School’s out for summer; school’s out for ever.
Last Trump At Malory Towers represents a dramatic, and in many ways unsettling, break with the arc of the series to date. It’s almost as though Blyton had grown frustrated with her self-imposed chronology, cramming in ideas and themes that have barely figured up in the books until now. The result is startlingly anarchic, tearing down the edifice that Blyton has constructed over the previous five books and giving the lie to claims that her work depends on formulaic appeals to base prejudices.
The catalyst for the apocalyptic events of Last Trump is the startling announcement from Mary-Lou that she is pregnant – it’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it? – which provokes a schism among the girls, who cannot understand how this has happened – after all, Mary-Lou is not married! One faction, led by Darrell and Sally, holds staunchly that it must have been an immaculate conception; the other, following Alicia and Betty, is equally adamant that something more diabolical is afoot.
“It’s perfectly obvious that this is an abomination! How else could it have happened?” asked Alicia sharply. And it was true that none of the girls could think how timid Mary-Lou could possibly be with child. “Well, I think you’re all being beastly to poor little Mary-Lou,” said Darrell.
The girls quickly divide into rival sects, their opposing perspectives inevitably setting them on a collision course. Darrell’s group seclude Mary-Lou in the sanatorium, the better to prepare her for the birth; Alicia’s followers, meanwhile, accept Betty’s offer and set about creating a stronghold in the West Tower. Both sides try to persuade the other Towers to fall in line; the South Tower girls quickly pledge allegiance to their neighbours in the West, while the East Tower remains independent. That standoffishness proves their downfall.
Darrell and Alicia call a summit in the music room, but any hopes of peace are dashed as a heated war of words breaks out. It does not take long for Darrell to snatch Alicia’s pen and smash it underfoot — a clear declaration of hostilities. (To confirm her intentions, she also pushes a first year over a stool). Oh Darrell, that temper will be your downfall! Alicia calls upon the Towers to take sides; when the girls of the East refuse to comply, they meet with a terrible fate, as Alicia’s followers set their Tower on fire; too late, its occupants call on Darrell to help them, but she refuses.
“They could do with learning a lesson!” Darrell thought, as the smell of roasting pork drifted across the quad. “Fancy being so stuck-up as to refuse to take a side!” She decided there and then that no girl from the East Tower would be named to any school team for the rest of the term.
It is at about this point that the teachers, ever watchful, first note that something is going on. Miss Potts is the first upon the scene – and the first to go to her death. Alicia’s upstart cousin June sees opportunity in rising lawlessness and leaps upon the startled Potts; she is followed by a legion of other frustrated girls. Blyton tactfully draws a veil on the ensuing scene.
From there on, the collapse of Malory Towers is all but inevitable as a war breaks out. All sides — including the Southsiders, having broken their pact with Alicia’s Western Front — are hell-bent on recovering Mary-Lou and her unborn child. Pitched battles break out at the entrances to the North Tower, with defenders snatching up makeshift weapons to buy time for Mary-Lou. Lacrosse sticks run with blood; the dorms fill with the dead and dying. Since Matron has been poisoned — after literally getting a taste of her own medicine — there is little medical support for the wounded, and the defenders are outnumbered. There can only be one outcome — or so it seems.
The situation was desperate, Darrell had to admit. Most of the first-formers were gone, and many of the second form. Soon she would have to start sending the older girls to their deaths. And the wound in her side hurt terribly, but not as terribly as the memory of those who had already gone: Daphne, redeemed at last; Connie and Ruth, reunited in death; and of course, Felicity. She had truly served Malory Towers well.
But in a surprise twist, salvation (or damnation?) arrives in the most unlikely of forms: Gwendoline — silly, sentimental Gwendoline; proud, vain Gwendoline; Gwendoline who has spent the two terms since In The Fifth assiduously cultivating the black arts. And Gwendoline is not alone: by her side is the mewling, crazed Maureen, while the unexpected third member of the coven is the American, Zerelda, who has not forgotten her time at Malory Towers during her career as a B-Movie queen (having shot to fame in “Girls’ School Hellcats!”). Gwendoline, so long a hapless figure of fun, finally has the power to control the other girls’ destiny. It takes her no more than a few words and gestures to silence the screaming masses, scorching the earth around the North Tower.
Whose side will she pick? On the one side, there is Darrell: the model Malory Towers girl, everything that Gwendoline is not. On the other, Alicia, whose sharp tongue ensured that hours, days and weeks of torment. Both sides lobby for her favour; but Gwendoline spurns them all. And in the end, she finally proves that she did learn something at Malory Towers after all. “A plague on all your houses,” she screeches, before setting Malory Towers ablaze.
That, inevitably, wakes The Grayling, who rises, shrieking, from the pyre, her eyes glowing and her talons outstretched. The final battle has begun.
To say more would do a disservice to Blyton’s carefully constructed finale. The narrative is relatively sparse, but rich in symbolism and filled with potent imagery. Who can forget Mam’zelle Rougier, her face blackened with soot, blade clamped between her yellowed teeth, promising to “streep ze fat” from the squealing Mam’zelle Dupont? Or the scene in which Bill and Clarissa ride their horses, manes ablaze, to snatch Mary-Lou from June? Mavis, singing her final solo amid the ruins of the North Tower? Or Darrell and Sally, united at last as the flames lick ever closer? Last Term; last call: a fitting conclusion to the series. ##