Published: Jinty 8 November 1975 – 6 March 1976
Artist: Trini Tinturé
Translations/reprints: None known
Nell (short for Eleanor) has grown up in Blackthorn House, a very grim pre-WW2 orphanage run by the cruel Mrs Arbuthnot, who is also very cunning and can lie her way out of any situation. Nell has the additional problems of being plain and having crooked teeth and a lame leg, which makes her a bit clumsy. Children have to toughen up fast to survive in the orphanage, and Nell has developed serious toughness. She is not tough to the point of scorning tenderness; the other children respect her for being kind and helping them as much as she can. A newcomer at the orphanage gives Nell a gold necklace in return for helping her.
Then Nell stumbles across her orphanage record. It informs her about a Mrs Grace, a woman who is her legal guardian, her mother maybe, and paying for her upkeep. This and the gift of the necklace prompt Nell to run away from the orphanage in search of Mrs Grace. She seizes her chance while the hawk-eyed Mrs Arbuthnot is on temporary absence from the orphanage. Along the way she swaps the necklace for a dress she plucked from a washing line and lands a washer-up job at a café. This earns her enough money for the train fare to the town where Mrs Grace lives.
However, Nell is shocked to see what she finds at the address: Academy of Beauty and Grace for Ladies. Being no beauty, she is at a loss as to how to introduce herself. She watches the academy for a while. While doing so, she observes the arrival of one very reluctant newcomer, Sara Wellby, who will play a big part in her story. Sara’s mother is forcing her to attend the academy to forget “all that nonsense” i.e. horse riding, which she disapproves of for snobbish reasons and also because (with more justification) she thinks Sara’s head is too full of it.
Eventually Nell decides to just go for it after seeing Mrs Grace looks a nice person. But right on Nell’s heels are Mrs Arbuthnot – who claims Nell is a bad lot and stole the necklace from her – the owner of the dress Nell took, and policemen! Once Mrs Grace realises who Nell is, she kindly sorts things out and arranges with Mrs Arbuthnot to let Nell stay at the academy. Mrs Arbuthnot seems only too happy to do so, saying she does not want Nell back. So Mrs Arbuthnot is gone (for now, anyway) and everything looks a lived-happily-ever-after fairy tale ending for Nell.
However, Nell is soon down to earth with a bump when she discovers she is not welcome at the academy. She overhears Mrs Grace saying she just took her in for personal reasons but wants her kept out of sight, downstairs, because of her looks.
When Nell confronts Mrs Grace about what she overheard, Mrs Grace is impressed by her spunk. But she refuses to explain the mystery and tells Nell the story is she will take her on as a pupil. Nell realises Mrs Grace is just keeping her out of charity and she will be beholden to her. This offends her pride, but there’s not much option.
But really – is a beauty academy seriously taking on an ugly duckling with a limp and a rough ‘n’ tough attitude from her harsh orphanage upbringing as a pupil? In an establishment where the other pupils are glamour and grace and posh? And Mrs Grace never really wanted Nell in the first place because of her physical shortfalls? If this is not a joke, it’s a recipe for trouble. Not surprisingly, things get off to a bad start for Nell with the other girls. Nell is quick to realise not to let word get around about her orphanage origins. Nell has many angry/crying fits at feeling unloved and unwanted at the academy, and her reactions at being perceived as an embarrassment by the establishment because she’s a rough kid become aggressive.
Things begin to look up when Nell makes a friend in Sara. She loves her horse, Mister Flicker; she wants to be a professional show jumper, but, as already stated, her parents disapprove. She only agreed to come to the academy if Mister Flicker came too, but is angry at Mrs Grace because there’s no sign of him. Nell strikes a friendship with Sara, and it is the only thing making life at the academy bearable for Nell where she’s an unwanted misfit.
Mrs Grace, offering to be more friendly with Nell, explains that Mister Flicker’s arrival has just been delayed by a vet check, but she does not approve of the growing friendship or either girl getting too interested in horses. Nonetheless, Nell covers for Sara in class when Mister Flicker does arrive and she wants to help him settle.
Unfortunately, those lovely hair products in class are too big a temptation for a scruffy kid from an orphanage that did not offer much in the way of decent body wash products. And when Nell uses them to help clean Sara up from the stables, things go a bit wrong. Sara unwittingly uses hair dye and ends up looking like a piebald pony. She takes it in good part and gets a short haircut to go with it. But when Mrs Grace hears what happened and why, she orders Nell not to mix with the other girls. However, this does not stop the girls’ friendship.
Next, Sara wants to secretly enter gymkhanas with Nell’s help. The event is being held at near a contest the school is entering, one to find the prettiest hands for an advertising campaign at Wickley Factory. Nell is surprised to hear from Sara that though her face is plain, her hands are pretty enough for enter. So the plan is for Nell to enter the hand contest under Sara’s name while she sneaks off to the gymkhana – where she fails dismally. Not enough preparation, rushing her horse, not putting him first, say the judges. Worse, Sara hadn’t bargained on Nell actually winning the hand contest in her name!
