ON YOUR MARKS (1954)
1954 Heinemann Press. Revised edition 1964 Max Parrish.
The day dawned calm and clear. Lesley, who had been doing particularly good times over the hurdles and was looked upon as a most probable winner of the event, woke feeling so nervous that, to settle her feelings, she got up at six, put on her dressing-gown and slippers, and actually did an hour and a half's work before breakfast! Frankie, who was to run in the hundred metres and who knew that she did not stand a chance even of winning her heat, was calmness itself and chided Lesley on her state of nerves.
"Fancy working on the morning of Open Day!" she said. "You must be sickening for something, dear."
"I expect I am," groaned Lesley. "my stomach keeps churning over until I feel quite ill."
"Breakfast will soon put that right, dear. Nice, fat, greasy bacon and an imperfectly-cooked egg will settle everything."
When Lesley Scott arrives for her first year at Falcons, a physical training college for girls, she's relieved to find it easy to make friends and learn her way around. In no time Lesley has established herself as a competitive, accomplished swimmer as well as a dependable all-around athlete. She befriends a number of students but builds a special relationship with Frankie Allinson, a merry and energetic fellow first-year with a flair for tennis that, rumor has it, with aggressive training could bring her to Wimbledon. Frankie also has a knack for getting into jams, principally be being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her after-hours use of the gymnastic equipment is overlooked by the mistress mainly due to the girl's impressive acrobatic performance. But that infraction pales next to a more serious rash of pranks, and Frankie becomes the prime suspect.
A swimming pool is drained overnight—and the swimming coach, out for a pre-dawn dip, escapes more serious injury with only a sprained hand; board planks across a stream are repositioned, causing some sprinting students to take a tumble; and goal posts are sawn through the evening before a big match. These are serious crimes against Falcons, and Lesley, who knows her friend would never have done such deeds, organizes a plan for her house to catch the guilty party red-handed. The girls know fair rags from foul, however, and the liberation of a chair from the local museum (and subsequent acknowledgement of the prank) proves a highlight for Leander House. Between rigorous study, training, and sports matches the girls still find time to stage a production of She Stoops to Conquer, tutor a pupil while spending their holiday in Greece, and save some patients trapped by fire within the sanatorium. By the end of their experiences Frankie and Lesley are ready to interview for a teaching position and the must leave Falcons, saddened to depart but excited about their future.
All the qualities Gladys Mitchell folds into her adventure stories for teens are present in On Your Marks: a headstrong, clean-living pair of protagonists, much travel and physical activity, a jolly sense of humor and a mystery neither too dark nor too baffling to tax young readers. Also as per usual, the plotting and pacing of the tale's series of events are assured and steady. Even though my preferred reading material does not involve the tribulations of earnest girl students, I'm still won over by the author's vibrant narrative pulse: the story may hold no real surprises, but its sweep still makes it an enjoyable, effortless read. Miss Mitchell also instinctively knows just how much detail to add. There are nicknames for the staff (the senior swimming coach, a Miss Battle, is christened Battle-axe while the hockey coach, a strict disciplinarian named Wells, is renamed Pill-blister), friendly rivalries between the houses ("They were still in the lead at half-way, and then they were joined by the first and second strings of Prin's and a lone but formidable-looking runner from Auntie's."), and a nice harmony of personalities between straight-arrow Lesley and jovial best friend Frankie.
It is clear, too, that the story's setting of a physical training college is an endearing one for the author, who was a career teacher and coach for students in addition to being a writer with an impressive output. If the sentimental education delivery found here is now out of date — for it is a presumption that the girls will learn a lot, have a frightfully good time, and become responsible young adults — the story is no less admirable for its earnest message, and it earns points for being more charming than treacly. On its terms, this book joins the rest of Miss Mitchell's steady, sturdy output: it is both fleet and firm on its feet, narratively speaking.
Note: the copy of On Your Marks I read was the revised edition published by Max Parrish in 1964, a decade after the original Heinemann edition. As I don't have access to the earlier text, I wasn't able to compare the two to determine what had been changed.