Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I reread The School by The River for a lecture I attended online this week, one concerned with the role of memory and how the act of reading is in itself situated across our lives. What does it mean to remember a book that you read as a child? What does it mean to reread it now? Fascinating stuff and one that drove me to the work of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, an author whom I have read for a long time, and to The School By The River. Interestingly enough, the last time I read this book was for an essay for the speaker of this week’s lecture, and I didn’t realise the connection until I sat down to listen.

I remember the first time I found The School By The River. I was a member of a fan journal at the time, and I remember receiving the little order supplement with the journal as it came through the post. A bright colour too, I think, perhaps blue or red. I went through a flurry of ordering ‘additional’ titles by EBD at that time, though it rapidly wore off. I couldn’t keep up with the amount of reprints and fill-ins that were published, and so I think I maybe bought this, Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer and Visitors for the Chalet School around the same sort of time and that was about it. Collecting was a long term project, and I was in it for the duration. Besides, my pocket money didn’t stretch to it.

The School By The River was a good book to pick. It was lost for many years, the circumstances of a small initial print run plus air-raid damage to the printers during WW2, and it’s a standalone. Brent-Dyer was terribly fond of series (even though she approached issues like consistency and detail with an airy – and rather delightful – irreverence) and her standalone titles are, for me, not the best of her work. They sort of act as a sampler to the others – this is what you’ll get, and it’s quite likely I’ll recycle the names as well and half the plots elsewhere.

Some of The School By The River does suffer from such a tendency towards being already seen elsewhere, but then Brent-Dyer throws in a revolution halfway through and things go full crazytown and I love it. I can’t tell you how much I adore her talking about things like Bolshevism and Student Revolution because they’re clearly such alien concepts to her. (Redheads at the Chalet School I’m looking at you). And so we get some rather wonderfully ambitious writing here with talk of politics, Bolsheviki agents, revolution and uprising, and it’s all utterly off its noodle in a way that only Brent-Dyer can do. Singing in the cellars! Gunshots! Stale bread with honey whilst the proletariat swim through floods! I have never known an author so keenly devoted to hybridising ridiculous and wonderful in her work as this one.

Plot. I suppose we should talk plot briefly, because that’s what we do in such things like this. Jennifer’s talented with the piano, weirdly pretty if you do her hair right, very British, destined for great things and also an orphan (naturellement). She’s got chums, gets a bit wound up when there’s a storm on, there’s also a bad girl who turns good, some terribly overwrought social drama, and a magnificent ruritanian Kingdom where everybody goes about by horse and carriage and wears national dress 24/7. Honestly, what is life when you have a book as delightful as this?





View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer is a lot of fun and, I suspect, worth five stars for the fabulously awful “JO BETTANY IS MY FAVOURITE AUTHOR I HAVE ALL HER TITLES AND OH YES SHE IS ALSO A FAMILY FRIEND WE LOVE HER WE’RE BESTIES” reference. Honestly, what’s not to love about Brent-Dyer becoming self aware and feeding the intertextual scholars of the future?

But I digress: a review of Brent-Dyer is not just about ‘hey here’s the awful bits’ (for there are, quite often, rather a lot), it is also about recognising the good and the charm and the wonder of an author who could be very very good on her day. Transcendent at points, and one whose longevity and continued appeal is not a mystery once you find those moments. Lorna is a good book, not because of Lorna herself but because of Kit and Aunt Kath. They are family relations, Lorna is sent there for reasons that don’t make much sense, there’s a thousand other subplots, everybody has ridiculous names and even more ridiculous meals (sardines and chips, with cake for dessert???), there’s far too much information about wool (!), and because it is Brent-Dyer there is a moment of mortality thrown into the mix for good measure.

(It is a moment, by the way, that is quite beautifully handled)

But here’s the thing: it works. Brent-Dyer is in a good place here, comfortable and charming and vibrant, and she rolls the whole thing along with a lot of skill. Of course there are moments when she stutters, but they’re few and far between. This is a solid, good read.



View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Vicarage Children In Skye by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’d like you to imagine a very suppressed scream. That’s the noise I made when spotting this in my library’s book-sale. Now, a library must always have a book-sale because they are not ginormous buildings with elastic sides, and books must always be weeded and moved onto their next places, but I’d rather love it if I could cosmically order all those that float my boat to magically end up at my door. It was circumstance, you see, that bought us together; itchy feet and a slight dose of cabin fever, and I came home with a copy of The Vicarage Children In Skye and happiness. (I also bought some fudge but that’s slightly incidental at this point).

So, to Hill! She is a delightful writer for even when her plot struggles (and her plot struggles quite a bit in this book it is fair to say), she is still able to hit you with pages and pages upon richness. It’s not the most exciting title; there is a muppety baby, a muppety sister, a hot local, and Cameos By Dancers. It would not be a Lorna Hill book without the unexpected cameos of somebody, and this is no exception. Where it is an exception, however, is with Mandy King who is a very appealing every-girl sort of character. She does not do ballet (sacrilege!), is saddled with looking after her muppety siblings, but is actually rather fun. She’s lively, genuine and proof of Hill’s ineffable skill with people.

It’s also important to mention that Hill is excellent when it comes to ‘place’. She can write a landscape like no other, and it so often seems to stem from personal knowledge and experience. Her descriptions of Skye almost sing off the page. This edition (9781847450890) has a copious foreword about location and setting, though I’d recommend reading it after the novel (why do people put this sort of thing beforehand? It means nothing unless you know what it’s on about..). These are, however, minor quibbles. This is a solid edition of a lesser-known story from an excellent author. Lorna Hill, ladies and gentlemen, she’s ace.


View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The New Abbey Girls

The New Abbey Girls by Elsie J Oxenham front cover

The New Abbey Girls by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have such a love-hate relationship with Elsie Oxenham. When I’m thinking about culling some books, hers are always the first that I look at and yet they’re still here. They’ve been in a bag a few times, and I’ve taken them all the way to the door on at least one occasion, but they’ve come back every time. And I think much of that staying power comes from how I’m increasingly beginning to realise that I find them a very peculiarly enjoyable form of ridiculous.

I mean, let’s take The New Abbey Girls. It’s a delight because it introduces Ros and Maidie, two of the more potent and well-rounded characters within the series. We’ll leave Ros’ adult fecundity out of the question for now. They are good characters. They work well with each other, and any book that talks about them is something that’s good in my eyes.

But then, as ever, there’s the ridiculousness. The amount of time Maidie pants in this book! “Maidline panted”; “Maidline panted” “Maidline panted.” I know she is an emotional and overwrought and Not Abbey Girl Material Just Yet at this point in time, but the panting! The actual panting! And when she’s not panting, she’s breathless and half-sobbing, or she’s gasping, and I know this is meant to convey her High Emotions, but it just makes her sound like a tool.

Oxenham’s exuberantly asthmatic speech-tags aside, this is a fairly standard Abbey book. We dance; Joy’s a muppet; we dance a bit more; Jen turns out to be the best; we have another dance; maybe a bun; everything’s cool. And it is ridiculous, but I do like it. Though it is ridiculous, there’s an odd comfort in it. The world can be solved by a bun, problems can be sorted by a dance, and the panting girl in the corner can Learn To Get A Grip. Like I said, ridiculous, but sometimes it’s nice to believe in that. Just a little. Just enough.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The School by The Sea : Angela Brazil

The School by the SeaThe School by the Sea by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is great. It bounces along in that determinedly vivacious sort of way that Angela Brazil does (“Girls! Girls Everywhere!”) and then completely forgets about plot and has a natural history interlude that goes on for about three hundred pages, before plot reasserts its ugly head and everything gets resolved and sorted out in about five pages. It’s a joy, really, this ridiculous and beautiful and furiously of its time book, and I devoured it.

Deirdre and Dulcie are bosom friends, in that bosomy sort of way that Brazil did so well; one is slender and one is stout, one is picturesque and one is a redhead who is “somewhat obtuse” and a new girl has been put into their bedroom for the new term. Crisis! Inevitable tensions! Moreso when the new girl has lived in Germany and can speak fluent German!

Published in 1914, this book is very much of a particular time and bent. Angela Brazil had such a lengthy and prolific career that she wrote across two world wars (how awful that is, to have experienced that sort of thing twice…) and her work changes quite dramatically in my opinion. The first world war is greeted with a sense of wild patriotism, where the girls hunt out spies and knit socks and all that sort of thing, but the second? That’s a quite different story; the girls are secluded from the world in countryside mansions and asked to believe in themselves. The books look inward, I guess, as opposed to outwards. The visible acts of patriotism in WW1 shift to some sort of internal stiffening of ones resolve. And so, The School By The Sea does engage in some distinctly complex social dialogue. More complex than I think the book quite realises; Gerda is frankly bullied by some of her compatriots before the truth is revealed and the truth itself ties into some typical themes and tropes of Brazil that I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, there’s a subtle challenge presented towards a blanket anti-German sentiment and that’s interesting to me because I’ve not seen it elsewhere in her work. That nuance of understanding identity.

