Baby, it’s cold outside

Well. Er. I wish.

But doesn’t that single line conjure an amazing image? Did it make you think of Kurt and Blaine, Cerys and Tom, Ella and Louis or Ricardo and Esther? Did it make you think of Christmas and burning log fires and snow piling down outside?

Weather (typo *most* intentional) it did or it didn’t, I want to talk about weather in children’s literature. To be precise, school stories.

School stories exist in a bubble of their own and boarding schools especially so. The train, with its connotations of departures and arrivals, provides a connection between the two worlds. The child – Harry, Darrell, Pat and Isabel, Joey or whomever – gets on the train and they depart from their “real” world existence and enter that of their “school” existence. The school existence where they may be head girl, queen of their form, boy Wizard, but back home they’re just a kid at the command of their parents or living in drudgery under the stairs. The differences between the school world and the real world are palpable and the train provides a conduit between the two. CS Lewis even goes to the lengths of using the train as a quite literal method of departing the real world in The Last Battle.

One of the other key connectors between the real and school world? Weather.

Heat, dry and strong and curiously nourishing, is one thing I will forever associate with the Chalet School books – particularly the early ones set in Austria. The dampness in England is not conducive to Joey’s help (though she does get a fire in her bedroom which is BRILLIANT). Much is made in the stories of how the difference in climate is positive for the girls’ health and Brent-Dyer sets up a Sanatorium as both a guaranteed source of pupils and pathos in equal measure.

Brent-Dyer, being Brent-Dyer, naturally milks her climate for all it’s worth. I love how we have flooding, ice-breaking, summer storms, earth-fissures and more … all in the first ten books or so. It’s something that can (and rightly so) become hysterical but there’s something quite glorious about it. You can almost see all this stuff happening (admittedly not in such swift succession) but EBD writes with such passion and love for her Austrian surroundings that it all becomes palpable and possible.

Out of the Chalet school books, weather provides a less catalytic role. It always feels to me that it is forever summer in the Abbey books and Rosamund, Rosabel, Rosalin, Rosella et al do nothing but dance on the lawns and engage in genteel picnics of reflective thought and sisterly spirit. Every now and then there’s an incident involving somebody throwing themselves into the pond or standing outside in the rain but that’s more of a Delicate Soul having a Crisis as opposed to the OH MY GOD THE MOUNTAIN BROKE attitude of EBD.

More modern school stories take a subtle attitude and tend to use weather rather as a shading element to the story as opposed to acting as a key protagonist.  Kate Saunder’s Beswitched has lines like “the sun was too hot and the sweat dripped off their pigtails” which provide a tangible quality of both awed-disgust and skin twitching empathy. It’s excellently done. JK Rowling uses weather primarily as a reflection of current events and the termly structure of the early books (note how the weather shifts through seasons as we go through the school year). It’s in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that weather gains a more threatening and aggressive  quality with the introduction of the Dementors: “He felt the unnatural cold begin to steal over the street…The cold was biting deeper and deeper into Harry’s flesh”

What the weather does in all these stories, regardless of how emphatic it is used, is that it helps contribute to a rounded “whole” of the world. The Chalet School is rampantly exotic in Austria and, to be frank, tends to lose a bit of that when it goes to Armishire. You can almost feel EBD revelling when she manages to hoik the school onto St Briavels because it’s not long until we have sea-storms, mists, and shipwrecks for the girls to contend with.

Weather finishes off a book-world. And admittedly it can be awful at times but in skilled hands it’s a superb narrative tool to employ.

And now, because I’m this far from pulling an Elphaba, I’m off to get an ice-cream. 😉

4 thoughts on “Baby, it’s cold outside

  1. Your comment about it being forever summer in Abbey Land strike a chord with me too. I was always convinced that Colorado must be wonderfully healthy too because of Clover and In the High Valley. So happy to have discovered your blog!

  2. “EBD writes with such passion and love for her Austrian surroundings that it all becomes palpable and possible”
    This is why (despite my many quibbles, giggles and raised eyebrow moments) I enjoy the Tyrol books so much – the connection between people, place, atmosphere (literal and imagined) and events is almost always present and tangible. It really helps to make it WORK, even when the plot has travelled to a bizarre place…

    I’m scrabbling through my memories to try and remember other older school series where the climate and natural surroundings was that important and I’m having difficulty – I can’t remember it being so prominent in EB, for example, but that might just have been the MT and Naughtiest series! If the location/climate/season (all those summer adventure books) is your selling point, then those really are the finishing touches to your world-building.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I agree with you – there’s something very very brilliant about the Tyrol books that just makes them work regardless of however bonkers the plot may get. I don’t think they ever quite got to that same level but by then, I was sort of hooked and had no choice *but* to finish 🙂

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