Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885–1970) was a British children's author who wrote the popular Dimsie series of books published between 1921 and 1941. Her books were second in popularity only to Angela Brazil's during the 1920s and 1930s.

She was a pioneer in creating series of books which followed a group of girls throughout their schooldays and even beyond. Her Dimsie, Nancy and Springdale series all follow this pattern, which was widely imitated.[1]

The Colmskirk sequence, a set of nine novels for young adults, widened her scope, dealing with a group of families in the Scottish countryside around Largs from the seventeenth century to the twentieth. [2]

Bruce was involved with the Girls' Guildry for over thirty years. She contributed factual articles to the Lamp of the Girls' Guildry magazine and Girls' Guildry plays a role in her Nancy series and gets a mention in her Dimsie series. The Girls' Guildry later merged with similar organisations to become the Girls' Brigade.

The Dimsie books[edit]

(Text entered with the permission of Eva M. Löfgren, The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Homepage)

Dorothy Morris Fairlie Bruce, as was her original name, was born in Palos in Spain on May 20, 1885, as the daughter of Alexander Fairlie Bruce, a civil engineer of Scottish birth, and Katherine (Kate) Elizabeth Fairbairn. But much of her early childhood was spent in Scotland, in Blanefield among the Campsie Hills, Stirling, an area that was to feature in many of her early stories. She also had a younger brother, Alan. In about 1895 the family moved to Ealing, NW London, where Dorita was to live until 1949. At about the same time she went to boarding school at Clarence House in Roehampton, the model for Dimsie's school, the 'Jane Willard Foundation'. Many of her holidays were spent with relations in Scotland, particularly the Firth of Clyde area around Largs in Ayrshire, which was later to become her particular literary landscape. Her mother's family lived in West Kilbride, a few miles south of Largs.

Dorita's paternal grandmother, Roberta Cadell, was a daughter of Robert Cadell, Sir Walter Scott's publisher, who is mentioned briefly in her historical novel, A Laverock Lilting. You may read about their genealogy at The Cadells of Grange and Cockenzie.

Like so many other writers she started writing at an early age and is said to have won a competition for poetry at the age of six. The first time she used her pen name 'Dorita' - no doubt inspired by her Spanish connection – was in small hand-written magazines. After leaving school she wrote a great number of poems and short stories in various genres for juvenile periodicals and anthologies from about 1905. Most of her short stories are set in Scotland, like the 'Regiment' stories, about two children and their pets living with their grandmother in the Campsie Hills. This is also partly the setting of the long historical romance "Greenmantle" (Girl's Realm, 1914–15).

Her first known school story, "The Rounders Match" (Girl's Realm, 1909) is set in a school, 'St. Hilary's', vaguely reminiscent of Clarence House. The three early 'Jane's' stories ("The Jane-Willard Election", "The Terra-Cotta Coat", "For Mona's Sake", 1910–18) – set before the arrival of Dimsie herself – would eventually lead up to her first novel, The Senior Prefect (1921), later renamed Dimsie Goes to School.

Apart from her writing, Dorita seems to have led a life similar to that of many other unmarried middle-class women of her time, devoted to family duties and voluntary work. She looked after her invalid mother and later her ageing father, and helped to bring up her brother's three children after his early death. For more than 30 years, from about 1916 to the late 40s, she was engaged in the Girls' Guildry, an alternative organisation to the Girl Guides, founded in 1900 by Dr William Francis Somerville and originally associated with the Church of Scotland, but later spread over other parts of Britain and the Empire. She was for a period in the 30s President of its West London Centre, and contributed many interesting articles to the Guildry magazines (History of the Girls' Guildry.). The Girls' Guildry later merged with similar organisations to become the Girls' Brigade.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce was above all, in spite of all her years in London, a Scottish writer. She often went back to Scotland for holidays, as witnessed by the detailed descriptions of the landscape in her many books set there. Not until 1949 was she free to move back to Scotland, to the big house she had bought in Upper Skelmorlie in the northern part of Ayrshire. In this house with its marvellous view of the Firth of Clyde, and named 'Triffeny' after one of her own books, she spent the last 21 years of her life and died there on September 21, 1970.

