New Beginnings at the Chalet School by Heather Paisley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
First published in 1999, New Beginnings at the Chalet School has been in my consciousness ever since. Partially, it’s because of that searing front cover but also because of the fact that this was one of the first big non-EBD titles that I was aware of. There were a flurry of fill-in and continuation Chalet School titles out around this time. 1999 saw the publication of the Voldemort of the Chalet School world – The Chalet Girls Grow Up, and 2000 saw
Visitors for the Chalet School, in addition to a host of other non-fiction titles which were already out including Helen McClelland’s lovely and warm biography of Brent-Dyer herself Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer.
It’s interesting for me to consider New Beginnings in that sort of a context and particularly against The Chalet Girls Grow Up. The latter book, a complex and angry text which I discuss more
here, fascinates me. It speaks of an attempt to pull the fictional into the real world, to marry this odd and eccentric series with the world it was inhabiting – a world which it had increasingly refused to take part in. I think it’s intriguing that, to my knowledge, this is the only ‘official’ fill-in title to attempt to do such a thing.
New Beginnings takes a very different route but it’s one that is, very conscious, of this road less travelled. The blurb speaks of its truth to the spirit of the series (such an intriguing statement that, and one I could ruminate upon for hours), and in Paisley’s introduction, she speaks of being conscious that other continuation novels had not been well received. Whilst I suspect this preface was written latterly, it’s interesting to get all Genette on it and consider it as part of the text itself (Gerard Genette saw elements as the front cover, the copyright, the preface etc as being integral and part of the story). Situating New Beginnings in this space of opposition and characterising it by truth and adherence to the spirit of the series fascinates me so much that somebody needs to do a PhD on it for me.
So what is the story of New Beginnings? It’s set three years after Prefects of the Chalet School and things are moving on. Everybody’s getting married and making decisions. Len is still with Reg (boo), and Con and Margot are getting settled and sorted respectively. Jack Lambert is, rather deliciously, head girl. The story utilises the traditional new girl technique that the Chalet School does so well and introduces Charlotte (Charlie). As is the way, her new term is somewhat rocky.
Paisley’s strengths lie in her palpable knowledge and joy in the Chalet School world. Her detail is intensely convincing and speaks of a level of research and awareness that is to be lauded. At points this is a little too much and I’m thinking in this instance of one of the chapter headings which, to those in the know, gives away the conclusion almost instantly and thus robs the sequence of any jeopardy. Paisley also uses the supporting cast to great effect and I was particularly struck by her handling of Jack Maynard. She manages to capture him especially well which is an achievement in a book dominated by women. Quite often in the Chalet School world the male characters are drawn so thinly that, if you held them up to the light, you’d be able to see through them.
And whilst all this is a strength and a genuine strength, I find myself thinking again about the book that cannot speak its name and how New Beginnings works both with, and against, that. I find myself thinking about the nature of continuations and fill-ins and how, quite often, they reveal so much more about the fan and their nature of interaction with the series. Paisley loves the Chalet School, that much is clear, and New Beginnings reads very well. It’s a joyful, and occasionally deeply moving read.
It is a read very much fixed within the Chalet School bubble and whilst that is good and joyous and perfect for those moments when you wish to be in that bubble and to escape and to dream (and lord knows, I want to do that so much and so often), I think that for me, I need something that explores and considers what could happen at that moment where the bubble starts to connect with something else.