And, on another note, the opening to this is iconic. Forgive me for copying the first few lines below, but it’s really rather something and speaks of Brazil’s new blueprint for the genre:

“Girls! Girls everywhere! Girls in the passages, girls in the hall, racing upstairs and scurrying downstairs, diving into dormitories and running into classrooms, overflowing on to the landing and hustling along the corridor — everywhere, girls! There were tall and short, and fat and thin, and all degrees from pretty to plain; girls with fair hair and girls with dark hair, blue-eyed, brown-eyed, and grey-eyed girls; demure girls, romping girls, clever girls, stupid girls — but never a silent girl. No! Buzz-hum-buzz!”

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve known about Violet Needham for a while but never really known about her, the specifics, at all. I had a vague idea that she was a contemporary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Elsie Oxenham, but then, as I never found her work either in the library, bookshops or charity shops, I sort of placed her in the background. Needham was texture; a name I knew, but didn’t.

A few days ago, I homed in on that familar Girls Gone By spine in a shop, and picked up a copy of Pandora at Parrham Royal. It’s a crazy title, backed up by the equally crazy blurb on the back. Let me directly quote the first three sentences: “When Pandora comes to Parrham Royal she finds many problems and a strange mystery facing her. During the war years she and her mother had lived and worked with a band of guerillas in Greece. After her mother’s tragic death she comes to England to live with her father, whom she barely remembers, and her cousins, whom she does not know at all.” I’ll stop there because, to be frank, there’s little else I can add to that remarkable opening. I’ve read a lot of books from the 40s – 50s, and can confidently say I’ve never read anything quite like this. It’s a book that more than lives up to its synopsis in a sort of remarkably distinct, and stubborn manner. I can see why it wasn’t reprinted, and I can see why it’s relatively unknown today, but my goodness, this is such a strange and fabulous and marked book.

One of its most notable characteristics is the spectre of the war upon it; Pandora, herself, spent the war living and working in a sort of M*A*S*H unit deep in the Greek mountains where she helped nurse soldiers back to life and helped them die in peace. I’m conscious that I’m overusing the word ‘remarkable’ when I describe this book, but there’s very little other words that will suit. I’m thinking in particular of the moment where Pandora is revealed to have an excellent throwing arm – one which is subsequently revealed to have been because the soldiers trained her to throw grenades. I mean – my goodness, this book.

Pandora’s not the only one marked by the impact of the war; one of her young cousins, Mary, suffers a type of post-traumatic stress from being trapped in a bombed out house, whilst the estate of Parrham Royal has half-seceded from the present day and instead found solace in a landscape
where Greek mythology can co-exist alongside wartime stress and strain. It’s a fascinating, complex, challenging book. It’s not an easy read; Needham’s an idiosyncratic wielder of commas, delighting in sentences that start to lead one way then turn sharply into something else. And, if I’m honest, the book’s ending could have done with some fierce editing and somebody going “So Violet, yes, it’s kind of madly magnificent and oddly compelling, but if you could – maybe – just – clarify a few points for me?”.

I don’t know what to make of this book, really, because it’s so fiercely singular. It’s compelling, though, even when it’s less than lucid, and I suspect that’s what’s going to stay with me. Pandora of Parrham Royal is so fiercely determined to be what it is and you can’t help but love that. Even when it doesn’t make sense, even when it thinks it makes sense but really doesn’t, this book is remarkable. There’s really no other word for it.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

The New School at ScawdaleThe New School at Scawdale by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a lot of time for Angela Brazil and The New School at Scawdale is a very distinctively Brazil book. It drifts rather pleasantly from set piece to set piece but doesn’t really do much with what it has. Back in the day Angela would have been all ‘here’s a Nazi spy!’ and ‘here’s a long lost relative!’ and ‘hey, here’s a mysterious castle’ or some such, but The New School at Scawdale simply moves on.

None of this is, however, to say that it’s a bad book. Far from it, The New School At Scawdale is almost the epochal Brazil text. It’s jolly, and vibrant, and the girls roar with character. There’s that distinctive reluctance to use the word ‘said’ – characters frown, expostulate, ejaculate, quaver, demur and wail (p110, all) and my vocabulary shoots up immensely as a result. There’s that brief bit where we all bang on about Nature For A Bit, and there’s that other brief bit where An Accident Is Swiftly Averted. There’s also some curiously distinct elements that sing with detail; the most notable of these is a visit for two girls to the BBC which is rendered with a knowledge that must come from a real life experience. It’s an odd note in this text that’s almost twenty or so years past where it should be, and yet it’s a note that makes this almost more real. It’s rather intriguing in its own tiny way and yet, once it’s done, it’s very definitely done.

The New School at Scawdale is a treat, but it’s nowhere near her best. It’s pleasant, it’s jolly, and it’s lovely but really it’s just a year in the life of Aileen Carey. The incidents are beautifully written, and the characterization is fiercely vigorous, but it’s not brilliant. But then, even when she wasn’t brilliant, Brazil was still sort of amazing.

View all my reviews

Categories
Everything else Girlsown

“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

CyLf-ixXcAEdnC9.jpg

Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Three go to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Three Go to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #24)Three Go to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favourite films is Stagecoach, which stars John Wayne. There’s a shot in this film (which you can see here) that makes John Wayne a star. The camera swings into him with such exuberance, and then when it meets him, it keeps going and ends up framed on that face. This is a director making a star, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I reread Three Go To The Chalet School. This is a book where several big characters debut: Mary-Lou Trelawney, Verity-Ann Carey and Clem Barras, and it’s a book which features several of the landmark incidents of the series. You know the sorts of incidents I mean; they’re the ones that somebody indirectly mentions thirty seven books later and everyone laughs, and you’ve not actually read the book that the original incident occurs in, so you’re just all well whatever …

I’m digressing. Three Go To The Chalet School’s a well told book, and it’s purposeful and direct. A lot of it takes place outside of the school and I rather love that. Much of that also speaks to the calibre of the new characters we’re about to meet; the new girl usually gets a bit of backstory, but that backstory halts when they get to school. This time it doesn’t, and the adults remain constantly present throughout. I rather love that. The more I read these books, the more I start to realise that perhaps the great longevity of them is precisely that constant adult presence. It’s in the way that we see inside the staffroom (was it just me who was fascinated with what went on in there?) and become party to adult discussions. These are school stories, yes, but there’s a whole world in there. But then, isn’t that the girls’ school story genre in a nutshell? That expression of femine power and absolute strength, wielded in a constructed and fiercely delineated space of gender parity and uniquely formed ideology?

The school is the world, always.

One other thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School is how Brent-Dyer handles Joey. Joey, at this point, had undergone something of an awkward transition. Still at school, but not. Mother, lover, schoolgirl, adult, writer. And here, Brent-Dyer sort of manages to relax with her and step away from that awkward effort to pigeonhole a character who denies such easy categorisation. Joey Maynard climbs trees and then goes inside and darns socks. She helps people through deep, lasting trauma and she plays slides on the drawing room floor. It’s rather delightful because it’s so unforced and through that lack of concern, she becomes intensely real.

I lied. There is a final, final thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School and it is a moment right at the end of the book with Clem and Tony Barrass. I won’t outline the situation, just in case you’ve not read in it, but there is a line here that makes me cry, every time. It’s a line borne out of life and living and of hurting, I think, and it reminds me how good Brent-Dyer really really could be.

View all my reviews

Categories
Everything else Girlsown

Happy birthday Enid Blyton!

Enid Blyton was born on this day in 1897. Happy birthday Enid!

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by Blyton the more I’ve worked on the second chapter of my thesis. I’m considering the changing relationship of children’s literature with landscape; the Arcadian idyll of the Victorian period shifting through to the movements of the post-war period where boundaries were able to be transgressed and challenged … and Enid forms a big part of this discussion.