Of course the deception is discovered. Nell cops worse punishment than Sara (such as getting a whacking on her hands in front of everyone but Sara doesn’t) though Sara is to blame too. The girls blame Nell for the trouble Sara got into, and discovering her orphanage background turns them even more against her. Now she’s even more isolated at the academy, with nothing but her rough ‘n’ tough hide developed from her orphanage years to keep her going. Sara is banned from seeing Mister Flicker for a month or speaking to Nell, and her friendship with Nell sours.
Despite everything, Wickley is still interested in Nell for their campaign. Hearing this, Nell’s hopes rise again, but she has to work with them in secret.
Then disaster strikes again when Nell overhears a conversation in the stables about a horse being destroyed and mistakenly thinks it’s Mister Flicker. She tries to hide him in a shed, but her actions make him ill. Sara thinks Nell tried to kill Mister Flicker out of spite for ending their friendship. She has the girls cut Nell so dead they draw a death head on her door. This has a spooky, frightening effect on her. Nell feels the death head is cursing her, and it shows in her performance. Worse, her deal with Wickley falls through because it would expose the secret to Mrs Grace. And she needed the money from the job to pay for Mister Flicker’s treatment, but now she can’t afford it.
Next, it’s Open Day, and Nell sees a chance to use some of the goods to raise the money. Again things go wrong when a policeman spots her selling cheap food to poor kids. He means to escort her back safely to the academy, but the embarrassment wrecks the Open Day and the story of the orphanage child at the academy now circulates among the stuck-up parents.
Nell sneaks into Mrs Grace’s office to find out the truth about herself, but accidentally starts a fire that almost burns the school down and Mrs Grace is injured. Sara, who saw Nell sneak into Mrs Grace’s office, thinks Nell started the fire on purpose and won’t listen to Nell’s pleas that it was an accident. The school is temporarily closed and the girls are sent home. Nell, who has nowhere to go, is taken in at none other than Sara’s house!
The long, messy trail of disasters and misunderstandings at the academy is not making Nell’s stay at the Wellbys’ a happy one. Sara now thinks Nell is strange and dangerous; her distrust of Nell has her spending far more time with Mr Flicker than ever, which has Nell thinking Sara cares more about Mister Flicker than her; Sara’s snobby parents are mortified to find Nell is a common kid; Nell tries to run away when she discovers this, but this just leads to more misunderstandings and trouble with Sara; and Nell thinks all she can do is put up with things under yet another luxurious but hostile roof with everyone against her.
Things couldn’t get any worse? They do when Mrs Arbuthnot shows up again. She’s after Mrs Wellby’s money, as “donations” for the orphanage, and forces Nell to help her. She also gets hold of Mister Flicker to sell on for a good price. When Sara finds out, she has Nell take her to the orphanage. Sara is shocked to see what a horrible place Nell has come from, and finds the treatment of Mister Flicker just as bad. He’s in the coal shed with nothing but stale bread – which he only got because the orphans kindly smuggled it in. Mrs Arbuthnot had no intention of feeding him. Sara is all for removing Mister Flicker right then and there, but Nell, who knows it is technically stealing and Mrs Arbuthnot can lie her way out of anything, persuades Sara that they have to find another way. They strike a bargain: Sara helps Nell prove Mrs Grace is her mother and Nell will help get Mister Flicker back. The orphanage kids will keep an eye on Mister Flicker. Unfortunately Sara’s parents are caught up in party preparations to celebrate their anniversary, so it’s a bad time for Sara and Nell to approach them about their little problems.
During the party, one of the orphanage kids arrives with bad news: Mrs Arbuthnot has suddenly advanced her plans for Mister Flicker and he’s gone. Fortunately, another orphanage kid, Tim, sneaked into the horse box and laid a trail, enabling them to find Mister Flicker, and discover Mrs Arbuthnot sold him to a racket. Sara gets the police, the racket is sorted out, and Mister Flicker is back. What happened to Mrs Arbuthnot is not clear, but angry remarks from Mrs Wellby give the impression she is now sorted out too. However, Sara’s parents are more concerned about the embarrassment this has caused them and send Nell back to the academy. They are definitely not going to help Nell discover her past, and Sara is so wrapped up with Mister Flicker she forgets her side of the bargain to Nell. This has Nell feeling let down and unloved again.
Nell discovers the fire she accidentally started at the academy has destroyed Mrs Grace’s private papers, dashing her hopes of proving her past. The housekeeper snaps at her in anger for starting the fire. This is the last straw for Nell and she runs off, leaving a note. She heads to the shed where she hid Mister Flicker but breaks her leg, and it’s pouring rain. She’s in serious danger but manages to crawl into the shed.
Nell’s note is discovered, and a search party finds her in the nick of time. Sara realises this is partly her fault for the way she failed Nell, and she apologises. Also shocked by what happened, Mrs Grace tells Nell the truth. Nell’s mother was a servant employed by Mrs Grace, but she unwittingly caused the mother’s death. She then sent Nell to the orphanage, paying for her upkeep, without realising how cruel the orphanage was. Mrs Grace now officially adopts Nell, arranges treatment for Nell’s lame leg and crooked teeth, and gives her a complete makeover. The academy is converted into a decent orphanage for the orphans. Nell and Sara go to college, and they will help run the place when they return, complete with horse riding.
