My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I almost missed this book. I was settling into my traditional ‘let’s check the B section in the bookshop just in case but there won’t be anything there’ frame of mind, and when I saw The New House Mistress tucked behind Angela Brazil (as it were), I couldn’t quite understand what was seeing. It wasn’t a Chalet School title and it wasn’t anything to do with La Rochelle and it was tiny. It is a small, slim, standalone book originally published in 1928, the same year as The Head Girl of the Chalet School, and it seemed to have passed me by.
Reader, I bought it. I hyperventilated somewhat as I did, but I bought it, and then I ran home like Gollum with the One Ring, and I sat and I read this strange little book. It’s a fairly straightforward premise; there’s a new house mistress, and the girl’s aren’t keen on her until oh look they are. (The delicious comfort of school stories and their tropes!)
The New House Mistress isn’t the best written title in Brent-Dyer’s canon. I was startled to figure out the publication date, because that period of time is a good time in Brent-Dyer land. The Tyrolean Chalet School books are wildly vivid stories and The New House Mistress kind of isn’t? It’s not got enough space to breathe; there’s too much scene setting and rules to get through, and substantial amounts of the book are devoted to telling (along the lines of ‘and then she said this, to which Miss so and so did this, and then that’) as opposed to the delicious revelry that Brent-Dyer could deliver.
But then I got to The Incidents, and I deliberately capitalise them because this book is somewhat hysterically brilliant and utterly perfect because of the series of incidents which occur throughout the term. There is a Tree Incident, a Fire Incident, a Crocodile Incident, and a Dancing On The Lawn Incident, and they’re basically so convoluted and hyperbolic and ridiculous that they reach Althea Joins the Chalet School level quality. The Tree Incident, by the way, provides one of my utterly favourite pages ever in literature (page 20, fact fans)
This book is gorgeous, and it’s ridiculous and it’s too brief and it’s hideously written at times and it’s kind of spectacularly off its tree and I guess that that more than anything makes it a wonderfully perfect representative of Brent-Dyer’s work.