The lovely Ali from Fantastic Reads has done a post which I am ridiculously pleased to be able to share with you today. If you’ve not checked out Fantastic Reads, may I heartily reccommend it? Ali knows her children’s literature and her reviews and posts are always an utmost delight to read.
Now – to back injuries and dragons!
Eustacia and Eustace
I am a fan of school stories. In particular I am a fan of the Chalet School, the fictional school first set up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s, trilingual and international both in its pupils and staff, and in its education. I longed to enrol as a pre-teen attending a suburban comprehensive in the 1980s.
Eustacia goes to the Chalet School, first published in 1929, was never one of my favourites, but is a book that, on recent re-reading, I realised I remembered almost every detail except one very important plot detail which I will outline later.
It is a book I find quite troubling. Eustacia Benson is the daughter of an elderly professor of Greek and a Doctor (of what we are not told) who had “great theories on how to bring up children” (what these are we are not told). At the beginning of the novel both parents die suddenly, and Eustacia is left to the care of her married aunt who is the mother of five sons. Like Mary from The Secret Garden, Eustacia, an “arrant little prig” as she is described in the first line, upsets her cousins by telling tales. In desperation, she is sent to the Chalet School by her aunt and uncle.
However, although it is hoped that European girls will be more sympathetic to Eustacia’s old fashioned ways (for example, she refuses to wear climbing breeches because they are “unmaidenly”), her tale telling, self-conceit and self-righteousness makes her unpopular in the school; in particular she and Joey Bettany (prefect and protagonist of the early Chalet books) clash. Eventually Eustacia decides to run away from school and gets caught in a flood. She is rescued but has damaged her back. “Stacie” as she is called after her accident remains in a wheel chair for several novels.
On re-reading the novel, I was struck by the amount of punishment Eustacia undergoes. She is shaken several times. She is banned from the library for a month; for a book-loving girl, surely a terrible ordeal. She is ignored and snubbed, and finally terrified and temporarily disabled by her night on a mountain. Madge Russell, the owner of the school and Joey’s sister, describes Eustacia’s character, reformed through suffering, as having been buried deep inside her, but now they’ve “got those layers scraped off” Stacie can appear.
The image of sloughing skin reminded me of Eustace Scrubb from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I realised why Eustacia’s punishment made me so profoundly uncomfortable. Again, a child is being punished for his intellectual, “advanced” parents. Again, the punishment is physical (Eustace is turned into a dragon; Eustacia is bed- then wheelchair-bound). Again, the language of redemption and deliverance is used as both are “born again”. Both Brent-Dyer and Lewis are profoundly Christian writers; in fact Cadogan and Craig in their study of girls’ fiction, You’re a Brick, Angela accuses the Chalet School books of “religious sentimentality”. This smacks of both bullying, inverse snobbery and self-righteousness on the part of both writers.
I mentioned an important plot detail that I had misremembered. Eustacia is rescued by a rescue party made up of the school’s neighbours, and not by Joey Bettany, as I had thought. Joey is laid up after having had a tooth extracted. However, my mistake can be explained by Joey’s remarkable feats of rescuing: as Cadogan and Craig point out, in the first five Chalet School books, Joey rescues the lives of “six girls and a dog”! This is, however, one of the aspects of Chalet School stories I love so much; separated from boys and families, girls get an opportunity to be heroic. Long live the Chalet School!