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Sunday, October 04, 2015

Molesworth: The Young Elizabethan Years

Molesworth: The Young Elizabethan Years
by Robert Kirkpatrick

In January 1948 the publishers Collins launched Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls, a firmly respectable middle-class monthly (initially only available on subscription) which emphasised the value of reading, and which, for much of its run, attracted some of the best children’s writers of the time.  In April 1950 its title changed to Collins Magazine, and in April 1953 its title changed again to Collins Young Elizabethan, in a nod to the accession of Queen Elizabeth II.  In late 1954, with its circulation dropping, it was bought by John Grigg (the editor of The National Review and later Baron Altrincham), who immediately installed Kaye Webb as editor.  One of her first tasks was to recruit her husband Ronald Searle as an illustrator, and to commission a new series of Molesworth pieces from Geoffrey Willans.

His first piece, illustrated by Searle, appeared the January 1955 issue, headed "Introducing ... MOLESWORTH (Elizabethan)", and was a comic look at the “old” Elizabethans:

Drake, you kno Drake who singed the king of spane’s beard, he was the
kind we ought to model ourselves on these days.  With him he had a gay
band of cut-throats who would make molesworth 2, peason grabber
gillibrand etc. look like the weeds and wets they are.  These cut-throats
were very fond of Drake and when he was dead they kept calling to him.
    CUTTHROATS:  Captin art thou sleeping there below.
    DRAKE:  How can i when you are making such an infernal din?
    CUTTHROATS:  Drake is in his hammoack –
    DRAKE:  I am not in my hamock curse you.  All there is down
here is sea-weed and shells it is worse than a bed in the
skool dorm.

This was followed, in the next month’s issue, by "Guide to Gurls", which imagines what life would be like at St. Custard’s if the pupils behaved themselves like they did in girls’ school stories (“Rats, you crumpet,” sa gillibrand, the mad cap of 3B.  “It’s jolly rot to sa that molesworth cribbed in the botany exam”).  Further Molesworth features appeared throughout the rest of 1955, all of which were subsequently reprinted, with occasional small textual changes, cuts and additions, in the book Whizz for Atomms, published by Max Parrish in 1956.  (“Conoisuers of prose and luvers of literature hem-hem may recall that some of this hav apeared in that super smashing mag Young Elizabethan”).

Two further pieces, "Atomms v Culture" and "Goodby to Skool (for a bit)" which appeared in Whizz for Atomms weren’t published in the magazine until February and March 1956. 

1956 saw nine Molesworth features, 1957 a further seven, and 1958 a further eleven.  Almost all of these later pieces were subsequently published in Back in the Jug Agane  –  the one exception was a piece from May 1957, "molesworth cleens up dodge city", a spoof western “story”, which may have been regarded as too similar to "Six-Gun Molesworth" which had appeared the previous year.  Instead, Back in the Jug Agane had a piece called "Molesworth Takes Over":  “Wot would everyone say if we schoolboys behaved like the nations of the globe?  I will tell you.  They would sa we were stupid, crass, ignorant, hopeless, wet, weedy and sans un clue.  And yet it goes on.”

By the spring of 1958 the success of the Molesworth books, plus his other work, had encouraged Geoffrey Willans to leave the BBC to become a full-time freelance writer.  But, wholly unexpectedly, he died of a heart attack on 6 August.  Further Molesworth pieces appeared in the September and October issues of Young Elizabethan, followed by a gap in November, with his last piece appearing in the December issue, immediately after a brief announcement of his death in the editorial.

In the meantime, Back in the Jug Agane was published in late 1958 (the first edition is dated 1959), at the same time as the omnibus volume of all four books, The Compleet Molesworth.

Molesworth has since become one of literature’s most famous schoolboy anti-heroes.  Perhaps taking a cue from Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky (1899), Molesworth had a jaundiced, cynical and at times ambivalent approach to life, both at school and at home. 
    “Armand is coming to sta with us in the hols,” she sa.
    “Who, pray, is armand,” i repli, dealing a mitey blow to my hard-boiled egg.  “As far as i kno he is the weedy wet in the fr. book who sa the elephants are pigs.
    “He is a fr. boy who is coming to us to learn eng.,” sa mater with a swete patient smile.  “And you are to be v. nice to him as the pore boy will be far from home ect.”
     Well, you can immagine wot any noble british boy would sa to that i.e. o no mater, must we, gosh, wot a chiz ect. but it is no use.  It is not any good pointing out that “chez molesworth” he may learn a lot of things but one of them won’t be eng.  We kno when are licked.
As with the other fictional comic prep school boys of his era  –  Donald Gilchrist’s Seeley-Bohn, Klaxon’s Aloysius, Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings, and the boys in H. F. Ellis’s A .J. Wentworth  –  much of the humour comes from the clash between a child’s view of the world and an adult’s view.  But the main strength of Molesworth is Willans’s style, which gives Molesworth a unique voice.  His erratic spelling, vague notions of grammar, lack of punctuation, and the repetition of certain expressions, are trademarks which are instantly recognisable.  Above all, the Molesworth books have a satirical bite which elevates them to a level far higher than that of simple farce or comedy.
    “Wot is yore opinion of colin wilson, the new philosopher?” sa fotherington-tomas, hanging by his weedy heels from the crossbar.
    “Advanced, forthright, signifficant,” i repli, kicking off the mud from my footer boots.
    “He takes, i think, the place of t.s. eliot in speaking for the younger generation.  Have you any idea of the score?”
    “Not a clue.”
    “Those rufians hav interrupted us six times.  So one must assume half a dozen goles.  If only our defence was more lively, quicker on the tackle!  Now as i was saing about colin wilson.....”
There has never been anything quite like Molesworth, and the icing on the cake was the brilliance of Ronald Searle, and the perfect match between the text and the illustrations.  Hoora for Willans, Searle, Molesworth, and all boys everywere.


This is a complete list of all the Molesworth pieces in Young Elizabethan.

January 1955        Introducing ... MOLESWORTH (Elizabethan)
February 1955        Guide to Gurls
March 1955        Tee Hee for Tee Vee
April 1955        BOO to tinies
May 1955        WHO will be WOT?
June 1955        Six-gun Molesworth
July 1955        Oeufs are Oafs…
August 1955        Ho for the Hols!
September 1955    A Grim Subjekt
October 1955        Produktivity in Skool
November 1955    More about Masters
December 1955    A Few Tips from the Coarse
January 1956        A Teacher’s World
February 1956        Attoms v Culture
March 1956        Goodby to Skool (for a bit)
May 1956        Learning About Life
June 1956        Taking Wings!
July 1956        The Flying Molesman
September 1956    here we go agane!
October 1956        So far so good!
December 1956    I luv Gurls
February 1957        the karackter kup
March 1957        the grate master trap
May 1957        molesworth cleens up dodge city
June 1957        kno yore enemy!
October 1957        back in the jug agane, (hem hem)
December 1957    a few rools for xmas
January 1958        a brite future
February 1958        dansey dansey
March 1958        “shoot fule!”
April 1958        musick the food of luv ect.
May 1958        headmaster probes secrets
June 1958        ko-eddukation at st. custard’s
July 1958        fr. and English
August 1958        tenis anebody?
September 1958    MIND MY BIKE!
October 1958        thro’ horridges with gran in ’58
December 1958    hurrah for examms

A further piece by Geoffrey Willans, "Molesworth – The Inside Story", appeared in April 1957.

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