Once upon a time there was a fictional school with a predilection for near-death incidents. These ranged from the understandable (clinging onto a precipice in the middle of raging floods, climbing a mountain and er hanging off a precipice, or falling into a frozen lake – no precipices involved in that one) through to the sublimely fantastical (standing in a draught, staying up all night, the hiccups).
The Chalet School, were it to have existed, would have been in possession of both massive PR bills and massive insurance liabilities. Brent-Dyer managed to rationalise a lot of her incidents by reinforcing the links between the school and the sanatorium but by the end of the series, there’s definitely a sense of illness overload and a vast amount of deja-vu on the part of the reader. We’ve done this a thousand times already and so, it’s sad to say, the later characters and the more dramatic incidents just don’t have the same impact if they would have occurred in the Tyrolean years.
So what’s the actual point of having these illnesses, this intense urge to throw oneself over the nearest precipice / into the nearest lake (I’m looking *right* at you Emerence Hope)?
A lot of it I think initially rose from historical context. Brent-Dyer was born in 1894 and so was witness to the flu epidemic of 1918. At the age of 24, after having experienced all the first world war had to offer, she then witnessed an epidemic that swept an already weakened world.
Additionally, and I’d recommend you read Helen McClelland’s excellent biography of Brent-Dyer for more on this and her life in general. Brent-Dyer lost her brother to meningitis – an incident which comes across as horrific as by all accounts it was only days from diagnosis through to death.
In a way, Brent-Dyer was writing what she knew; that slim line between health and illness, life and death. Death is something she can’t have ever been far from. There’s a dreadful poignancy in some of her earlier deathbed incidents. I’m thinking of the one where Joey gets sung back from the dead by Robin and The Red Sarafan. Despite the awful schlock of the singing, you can’t help but read into Brent-Dyer’s near forensic description of the sickroom and wonder if a lot of this came from her own personal experience. It’s in the way she zooms right into the detail, the one little thing that sticks in your mind (the orange handkerchief of Dick comes to mind) that speaks of experiencing these situations. The episode is, as a whole, a little bit heartbreaking.
The other element I find incredibly poignant in the Chalet School and it’s treatment of illness is the lack of death that occurs. We have some very, very severe incidents and accidents which occur and to be honest it usually just results in a bit of character redemption or a doctor husband (which is pretty much the same thing tbh).
The only explicit deaths which do occur in the series (and I think they can be counted on one hand which in a cast of several hundred characters is sort of bonkers) occur because of prolonged invalidity / illness. I think the main death which impacted on me, one of the few *big* deaths which occurred was Mademoiselle Lapattre. There’s an intensity here which doesn’t ever quite reoccur in the series; perhaps only briefly when talking about Jacynth and her Aunt. Consider how Mademoiselle’s death is treated in comparison with Luigia di Ferrarra who died in a concentration camp during the war. Luigia gets a retrospective couple of lines in the CS and the Island delivered with a think about it kids attitude, whilst Mademoiselle, quietly sliding away from life, gets a heartfelt and intense and huge part of the story. There’s something scary about the bigness of normal life continuing amidst all of the madness of the war and it combines to deliver a huge book that punches way above its weight.
So I wonder if Brent-Dyer maybe scared herself with Mademoiselle? Maybe she got scared by how big it got – and how much it dominated her books which had heretofore only ever flirted with this sort of thing. Maybe there’s something in how Brent-Dyer only flirted with going that far only a couple of times ever again? The Joey incident in Exile is stunning; grey, heart-breaking, but it’s not just the reader who lets out a big sigh of relief at Jack’s eventual reappearance it’s the narrator as well. I find it fascinating how he pops up nonchalantly at the end of the book with a sort of ‘I’m just here for the last few pages’ attitude. And I wonder if somehow, someway, it all boils back down to Brent-Dyer realising something fairly amazing about writing.
She could kill these characters. But she could also save them. These books were where she was in control. Not the outside – not the illnesses that swept down the streets of South Shields – nor the bullets of the battlefield. I wonder if her treatment of sickness (and also her decision to directly address Nazism in her work) was something to do with power. Writing is the ultimate act of power – and also of redemption. The love she had for Joey is evident, and paralleled with that she clearly felt for her real-life ‘little sister’ Hazel Bainbridge. Perhaps these books were the only place she could actually be in control and save her characters from the harshness of the world outside.