'll regret the fact that she retreated back to it at such an early age and left us without her distinctive, oddball way of seeing the world.