The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Homepage

By Eva M. Löfgren

Dorita Fairlie Bruce (1885-1970) is one of the leading authors of school stories for girls during the great period between the two World Wars, mostly remembered for her nine 'Dimsie' books, often paired with her near contemporaries Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie J. Oxenham.

I've only added new information about Clarence House, DFB' old school, now, March 2009, but there will hopefully be more necessary changes and additions later.

Books and series
The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society
Dorita Fairlie Bruce Excursions
Who's Who in Dorita Fairlie Bruce
The Boarding School Story
Collection of Boarding School Stories
Links to Other Writers and Societies
Eva's Homepage

More about Dorita

Dorothy Morris Fairlie Bruce, as was her original name, was born in Palos in Spain on May 20, 1885, as the daughter of Alexander Fairlie Bruce, a civil engineer of Scottish birth, and Katherine (Kate) Elizabeth Fairbairn. But much of her early childhood was spent in Scotland, in Blanefield among the Campsie Hills, Stirling, an area that was to feature in many of her early stories. She also had a younger brother, Alan. In about 1895 the family moved to Ealing, NW London, where Dorita was to live until 1949. At about the same time she went to boarding school at Clarence House in Roehampton, the model for Dimsie's school, the 'Jane Willard Foundation'. Many of her holidays were spent with relations in Scotland, particularly the Firth of Clyde area around Largs in Ayrshire, which was later to became her particular literary landscape. Her mother's family lived in West Kilbride, a few miles south of Largs.

Dorita's paternal grandmother, Roberta Cadell, was a daughter of Robert Cadell, Sir Walter Scott's publisher, who is mentioned briefly in her historical novel, A Laverock Lilting. You may read about their genealogy at The Cadells of Grange and Cockenzie.

Like so many other writers she started writing at an early age and is said to have won a competition for poetry at the age of six. The first time she used her pen name 'Dorita' - no doubt inspired by her Spanish connection - was in small hand-written magazines. After leaving school she wrote a great number of poems and short stories in various genres for juvenile periodicals and anthologies from about 1905. Most of her short stories are set in Scotland, like the 'Regiment' stories, about two children and their pets living with their grandmother in the Campsie Hills. This is also partly the setting of the long historical romance "Greenmantle" (Girl's Realm, 1914-15).

Her first known school story, "The Rounders Match" (Girl's Realm, 1909) is set in a school , 'St. Hilary's', vaguely reminiscent of Clarence House. The three early 'Jane's' stories ("The Jane-Willard Election", "The Terra-Cotta Coat", "For Mona's Sake", 1910-18) - set before the arrival of Dimsie herself - would eventually lead up to her first novel, The Senior Prefect (1921), later renamed Dimsie Goes to School.

Apart from her writing, Dorita seems to have led a life similar to that of many other unmarried middle-class women of her time, devoted to family duties and voluntary work. She looked after her invalid mother and later her ageing father, and helped to bring up her brother's three children after his early death. For more than 30 years, from about 1916 to the late 40s, she was engaged in the Girls' Guildry, an alternative organisation to the Girl Guides, founded in 1900 by Dr William Francis Somerville and originally associated with the Church of Scotland, but later spread over other parts of Britain and the Empire. She was for a period in the 30s President of its West London Centre, and contributed many interesting articles to the Guildry magazines. History of the Girls' Guildry.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce was above all, in spite of all her years in London, a Scottish writer. She often went back to Scotland for holidays, as witnessed by the detailed descriptions of the landscape in her many books set there. Not until 1949 was she free to move back to Scotland, to the big house she had bought in Upper Skelmorlie in the northern part of Ayrshire. In this house with its marvellous view of the Firth of Clyde, and named 'Triffeny' after one of her own books, she spent the last 21 years of her life and died there on September 21, 1970.

Books and Series

Dorita Fairlie Bruce's best known books are the nine 'Dimsie' books (1921-41), seven of them set in the 'Jane Willard Foundation' ('Jane's') in Kent, the other two in Dimsie's family home, 'Twinkle Tap' on 'Loch Shee' (Gael. 'Loch of the Fairies') in Argyll. Any exact site has never been identified. Jane's is situated on the Kentish coast, most likely at St. Margaret's Bay, but the buildings are clearly modelled on Dorita's own old school, Clarence House. The school stories follow Dimsie (Daphne Isabel Maitland) from 10 year old Junior to popular head girl. The Dimsie books are famous for the 'Anti-Soppists', a group of six girls acting for the good of the school. In the last book, Dimsie Carries on (1941), set during WW2, she is married to Dr Peter Gilmour, has two children and makes medicines from her own herb garden. N.B. that the Dimsie books were not published in the correct reading order.

Her second series of school stories may be seen as two different series connected by the character of Nancy Caird. The three 'St. Bride's' books are set in an island in the 'Hebrides', more or less identical with Great Cumbrae opposite Largs. The first book, The Girls of St. Bride's (1923), actually takes place a few years before the arrival of Nancy. The five 'Maudsley' books, on the other hand, are set in a day school in a town in southern England, probably based on Farnham in Surrey, where Nancy spends a few years between her two sojourns at St. Bride's. The Maudsley books are probably the most significant manifestations of the Girls' Guildry in girls' fiction. The last Nancy book, Nancy Calls the Tune (1944) is another 'adult' sequel, about life in a small town in Scotland, probably Crieff in Perth, during the War.

