Publication: 24 February 1979 – 2 June 1979
Artist: Phil Townsend
Patti Anderson’s family are moving away from the grimy big city to the idyllic village of Edenford. All her friends and family are enchanted with this move, but Patti goes from first being cynical about it, to shortly being outright disturbed and scared. The village children are all super well-behaved in a very overt fashion (washing down public monuments and helping little old ladies across the road) and the headmistress of the local school is clearly somewhat obsessed with perfection. In addition, almost immediately there are strong hints that all is not what it seems: a runaway girl advises Patti to leave before it is too late, before subsequently reappearing with a glassy smile and no hint that anything has ever been amiss. Yes, this is the village of the Stepford Schoolgirls.
The headmistress, Purity Goodfellow by name, is fairly clearly the driving force: she reacts to Patti’s rebelliousness with an amused “…never fear, you shall be one of us soon! Very soon!” Initially Patti teams up with the one other normal girl in the school – Jilly (or rather, Perseverance, as all the girls given “school names” of the virtues they most need to strive to acquire) – but quickly it becomes apparent that Miss Goodfellow’s threat is not an empty one. First Jilly and then Patti become perfect schoolgirls from one minute to the next, with glassy stares and wide grins as they announce their intention to do extra homework before an early night, so that they can get up early and make cordon bleu packed lunches for their papas or ballgowns for their mamas. As with any scheme of this nature, however, there is a fatal flaw in the mechanism that turns people perfect – it is washed out of the body with tears and sneezes, meaning that anyone with a cold or with hay fever – as Patti has – will get better in short order. That is, unless the prefects find them and drag them off to the infirmary first!
Having turned normal again, Patti wastes no time giving Jilly a cold to free her from the malign influence; as it works well for her, they decide to give the whole school colds to see if they can break the spell. This time it works a little too well – the schoolgirls go from normal to exuberant to positively destructive, in a backlash from being freed from their mental restraints. The parents are called in, and it is evident that they knew all along about Purity Goodfellow’s methods and aims: they are calling her out not for drugging their children, but for the failure to produce the promised perfect progeny. Patti and Jilly watch, horrified, from hiding as this betrayal is made clear; but the tables are turned on the parents when Miss Goodfellow takes the opportunity to turn them, too, into pliant paragons who believe mindlessly in everything she says. Patti and Jilly are powerless to do anything but pretend that they are still perfect while searching for the hiding place of the drug that they now know is administered in the food (carrying onions as a tear-inducing way of washing the drug out of their systems any time they feel themselves getting too brain-washed).
The game can’t last long and soon Patti is imprisoned in the school to be force-fed the mystic drug, as Miss Goodfellow proclaims “In the infirmary you shall eat your way to perfection!” Jilly escapes to try to bring help, but even the police are in Miss Goodfellow’s pocket; meanwhile in the infirmary the attempts to forcibly turn Patti perfect again are thwarted by the high pollen count and the beautiful flowers liberally strewn around, as her hay fever kicks in again. Losing patience (surely a vice!), Miss Goodellow proclaims that “the fire of righteousness … shall burn out your imperfections!” and has Patti dragged off to the massive temple she’s had built somewhere on the school grounds… where she is to be burned on a very literal altar. Yikes! Of course the obsessive headmistress doesn’t win; Patti doesn’t go meekly to the slaughter, and in the struggle Miss Goodfellow is knocked into her own sacrificial flames and perishes, refusing Patti’s help: “I shall not take succour from the hands of darkness!”. Patti nearly dies too in the ensuing fire, but the brooding massive statue of Perfection (looking rather a lot like Purity Goodfellow, of course) comes crashing down and breaks the door to freedom. The drug is destroyed by fire and the tears induced by the smoke will wash the remains of it from people’s systems; “In a few days we’ll be like every other village… a mixture of good and bad. Edenford will be just human again!”
Themes and commentary
This is one of the key stories I tell people about when on a roll about how girls’ comics in general, and Jinty in particular, was great. In a kids’ medium, it’s a story against moral perfection, against parents’ judgements of what’s “best for you”, against society’s expectations. It’s the Stepford Schoolgirls with a big streak of A Clockwork Orange and more than a hint of Bodysnatchers too. All that, and it’s (ironically) pretty much pitch-perfect in art and writing.