The story could easily have taken the route of Nell enduring the harshness at the orphanage while trying to do something about it, failing time and time over but never giving up, and ultimately succeeding. The formula has been frequently seen in girls’ comics, such as Jinty’s “Merry at Misery House”, “The Worst School in the World” from Judy, and “The School for Unwanted Ones” from Bunty.
Instead, when Nell first escapes from the orphanage, the story takes the unusual route of not having her dragged back there and face terrible punishment, which does not stop her from trying again. The cruel matron, rather than being the main antagonist throughout the story, is used to help set up the early episodes and then the resolution of the story. In the meantime, Nell’s first escape attempts succeeds, only to lead her down the ugly duckling/misfit route where she just finds herself more and more of an outcast, and her efforts to do something helpful or find out who she is just get her into ever-increasing trouble. For all the luxuries her new life brings her, it is not bringing her the love or happiness she craves. She finds herself actually pining for the orphanage; grim and cruel though it was, at least she was among her own and had friends. She discovers that “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Proverbs 15:17) is all too true.
Nell’s story shares similarities with Little Orphan Annie: an abused but feisty orphan (Nell/Annie) running away from an orphanage to find her parents and strikes it good with rich people; the orphanage run by a cruel woman (Mrs Arbuthnot/Miss Hannigan) who abuses her and then takes advantage of the adoptive rich people to make money; the orphan failing to reunited with her birth parents but is adopted by the lovely rich person (Mrs Grace/Daddy Warbucks). As with Annie, Nell has no given surname (at least, not in the story), which further adds to the mystery.
But unlike Daddy Warbucks, Mrs Grace does not really want Nell. She is only taking her in because she is responsible for her and, as we ultimately discover, she is also feeling guilty about the death of Nell’s mother. Even so, she could have done a lot more to help Nell instead of making Nell feel she’s an embarrassment to the establishment and best kept out of the way. Giving scruffy, plain Nell a makeover, particularly after she discovers Nell’s hands are beautiful, would have gone a long way to making Nell feel a lot more confident and giving her a sense of belonging in the academy. When she finally does give Nell a makeover at the end of the story, ugly duckling Nell has turned into such a swan the readers would be hard put to recognise her.
Nell is surrounded by snobby girls who look down on her because she’s rough and common. Being an outcast in a posh place because you’re not posh is a common thing in girls’ comics, but in Nell’s case it is even more heart-breaking because she’s a lonely orphan who came to seek the love she craved, only to find herself in a gilded cage, in the lap of luxury, but nobody cares for her. At Sara’s house, things get even worse for Nell because even Sara has turned against her. The irony is that at the orphanage, Nell dreamed of luxury, only to find that luxury without love is meaningless. The grim orphanage becomes preferable because at least she had friends, but there is no crawling back to it.
The snobs also find it suspicious as to why Mrs Grace has her at all. When they find out Nell’s orphanage background, they are not surprised to find out it is a form of charity. Nell does not like the charity either. This is not just because it hurts her pride; it’s also because it’s not what she wants. She wants the love and caring she believes she should be getting from the woman she thinks is her mother. But why the hell isn’t she getting it? She feels so let down, which adds to her misery.
Nell’s rough reactions to the snobbishness against her, borne of the toughness she developed in the orphanage, are not endearing the people at the academy to her. And in some ways, Nell’s tough conduct is making things worse for her. It does give the impression she is too tough, maybe even delinquent. So, when things Nell does keep going wrong, it is all too easy for even Sara to get the idea Nell is a bad lot. But to the reader, Nell’s feistiness is admirable. She has beans and backbone while most protagonists in girls’ comics tend to take things in silence.
Sara could almost be in the role of Sandy the dog, Annie’s faithful friend. But unlike Sandy, Sara is not doing much to help Nell beyond being her only pillar of support in the academy. And she isn’t that much of a pillar of support or a friend either. In fact, Nell does more to help Sara (or at least tries to) than the other way around. It is not until the very end that Sara at last seriously helps Nell and becomes a real friend.
In some ways Sara is a sympathetic character; her snobby mother is forcing her to give up riding, just because she disapproves of it. To do so, she drags Sara off the beauty academy, which Sara quite understandably hates. We have seen similar things in girls’ comics time over, such as “Battle of the Wills” from Jinty. And in the end, riding wins out.
But Sara has one serious problem – she is selfish. She is too absorbed with Mister Flicker and cares for nothing and nobody but him. As a result, she is not thinking of others, which limits her ability to make friendships because she is too selfish to reciprocate them. The way she keeps getting Nell to help her carry on riding against orders is on the verge of taking advantage of her.
Sara has to learn that riding is not everything. It takes shock treatment, which Sara gets at the final episode, to make her realise this. In the end, Sara is still riding, but she is doing it in a more sharing and caring manner at the new orphanage, and showing that she is now looking beyond herself and riding. Mrs Grace is now looking beyond her narrow horizons too, and putting her efforts into something really caring and loving as well as giving Nell the love she has been expecting for so long.