Books and Series[edit]

(Text entered with the permission of Eva M. Löfgren, The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Homepage)

Dorita Fairlie Bruce's best known books are the nine 'Dimsie' books (1921–41), seven of them set in the 'Jane Willard Foundation' ('Jane's') in Kent, the other two in Dimsie's family home, 'Twinkle Tap' on 'Loch Shee' (Gael. 'Loch of the Fairies') in Argyll. Any exact site has never been identified. Jane's is situated on the Kentish coast, most likely at St. Margaret's Bay, but the buildings are clearly modelled on Dorita's own old school, Clarence House. The school stories follow Dimsie (Daphne Isabel Maitland) from 10 year old Junior to popular head girl. The Dimsie books are famous for the 'Anti-Soppists', a group of six girls acting for the good of the school. In the last book, Dimsie Carries on (1941), set during WW2, she is married to Dr Peter Gilmour, has two children and makes medicines from her own herb garden. N.B. that the Dimsie books were not published in the correct reading order.

Her second series of school stories may be seen as two different series connected by the character of Nancy Caird. The three 'St. Bride's' books are set in an island in the 'Hebrides', more or less identical with Great Cumbrae opposite Largs. The first book, The Girls of St. Bride's (1923), actually takes place a few years before the arrival of Nancy. The five 'Maudsley' books, on the other hand, are set in a day school in a town in southern England, probably based on Farnham in Surrey, where Nancy spends a few years between her two sojourns at St. Bride's. The Maudsley books are probably the most significant manifestations of the Girls' Guildry in girls' fiction. The last Nancy book, Nancy Calls the Tune (1944) is another 'adult' sequel, about life in a small town in Scotland, probably Crieff in Perth, during the War.

The six 'Springdale' books are Dorita's most Scottish school stories, set in the little seaside resort 'Redchurch', without a doubt modelled on Largs. But Springdale is a far larger school than 'Jane's', a more typical English public school with five, later six, different houses and a more complex prefect system. These books follow the little group of friends around Anne Willoughby and Primula Mary Beton through their schooldays, from new juniors to prefects. Anne's elder sister Peggy and some of her contemporaries are among the principal characters in the first three books.

Her last two sets of school stories are shorter, the 'Toby' books set in two very different schools, The School on the Moor on Dartmoor, and The School in the Wood in the New Forest respectively, with another 'War' sequel, Toby at Tibbs Cross. The three 'Sally' books, her very last books, turn back to Scotland, but their plots and themes are somewhat different from those of her earlier school stories.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce's school stories are more concentrated on the intrinsic themes offered by the (boarding) school as a small society of girls, than those by many other writers. Her plots are skilfully built around the relations between schoolgirls of the same or different ages: friendship, rivalry and conflicts. Teachers and lessons play a comparably smaller part. 'Outside' adventures and mysteries are normally well incorporated in the central plot, often inspired by her great interest in history, local legends and archeology.

The 'Colmskirk' series is different from her school stories, nine young adult novels about a group of families living in and around Largs ('Colmskirk') and West Kilbride ('Kirkarlie') from the 17th C to post WW2 time. The first four of them are historical. This is probably the kind of novels Sylvia Drummond is supposed to write in the later Dimsie books, and Dorita evidently wanted to consider these books her more 'serious' works. They are full of references both to the history and church history of Scotland and to local traditions.

All Dorita Fairlie Bruce's series of books, save the Sally books, are more or less interconnected. Dimsie and her friends appear in the Springdale books, while Anne and Primula are the principal characters in Dimsie Carries On. They also appear briefly in Nancy at St. Bride's. One girl from Maudsley are mentioned in Dimsie Intervenes, and another is a principal character in Toby at Tibbs Cross. Characters from the Dimsie series reappear in The School on the Moor. Lastly we meet Primula Mary in the last Colmskirk book, The Bartle Bequest, as if Colmskirk were not another incarnation of the Redchurch of her own school days.

