This week I’m looking back at a book series I absolutely adored as a child: Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch.
I was given a bumper edition as a gift at about 8 or 9 and from then on became totally enamoured of Mildred Hubble (our eponymous worst witch). Even now I can remember the book clearly; hardcover, with a blue sleeve and a picture taken from the book’s illustrations in a circle on the centre. The picture was of a wobbly looking Mildred astride her broom, with Tabby her cat perched precariously on the end, tucked inside Mildred’s school bag. Like Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables, L M Montgomery) and Sophie (Sophie books, Dick King Smith), Mildred was a scatter-brained mess of a heroine, who meant well and tried hard but was always getting herself into scrapes and letting her mind run ahead of what was possible – or sensible. While these qualities often caused her trouble, they were what made me love Mildred. As a child who meant well and tried hard, but was often awkward, shy and prone to speaking without thinking, I both understood Mildred and sympathised with her totally.
The books follow a typical ‘boarding school romp’ style a la Enid Blyton (whose books I loathed, incidentally) but are set instead at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches, in the supernatural. Please note that these stories started appearing long before the publication of Harry Potter – Murphy got there first!
Miss Cackle, the headmistress is always looking kindly upon Mildred and her messes, but her severe form teacher, Miss Hardbroom is constantly exasperated by her and demands better from Mildred.
When I think of Mildred, I still see boots with untied shoelaces and messy plaits with flyaway hairs, her perma-state as described in the book. Mildred was an adventurous, exciting heroine for young girls, unconcerned with her appearance and more interested in learning about the world around her, having adventures and being with her eternally loyal friends. To me, she felt like the female equivalent of Just William (a title probably shared with Little Sister of the My Naughty Little Sister stories), full of rebellion and mischief but always staying likeable enough that she was never in too much trouble.
Certain aspects and images from the book still stand out: Tabby the cat’s inability to stay on a broom, resulting in Mildred always needing to carry her everywhere. Mildred in her hob-nail boots clattering up the steps of the school towers, Mildred rescuing the school from a dire plot by turning the aggressors into snails, and then sweetly collecting them up in a shoebox. There are constant threats from Mildred and Ethel Hallow (her rival) to turn each other or others into frogs – resulting in a particularly good story where Mildred (as a frog) meets another frog who used to be a Wizard, who she of course sets out to return to his natural state. I always wanted to wear the witches’ uniform of black and grey checked dresses, which always sounded adorable.
When I was about 11, The Worst Witch was turned into a TV series and aired on CITV. It was amazing to see Mildred come to life and see Miss Cackle’s Academy as a real place. The show was pretty successful as I recall and starred a very young Felicity Jones as meanie Ethel Hallow.
The Worst Witch was fun, silly and full of characters that leapt of the page. Mildred was a heroine practically all girls could relate to and I had a blast reading about her.
Did any of you read the Worst Witch series? Or watch the TV show?