The more I’ve worked on Malory Towers and St Clare’s, the more I’ve become convinced that Blyton’s texts work in a unique liminality; they talk back to the patriarchal dominance of the age but also, quite subversively, present alternative modes of female existence. Choice, really. And that’s quite the thing to find in an author who is, so often, read as a bastion of gendered problematics. I’m not denying the existence of these problematics but rather asking us to read beyond them in a way…

So happy birthday Enid and, in a slightly Pythonesque manner, here’s a list of facts and other things …

  • Enid Blyton is the fourth most translated author in the world. The three authors above her? Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and William Shakespeare. (Unesco, 2015).
  • Enid Blyton had 762 books published. Just. Let. That. Sink. In.
  • I suspect popular children’s fiction would be in a very different state today were it not for Blyton. You know those Daisy Meadows books? And similar? Consider what they’d be without the nature of Blyton and the way she showed the voracious appetites of what readers could be….
  • She gave us the Malory Towers swimming pool. Still possibly the best swimming pool in the entirety of children’s fiction. And yes, this is niche, but I’m willing to argue at length about this.
  • The house she once lived in is fabulously surreal.
  • She wrote the weirdest, cagiest, and possibly best author autobiography I’ve ever read.
  • She gave us Anne; one of the most complex and misunderstood female characters ever.
  • She practically defined the idea of ferociously readable writing. Yes, this may have come at the expense of a myriad of other factors, but the woman could write. I don’t think I know of a more determined writer.
  • She wrote some of the most definitive school stories out there. The St Clare’s and Malory Towers books are woefully undercritiqued and yet, there they are, immensely and perpetually popular and also subtly promoting a whole host of diverse representations of girlhood.
  • Ginger beer. Never had some. Not sure I want to, because I think it might ruin the mystique…

 

So here’s to you Enid, and your crazy, readable ways. You’re not the most run of the mill person, nor are you infallible, and I’m fairly sure I will never write a sentence about you that doesn’t involve the word ‘complicated’, but I am very sure that you are unique. Happy birthday!

Works cited:-

UNESCO (2015) Index Translationum : Top 50 Most Translated Authors http://www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=5&nTyp=min&topN=50 [accessed 06/07/2015]

 

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A Leader in the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Leader in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #49)A Leader in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two Chalet School reviews in a row! I imagine you can guess that I am in a mood for comfort reads at the moment; I want fat, luscious, clean reads that I can just sink into and enjoy. Perhaps it is a reaction to finishing a draft of my thesis. I rather suspect it is.

I have enjoyed revisiting these later Chalet School books more than I thought I would. A Leader In The Chalet School is one that is more workmanlike than most of the ones around this point in the series, but somehow it is strangely appealing. There are moments of EBD at her best – “and her French was weird and wonderful” – and there are moments of EBD at her worst – writing a tear-filled confession with copious ‘wa-ahh-ahh’ is never a good idea. Consider that my first and best writing tip. Never write ‘wa-ahh-ahh’. Or else I will glare at you.

So; Jack Lambert’s first term. She’s destined to be Head Girl isn’t she? But fanfics aside, this is the traditional ‘new girl encounters hijinks and ultimately gets all sorted out by the end of it’ formula. It is, as I mentioned, workmanlike, but it works. it really does. It’s briskly told and well told, if a little basically at times (there’s a delicious moment where somebody says something to somebody else off the page as it were, and the text just goes ‘well, whatever she said, clearly worked’. Lol. A thousand times lol.).

What makes A Leader distinct is that I think it’s the first time Len really becomes centred in her own right as an Important Person. She’s left the rampant character assassination of Theodora and the Chalet School (Len’s treatment in this book utterly fascinates and confuses me), and she’s now Somebody. And she’s not hideous. She’s really rather lovely and real. The dynamic between her and Jack is delightful and it’s understandable. And that’s what drives this book; it’s about relationships and identity and selfhood and in a way, it’s not really about a school at all.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Chloe Takes Control : Phyllis Matthewman

Chloe Takes Control (Daneswood, #1)Chloe Takes Control by Phyllis Matthewman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across the name of Matthewman in reading about my beloved Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. In the last years of her life, Brent-Dyer shared a house with Sidney and Phyllis Matthewman. There’s a fairly prevalent theory that Phyllis assisted with the writing of Prefects of the Chalet School. I’m not sure about the last one (and I’m not sure that I want to fully blame Prefects of the Chalet School on one person…).

Phyllis Matthewman was a prolific author in her own right. I’m conscious that framing her in the context of Brent-Dyer does her a disservice and it is one that I will rectify from this point. Chloe Takes Control is a lovely book, vibrant and well told and delightfully character driven. Matthewman pauses every now and then to engage in the genre tropes; the middles are rumbunctious, the headgirl is quietly authoritative, and a middle is Possessed Of Good Things But Doesn’t Quite Know It.

What distinguishes Chloe Takes Control is the complex nature of Chloe herself. She’s not the traditional schoolgirl heroine; she’s reticent, quiet, self-controlled and doesn’t like games. The last is almost unique within the canon and Matthewman earns this accolade with a quietly told, well-judged and understandable back story. Chloe is intensely believable and surprisingly contemporary in tone. It’s just a good, vivid, book. Matthewman writes with intense verve and alacrity. This is my first Matthewman; I hope it’s not my last.

One thing to note is that the edition I read (GGBP) has the phrase ‘working like n-‘ in it. It’s a throwaway moment, and one that very much reflects the context this was originally written in, but it is one instance of vocabulary that may require some clarification with a contemporary audience.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Maid of the Abbey : Elsie J. Oxenham

Maid of the Abbey (The Abbey Girls, #28)Maid of the Abbey by Elsie J. Oxenham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m so intermittent with the Abbey Girls that it always takes me a moment to orientate myself and figure out where I am in the series. Is Maidlin old or young? Is Joy a muppet or vaguely appealing? Is Mary Dorothy around and just which cook called Anne is it? Has Rosamund had her ‘fifteen children within two weeks’ yet?

Having orientated my way through that period of adjustment, I then always find the Abbey books a little – saturated. I’m not sure that’s the best way to describe them, and I’m very certainly not meaning that they’re damp, so let me try to explain what I mean. Perhaps another word will show itself as I do so. My heart belongs with the raw edge of the Chalet School, that moment where it could be searing or hideous; the unfinished moment of books that teeter wildly on the edge of brilliance or fall into utter tedium. There’s not much of an in between in Brent-Dyer’s world; these books are wonderful and they are lovely or they are Althea.

The Abbey books don’t have that unfinished edge for me. They’re rounder, and glossier, but they don’t have that sense of trepidation. That nervous unknown edge of what might lie behind the corner. That’s what I mean by saturated; it’s all too bright, too colourful. It’s a world without fear, without edge. Maybe that’s because of the books I’ve read, and the way I’ve read them. Journey toward literature often means as much as the literature itself.

But then, here I am recommending a book that makes my theoretical side twitch, that makes all of that that I have spoken about come forth, here I am giving it five stars and here I am about to rave about the very things I have marked out as problems. Maid of the Abbey is lovely. It’s gorgeous. If it were a Friends episode, it would be The One Where Maidlin Gets Married Off And Everything Is Perfect. Oxenham has this great unease with letting her gifted and talented characters exist in isolation (something I wrote about, slightly rubbishly, aeons ago here). Marriage is the ultimate goal, in this world defined by women and inter-female relationships, and it makes me itch but I don’t care here, because this book is lovely.

Oxenham writes with just a wildly entrancing verve; this is a thick slice of cake and slippers by the fire sort of a book. It’s just good, comforting, warm literature. I loved it. I really did. And I think Maid Of The Abbey shows that skill at its best; Maidlin is married off, yes, and we all fawn around Joy for reasons I am yet to figure out, but we do all of this because the writing is so convinced that this is the best thing for these characters. Authorial drive. Love, really. And to go against that, to stand up against that sheer tide of certainty and rich, delicious, writing – I can’t. Not now. Not today.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The New House Mistress : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New House MistressThe New House Mistress by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

First Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #1)First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so my Blyton marathon reaches another great classic, her series of school stories set at the deliciously described Malory Towers. It’s a school set nebulously on the Cornish coast somewhere, but the detail is what makes this school sing. Turrets. Towers. A swimming pool that’s crisp and refreshing on the hottest of days. A central court with a sunken theatre, roses, and Arcadia found. It’s Darrell Rivers’ first term and, as is the way with the school story, we follow her on her journey into acclimatising into her brave new world. It is an acclimatisation full of pitfalls, of temper, and of high-jinks and of friendship, surprisingly, enduringly formed. It is lovely.

Malory Towers is so, so good. Blyton can write, she writes with what I can only describe as a ferocious readability. There’s not much artifice here, no narrative dodging or sleight of hand. This is story, handed out wholesale, and it’s great. Blyton can write and she can give story, and she will give you story whether you want it or not. There’s something quite brilliant about her when she gets like this. It’s unafraid, unabashed, unrelenting storytelling that’s equally terrifying and equally addictive.

It’s worth nothing that, in the edition I read, the slapping incident between one pupil and another now involves shaking, though the attempted drowning beforehand remains curiously intact and unedited. I’m struck, really, about the tone of editing here. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong decision to this incident, but I’m conscious really of how I read the original incident when I was a child. It was so dramatic to me, so gobsmackingly awe-inducing, precisely because of the slapping. And whilst I’m so very conscious of that, I’m equally conscious of the necessity to understand the needs of current readers and different sensibilities. A quandary. What would you do with the relevant incident? I’m not sure it’s a call I can easily make.