Unlike her near contemporary Elinor Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce was not republished in paperback editions. The new editions of the Dimsie books in the 1980s, including a collection of short stories, are heavily updated, removing the books from their original period.

Attractive, unabridged, paperback editions are now available from Girls Gone By Publishers, who plan to reprint all the books of Dorita Fairlie Bruce. All of the Maudsley/St. Bride's series and the first 2 Toby books, The School on the Moor and The School in the Woods, are already published. The Girls Gone By editions have well researched introductions and original illustrations and cover art.

The text from the DFB website was mainly based on Eva M. Löfgren's Ph. D. Thesis at Stockholm University, 1993 - published as:

Löfgren, Eva Margareta. 'Schoolmates of the long-ago': motifs and archetypes in Dorita Fairlie Bruce's boarding school stories, Stockholm: Symposion Graduale, 1993, (Diss., Stockholm University) (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska barnboksinstitutet. No 47) ISBN 91-7139-141-X

Locations used in Dorita's books[edit]

(Text entered with the permission of Eva M. Löfgren, The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Homepage)

Clarence House - Jane Willard Foundation[edit]

The buildings and grounds of Jane's were modelled on Dorita's old school in SW London, on Priory Lane, south of Upper Richmond Rd (SW15).

Clarence House was originally built c1730 and for a time owned by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. The buildings were used as a girls' school from 1867 to about 1919, as a junior school for the Royal School for Daughters of Military Officers until 1885. The grounds were bought by the Bank of England and were for many years part of their sports grounds. The buildings were demolished in 1934.

The site of Clarence House is now wholly changed and occupied by the new National Tennis Centre opened by the Lawn Tennis Association in 2007.

St. Margaret's Bay - St Elstrith's Bay[edit]

6 km W of Dover, is the most likely site for 'St. Elstrith's Bay'.

This used to be a popular seaside resort from the early 19th century to WW2, when most of the buildings in the Bay itself were destroyed. The Bay is now also more shallow after erosion of flanking cliffs, but wooden flights of stairs still climb the cliff from the beach, which is still good for swimming. There are caves visible in the white cliff, memories of their smuggling past. Many ships have been stranded here during the centuries, so the wreck featured in the Dimsie books is certainly realistic.

The upper village, St Margaret's at Cliffe, with its Norman church, was still fairly old-fashioned in the 1980s. South Sands Lodge is the most likely model for 'St. Elstrith Lodge', and you may still see South Forland Lighthouse, the 'old lighthouse' of the Dimsie books.

Largs and the Firth of Clyde Area[edit]

Largs and the Firth of Clyde Area is the central landscape in Dorita Fairlie Bruce, the scene of nearly half her books. Ayrshire is known as 'Brigshire' in the Springdale books. Largs itself is a pleasant seaside resort with a beautiful view of the Firth of Clyde, The Cumbrae Islands, and, in fine weather, the distant peaks of Arran. This is the 'Redchurch' of the Springdale and St. Bride's books, and the 'Colmskirk' of the Colmskirk novels, both names obviously derived from the parish church, St. Columba's, built in 1892 by red sandstone and quite a landmark with its lofty spire.

A visitor may follow the Springdale or Colmskirk characters along the streets of Largs and its surroundings. Four of the 'Springdale' houses still lie along Greenock Rd, just N of the church, though what must have been the 'Rowans' is now mostly hidden behind Nardini's Restaurant.

List of Dimsie books[edit]

  • The Senior Prefect (1921) (title changed in 1925 to Dimsie Goes To School)
  • Dimsie Moves Up (1921)
  • Dimsie Moves Up Again (1922)
  • Dimsie Among the Prefects (1923)
  • Dimsie Grows Up (1924)
  • Dimsie Head Girl (1925)
  • Dimsie Goes Back (1927)
  • Dimsie Intervenes (1937)
  • Dimsie Carries On (1941)

Other works[edit]

Stories[edit]

External links[edit]