My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s interesting to look back at the phases of Chalet School life. We have the glorious idealism of the early Tyrol phase; epitomised in moments such as Madge going, “Well, I thought I’d start a school.” Later in the series, around the war books (say Highland Twins and Lavender in particular), we get some intense and searing social commentary wrapped up in a pseudo-simple girls’ school story. Later still, we get the second (third?) generation of family pupils to attend the school and the whole ‘do you remember when?’ This phase is at times the Swiss ‘Enterprise’ to the Tyrolean ‘Next Generation’ of the Chalet School. That is, to say, not very good.
And here, in Carola, though I’d never quite twigged it before, is Brent-Dyer’s ‘batty relative phase’. There’s a connection now needling at me between the propensity of relatives to be a bit rubbish (Annis’ Aunt, Kat Gordon’s … Aunt, Carola’s whole family) and the way that all the girls concerned decide to take control of their own stories. To be honest there’s now also a connection needling at me about the propensity of Chalet School staff / groupies to hang around in seaside bed and breakfasts but that will wait until I eventually scrape up some dosh to do a phd.
So this book! It’s great because it’s early enough to still have some semblance of plot and that plot is delivered with Intense Verve. Basically: Carola pitches a fit after Biddy of the Lush Irish Hair And Never Fading Accent tells her lovely stories about the Chalet School and then runs off to join it whilst leaving her Aunt on a cruise ship to Jamaica. As new girl stories go, it’s one of the best. (“Has she drowned?” “No, she’s at the Chalet School.” “But we’re in the middle of the sea.” “She’s your relative, Miss Curry, not mine.”)
Carola’s first term is excellent. I always think that the girls who were at the School during the St Briavels phase miss out slightly as their surroundings aren’t quite as dominant as Switzerland or Tyrol. Of course Brent-Dyer works her usual melodramatic brilliance on the Island (There’s a phd in the whole ‘why does Joey keep getting almost / actually shipwrecked’, I think), but somehow it never quite rings true to me. I think perhaps it’s epitomised best in this book where Carola goes to the Maynards’ (naturally) house, and then several chapters later accidentally discovers the house again (“Oh this is Mrs Maynard’s house!” “But of course it is Carola, you’ve already been here you big div”) as she’s walking around the island with Taciturn As All Scottish Characters Are Scottish Jean.
But this book remains lovely and glorious in a way that only a Brent-Dyer can be. I haven’t even begun to mention the epic flame-throwing d’enouement.