Monday, October 3, 2011

Review of The Picture

The Picture is an undated manuscript found among Jean Evans’ papers and published posthumously in Susan and Friends. It was most likely written in the early 1960s not long after Crooks Tour. It tells the story of a day in the life of two friends, Jill and Carol, during their six-month stay in Paris. The story is told in the first person by Jill, and begins with the two girls meeting up and deciding to go to their favourite restaurant, La Bonne Fourchette, up at the Montmartre. This establishment is run by the widowed Madame Legrand and her daughter Angélique. Outside the restaurant, local artists hawk their paintings to tourists. Although Madame’s food is delicious, she does not turn a profit because she takes pity on the penniless artists and provides them with hearty meals. Among the artists is Jean-Jacques Durant, who has taken a fancy to Angélique, but cannot marry her because of his precarious financial situation. The Legrands on this day have reached a critical stage in their lives and have decided to sell a painting left by Angélique’s father, which he told them they could only sell if they were starving. An American tourist has offered sixty thousand francs for it and will be passing by later to pick it up. Carol, who is living with the family of a Monsieur Bossuet, a famous art dealer, suspects that the painting is actually a Utrillo and decides to take it to the dealer’s shop across town. The girls also decide to take along one of Jean-Jacques’s paintings for good measure. After a hot and bothersome trip to the gallery, the girls run into an art theft and short adventures follow. Of course, there is a happy ending with a little twist and wedding bells are on the horizon.

I really enjoyed this story. It has many of the elements of a typical Jane Shaw tale, and yet it lacks a few as well. First of all, it has the likeable characters. Carol, Jill and the Legrands are generous, helpful people and the reader wants things to work out for them. The description of a summer’s day in Paris is well depicted and makes you want to visit the place. However, two key elements are missing: humour and conflict. In most of Jane Shaw’s books, there is humour, provided by the offbeat or “oddball” character. Sara, Dizzy, Susan and Ricky are slightly out of tune with their environment – sometimes exasperating – providing the humour. The Gascoignes, bossy prefects like Hermione Pennington-Smith and the numerous crooks that appear provide the conflict. Even the Penny books, which are more toned down, have this feature, as we see Penny at odds with Kenneth and Elspeth and then gradually getting the better of her sister Jill’s acid tongue. But these elements are missing from this story because the two friends are too similar. The only thing about Carol that Jill criticizes is that she likes to keep their spending under control and insists on taking the Métro rather than riding around in a taxi. Apart from that, the girls are almost identical. In a short story, there is no problem in this. After all, there is nothing wrong with having a friend that is similar to you. But I suspect that Jane Shaw had bigger plans for these two girls. It is my opinion that they were the prototype for Dizzy and Alison.

So, how did I arrive at this conclusion? There are many similarities and also hints at the date of the manuscript. The story appears to have been written in the early 1960s. The girls are clearly older than schoolgirls (just like Dizzy and Alison) and there is the romantic element that had been consistently omitted from stories predating that period. In 1961’s Family Trouble and 1963’s Jumble Sale, romance began to creep into the stories. Also like the Dizzy and Alison novels, The Picture is told in the first person and the first story is set in Paris. Following the success of Crooks Tour in 1962, I imagine Jane Shaw wished to hold on to that audience and this resulted in a story about slightly older girls. However, as mentioned above, the girls in The Picture were too similar for a full-length novel, so Carol was replaced by the zanier Dizzy and Jill became Alison when Anything Can Happen was published in 1964.

Of course, this is all speculation on my part. Why the story was written and whether it was solicited by a publisher remains a mystery. However that may be, it is an excellent piece of writing, tightly plotted and enjoyable. I give it 9 out of 10.