But enough of editing and of nerdly niggles, and back to this wonderful book. It’s epochal, really, because it does what it does with such genuine aplomb. There’s almost too much to enjoy. Everything and everyone feels rooted, real. This is storytelling, pure and simple, and because Blyton is so determined to make this work, she does. There’s such latent power in literature like this.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Enid Blyton, St Clare’s and ferocious readability

I finished my St Clare’s reread last night. I’ve been reading these books as part of my research; they form one of the big aspects of my next chapter alongside the Malory Towers books.

It’s been a long time since I read St Clare’s. I had fond memories but bare ones, you know? The sort of memory where you know something is good, that it makes you happy, but you can’t quite remember the detail of what it is that makes you feel so positive about something. Sensible Hilary. Slapping Carlotta. Pat and Isabel. Claudine and that swimming pool incident.

And when I finished them last night, the end of a binge of six books in a row, I realised something. For all her foibles, for all intensely problematic her talking to goldfish and never quite giving Anne a chance, Enid Blyton could write. The St Clare’s series is possess of such a determined style that it’s quite breathtaking at points. These are ferociously readable books. These are books that have been written with an eye towards being read and towards being enjoyed. And the more they’re written, the better they get. I talked earlier this week about how I think The O’Sullivan Twins might be one of the best school stories out there, but I suspect Fifth Formers At St Clare’s might stand up there with it. There are some chapters in this novel, some intense twists of plot and circumstance that are flabberghastingly brilliant. I’m not going to spoil it here, but I’m sure those of you who know these books will have an inkling of the chapter I mean. It’s the midnight one ….

I was struck as well by the diverse manifestations of girlhood within these books. One can be sensible, brave, foolish, selfish, idiotic, whatever. Blyton is determined to allow these girls to be themselves and that’s something quite special. It’s not, perhaps, kind in how she does it for certain of the girls but again, that’s something quite remarkable in itself. She’s not afraid of giving a girl a bad end, or being unabashedly scolding of their attitude. It’s not subtle but again, it’s not wrong. Writing like this intrigues me; this distinct, and occasionally vicious authorial voice, that isn’t allowed to let her characters be idiots or ignorant or stupid. That’s quite a thing.

 

I suppose really, what I’m trying to say is that Blyton gets a bad rap. And it’s often very deservedly so; she is a complex, challenging and occasionally deeply frustrating author. But she is not a bad writer. She is smart, ferociously readable, and deeply intriguing. And these books, these school stories, when they’re good – they are brilliant. They are raw, determined brilliance. And that’s something worth acknowledging.

I’m off to Malory Towers next. Wish me mishaps in the swimming pool and midnight feasts!

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The School in the Forest : Angela Brazil

The School in the ForestThe School in the Forest by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What! Go to school! To boarding-school! I won’t I tell you I won’t!”

So begins The School in The Forest and the story of fourteen year old Jean Langton, a spoilt heiress who is both inevitably orphaned and inevitably romantic. Her life in the remote and isolated Craigness Tower is to come to an end and she is to be sent to boarding school. Prodigously, as “south country air doesn’t suit” Jean, a respectable school has evacuated to the locale and thus she is to be sent there. St Hilda’s is a typical school as far as Brazil is concerned; it is progressive with a naturalistic pedagogy (can you tell I am writing an essay about this book as well as this review?) and has relocated itself to the romantic surroundings of Wildeswood Hall.

I always overuse the word romantic when I talk about Angela Brazil because her books are so resolutely focused upon casting the everyday outside and becoming embroiled in a saga of dancing through the trees and singing songs around a campfire. Even Brent-Dyer, my great literary love, held back from the wholesale passions of Angela Brazil and her obsession with the outdoors world. And I think it’s the way that Brazil approaches the outdoors and forces her girls out there to engage in the world that gives her work a particular and peculiar force, even now, a million miles away. Jean is a musical girl (how rare for the new girl to have a talent! *side-eyes camera) and yet, she’s irrevocably tied to landscape. Her family history, her escapades, her Christmas with real and true and proper friends; all of it steps outside of the school and into the wide world.

Of course, having said that, as ever with Angela Brazil there’s a deeply contrived subplot. And what is a school story without a contrived subplot? It is a quirk of genre and one that is inescapable. This subplot involves gypsies and a mysterious child. It’s a subplot which doesn’t translate particularly well to contemporary reads. As ever, judge the text by the standards of the age and make allowances for those standards, however they may be.

For an author who cut her teeth on school stories, and who indeed must take credit for making the contemporary school story what it is, The School In The Forest isn’t really a book about schools at all. It’s a book about girlhood; about learning to live in a community and to live with yourself. I rather love it. But, then again, I think that I will always love Angela Brazil for a myriad of reasons, and not only for the way I learn a thousand new synonyms for ‘said’* every time I read her work. Brazil was epochal. Still is, really.

(page 55: ‘asked’ / ‘mocked’ / ‘laughed’ / ‘nodded’ / ‘sniggered’ / ‘decided’.
I love these books)

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The New Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New Chalet School (The Chalet School, #14)The New Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a moment in this book, relatively early on, where Joey is advised to rub butter on a bruise and it is a moment which fascinates me to this day. Would the butter have to be salted or unsalted? How much of the butter would suffice? Is this really a thing or is it Elinor M. Brent-Dyer having one of her hallucinations? A part of me wants to google whether this is true medical science, and yet an equal part of me doesn’t want to find out.

And so we come to The New Chalet School, a book that is legendary to me for the quality of its small details; a book so full and rich of minutiae that it’s almost not a children’s book at all, but rather something that feels almost like reportage. It’s too real, at this point, this series to me, it is a book that is so thoroughly real that reading this, and the resolution of one of the key sub plots, is almost painful. It’s perhaps one of the few moments in the series where Brent-Dyer delivers a lesson on morality and behaviour that is hard; truly hard, to read, and coming after a sequence defined by happenstance and pratfalls, feels even harder. It’s horrible, really how the subplot is resolved, and I think it’s one of the few moments where Brent-Dyer becomes a hard, and almost cruel author.

(A sidebar: Happenstance and Pratfalls will be my new band name)

But; coupled with that, as ever, is a novel full of glory, and it’s so hard to digest, these wild shifts of tone and style. Brent-Dyer handles the girl’s slow realisation that Mademoiselle is not going to get well with a warm, light and kind hand and again, in contrast, I return to that subplot and the way it’s wrapped up and the hard, hard tones in which it is delivered. A novel of contrasts; the New Chalet School, and yet one I love. I do, despite it all, I do. I don’t think I can’t.

A hard, complicated book to resolve, and I don’t think these are words that I easily associate with the Chalet School. But – here, I do, and this book is fascinating to me and rather important because of that. But. Yes. A review of stutters this, and of contrasts, and of an author who is so very good and somewhat terrifying, somehow, with the skill she has.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Peace Comes to the Chalet School : Katherine Bruce

Peace Comes to the Chalet SchoolPeace Comes to the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a rule, I find the Chalet School fill in novels complex. A part of me welcomes their presence as it reflects that readerly hunger of mine for this series, and yet another part of me rampantly dislikes it and begins to think of the dilution of intellectual property and the impingement upon Brent-Dyer’s canon of work by others. I get selfish, I think, with these books: I want them all for my own, and so to acknowledge the transformative impact that they have had on others (made manifest in the writing of these novels) is an inherently complicated notion.

But I really like Peace Comes To The Chalet School.

I bought it on a whim, full of pique at all these novels connected to this beloved series of mine (there’s that possessive pronoun again) and at the way that I only had a few of them in my greedy readers hands. I liked the sound of it; the way it dealt with a period of time that was, to be frank, a period which bought some of the best writing from Brent-Dyer. I’ve written about the great grace of The Chalet School in Exile before, and that period also sees some of the greatest moments in Chalet School history. Elizabeth. Betty. Polly Heriot on the train. The Peace League. Lavender’s bath. Bride Bettany. The thought of an another author approaching that period both intrigued me and, in a way, made me a little bit envious. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could adhere to the markers of plot and of structure and of canon that are scattered so liberally before and after.

But Bruce does so very well. I love Peace Comes To The Chalet School and I’d warrant that it’s one of the best fill-ins I’ve read. Bruce balances the needs of the series (the old girls, the religion, the middles!) with a fine awareness of the historical period. Her writing is occasionally too workmanlike and controlled, wrapping off moments before they should be wrapped off or explored further, but those moments are intermittent and fleeting. What Bruce does very well is capture the adults and that sense of wild relief and euphoria that must have come with the news of the wars end. There’s some beautiful and intensely moving moments, which are only further explored with the reactions of the girls. I cried. My heart grew three sizes. Bruce handles that very well and with a distinct element of skill (such a big cast. Such a big cast).

