Published: Tammy 23 August 1980 to 25 October 1980
Artist: Mario Capaldi
Translations/reprints: None known
In the first decade of the 20th century Dulcie (short for Dulcima) Dobbs, a country girl, has to transfer to a town school because of changes in the school system. Being a country girl makes Dulcie a target for prejudice and potential bullying from rich girl Annie Archer (her father’s cotton mill makes him a big cheese in town) and her gang. Once Annie realises Dulcie is so naïve and lacking in perception, and hearing that teacher Miss Brittle applies the dunce’s hat, she and her gang start pulling dirty tricks to sabotage Dulcie’s schoolwork and make her look the class dunce, just so they can get a great big kick out of seeing her wear the dunce’s hat. The whole class is in on it; after all, nobody could miss tricks like diverting the teacher’s attention so Annie can sneak up and mess up Dulcie’s answers on the blackboard. But nobody seems to have any conscience.
Dulcie is so naïve that she can’t pick up on what’s going on, not even when it’s staring at her right in the face. Whenever she does think someone might be causing trouble, she dismisses it because nobody can be that wicked, surely?
Miss Brittle’s application of the dunce’s hat is so harsh that it’s not confined to the classroom. Dulcie has to wear it all the way home and when walking from home to school, so the whole town sees her humiliation. She has to let her father see her wearing the hat but say nothing about it – just let him see for himself. Fortunately for Dulcie, something always seems to happen one way or other that prevents Dad from even seeing the dunce’s hat. Right up to the end of the story he remains thankfully unaware of her shame. Presumably Miss Brittle does not issue school reports to parents either.
The only thing that makes things bearable for Dulcie is finding the hat has all sorts of uses because of its cone shape. When Dulcie finds dogs chasing a rabbit, she saves the rabbit by blocking the dogs’ entrance to its burrow with the hat. When the vicar’s upset because the tip of his steeple got blown away by a storm and a church VIP is coming, Dulcie climbs the steeple and puts the hat there as an interim tip. The vicar is quite surprised to find his steeple suddenly looking miraculously undamaged, but never gets the chance to find out why. A sick boy wants to see a unicorn. Dulcie puts the dunce’s hat on Dad’s horse so it will look like a unicorn from a distance, which sets the boy on the road to recovery. These and other uses for the hat cause a curious love/hate relationship to develop between Dulcie and her hat.
All the same, Dulcie wants to get rid of her hat. But she has no chance while Annie’s campaign continues to interfere with her schoolwork and she seems to half-believe she really is stupid.
Then Dulcie meets a tramp called Gentleman George after saving his cat. George can’t believe Dulcie is stupid. After testing her out, he says her answers were correct, so she is not a dunce. So when Annie next sabotages Dulcie, she is finally forced to suspect that someone is causing trouble for her. And her first suspect is Annie Archer.
Unfortunately Annie realises Dulcie suspects her. To put her off the scent (which works), she suddenly comes over all friendly to Dulcie and invites her to her party. Also, Annie has another reason to invite Dulcie: to pull even more dirty tricks on Dulcie at the party, which includes tricking her into wearing her dunce hat at the party.
However, the dunce hat at the party eventually has Annie laughing on the other side of her face when the 101 uses for it come into effect again. This time it’s a fluke rather than quick thinking on Dulcie’s part, but it does Mr Archer such a good turn that he’s full of praises and gratitude for Dulcie.
This makes Annie so furious that she’s no longer content with getting kicks out of Dulcie in the dunce’s hat. Now she wants to destroy Dulcie completely. To this end she has her maid make a fake dunce’s hat and (unwisely?) tells her why: “I’ll have my own dunce’s hat and get Dulcie Dobbs into her deepest trouble yet!”
Then Miss Brittle announces that there will be an end-of-term test on all subjects the following day (which gives the girls only one night for revision!). Most unwisely, she leaves the test papers out overnight instead of keeping them locked away. Isn’t she at all worried about exam cheats?
As it turns out, not securing the test papers gives Miss Brittle a far bigger problem than exam cheats. Annie sneaks into the school and pours ink all over the papers. She is wearing the fake dunce hat while doing so and making sure the caretaker sees this. The idea, of course, is to frame Dulcie for ruining the papers and get her expelled.
Sure enough, Miss Brittle and the caretaker are waiting for Dulcie next morning and all set to expel her for ruining the papers. Protests of innocence are unavailing. Miss Brittle sends the girls to fetch Mr Dobbs from the market. In the most ironic remark of the story, Miss Brittle tells Dulcie that she is a dunce, will always be one, and be “useless – like that hat!” But it won’t be long before Miss Brittle will be eating those particular words.
