After reading about the hilarious doings at a writer’s workshop in Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy, I decided to read Crane Mansions even though Crane Mansions didn’t sound at all like the usual thing I’d read. I tried this tale on the strength of the author’s (actually–authors–‘Gert Loveday’ is really sister writing team, Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly) other book, and I was not disappointed. Complete with dastardly villains, a mystery orphan, and a lost inheritance, this is the sort of tale you might find starring that adorable curly-headed tot, Shirley Temple–I’m thinking of the 1939 film, The Little Princess in which Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) is left at a girls’ school while her soldier father toddles off to Africa & the Siege of Mafeking. While The Little Princess shamelessly pulls out all the stops when it comes to manipulating the heartstrings, Crane Mansions isn’t a tearjerker. Instead it’s a marvelous, mischievous tale, heavy on laughs and the foibles of human beings.
Crane Mansions is essentially the story of the orphan Millie Lord, one of the unfortunate children who lives at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent, a place as dreadful as it sounds. The school, run with the “relentless exactitude” established by the school’s founder, Dr. Crane, is a horrible place where the children are ill-fed and taught the most useless garbage, pigeon-related axioms, which are somehow supposed to train them for the harsh realities of life outside of Crane Mansions. “The simple rules that were the underpinning of the Crane Mansions education: Stay Awake, Sit up Straight, Never Cry, and Know your place in the World.” Breakfast consists of a heavy starchy porridge so vile and tasteless, it could probably be patented as wallpaper paste. Now the school is run by the founder’s son, the “second Dr. Crane.” While influenced by his father’s “harsh regime,” the younger Dr. Crane brings “the spirit of Poetic Inspiration” to the school from “his adored, long-lost Little Mummy’s tales of fairies, ducklings changing into swans, children changing into bluebirds, through his youthful passion for the works of William Blake.”
While Dr Crane doesn’t question how his father ran the school, neither can he be bothered with “the details,” and so he accedes power to two of The Leaders–schoolmasters Marcel Hogue and Odell Vincent while Dr. Crane, “a scholar, a seer, a visionary” uses his telescope to observe the nesting pigeons and scribble notes about their behaviour. “Pigeonnic Augury” is Dr. Crane’s “entire life,” and he’s obsessed with pigeons, convinced that he is “advancing closer and closer to the Great Truth at the heart of things.”
Dr. Crane isn’t a bad man by any means but “he’s a “rolled-gold nutcase. He couldn’t even peel a banana without help.” Crane just accepts the status quo of the school’s harsh regime and its torturous exercise programme established by his father while his interests lead his meandering thoughts away from the conditions in which the children live. As the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Dr. Crane’s lack of attention, which may be simple avoidance, has led to bitter rivalry between the two school masters–cruise obsessed Marcel Hogue and inventor Odell Vincent, and it’s this rivalry which opens an anarchic crack into the established order of Crane Mansions.
With a wonderful, engaging cast of characters, Crane Mansions follows the fortunes of Millie Lord who’s plagued with dreams of a former life and gifted with shards of memories. While Millie Lord is a good girl with a strong sense of right and wrong, she defends other, weaker children, and yet her behaviour is seen as aberrant by the schoolmasters (and the lowly schoolmistress) who are really much more comfortable with the sneaky, sly, corruptible or stupid children such as Gertrude Shelton, Ned Parcher & Giles Snedhawk.
I’m not going to say too much about the plot, but I have to discuss one of my favourite characters–a vengeful woman with an appetite for the High Life and her dream of her “own chat show on American TV” who reinvents herself with every spin of the wheel of fortune: Trish Monroe aka Trish Vere de Vere’/Trish Rosskillies who uses men like toilet paper and flushes them away (what’s left of ’em) when they’re all used up. Here she is, posing as a good Samaritan, giving a couple of men a lift in her pink car:
Len took out a cigarette.
‘Ah, ah!’ said Trish roguishly, tapping a long pink fingernail on the hand-painted plaque attached to the dashboard. In flowing feminine handwriting, surrounded by flowers, it said, No smoking–unless it’s salmon!
‘Sorry darling,’ said Len, putting the ciggies away. ‘Filthy habit, I know.’
‘Then why not give it up?’
‘I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried!’
‘It’s just a question of putting your mind to it,’ said Trish. ‘I did.’
‘What a woman!’ said Len, turning to Eustace in the back seat with a wink.
Trish was clearly taken with Len, because not only did she drive them to the garage, she even drove them back to the car with the tin of petrol nursed on Len’s lap. Len stood by the car looking after it as the sequined number plate TRISH1 disappeared up the road.
Crane Mansions is its own closed, sluggish bizarre world, and like any other institution, its rules and regulations are not questioned until outsiders breach the walls. While Dr Crane lives in his own impenetrable ivory tower, there’s a very real world out there full of crooks and con men, and when the kitchen girl, Tibbie Clemons reunites with her estranged father, gambling man, Len, he uses this relationship (with a promise of a new life in Australia) as a segue into Crane Mansions in order to steal the secret project under development by Odell Vincent. Since this is very much an archetypal tale, good will eventually triumph over bad, and everyone will get what they deserve–not what they think they deserve.
In terms of literary comparisons, I saw the name Roald Dahl, but I’d also throw in the Lemony Snicket books–although I think Crane Mansions is superior. This is really a very, very funny story–a beguiling blend of Victorianism with the temptations of the modern world–at one point for example, perennial maneater Trish gets a schoolboy drunk. It’s not easy to create believable villains who are both a credible threat and a source of humour, but Gert Loveday manages to create several wicked characters here in this well-paced tale which tackles the idea that children must be raised with love and imagination–not deprivation and useless axioms, and a couple of the school’s graduates are prime examples of the twisted message received from a Crane Mansions’ education. But this is essentially a tale with multiple moral messages which include the issue of the abdication of responsibility–parental and otherwise, for an abdication of one’s responsibilities leaves a gap for the opportunistic to slip in….