Get Back Into Your Gymslip

An article on GGBP in The Independent

Jolly good show! Hester Lacey meets two publishers on a mission to bring rare girls' school stories back into print.

Until very recently, if you had wanted to read the adventures of The Girls of St Bride's, as described by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, you would have had to search far and wide, and pay a small fortune. The title, the first in a whole series about Charlotte, Cynthia and their chums, was first published in 1923, and has been out of print for many years. Original editions of out-of-print children's fiction of this kind are available from second-hand dealers - at an inflated price. For rare titles like this one, much sought-after by collectors, you could expect to pay upwards of 100.

Now, however, the entire works of Dorita Fairlie Bruce will be reprinted, one by one. The Girls of St Bride's is already available, and Nancy at St Bride's will follow shortly. They are being reissued by Girls Gone By, a tiny enterprise run as a labour of love by Clarissa Cridland and Ann Mackie-Hunter. The company republishes some of the most popular girls' fiction from the 20th century, concentrating on those titles which are the most sought after and hardest to find secondhand. "Our main reason for publishing is wanting to bring the books back and help them reach a wider audience," says Clarissa Cridland. "The expense of buying titles like these secondhand is beyond the pocket of many people."

It's a mission about which they are both passionate. "We are collectors ourselves," says Ann Mackie-Hunter. "It's not right that someone who loves these books isn't able to own them. And if we don't publish them in this way, the books will die."

Girls Gone By is run on a shoestring from Clarissa and Ann's spare room, with its Noddy-patterned curtains and Flower Fairy mobile. Their Somerset cottage is stuffed with collectables: china miniatures, pillboxes, teddies, toys, figurines - and shelf upon shelf of first-edition girls' fiction. Monica Edwards, Lorna Hill, Mabel Esther Allan, Noel Streatfeild, Jean Estoril, Elinor M Brent-Dyer, complete sets of Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elsie Oxenham; it's a sight to turn any aficionado green with envy, and a reminder of long-gone days when the honour of the fourth form and who was captaining the lacrosse team were all that mattered.

With so many possibilities, how do Ann and Clarissa decide which authors to concentrate on? "We choose from those we know are most wanted, not necessarily the titles we most enjoy ourselves," explains Clarissa. As keen collectors they are well-placed to know. The next author due for a Girls Gone By revival is Gwendoline Courtney, who was originally published from the 1930s to 1950s; her A Coronet for Cathie is in the pipeline.

Sometimes permission to reprint comes from whichever publishing house still holds the copyright to the work, or Clarissa and Ann might have to negotiate with the author's surviving family members or the solicitors who manage their estates. This is where Clarissa's expertise comes in. She worked in children's book publishing for 27 years, before going freelance in 1994 and mainly dealing with author contracts. "With my contacts and knowledge of contracts, we had the knowledge to acquire the books we wanted," she explains.

Girls Gone By was officially launched in August of last year, though Ann and Clarissa had already published several titles by then. The first of these was Northern Lights by Lorna Hill. Lorna Hill is best-known for her Sadler's Wells ballet series. She began writing for her daughter Vicki during the war, when there was little money to buy toys or books. Her later ballet books were based on Vicki's own studies at Sadler's Wells. Clarissa and Ann were visiting Vicki when Ann spotted an unfamiliar title on a list of her mother's books. It turned out that Northern Lights had never previously been published, and Clarissa and Ann printed it in 1999. They sold around 250 copies, by sending out order forms to people they already knew were likely to be interested.

"We run the Friends of the Chalet School society, and many of the members are members of other similar societies, so we had a market there," says Clarissa. Now their print runs are more often than not over a thousand copies, and most are pre-ordered and sold even before they come back from the printer. The most recent new title from Girls Gone By is The Chalet School Does It Again by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published this month, one of half a dozen new titles for 2002; Ann and Clarissa hope to publish another 20 or so next year. As well as re-issues, they bring out a limited number of new titles in the spirit of bygone authors. New Beginnings at the Chalet School fills in a period at that lively establishment which was left inexplicably unaccounted for by Brent-Dyer. "Our Chalet School fill-ins are completely faithful to Elinor's world!" says Ann proudly.

High standards are part of their principles. All their books are printed on good-quality paper, and are exact facsimiles of the original typefaces. They use the original illustrations, wherever possible, thus avoiding the anachronisms sometimes seen with redesigns: modern editions of Enid Blyton's Malory Towers, for example, tend to feature Darrell on the cover with a wedge haircut and a Puffa jacket, whereas inside she's borrowing a shilling to buy ginger-beer.

"All the texts are original and uncut," says Clarissa. "We try to include something extra with each title, such as a new introduction and foreword. The foreword to The Girls of St Bride's is written by the great-niece of Dorita Fairlie Bruce, and the preface to Lorna Hill's Vicki in Venice is written by Vicki herself." But both Clarissa and Ann are very much against "updating" texts to try to appeal to a modern audience. "As a former English teacher, I know readers don't like it," says Ann. "It insults the reader. They love the period feel."

Girls Gone By is very much a local business. The scanning of the original books is done in the village, as is the packing and sending. Clarissa and Ann also rely on a network of volunteer proofreaders and helpers, who work for a fee paid in book tokens. This makes their prices very moderate: all their volumes cost either 9.99 or 13.99. Many of their customers, says Clarissa, remember the books from when they were children; but they also have a growing base among younger people who know the genre and want to try a new author.

Clarissa and Ann's most recent coup is to obtain permission from Faber to republish the works of Antonia Forest. Between the late 1940s and the early 1980s, Antonia Forest published a series of 10 books about the Marlow family, now all out of print. They follow the eight Marlow children over a three-year period, at school and in the holidays. The school stories concern irascible maths mistresses and wrangles over the netball team. In the holidays, there is an unlikely amount of foiling wartime traitors and smashing drug-smuggling gangs for one family. It sounds like a standard mix, but what lifts it from the ordinary is that Antonia Forest is a wonderful writer. Kingscote School makes Malory Towers seem like the most one-dimensional of cartoons. Her characterisation and dialogue are so sure that when she moves from the minutiae of school days into deeper waters, there is no sense of implausibility.

The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books begins its chapter on neglected authors by citing Antonia Forest and saying what a shame it is that she has dropped out of view today. Like all good children's fiction, her stories aren't just about the characters she portrays, but about life's Big Issues: friendship, loyalty, honesty. The beautiful Marlow sister is by no means the most attractive in other ways; the conventionally "good" one is a bore. The first Girls Gone By Antonia Forest reprint is Falconer's Lure, due back from the printer around now. Antonia Forest, now in her late eighties, and Girls Gone By's only surviving author, has contributed a new foreword.

Girls Gone By is one of a handful of tiny publishing houses dedicated to reviving children's books from past times, says Nicholas Tucker, author of two volumes of the Rough Guide to Children's Books (5.99 each). "Large publishers do keep backlists going for books that have become modern classics, or for the works of living authors, but not all backlists are economic," he says. "Books that are 'out of time' do disappear." Small publishers, he says, keep niche markets alive - and affordable. "These markets are split between people who adore the books and hard-nosed dealers who are there to make a buck, so second-hand prices are high." Though their audience may be comparatively tiny, he says, these reprints are valuable. "They do what books do uniquely: they give us a glimpse of different ages, different speech patterns, different images, different ways of life that can't be found anywhere else." And, of course, they take us back to our own childhood. "If you read a book at an impressionable age," says Nicholas Tucker, "you never lose your love for it."

Girls Gone By Publishers (01373 812705)