The six 'Springdale' books are Dorita's most Scottish school stories, set in the little seaside resort 'Redchurch', without a doubt modelled on Largs. But Springdale is a far larger school than 'Jane's', a more typical English public school with five, later six, different houses and a more complex prefect system. These books follow the little group of friends around Anne Willoughby and Primula Mary Beton through their schooldays, from new juniors to prefects. Anne's elder sister Peggy and some of her contemporaries are among the principal characters in the first three books.

Her last two sets of school stories are shorter, the 'Toby' books set in two very different schools, The School on the Moor on Dartmoor, and The School in the Wood in the New Forest respectively, with another 'War' sequel, Toby at Tibbs Cross. The three 'Sally' books, her very last books, turn back to Scotland, but their plots and themes are somewhat different from those of her earlier school stories.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce's school stories are more concentrated on the intrinsic themes offered by the (boarding) school as a small society of girls, than those by many other writers. Her plots are skilfully built around the relations between schoolgirls of the same or different ages: friendship, rivalry and conflicts. Teachers and lessons play a comparably smaller part. 'Outside' adventures and mysteries are normally well incorporated in the central plot, often inspired by her great interest in history, local legends and archeology.

The 'Colmskirk' series is different from her school stories, nine young adult novels about a group of families living in and around Largs ('Colmskirk') and West Kilbride ('Kirkarlie') from the 17th C to post WW2 time. The first four of them are historical. This is probably the kind of novels Sylvia Drummond is supposed to write in the later Dimsie books, and Dorita evidently wanted to consider these books her more 'serious' works. They are full of references both to the history and church history of Scotland and to local traditions.

All Dorita Fairlie Bruce's series of books, save the Sally books, are more or less interconnected. Dimsie and her friends appear in the Springdale books, while Anne and Primula are the principal characters in Dimsie Carries On. They also appear briefly in Nancy at St. Bride's. One girl from Maudsley are mentioned in Dimsie Intervenes, and another is a principal character in Toby at Tibbs Cross. Characters from the Dimsie series reappear in The School on the Moor. Lastly Primula Mary we meet Primula Mary in the last Colmskirk book, The Bartle Bequest, as if Colmskirk were not another incarnation of the Redchurch of her own school days.

Unlike her near contemporary Elinor Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce was not republished in paperback editions. The new editions of the Dimsie books in the 1980s, including a collection of short stories, are heavily updated, removing the books from their original period.

But attractive, unabridged, paperback editions are now available from Girls Gone By Publishers, who plan to reprint all the books of Dorita Fairlie Bruce. All of the Maudsley/St. Bride's series and the first 2 Toby books, The School on the Moor and The School in the Woods, are already published. The Girls Gone By editions have well researched introductions and original illustrations and cover art.

This text was mainly based on my Ph. D. Thesis at Stockholm University, 1993:
Löfgren, Eva Margareta. 'Schoolmates of the long-ago': motifs and archetypes in Dorita Fairlie Bruce's boarding school stories, Stockholm: Symposion Graduale, 1993, (Diss., Stockholm University) (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska barnboksinstitutet. No 47) ISBN 91-7139-141-X
There are still several copies left for sale, so please, contact me for information.

Serendipity, the magazine of the Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society, founded in 1994, will unfortunately cease with issue no 40, but there is a Dorita Fairlie Bruce section in Folly Magazine. Please, contact Sue Sims for more information.

For links to some other interesting web sites about girls' school stories, see my Swedish or English main page.

More about Dorita
Books and series
Who's Who in Dorita Fairlie Bruce
Back to Top

Dorita Fairlie Bruce Excursions

Most of this information was based on my own visits to the various sites. A group of members of the Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society spent a week in Largs and surroundings in 1996. Other members have made excursions to St. Margaret's Bay in recent years, but my only visit there was made already in 1984. Members have also searched for other possible sites for the Nancy books, in England and Scotland.

Site of Clarence House, Roehampton
The buildings and grounds of Jane's were modelled on Dorita's old school in SW London, on Priory Lane, south of Upper Richmond Rd (SW15).

Clarence House was originally built c1730 and for a time owned by the Duke of Clarence, later William IV. The buildings were used as a girls' school from 1867 to about 1919, as a junior school for the Royal School for Daughters of Military Officers until 1885. The grounds were bought by the Bank of England and were for many years part of their sports grounds. The buildings were demolished in 1934. My drawing was based on a photo c1912. The grounds were still fairly intact at my first visit in 1988, with the original gates and lodge and several large cedar trees at the bottom of the lawn.

The photos below, of the wall, gates, and drive, were taken in 1988. (cop. Eva and Astrid Löfgren)



The site of Clarence House is now wholly changed and occupied by the new National Tennis Centre opened by the Lawn Tennis Association in 2007. Very little is left of the original features apart from parts of the wall and some of the wood inside it.

