DAMES by Elizabeth North


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The title refers to a moderately progressive English girls' school--and this self-conscious, occasionally diverting novel is a jumpy montage of vignettes from the lives of some Dames students and teachers, circa 1945-1975. The initial focus is on Hilary ""Mousey"" Mouncey, now 41, who has come to Ethiopia--site of a Dames-founded teaching mission--to get over an affair-gone-bad with a married man. But, staying with an old classmate, Mousey Finds her thoughts going back to school days, of course; and from there on North (Summer Solstice, 1972) flits nervously from past to present, from character to character. There's Mousey's best friend Erica--who was a ringleader in ""The Ambers"" clique (the unconventional, curious girls so unlike ""The Worthies""), who refused to go to chapel, who got disgracefully pregnant. . . and who now, businesswoman and mother of four, dabbles in motel-room adultery. There's perfect-pretty Judy, who (naturally) will grow up to have a mastectomy. There's games-mistress Miss Honey, of uncertain gender. There are schoolgirl ""pashes"" on each other, while more serious lesbian tendencies show up among the teachers. And, most interestingly, there's late-1940s headmistress Miss Bedford--a 50-ish spinster who, on vacation in Ethiopia, discovers sex with old BBC-producer friend Kenneth (""This is very odd,"" she comments). . . and then, back at school, ponders marriage while ""The Ambers"" gossip about her: ""La Bedeuse, on dit, a dormi avec un homme. Ma foi. It's all around and very publique maintenant."" But though some of North's evocations are wryly amusing (especially the alumni-news parodies) and jauntily detailed, none of the characters is fully drawn enough to generate much involvement. (When world-weary Mousey finally dies, in a stagy bit of violence, there's no impact.) And even on an un-serious satire/nostalgia level, the novel is marred by North's uncertain tone, confusing time-jumps, and often-precious style: sentence fragments, quirky shifts in syntax, arch use of the imperative case (""Look through the glass doors. See them lean above their books. . . . Perceive the girls on ropes, the girls on parallel bars. . .""). With neither the straightforward grab of the Class Reunion genre nor a sure satiric fix on its subject--a British import of some talent but limited appeal.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Knopf