The art, by the very British Phil Townsend, is extremely grounded and solid: he puts in little details such as a bootscraper inset by the front door of a grimy terrace house on the first page, or an old headscarf and shopping basket on one of Patti’s ex-neighbours in the high-rise she is leaving. Headmistress Purity Goodfellow is initially simply severe, austere in clothing and facial features; her manic looks at the climax of the story are therefore all the more striking. Little things help tell the story: the forces of Miss Goodfellows’ Edenford always dressed in pure spotless white, while Patti and the other “imperfect” characters are variously in darker or grimy clothes.
It would be naive to deny that part of the enjoyment, for myself and other adult readers, is in the sheer over-the-top writing that lends itself to a high camp reading. I’ve quoted some dialogue above, and when preparing this article I was hard-pressed to keep it to just a short list of further examples: Miss Goodfellow has determined that “pop music is a waste of time. It neither enriches the soul nor challenges the intellect.” The perfect Patti packs her father a lunch of “just some asparagus tips, oriental salad, Camembert cheese, fruit and a bottle of french spring water”; and at the climax of the story “Is it mad to want to see a perfect world?” “It is the way you’re doing it!” Purity Goodfellow’s statements and worldview are so extreme that when Patti needs to pretend to be perfect, all she needs to do is to think of the most off-the-wall things and go for them wholeheartedly.
The anti-perfection theme is also very attractive to the adult reader; a daring strike away from the mainstream of children’s fiction, which normally pushes an ideal of at least moderate conformity and of achievement. In Jinty there is one other anti-perfection story (“Land of No Tears”, by Pat Mills and Guy Peeters), though with a different take, as it focuses on physical perfection more than the social and moral perfection that Purity Goodfellow is looking to establish. Generally, striving to achieve better results in the exercise of your talent is laudable in girls’ comics stories. In “Children of Edenford” even this expectation is undermined: Patti is good at swimming and so Miss Goodfellow determines she will have two and a half hours daily extra training(!) to turn her into a champion, despite Patti stating she doesn’t want to do that, but rather to continue just enjoying it as a pastime. Partly this is because coercion and obsession are always bad and wrong, to be punished at the conclusion of the story or repented of, but partly I think also to highlight the rightness of society as “a mixture of good and bad”, of natural achievement and natural mediocrity too.
A darker element of the story’s themes is the nasty surprise that parents are not guaranteed to have your best interests at heart. The parents of the village knew of Miss Goodfellow’s perfection drug all along and while they didn’t want their children to be turned into zombies, Miss Goodfellow’s accusation that they were all “quite happy for your children to do everything you asked them, to wait on you hand and foot” is unpalatably true. A stark message in a children’s comic, one perhaps more expected in a punk lyric such as Suicidal Tendencies’ “Institutionalized“.
I would really like to know a lot more about the authorial and editorial thinking behind this story. It has a commanding position in the comic as it appears in the final pages almost every time, but it is never granted a cover slot, though other stories by the same artist are given plenty. Its message is a challenging one, disrespectful to society as it is generally framed (the sort of perfection that Miss Goodfellow espouses is a very “U” kind, focused as it is on a classical education and on cordon bleu cookery). Could it have been de-emphasised because of that message?
I have just read the Tammy story ‘The Four Friends at Spartan School‘, written by Terence Magee. This story has some interesting commonalities with ‘Children of Edenford’: in it, the schoolgirls are also specifically sent there by their parents, with the intention of them being made over into obedience and compliance, as matches their parents’ desires and expectations. However, ‘Spartan School’ is obviously cruel right from the start; it is more like Magee’s long-running story ‘Merry at Misery House‘. Also, while we are told that the parents want their children to be obedient, it isn’t clear to the reader whether the parents really know the methods that the headmistress uses; the school is so far away that it is entirely possible that the parents are neglectful in finding out the real situation, rather than positively complicit. When an escapee pupil manages to contact her family, they head instantly to her rescue rather than disbelieving her, which lends weight to this interpretation. ‘Edenford’ is therefore an extreme example of a story theme that exists in other girls’ comics; so extreme, however, as to feel quite subversive.