By Val Hewson
On a school trip to London, when I was about 17, we stayed overnight in a boarding school. The dormitory was just as all the stories described: small cubicles, curtains to divide them, narrow beds and small lockers. We smuggled in, not food, but a bottle of wine. Well, we were pretty grown up, you know. Not so grown up, however, that we remembered a corkscrew. (Here’s a tip: you can dig out a cork with a nail file, but it’s a messy, slow business so don’t try it unless you have to.) The next morning, some of us smuggled the empty bottle out and disposed of it in a bin on the Underground, while others distracted our teacher. Looking back, I wonder if she knew all about it and was kind enough not to say anything.
This was the closest I ever got to a midnight feast. It has been fun to read about them again for Heritage Open Days 2021 and Edible England.
Food is often mentioned in the classic school story. Noisy dining rooms with teachers or prefects serving the meal from the head of the table; going out for lunch or a picnic with parents at half-term; tuckboxes filled with goodies; teashops in town on half-holiday; muffins toasted over the fire in your study; scrumptious teas with the visiting lacrosse team you’ve just thrashed; Frühstück, Mittagessen and Abendessen in the trilingual Chalet School; and of course midnight feasts.
Enid Blyton’s feasts are typical. Here is an example from her St Clare’s series (which I enjoyed reading for the first time in over fifty years for this blog):
‘Let’s have a midnight feast!’ said Pat, suddenly. ‘… I don’t know why food tastes so much nicer in the middle of the night than in the daytime, but it does!’ … ‘Each girl had better bring one thing – a cake – or ginger beer – or chocolate.’
The most lavish contribution was Kathleen’s! She brought a really marvellous cake, with almond icing all over it, and pink and yellow sugar roses on the top.
‘Golly! Pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé’s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger beer!’ said Janet. ‘Talk about a feast!’Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8
The midnight feast in repeated in most of the novels in the St Clare’s series. Blyton varies the theme: sausages fried on an oil stove; a summer feast by the outdoor pool, with a swim first; theft from the cupboard where the goodies are stored; and the French teacher, Mam’zelle, encountering a sleepwalker, locking up three girls under the impression that they are burglars and failing completely to spot the actual feast.
Blyton clearly enjoys this: the girls contributing biscuits, cakes, sausages and at least one elaborate cake from a tuck-box or the baker’s in town; choosing a venue far away from any teachers’ rooms; secreting everything away in handy cupboards; setting the alarm clock and putting it under someone’s pillow; creeping around in the dark to avoid waking those who are not invited; narrow escapes from discovery and even being caught out.
The food the girls enjoy so much is always the same: sardines and tinned pineapple and biscuits and sausages and cakes frosted with sugar rosettes on top and pork pies and Nestlé’s milk and prawns and ginger beer and chocolate.
Feeling queasy? Well, dear reader, I wrote the list deliberately:
‘Look – take a bite of a sardine sandwich, and then a bite of a pork pie, and then a spoonful of Nestlé’s milk,’ said Pat. ‘It tastes gorgeous.’Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8
Unsurprisingly, some of the girls feel ill the next day:
Matron had some most disgusting medicine. She dosed the girls generously and they groaned when she made them lick the spoon round. … ‘I know these symptoms,’ said Matron. ‘You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.’Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 9
The girls do not, however, learn this lesson at least. In The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944):
They ate everything. Carlotta even ate sardines and pineapple together. Alison tried prawns dipped in ginger beer, which Pat and Isabel said were ‘simply super’, but they made her feel sick taken that way. However, the others didn’t mind, and mixed all the food together with surprising results.