All of a sudden the furnaces set the school on fire. Miss Brittle and the caretaker get trapped when part of the roof collapses and Miss Brittle yells at Dulcie to fetch water. But the roof fall has crushed the buckets, so Dulcie uses her hat instead. Still think the hat is useless, Miss Brittle?
Mr Dobbs, Gentleman George and others soon see the school’s on fire, and know Dulcie’s in there. The fire brigade will take time to arrive, so they rally around with bucket chains. Dulcie continues to do her bit with the hat, but it’s not enough. Then the end gets burned, so now she can’t fetch water anymore. Then more of the roof collapses and Miss Brittle and the caretaker need air. So Dulcie applies one final use for the hat – use it as a breathing tube for them. Then the fire destroys the hat altogether; it’s a real inferno now.
Fortunately the fire brigade has finally arrived. The firemen rescue the trapped people and Dad pulls Dulcie out. The girls that had helped Annie make Dulcie’s life such a misery with the hat now cheer her for the two lives she saved. But not Annie herself – she’s off to destroy the fake dunce hat and incriminating evidence against her. However, when Annie arrives home she finds her father with the hat and the maid. The maid must have informed him what she knows because he tells Annie: “I think I know it all now. You’ve done enough damage. That fire could have reached my mill!”
Okay, so maybe Mr Archer hasn’t got things quite right. But that’s how Miss Brittle gets put straight about everything. In hospital a more human Miss Brittle informs Dulcie of this, and that Annie has been sent to a private school. Miss Brittle says that when school resumes she has a feeling she will see a very different Dulcie Dobbs. We also get the feeling Dulcie will be seeing a very different Miss Brittle who won’t be using the dunce’s hat on any more pupils.
There is one last echo of the dunce’s hat when Dulcie is surprised to receive another pointed hat. But it’s a more savoury one this time – a pointed princess hat. Everyone wants Dulcie to be the town carnival princess in honour of her heroism.
DCT ran hundreds of serials about a girl secretly causing trouble for another, whether it’s out of jealousy, personal gain, selfishness, revenge, or just for kicks as Annie does. However, it was less common for IPC to use this formula. So this IPC story is unusual for being an exception to the rule.
Annie taking her spite to a whole new level to destroy Dulcie is not unusual for this type of formula. It’s often what takes the story to its climax and ultimate resolution. The troublemaker gets bored of the game, or gets scared she’ll be found out, or gets her nose put out of joint like Annie does, so that’s when she tries to get rid of her victim altogether. But it leads to her undoing, as is the case with Annie. This is a most effective way of catching Annie out. There was no chance of Dulcie doing so, and Annie was way too spiteful to become remorseful.
However, the story is even more unusual for a whole class to be in on the game. Usually – and more credibly – it’s just one sole troublemaker working secretly. It really is stretching credibility for a whole class to help Annie play those dirty tricks on Dulcie and nobody speak up about it or try to help Dulcie. Isn’t there one person in the whole class who is kind and won’t have any of it? We never see one at all, but you’d think there would be someone. Or do they all get in behind Annie because her father is so important in town?
The situation is not helped by Dulcie’s personality. Like Cherry Campbell in “No Cheers for Cherry”, Dulcie is just too naïve and good-natured to realise what’s going on, not even when it stares at her right in the face. It’s so infuriating. But as with Cherry, Dulcie is sharp in other ways, which helps her to survive. Unlike Cherry though, Dulcie does realise that it is doing so. Dulcie’s true intelligence is best seen in the ways she can think fast in finding ways to put her hat to good use and helping others. This helps to make her situation more bearable and make the hat as much a friend as a badge of shame that she wants to be rid of. The test Gentleman George gives Dulcie also indicates she would be top of the class if not for Annie and her dirty tricks.
There are a lot of contrivances in this story, such as Mr Dobbs remaining totally in the dark about the hat because something always happens to prevent him from seeing it. Some of the 101 uses for the dunce hat come across as a bit silly, such as Gentleman George using it as a megaphone. And as already stated, it is hard to believe a whole class would play those dirty tricks on Dulcie without anyone going against it. Yet we still follow the story for the same reason we always follow this type of “troublemaker” story – we want to know how the troublemaker will be caught out.
Perhaps we should spare a moment for the dunce’s hat itself. Miss Brittle deemed it useless, fit only to shame a slow pupil into doing better. Nowadays we regard the dunce’s hat as a product of less enlightened times that is thankfully no more. So it is a really delightful twist that the dunce hat turns out to have so many uses in the story that are far more savoury than what it was invented for. If the dunce hat could speak about that, what would it say to Miss Brittle who called it useless – “don’t underestimate me!”, perhaps? All the same, we still say “good riddance” when the dunce’s hat gets destroyed at the end of the story. Dulcie’s dunce hat may have had its uses, but it is still a hated object.