My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s rare in the later books for a character to so firmly bounce from the page as Kathy Ferrars does. Jack does, almost, and I think Flavia does, sort of, but in the rapid character turn and turn about that Brent-Dyer slid into once the school returned to Switzerland, no other character comes quite close to having the seminal impact that Kathy Ferrars does.
Kathy is the titular new mistress at the Chalet School. She is not an old girl, nor is she married to a doctor. She’s a young, bright, almost foolish soul who shines from the first paragraph in which we meet her and witness her getting the news of having got the job. Her aunt, laughing, as aunts do tend to do in these books when they’re not dying tragically, tells her to act her age and to try and stand on her own two feet from now on. This proves to be difficult advice for Kathy to come to terms with during her first term where she runs up against a series of obstacles; the (amazing) Yseult Pertwee, the magnificent Maynard triplets and the one and only Mary-Lou.
It’s a classic combination, and one that reads excellently. It’s hard not to love Kathy and the moments when she’s a bit of an idiot, and it’s hard not to empathise with her over her confusion over Mary-Lou. Mary-Lou’s one of those marmite characters and I tend to err towards the side of having substantial difficulties with her. Plus, in a less tactful manner, I think I’d loathe her in real life. I’m very much Team Kathy in this book.
I also massively enjoy the whole play scenario. There’s something so incredibly specific about the putdowns and the references that it always makes me laugh. Yseult’s attitude throughout the episode and her ultimate attempt to resolve it is so superb it’s worth a star of its own.
It’s a shame that Brent-Dyer so rarely went ‘behind the curtain’. She does it with great effect when Joey returns to the school to teach in Jo Returns to the Chalet School and it’s a similar joy to witness here. She’s so good at humanising these characters from a distance, as she’s done throughout the series, that there’s something intensely lovely about witnessing them all having a sly cigarette and chocs and gossiping about the girls.
A key addendum to this review needs to be made. Regardless of how good this book is, I remain deeply confused about the whole magical fifth form structure that seems to change from day to day depending on dramatic need and purpose. It’s almost as bad as Miss Annersley’s eye colour…