Welcome to a new feature here on DYESTAFTSA, and what better book to debut it with than one of my beloved Chalet School books?
‘First Pages’ is precisely that. I plan to have a look at some of the first pages of some of the best books in the world, she says nonchalantly, and try and share with you a little bit as to why these books are so good. I also want to tell you a little bit about the book themselves. E-Books are wondrous, mind-blowing things, but they don’t hold the history that the book as object holds. Some of these books have been around the world with me. Some of them are almost as old as me. Some of them have been in the bath, some of them are page-creased and torn, all of them are beloved.
Let’s begin. This edition of ‘The School at the Chalet’ is a “facisimile edition of her first Chalet School book”. Published in 1994, it’s a replica of the first edition of the Chalet School book. That explains the delightful typeface you’ll see on the first page (how evocative can a typeface be? Very, I think, very). The book itself is unedited and features everything that that first edition would have included – but it doesn’t include the pictures. Which is a definite downer. Nina K Brisley’s pictures are vivid and lovely things.
Chapter One is called “Madge Decides”. Think on that title a moment. The agency of that chapter is already being placed in the hands of Madge. We don’t know who she is – we just know that she’s in charge. That’s exciting and it’s a note that sets us up so well for the series. Madge is a woman making a decision – we don’t know what it is yet – but she’s making that decision herself. It’s not “Madge and ‘somebody else’ decide”. It’s Madge.
The first sentence in the book is spoken by Dick. He refers to two girls, and he’s immediately met by Madge’s light-hearted replies. She’s not concerned. Dick is (he’s all exclamation marks) but Madge definitely isn’t. The control, the narrative agency of this page, is all hers. Again, it’s such a beautiful and appropriate note to kick off this series with – a woman being in charge of her own situation.
Have a look at the actions on this page. We can reason fairly effectively that both Madge and Dick are sat down when it begins. The “She got up…” paragraph is fairly explicit on that. And it’s this paragraph that I want to focus on and what comes after. Madge stands up. She walks across the room and Dick ‘lifts up his fair boyish head to look at her’. Take a moment over that. The height issue. The power is all with Madge, again, Dick is looking ‘up’ at her; she’s all affirmative action (even if that action is just a walk – it’s an action). Dick is talking. Madge is doing.
The final note that I want to draw your attention to is in the final paragraph. It’s perhaps the first note of what we could call Chalet School style. Madge is “not pretty in the strict sense of the word, yet … good to look at.” That’s an interesting stylistic choice to take and it’s one that signifies a few things to me straight away. The school story was very well known at this point and people were familiar with it and some of the key hallmarks of the genre. There are books by certain authors where every girl in the school is basically a supermodel with glorious hair, amazing looks and everybody ‘pashes’ on each other. This sentence about Madge, I think, is Brent-Dyer signifying a fairly strong stylistic turn away from that genre. She’s saying that this heroine, this heroine, she’s somebody you should be looking at and she is not cliche. She is not the sort of heroine you’re used to seeing.Everything about this page is coded to make you look at Madge and then here’s this sentence going – think about who you’re looking at. She’s not ‘pretty’. She can’t be classified as easily as that.
Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series eventually went on to sprawl into almost sixty titles and forty-five years. In my opinion, the Chalet School books became the series that defined her. It’s hard, and slightly unnerving, for me to imagine writing a series now that I’d still be writing forty-five years later. But that’s what she did.
And all of that began here.