(And oh, Joanna Linders! The European girls!)

I like this novel. I like it a lot, because it feels true and whilst I know it’s a fill in, quite distinctly so at points, there are moments when I forget that. And I think that’s perhaps one of the greatest compliments that I can give it.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A United Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A United Chalet School (The Chalet School, #15)A United Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full of the vibrant light and deft skill that characterises her early Tyrolean work, A United Chalet School sees Brent-Dyer working at the top of her powers. She’s on her way here to the great heights and nuances of The Chalet School In Exile, and A United Chalet School has much to praise within its pages, with not just some delicious character work on part of the staff but more of the great Betty / Elizabeth pairing.

It is the second half of the term which began in The New Chalet School and thus, United sings somewhat oddly if you come to it in isolation. There are references to events which occurred in the New term and they are references which baffled me for years until I finally got my hands on a copy of New and figured them out. There’s also not much in the way of length to United as originally it was all part of the same book as New. Making United into a separate novel does eke out the tension of the Saints / Chaletians pairing in a suitably commercial manner but I’m not sure there’s much else to justify making this a standalone book and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything which satisfactorily explained this to me. A mystery! We’ll chalk it up to the same person who did all those hideous edits later in the Armada paperbacks!

In the brief space that United exists in, not much happens. There are two or three key incidents and, by themselves, they do not seem to take up much space nor concern. But this is Brent-Dyer and right here, right now, she is so very good. She understands her girls and her circumstances so perfectly that it is achingly good to read. The punishment delivered for a prank (and the prank itself) is deliciously done and speaks of such a sympathetic knowledge of girls and how they feel.

It’s a slim book, United, but quite potent in its way. I will never tire of the coach scene, nor the moments where Miss Wilson takes command, nor that moment where Miss Annersley steps to the forefront (oh!). They’re all relatively small moments but in actuality they’re so big. This is writing that is. It’s fat writing, thick writing, layered writing that presents a simple moment but makes that moment ache with resonance. A United Chalet School is slender but so very sonorous. I rather love it.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

New Beginnings at the Chalet School : Heather Paisley

New Beginnings at the Chalet SchoolNew 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.

But.

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.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow : Katherine Woodfine

The Mystery of the Clockwork SparrowThe Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow by Katherine Woodfine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow is a book that, perhaps more than most, starts with that delicious front cover. It is genuinely one of the more beautiful books that I have come across recently; a perfectly balanced cover image with foiled highlights so that when it catches the light, it gleams. I like books like this a lot. I like books that are packaged and presented with this level of care and consideration. It bodes well both for the attitude of the publishers towards the book and the contents therein.

Woodfine’s delicious mystery is set in Sinclair’s – a brand new store opening in London. It’s a store that is very much of the minute and reminiscent of Selfridges, Harrods and Fortnums & Mason – those big, rich and lavish department stores that London is so well known for. (A quick sidebar: I’m researching children’s literature and literary tourism for my PhD and this book practically begs for bits of it to be read in some fancy pants cafe in one of those stores. It sings for it…). Sophie works in the millinery department and becomes embroiled in the theft of the clockwork sparrow – a marvelous piece of automata that sings a different tune every time it’s wound up. But, as ever in all good books, there are layers upon layers in this mystery and Sophie and her friends soon realise that they’re involved in something quite dastardly indeed.

I’m starting to sense a new wave of children’s literature around detectives and sleuthing, and it’s something that I really rather love. The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow sits superbly well alongside the perfect delight that is the perfect Wells and Wong series by Robin Stevens, and for slightly younger readers something like the Sesame Seade mysteries Sesame Seade mysteries. There’s a lot more here that I could name, but what all of the three that I’ve picked out have in common are brave and strong heroines who choose their own destinies in contexts that quite often are not conducive to such an act. That’s a big thing to have in books and it’s something that I have and will continue to highlight as important and relevant.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow amalgamates shopping and sleuthing in such a confident and all encompassing manner that you know you’re at the start of something great. Woodfine’s prose is deeply confident and embracing; at points, it’s so rich that it almost becomes a love letter towards London and the elements that construct it savoury or no. She also deeply knows her era and there’s some rich elements here that will deeply appeal to fans of Girl’s Own literature. It is also the beginning of a series.

(Hurrah!)

View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown

First Pages : Eustacia goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia goes to the Chalet SchoolWelcome back to another one of my intermittent looking at the first pages of books series. I’ve chosen the great Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School for today’s post, and a lot of it hinges on that near legendary first sentence:

“There is no disguising the fact that Eustacia Benson was the most arrant little prig that ever existed.”

What a sentence. What. A. Sentence. It’s one with at least two words that I remember not understanding the first time that I read this, but my word, how I understood that sentence. It’s full of authority; and it’s an authority which almost breaks the third wall. This is the great authorial voice speaking and it’s one that, at this point in the series, is full of strength and vigour. Brent-Dyer is pretty much speaking straight to her audience. Eustacia is awful, she’s saying, and you need to know this before you know anything else about her.

(For those of you who remain unsure – and I grant, I just had to double check I was getting the meaning of ‘prig’ right – it means “a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others” according to Google. So there we are. Eustacia is horrible. Even Google says so).

That’s such an odd way to introduce a protagonist to the series. We know that Eustacia is to be the protagonist of this book; she’s named in the title, she is the title of the first chapter, she is in the first line. She is central and yet, hated. She is a character constructed – and “subjected” – to a childhood that is defined by the absence of normal things. There’s a lovely little line towards the end of the first paragraph where Brent-Dyer groups herself with the reader and muses: “We have little difficulty in guessing the effect of those theories when we meet Eustacia for the first time…” Have a look at the construction of this sentence in conjunction with that opener. Eustacia is an arrant little prig. She is not pleasant. We know this, you and I, because I (the author) am standing on the side of you (the reader) and we’re studying this strange “unfortunate” creature together.

I find Eustacia such a fascinating individual. She’s introduced as somebody quite horrible and yet somebody who’s going to go to the Chalet School. Note the construction of the title: “Eustacia goes to the Chalet School.” It’s not “Eustacia at the Chalet School”. It’s not “Eustacia of the Chalet School” (The of and at constructions are titles used liberally throughout the series, but goes only occurs twice when related directly to school based adventures, and once in the ‘fill-in’ episode of Joey goes to the Oberland). That title suggest a girl who is being sent and yet, will not belong. A destination, but one that is not welcoming. Previous to this episode in the series, we’ve seen another new girl introduced – The Princess of the Chalet School – and Eustacia’s not destined for a similar experience. She is alien, really, to everything in this series and around her, and she is fascinating.

Brent-Dyer at this point in her writing career was so, so strong in how she could draw a character and context together. Eustacia is, for me, one of her more enduring and complex creations and it all centres around that opening sentence: “…the most arrant little prig that existed”. I think it’s madly intriguing that she set this book around such a resolutely unlikeable heroine – and one that she only, very briefly, admits is not to blame for being so unlikeable. She is the “unfortunate Eustacia”, who has been “subjected” to her childhood.

And maybe that’s the crux with this page, that little brief coda in the depths of the opening paragraph, that little mark of humanity and careful word choice that shows that maybe, underneath it all, Eustacia isn’t that bad a thing. She’s a victim. She’s obnoxious and superior and, as one might phrase it nowadays, rather full of it; but she is not to blame.

That’s such a careful nuance and it’s one that, I think, this whole page hinges upon. Eustacia’s character is laid out for all to see here, mercilessly so – but it is not all that she is. It is well for both the author and reader to see the cracks in it, even at this early point. It is the smallest of moments but it is so indicative of what is yet to come. Eustacia is a victim. And this book is going to explore just exactly what that victimhood has created.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School at War : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School at War (The Chalet School, #17)The Chalet School at War by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy for me to be flippant about the Chalet School and, to be frank, it is a mode I adopt quite often when discussing this bizarre, brilliant and all too frustrating series. But it is not easy for me to be flippant about The Chalet School at War; a book full of ache and of pain and so, I shall not.

I didn’t think I felt like this about The Chalet School at War. I remembered it being slightly leaden, a piece of filler coming after the great The Chalet School in Exile, mostly considering of Welsh people being very Welsh, Gwensi being boring and only enlivened by the great friendship split between two key middles. That was, alas, about it, and so when I came back to it, I don’t know what I expected.