There are a few recent photos on the Lawn Tennis Association website, but they used to have more information about the buildings and the grounds.

St. Margaret's Bay, 6 km W of Dover, is the most likely site for 'St. Elstrith's Bay'.
This used to be a popular seaside resort from the early 19th C to WW2, when most of the buildings in the Bay itself were destroyed. The Bay is now also more shallow after erosion of flanking cliffs, but wooden flights of stairs still climb the cliff from the beach, which is still good for swimming. There are caves visible in the white cliff, memories of their smuggling past. Many ships have been stranded here during the centuries, so the wreck featured in the Dimsie books is certainly realistic.
The upper village, St. Margaret's-at-Cliffe, with it's Norman church, was still fairly old-fashioned in the 1980s. South Sands Lodge is the most likely model for 'St. Elstrith Lodge', and you may still see South Forland Lighthouse, the 'old lighthouse' of the Dimsie books.
St. Margaret's Bay
The Francis Frith Collection with old phtos and maps from all of the British Isles

28 Inglis Rd, Ealing, was the home of the Bruce family according to the 1901 Census. A short walk from Ealing Broadway Station.
Photo 2004,© Eva M. Löfgren

27 Boileau Rd, North Ealing, was Dorita's home for many years until 1949. She had her study in the attic. Close to N. Ealing Underground Station.
Photo 1985, © Eva M. Löfgren

Largs and the Firth of Clyde Area
is the central landscape in Dorita Fairlie Bruce, the scene of nearly half her books. Ayrshire is known as 'Brigshire' in the Springdale books. Largs itself is a pleasant seaside resort with a beautiful view of the Firth of Clyde, The Cumbrae Islands, and, in fine weather, the distant peaks of Arran. This is the 'Redchurch' of the Springdale and St. Bride's books, and the 'Colmskirk' of the Colmskirk novels, both names obviously derived from the parish church, St. Columba's, built in 1892 by red sandstone and quite a landmark with its lofty spire.
A visitor may follow the Springdale or Colmskirk characters along the streets of Largs and its surroundings. Four of the 'Springdale' houses still lie along Greenock Rd, just N of the church, though what must have been the 'Rowans' is now mostly hidden behind Nardini's Restaurant.

The Skelmorlie Aisle ('Seaward Vault'), a 17th C mortuary chapel and crypt, is fascinating in itself, quite apart from its connection with Prefects of Springdale. The three pillars on the 'Fairy Mound', erected by Mr Boyd in A Laverock Lilting, are still to be seen at the back of the town, called the 'Three Sisters'. And there is a pleasant walk to the 'Prophet's Grave' in its shady glen.

Largs is the point of departure for the little car ferry to Cumbrae, and the lovely boat trips to Arran or the Kyles of Bute, that Dorita used to love so much. There are several websites for this area and lovely photos on the web, but they keep changing.

Largs for you
Largs (maps)

Great Cumbrae ('Inchmore'), just opposite Largs, is the site of the St. Bride's books - thought Dorita might have thought of an island further out in the Hebrides when she wrote The Girls of St. Bride's. Unfortunately we could never find any trace of a large house suitable for the school. Apart from the nice little town, Millport, at the S end, there are very few houses on this island, but I would recommend a drive or walk around it, and the marvellous view from its highest point.
Little Cumbrae ('Inchbeg') is unfortunately not accessible to visitors.

West Kilbride, 10 km S. of Largs, is the 'Kirkarlie' of the Colmskirk novels and Dorita's maternal grandparents' home at Drummilling was probably the model for 'Windylands'.

Law Castle, the 'Braidheugh', is the scene of The King's Curate, the first Colmskirk novel. This 15th C tower house would have been the chief attraction of the village, if it had not been too heavily restored in recent years, after having been a ruin since the 17th C. My photo from 1987 (© Eva M. Löfgren) shows it as it probably looked already at the time of Mistress Mariner, in the early 19th C.
The history of Law Castle and more recent photos after the restoration.
Celtic Castles

Portencross, 'Portarlie' in the Colmskirk books, is a similar kind of small ruined castle with a dramatical situation on the edge of the sea.
197Aerial Photography

Both Francis Frith and 197Aerial Photography are great sites for old and modern photos of the United Kingdom.

Skelmorlie, where Dorita spent the last 21 years of her life, 1949-70, lies about 8 km N. of Largs. From her house, 'Triffeny', in Upper Skelmorlie she had a wonderful view over the Firth of Clyde. What was her garden is now greatly destroyed by new smaller houses on either side.
Photo 1987, © Eva M. Löfgren

More about Dorita
Books and series
The Dorita Fairlie Bruce Society
Dorita Fairlie Bruce Excursions
Who's Who in Dorita Fairlie Bruce
The Boarding School Story
Collection of Boarding School Stories
Links to Other Writers and Societies
Eva's Homepage
Back to top
© Eva Margareta Löfgren
Last updated 8th March 2009