‘Nobody would dream that sardines pressed into gingerbread cake would taste so nice,’ said Janet.Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17
When two girls are sent to Matron the next day for refusing breakfast and dinner, Matron is not fooled:
‘You are both suffering from Too-Much-To-Eat. A dose of medicine will soon put that right.’Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17
The food all seems typical of the period and place (mid-20th century Britain): tinned fruit, tinned fish, fruit cake with icing and ‘lashings of ginger beer’, as Blyton’s Famous Five would put it. It makes the adult stomach curdle but it is one of Blyton’s favourite jokes, calculated to make schoolgirls of the time long for a midnight feast and groan in sympathy at the visit to Matron the next day.
It’s not, however, just about indigestible combinations of favourite foods. For some poorer readers, the quantity and range of the food described must have been unimaginable. And there is no reference to rationing, even though the St Clare’s series was written and published during World War Two. Perhaps Enid Blyton chose to shield her readers, or was reminding them of happier times (unlike Elinor M Brent-Dyer with her Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol). In reality, when the twins arrived at St Clare’s, sugar, meat, fats, bacon, and some tinned foods were all rationed and a wartime midnight feast would have been a poor thing.
Leaving aside the fun, midnight feasts are one of the ways in which the girls’ characters are formed in Blyton’s books, along with games, lessons, exams, classroom tricks, plays and concerts, parental visits and more. Her St Clare’s is a ‘sensible,’ single-sex boarding school, priding itself on bringing out the best in its girls. The series starts with the arrival of Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, aged about 13, and follows them and their class from the first form to the fifth (that is, from the age of 13 to 17, or so). The sequence is incomplete, however, with three books set in the first form, and one each in the second, fourth and fifth. What happened, you wonder, to the third and sixth forms? After Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945), we hear no more of Pat, Isabel and their friends. Enid Blyton starts the similar but arguably more polished, 6-book Malory Towers series (1946-51). Its main character, Darrell Rivers, is a stronger, more convincing character than the two-dimensional and often absent from the action Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan.
The St Clare’s novels follow the familiar path of school stories. They start at the beginning of the term or year, with old friends re-uniting and a few new girls, or maybe a teacher, to generate plot. The newcomers have difficulty adjusting, or an established pupil gets into trouble. By the end of the term, some girls will have settled, accepted by the school community, while others will not come up to the St Clare’s standard and leave. (In a way, it’s survival of the fittest.) Mischief is accepted:
‘…at some time or another most schoolgirls attend a midnight feast! Do not take too serious a view of it!’
‘In my school days such a thing was not even thought of!’ said Mam’zelle. ‘Ah, we knew how to work, we French girls!’
‘But did you know how to play, Mam’zelle?’ said Miss Theobald softly.Enid Blyton, The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), chapter 6.
Cheating, stealing, not owning up, pride, malice, bullying, silliness and excessive interest in one’s appearance, however, are generally condemned, by both staff and girls. Being straightforward, honest and honourable are the St Clare’s way. Foreign students, of course, find this difficult – the French girl, Claudine, is sceptical of the English sense of honour:
‘You English girls, you are so serious and solemn and so very, very honourable. The good Miss Theobald, she said to me this morning that one thing I must take back to France with me , one only – the sense of honour.’Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 30.
By the fifth form, however, Claudine is beginning to respect the code. To the adult and/or the 21st century reader, the school’s judgements on failure to live up to expectations seem harsh but Blyton’s is a strict moral universe.
‘You are a hard and spiteful woman,’ went on Miss Theobald’s solemn voice [to a temporary Matron who has been unkind to her own children]. ‘This boy and girl need help and comfort, but they would never get it from you!’Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 22.
‘[Prudence] has a lot of lessons to learn in life,’ said Miss Roberts, seriously. ‘She has been taught a very big one here, and has learnt for the first time to see herself as she really is – and for two or three weeks she has to undergo the ordeal of knowing that others see her as she is, too. Ah, well – I don’t know how she will turn out. She’s a problem – and I’m glad I haven’t got to solve it!’Enid Blyton, Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), chapter 20.
The people I know who went to boarding schools generally hated them, and have memories of poor food, strict discipline and even a sub-standard education. Pineapple chunks and sardines are just a lovely dream.