On Your Marks is a girls career novel set in a physical training college like the one in Miss Pym Disposes. Being Gladys Mitchell, the author can’t resist a few mysteries – who drained the swimming pool? Who sawed through the hockey goal posts? – but it’s really just a Jolly Good Read as Kay Whalley says in her Introduction to the Greyladies edition.
Lesley Scott is about to begin three years training at Falcons Physical Training College where she hopes to qualify as a PE teacher. Lesley is tall, attractive, kind, good at games, academic work & a born organiser. She is obviously going to succeed but not be so disgustingly perfect that the reader can’t empathize with her. On her first day she meets Frankie Allinson, short, tubby, a demon tennis player who was destined for Wimbledon but her family couldn’t afford it & someone who finds trouble wherever it may be. The two girls soon become best friends & the three years of their training combine several crises (usually involving Frankie) with lots of hard work & so much sport that I was exhausted just reading about it. The story also follows Lesley & Frankie to their first post in a school.
Gladys Mitchell taught games in various schools throughout her career & knows the school background well. I’ve never been much of a fan of school stories but I did love The Naughtiest Girl in the School by Enid Blyton & there are similarities here, even though the “girls” at Falcons are really young women, training for a career. The school is divided into Houses, all with nicknames – Leander (Leo’s, where Lesley & Frankie live), Atalanta’s (Auntie’s), Pheidippides (Fido’s) & the fourth house is known as Prin’s because that’s where the Principal, Miss Betts, lives. Inter-House games & competitions are vital to instil the appropriate spirit & keep the students up to scratch.
The atmosphere of the 1950s is everywhere, although in some ways it could be pre-war. Lights out at 11pm & no young men from the local Technical College allowed to the dances. Divided skirts & only one visitor allowed to sit on the bed. I admit I was slightly shocked when one of the mistresses offers Lesley a cigarette but I was amazed when one of the students, a Miss Plumstead “came top of the College and took herself off to a job in India, where she was paid a fabulous salary by the local rajah for teaching English games in his State school and coaching his younger wives in tennis and badminton.” That’s what I mean by a pre-war atmosphere! I was also fascinated by the reference to a train as a Puffing Billy. Here in Melbourne, Puffing Billy means only one thing, a steam train that runs through the Dandenong Ranges & is a big tourist attraction. I had no idea that the name was used for steam trains in general. As one of the mistresses at Falcons might have said, “Even the lightest literature can be educational, girls.”
There’s not a bit of romance until the last couple of pages although I did catch a hint of this early in the book. The mysteries I mentioned above are tackled by the girls led by Lesley as their formidable general, showing tactical & leadership skills worthy of Napoleon or Wellington. My favourite scene was the fire in the Sanitorium (on the third floor, no less) where several injured girls (broken bones & sprains abound in the college) are encouraged to jump on to blankets & the reluctant ones are rescued by Frankie climbing up a pyramid of mistresses & girls & literally shoving one girl with a broken collarbone out of the window. Gymnastics are another mainstay of the curriculum.
I enjoyed On Your Marks very much. It was a light read but full of engaging characters & the ultimate satisfaction of just reading about all that exertion from the comfort of my reading chair. If you have the Greyladies edition, don’t skip Kay Whalley’s Introduction (although don’t read it until afterwards). She makes all the points I’ve made here & anticipated my every thought about the book, the plot & the characters & expresses it all with great humour & affection.