It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.
I didn’t. Not really.
Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.
The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.
Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.
And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.