“That’s what comes of being a genius, my dear. You be thankful you aren’t one. It makes you a sickening nuisance to your friends and relatives at times!”
Excitements at the Chalet School
Nina is unlike any other girl to join the Chalet School community. She’s really got no choice in being so unique. Her introductory book is called A Genius at The Chalet School. It’s a technique rarely deployed by Brent-Dyer and only in situations where, perhaps, we are asked to view “new” characters through certain already established social stereotypes (viz. The New Mistress at the Chalet School and The Princess of the Chalet School as opposed to more generic, open titles such as The New Chalet School and The Chalet School Wins the Trick)
The title influences us before we have even reached the central text of the narrative. The new girl is a Genius (capitalisation most intentional). She is identified primarily by her function. We read her as a genius before we read her as Nina.
“We’ve got a musical genius this term. Did you know, Mrs. Maynard? She’s Nina Rutherford. I heard her practising in Hall last night and I was simply stunned. I never heard any other girl play like that. It was marvellous! I felt as if my efforts were just a schoolkid’s strumming beside that.” A Genius at the Chalet School
What is fascinating however, is how her genius is treated within the Chalet School world. Brent-Dyer takes several opportunities to expound upon the concept of genius and, through the mouthpiece of authorial-favourite Joey Maynard, begins to elaborate upon the inherent difficulties that those “afflicted” with genius will experience in a boarding school context. The following extract is taken from the first prefects meeting in the term:
“…you always have to pay heavily for a very valuable thing and the geniuses of this world pay very heavily for their gifts … it’s like a lever, propelling you along one straight path and it won’t let you side-track – or not for long, at any rate. Sooner or later, you have to come back to it, and no one and nothing can ever really come between it and you. That’s why so many geniuses make unhappy marriages. They’re so absorbed in their art and it means so much to them that they have very little time for anything else. You see it’s an obsession and obsessed people are never quite – well – sane … they’re lopsided. And the ordinary happinesses [sic] of life can never be theirs.”A Genius at the Chalet School
Poor Nina. She’s screwed before she’s even begun. This is the moment where a Genius at the Chalet School becomes really interesting for me. This is big stuff. The parallels between genius and madness are palpable. The ‘narrow focus’ of genius propels the bearer towards a less than fulfilling existence. And, it cannot be escaped, that this fulfilled existence conceptualised by Joey does include love and therefore, marriage.
Through using Joey to provide the dominant ideological point of view regarding genius, Brent-Dyer is imbuing her with an authority that is very much absent from any other character in the series. Joey plays a specific and unique role in the Chalet School series. From acting as the school’s first pupil, she never quite releases her ties with the school and ultimately acts as an embodiment of the Chalet School both physically and psychologically. What Joey says is accepted as truth. It is the nearest we get to direct authorial intervention in the text.
But then, what do we make of musical Margia Stevens? Bright, bold and brilliant Margia who remains, as far as I can tell, a musician and single and not particularly lopsided? Are there levels of genius in the Chalet School and are Margia and Jacynth Hardy (sad shy Jacynth!) fated to never achieve the greatness of Nina? It’s interesting to note that both of these other musical virtuoso’s are very deliberately never presented as geniuses. Margia, commonly accepted as one of the more brilliant of Brent-Dyer’s creations, remained a highly-talented individual and yet distinctly removed from genius. She has a “mania”, a “passion”. But she does not have overt Genius (and if she does, it’s been cut out of the pb texts which are my primary references).
Jacynth Hardy is however extremely gifted and one of the few characters who come close to playing a similar role to that of Nina. Matron, another voice of authority both internally and externally to the narrative, is the one to bring it to light: “…if Jacynth is a genius – or near-genius – as Mr Manders implies…” Gay Lambert at the Chalet School
And yet, and this always strikes me as such a sad moment, the affirmation of Jacynth’s talent is immediately negated. Matron, a woman of practical skills and hard fact, seems to doubt her authority in assessing this intangible quality of genius. Matron defines Jacynth as a genius and then, near-instantly, retracts her statement. Jacynth is not viewed as a genius because she is not accepted universally as such. Her genius and talent is not socially recognised in the Chalet School and therefore comes across as being of distinctly less importance than the ability of Nina. This is confirmed, again, by Joey Maynard:
“Jacynth was very highly gifted, but from what I can gather, Nina is even more so. And all her previous training has helped to deepen her idea that her art must come first and foremost and I doubt if there can be very much done about it now” A Genius at the Chalet School
It’s perhaps notable that Nina, in a cast of eventual-thousands, is unique in her extreme creativity. The school story does not react well to difference. The Chalet School in particular takes overt pleasure in creating ‘the Real Chalet School Girl’ model of behaviour and, as a direct consequence of this, ‘genius’ cannot easily thrive in such a context. It’s perhaps why we see so few many of the Chalet Girls engage in extreme creativity, despite a lot of them having obvious proclivities towards such an aim (Amy and her poetry, Samaris and her flute etc).
And it’s why, despite being one of the perhaps most overtly linear books to read (new girl comes to school, gets a grip, turns into good egg), I find A Genius at the Chalet School really rather remarkable.