I do know that I did not expect this, this book that as ever with Brent-Dyer when she was at her fiery best, this book that is about one thing and yet wholly about another. Originally published in 1941 and titled ‘The Chalet School Goes To It’, The Chalet School at War is a book about love. It is a strange thing to apply, this sentiment to a series which resolutely stayed away from pashes and the like, but it is a sentiment I apply most wholeheartedly.

This book is about love.

This book is about family and ties and people being split from their homes and realising that none of that matters if they are together. This book is about women, banding together in the darkness and being brave and hopeful and furious against this war of men’s making. This book is about England and her ‘mettle being tested’ in these dark, dark times and it is a message to the readers that says – you will live through this. You will survive. You will endure. And this book is about marriage and happily ever afters; some given with near-tangible authorial grief to characters who are ‘too dear and sweet to spend their lives teaching’.

This book is about pain.

My God, it is so very much about pain.

The war is on, there are girls still inside Nazi Germany (not all Germans, Brent-Dyer reminds us, are Nazis, and again this fine distinction in this wild and so often ridiculous series makes me gasp at how good she could be). There are girls forced to live a life that they have not chosen with people that they have not chosen. There are women trying to do the best for the children in their care and there are these children who are growing up in these tumultous times and clinging to simple things. Hope. Honesty. Respect. Everything embodied in that painful, jagged little league of hope that’s called ‘The Chalet School Peace League’

And all of that is delivered in this school story about vegetables and about inter-form arguments and babies and I didn’t see it coming. Quite often, with Brent-Dyer, when she is this good, I don’t see it coming and it’s only when I finish and close the book that I realise what’s just happened. It’s only then that I remember just how outstanding an author she could be.

View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown

First Pages : ‘The School at the Chalet’ by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

DCIM100MEDIA
Front Cover : The School at the Chalet

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.

DCIM100MEDIA
Page One : The School at the Chalet

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.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Head Girl of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Head Girl of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #4)The Head Girl of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It always fascinates me how early this series shifts things; how early things change. The status quo of the first few books is already being changed at this point. Head girls have been and gone (my beloved Bette Rincini has not had her moment in the sun but this is addressed by Helen McClelland’s excellent Visitors for the Chalet School) and now it is Grizel’s turn. Grizel is a complicated beast, one of the most intriguing characters ever to walk the stage of the Chalet School, and coupled with this – Madge has left the school to get married. Mademoiselle Lapattre (Le Pattre, La Pattre… 😉 ) is now the headmistress.

And the problems begin before we even get to school. Joey and Grizel, their fractious and vividly real relationship makes Things Occur. Grizel is hotheaded. Joey is tactless. Brent-Dyer’s writing is superb. She’s so early on in her sprawling, generational saga of school stories that her writing is fresh, sharp and so so lovely. There are of course the traditional ‘oh my god is she dead’ moments that only the Chalet School can carry off, and an amazing cameo from an already established character in the series. (A brief pause: we’re four books in, four!, and yet this series is already so layered and thick and satisfying and Brent-Dyer is quite genuinely throwing everything at it like some gorgeous mad scientist of writing and I love it, I love it).

Also it’s Cornelia Flower’s first term. She has yellow hair and a ramrod chin. Still not *quite* sure what a ramrod is, mind, but Corney is awesome.

God these books are good.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Jo of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #2)Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s very little to say about the early Chalet School books other than to rhapsodise over how awfully lovely they are. And they are. They are like snow on the day when you don’t have to go to school. There’s something other worldly about them at this point in the series and it is something rather special and beautiful.

So! Here we are. It is only book two and the school is still finding its feet. We are on the side of the bluest lake in all of Austria and it includes one of my most favourite moments in the entire series. It’s no spoiler to say that there is a point in this book where Joey disappears and nobody knows where she has got to. Dear wonderful Simone insists on looking for her inside the piano. How glorious a sentence is that? There is everything in this series inside that moment; the earnest belief in ones abilities, the knowledge that Jo is a skinigallee (sp, naturally), and the glorious innocence that characterises so much about these early books. It’s lovely. I adore you young Simone and a part of me wishes you’d retained that romantic dippiness of yours for ever.

The Robin makes her debut in this book and I remember spending hours studying the pages and wondering when she lost her ‘The’. That still fascinates me. The Robin (oh lord, I’m doing it now) is rather lovely here and winsome and a welcome addition to the cast (and one, might I add, who should have had more book than she did, but I digress, yet again).

The other thing that Jo of the Chalet School benefits from, quite immensely, is that Madge is still on the scene. She’s such a glorious character; vivid, sharp and lovely and rather inspirational in her own way. What a character she is, and [potential spoiler alert] what a shame she gets married off so swiftly.

But again, I digress.

What makes this series so glorious in its early days is this sense of greatness about it. You feel that this is real. You feel that this is happening. You feel that this is, to paraphrase a certain somebody else, a very great adventure and you feel privileged to be a part of it. And even now, even 88 years later (!), you can feel that there is something quite beautiful and pure and elegant and joyful about these stories and that is a something which deserves to be treasured.

Plus there’s Rufus.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School In The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School in the Oberland (The Chalet School, #26)The Chalet School in the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming back to the Chalet School after some time away is the most comforting of things. Whilst my books have been in storage, I’ve been relying on public libraries and second hand bookshops and the odd, hysteria-inducing car boot sale (“Quick, they’ve got a hardback copy of Princess! You chat to him nonchalantly whilst I pretend to look calm!”).

But lo, now my books are out of storage, and I have been reunited with them, it is time to begin the great ‘let’s read the titles I’ve forgotten about’ exercise. The Chalet School In The Oberland was the first I selected; partially because it was one that I had great personal memories of, and also because I remembered it being one of Brent-Dyer’s more ‘scandalous’ novels. To quantify the last comment, scandal in the work of Brent-Dyer is an oddly nebulous and varying beast and the scandal in The Chalet School In The Oberland does not disappoint.

So where are we in this series, this country-striding, doctor-marrying, occasionally-bordering-on-the-edge-of-farce, touched with brilliance series? We’re in the Oberland and it’s not actually the Chalet School at all. This is St Mildred’s, the finishing branch, which as far as I understand it, seems to specialise in not actually grading people for the work they do, the odd evening of corporal punishment, before cancelling all education in the latter half of the term in order to put on a pantomime (“Let’s do the show right here!!”).

God I love these books.

The Chalet School in the Oberland does, however, have some greatly unique points about it which contribute to a fascinating read and an oddly tense narrative at points. Looking at the work of Brent-Dyer always makes me feel as if there’s a definitive line between the ‘Chalet World’ and the ‘real world’. The two of them very, rarely, come together easily. When they do connect, they meet head on and either create pure brilliance (The Chalet School In Exile) or pure, painful prose (Redheads at the Chalet School). They never seem to coexist comfortably for me.

And in the Chalet School in the Oberland, we sort of get to explore that tension via the conduit of Elma Conroy. She’s a defiant rebel who smokes (“meh, not so bad but we’ll have to have a chat to confirm whether that’s alright or not”) and plays cards (“OH MY GOD!”) and is engaged in a relationship with a bounder by the name of Stuart Raynor.

It’s as oblique as anything Brent-Dyer’s ever written but there’s some fairly heavy hints of inappropriate, predatorial, money-orientated intentions on the part of Stuart towards Elma. It’s very dark to read when you stop and think about it; this member of the Chalet School community (please, everyone who is anything to do with the Chalet School always gets converted, they’re worse than the Borg) is being preyed upon by a boy who does not want her for who she is. He wants her for her money. For her privileged status in life, nothing more, nothing less.

In addition to this, we have a priggish individual learning the error of her ways (a fairly similar rehash of Eustacia who remains one of my favourite characters of all time), several staff putting their feet up with a cigarette or two, a healthy serving of Dickie Christie (whom I also love, quite greatly) and lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots. Lots.

It is, to be fair, a fairly solid Chalet School book. It features great joy, great hysteria, some incredible writing, and a spectacularly unhysterical pantomime that goes on for approximately 3503 pages.

Have I told you about how much I love these books? Because I do. I really rather hugely do.

View all my reviews

Categories
Everything else Girlsown

Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

It’s hard sometimes to quantify the influence that Brent-Dyer has had on my life. Clearly there are the obvious factors, such as my longing for every doctor to be both good in a crisis and rather dashing (and also a solid lump of comfort), and the fact that I now know enough German to order coffee and cakes and that I need to be careful of how much a cup of coffee costs in Swiss stations.

But on a more serious note, I think it’s in the way that she told me that children’s literature could do great and magnificent things.

I believe, very much, in the power of literature. You find your voice through reading. You find yourself through reading. You find yourself and your voice and you find out who and what you can be. I read children’s literature for a long time, but it was only in the past few years that I came to realise, and to be able to verbalise, how important that is.

And that, so much of that, is built on Brent-Dyer and her school of nations, her families of a hundred or more children with different coloured hair and eyes, her St Bernards, her ‘girls which keep falling off of mountains’ and of a voice that spoke in the darkness of world war two of acceptance, forgiveness, and truth.

The Chalet School was a multilingual school. A multi-faith school. A school where girls were allowed to be bold, and brave, and who they were and who they could be. That empowerment still astounds me. The way that Brent-Dyer, even in her painful, tired, last books was so concerned with letting her girls grow up and be strong, confident woman (and not spineless jellyfish).

She has given me so much. She has given me the support to write books about girls. About girls, and about women, and the golden, brilliant, lovely relationships between them. She has given me moments that have still, somehow, never been surpassed in my reading life. She has given me other moments which have made me cry and fold and hunt for my own vibrant orange handkerchief to stem my tears.

This is what a good author can do. Heck, this is even what a bad author can do and Brent-Dyer had her moments of both. This is what an author can do when you connect with them. This is what happens when you read and the gap between the page and you narrows to the extent that

This is why I believe that books are an opener of doors. That they are a gateway to the world and to beyond. This is why I will fight for the right for people to read, and to read what they want. It is for moments like this when I think back to the Chalet School that I dropped in the bath by mistake and patched it back together with tape and panic. It is for moments when I think how a reader can be made. How they can be formed. How they can be built and how they can be helped and how they can be saved, even by a woman who I have never met  and who has been dead for 18,827 days.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, you and I, and it is right to raise a glass every now and then.

Thank you EBD.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Summer Term at the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Summer Term at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #58)Summer Term at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So, I need to tell you about somebody I met twenty years ago. I was eleven, but that’s not a problem. I think she’d be the perfect guardian for my child-that-I-have-for-the-purposes-of-making-this-point and so I think I’m going to put it in my will that she’ll look after my child-that-I-have-for-the-purposes-of-making-this-point. I think that sounds like an excellent plan.

Oh heavens, what a ridiculous plan, and yet at this point in the series I accept it for what it is and how perfect it is in the special, special Chalet World we are all privileged to be a part of.

We all know that by this point, the series was tired. And it is, it is so tired, but it’s sort of spectacular in the same breath. Train accidents. Bee swarming shenanigans. Broken feet. Pit-crater thingies. Basically Erica’s been sent to school in some sort of prototype of the Hunger Games, and if she survives her first term then hey, ho, here’s your graduation certificate, girl done good.

There are some lovely moments even amidst all of the madness, and even though I really shouldn’t, I have a soft spot for Joey and Jack in this series. Jack more than Joey, I think, simply for his genuine good chap-ness during the whole Marie-Claire plot.

(And oh, how I love that whole Marie-Claire plot, even though I really shouldn’t).

Essentially I have a lot of love for this book. Even though it alternates between torturous and fantastical and viciously hammy, I love it. Even though I really shouldn’t.

Now where’s my will?

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School Encyclopaedia (volume one) : Alison McCallum

ISBN: 978-1-84745-157-6

Doing pretty much what it says on the tin, in distinctly impressive style, The Chalet School Encyclopaedia is an encyclopaedia of everybody who has played a part in the Chalet School world (up to D). Interspersed between the letter sections are a few one-off entries detailing various aspects of Brent-Dyer’s work. This volume has: School Uniforms at the Chalet School, Books written by Josephine M. Bettany, Bit Parts and Leading Ladies, and a Character Index by Christian Names. 

It is one of those books which awes me in the scale of its scope and yet frustrates me equally as much as it impresses. It is a boon to anybody considering Chalet School research (or fanfic!), as McCallum has got some beautiful entries which sum up every mention a character has had.in the books. There’s something very lovely and endearing about browsing the entry for Miss Annersley and seeing how many times the colour of her eyes are mentioned. (For those of you who are interested, it’s eleven, though I may have got that wrong as I got distracted and then highly amused by the fact that she also has ‘preternaturally sharp ears’ Shocks, 94).

That sort of satisfying segue and then another segue is a key joy of a topic like this. For example, the entry for Chudleigh, Peregrine ‘Hawk’ has made me really rather desperate to read Chudleigh Hold. How can you stay away from a book which features a character described as ‘a dark silent youth who is known as Hawk, partly due to his name, partly because he has a beaky nose and partly from his habit of hovering over a subject and then pouncing suddenly on the main point. He is something of a loner’ (Excuse me whilst I go and giggle over that one some more).

So where’s the annoyance? It lies, I think in the illustrations. There are some glorious images throughout this book and none of them are labelled. You can work out a lot of the context through where they are, but there are others that aren’t immediately as accessible of these, Labels, references, some sort of citation at least would connect these a lot more to the text as at present, the illustrations feel rather like a closed reference. You understand and know where they’re from if you know, but if you don’t, then they could be from any edition and if you’ve not read the relevant title, then it’s a magical mystery tour.

And that’s not good, really, in a book which is so gloriously detailed in other ways to be a bit blase about a substantial part of the books appeal. It is at odds with the obvious care and attention given to the volume as a whole.

(And now, now that I’ve said all that, if somebody would like to break down the illustrations on the back cover for me, I’d think you were amazing as I’m dying to know which girl is serving a horses head to somebody… (update: “re girl with horse head. It’s from Mystery and part of a Christmas play with character serving a boar’s head” Thank you Twitter!!) 

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Carola Storms the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Carola Storms the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #23)Carola Storms the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Mary-Lou of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Mary Lou at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #37)Mary Lou at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dearest Mama,

I lifted up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my wealth, and I thought lo, it is Alpengluckwhateveritis tonight. The pink and dusky sky made me think of you and your habit of bringing God into *everything* so I thought I would write you and, well, tell you what’s what.

It’s been a bit of an exciting term, really. I don’t think I like everything that’s happened but it has happened in that way things do tend to do so here. Have you ever thought what would happen if things – didn’t? It’s as if we’re at the control of some almighty force that simply propels us to be all a bit batty! (Oh mama, I know what you’re thinking and I don’t mean God, please do focus).

Mama, I know you like Mary-Lou but gosh she does go on. I’m glad she’s okay and everything and I was a bit tremulous over it all but really, to be honest, the peace was lovely whilst she was gone. Jessica and I practically polka’d with relief. And I know that Emmy, even though she’s a big daft thing, feels the same. It’s as if, you know, you’ve got an extra parent! Oh Mama, you and Papa are alright lovely, but really I can barely cope with the two of you and I don’t want a third.

My devil sends you lots of love.
Margot. (Who is NEVER going to send you this!)

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Joey and Co. In Tirol : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Joey and Co. in Tirol (The Chalet School, #47)Joey and Co. in Tirol by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ladies, control yourselves, but this is the book in which Hot Roger makes his debut. Oh, we all know Reg is the official hottie in the Chalet School series (Joey’s first born does, after all, memorably swoon into his arms) but Roger? If ever a book involved a swoonsome debut of a new hero to be, this is that book and Roger is that chap. After all, he prances around the Tiernsee in next to nothing, has some particularly flirtatious moments with all the laydeez(hey Roger let’s swim and then afterwards I’ll check out your scar), and it’s all in all a bit special.

Oh yes, apparently a story also happens.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A Problem for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Problem for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #40)A Problem for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love A Problem for the Chalet School though I have the suspicion that I’m not meant to. I suspect I’m meant to be Team Chalet and Team Good Egg throughout but I can’t help sort of loving the bumptious joy that is Joan Baker.

You know the routine in the series at this point now, right? New girl joins school, new girl settles in, we go and have a meal with the random woman who lives next door, Mary-Lou sorts stuff out, jollity, jollity, highjinks, end of term.

This time round, Brent-Dyer sticks with the format but then goes a little bit crazy and throws in some social commentary and a bit of class warfare. Which is amazing, really, but if Brent-Dyer ever had the handle on social analysis, she had it very early on in books like Exile and around that era, and now her handle isn’t really a handle any more. It is, should I prolong the life of this metaphor to painful proportions, more of a spatula than a handle and it is a spatula made of spaghetti.

Oh, I’m being unfair because even in this knotty ‘trying to keep up with the times and finding that we don’t really like what the times are becoming’ book, Brent-Dyer works her old magic and throws a sudden piece of fiery prose into the works: “when you come to the root of matters, it’s you – you – YOU that matters all the time – what you are!” and suddenly I’m in love again with this batty series of bonkers books.

Also Jack Maynard gets to talk to people! By himself! For this, this book gets an extra star.

View all my reviews

Categories
Everything else Girlsown

The Coming of Age of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Coming of Age of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #43)The Coming of Age of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Hey, so you know that Jane? Well, we ran into her Sister’s Aunt’s Uncle who taught us music that one time back in Tyrol and he’s agreed to sign over his firstborn to the School! Isn’t that – just – splendid!”

Please, please don’t start the series with this book for if you do, you will read a book that is so dense with references and continual plot lines and Sensitive Frieda that you will have to give up and go for a lie down in a darkened room.

This is the 21st anniversary of the Chalet School and as is appropriate in such circumstances, the girls celebrate in a jollity-filled fashion. And it’s lovely, it really is, but it is not a book for the newcomer.

So we shall accept that you are not a newcomer to this series, that you are down with such phrases as The Abbess, the Quartet, the Quintette and Plumeaux, and we shall also accept that because of that, you will love this book. It is adorable and I think that a lot of that reflects the genuine pleasure Brent-Dyer has in revisiting the Tyrol. It’s no coincidence that the most moving and engrossing parts of this book come during Joey and Co’s revisit to their childhood haunts. I wanted more, so much more, from this and I think a lot of that reflects my passion for both the Tyrolean characters and setting.

(A swift sidebar: is it just me who finds the Oberland settings fairly interchangeable? I could direct you to the Dripping Rock or that bit where Joey tried to kill herself again, but I’d so very much struggle with the Oberland where it’s mainly just mountains and a weirdly extendable Alm)

The Coming of Age of the Chalet School is adorable, but it’s adorable because we love the series and books like this that fold in on themselves and revel, so comfortably, in what they are, are a pleasure to read.

Do bear in mind though that if you’re reading this in an Armada pb, all of the above comes with a world of footnotes that will naturally reference the one book you do not have and is currently retailing for £19192288 on Ebay and thus will infuriate you for years until you read the book and discover that the hysterical incident they all refer to is merely Mary-Lou putting on the wrong shoes or something equally rubbish.

View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown Theory

A 21st Century Chalet School Girl

I’ve mentioned this previously on Twitter but I thought I’d share it with you. This, the below, is part of my Great Project . I am writing a book about the Chalet School series. (I know, right? Joyous nerdery abounds) And these are the two introductory chapters. They’re subject to change, naturally, but I thought I’d share them with you. Because they do, if nothing else, give you an idea of where my thoughts lie on the series. And also how much I dislike Mary-Lou. 😉

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School Triplets

Chalet School Triplets (The Chalet School, #53)Chalet School Triplets by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s the one where, well, things happen? You know, that thing? And the other one? And that other onezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz sorry where was I? Ah yes, I was recounting the tales of the Chalet School Triplets, immortalised forever in their distinctly sack-like blue dresses. This is the book where they do things, one ‘thing’ per triplet, and highjinks ensue and everything ends welllzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

That’s this book. There are moments in it, such as the Margot Moment which is BONKERS and involve her getting away with something she really should never have gotten away with, but that’s dulled and deadened by the Len saga … and the Con saga .. and the bit with the drippy French girl .. and the play …. zzzzzzz….

The thing is, The Chalet School Triplets has bits which are all sort of done before. Syrup is given to bears, people pilfer babies and even flipping Clem pops up in the flipping school play again. It is so very zzz worthy.

(But oh, that Margot thing? Do you all Know Of What I Speak? Was it just me who still can’t quite fathom out how she got away with it?)

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Jane of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jane and the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #55)Jane and the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The later Chalet School books are, to be fair, somewhat poor. That is to say, they lack the vibrant quality and resolute ‘otherness’ that made the early ones so spectacularly unique and glorious in their genre. But every now and then Brent-Dyer turns out a book that makes you go, “Well, she’s still got it.”

Jane is that book. Jane of the Chalet School is one of those books that delights, quite simply, in every page. It delights in the traditional school story manner, new girl finding her feet, but it also delights in the traditional Chalet School manner as well through being quite spectacularly bonkers. One book sees cowpox, murderous pine trees, a stand up fight over car washing AND a Mafiosi-esque vendetta between one girl and another. It is, to be frank, somewhat special and special in that peculiarly Chalet School way where special means both good and spectacularly nuts.

I love this book. It’s exciting, because it gives life to a character quite unique in the genre and the series. The luvvie-esque Jane is a delight; calling everybody darling and clasping her hands together and practically skipping down the corridors reciting a sonnet or two. I really love Jane. She’s one of those characters that always makes me slightly depressed she didn’t pop up earlier (can you imagine how she’d have been with Grizel?!)

And finally, the last part of this book that makes me joyful, is the fact that at last, at last Jose Helston is allowed a Proper Personality. HURRAH!

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Chalet Girls Grow Up : Merryn Williams

The Chalet Girls Grow UpThe Chalet Girls Grow Up by Merryn Williams

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Oh.

So, where to begin with this?

It’s a book that has, rightly or wrongly, reached an almost mythological status. I remember when it first came out and the mailing list I lurked, somewhat awkwardly on, exploded. My memories of that remain vivid and so, when I picked this up for the reread, I was interested to see what my thoughts were after a fair few years away from it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Chalet Girls Grow Up was the first – and perhaps the only – spin-off title to write the Chalet School as a real world. And I think that’s perhaps where so much of the tension lies. The Chalet Girls Grow Up is not a relaxing book. It’s not particularly positive, nor is it comforting (at least, not initially). Bad things happen. Lots of them. Remember that Oprah episode where she gave away cars to her audience? “You get a car! And you get a car! And you!” I was reminded of that whilst reading. “You get sad! And you! And you!”

The thing is, Williams writes well. She borders on pastiche at some points which is inevitable considering the nature of the beast, but her language and her turn of phrase is quiet, solid and undeniably poetic at points. It’s a shame that that is quite often lost during the emotional reactions that surround this book. That’s not to say that those reactions are unwarranted. I understand how people can dislike and loathe this book for it is, quite clearly, the Chalet School in its bleakest hour. People die. Lots of people die. There’s divorce, miscarriage, affairs, sadness, joys, suicide, impromptu caresses under the pine trees and sad, loveless marriages a plenty.

There’s life, really, real life, but that’s something the Chalet School never really let happen. And I think, in a book of this nature, the fact that it is so very bluntly darkly real, will always prove troublesome. Williams quite mercilessly pulls the series out of the rose-tinged bubble it can undoubtedly occupy at points and it fascinates me as to the rationale behind the book at this point. Her relationship to the series feels spectacularly complex. And angry. And yet, vividly, warmly, loving.

I think, perhaps, it’s possible to be in love with something and hate it all at the same time.

I’m grateful to @anicecupoftea for helping me formulate my ideas on the above point.

So would I reccommend you read this? Yes, I think I would. Because loving something is one thing, but understanding how that love can be interpreted by others, how that love can be filtered through the experience of the individual, will always, but always, enhance and bring a new level of understanding towards your own relationship with the series.

Plus, if Williams has done nothing else, she has written perhaps the best and most appropriate version of Reg ever seen in the Chalet World.

View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown Theory

Fat, the Chalet School, and a bit of a rant

The other night, I had a dream.

I woke up and I had a book idea, formed, whole in my hands. This book was to tell the story of girls in a genre that I love, that of the Girls’ Own Novel. The turn of the century boarding school story. The jolly japes and the high-jinks. The tomfoolery and the Playing Of The Game.

The following piece is a first thought at that. Apologies that it’s a little quote-light, a lot of my books are currently in another country. But in all honesty, I don’t need quotes at this time. I just need to get my dander up. And trust me, it’s up.

The Girls’ Own book was epochal. These books were the popular culture of their time; the Just Seventeen, the Tumblr, the Myspace, and they defined girlhood for so many readers. This is what these girls saw, this is what they read, these were the titles that said what they were, what they could or should be.

Whether it was Elinor M. Brent-Dyer telling her readers that not all Germans were Nazis (my God, the nature of her work during World War Two still stuns me), or whether it’s Angela Brazil teaching readers at the dawn of the century that they need to know how to work for their living because the future of the country rests in their hands, these books inculcated values and bravery and goals to a world of readers.

That’s what books – comics – pamphlets – our socially constructed narratives do for people. They are a shared voice, a shared construct, which we accept as a voicing of some part of our day to day culture and that which we accept as a receptacle for us to imbue them with our culture. They are both empty vessel and brim full cup. They express the glorious, the inexpressible, and the unimaginable. They are our voice, our spoken, unspoken and unknowable voice.

So this is what this is about. It’s about girlhood, it’s about how these books constructed and presented the experience of girlhood, of developing into womanhood, and it’s about how they did it and the role of the reader in that process. It’s about what they said women could be, it’s about how they presented the world of girlhood to readers across the world, and it’s about their lasting impact today.

But before that, it’s about Sophy Hamel.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Girls of St Cyprians : Angela Brazil

The Girls of St. CypriansThe Girls of St. Cyprians by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I posted last night on Twitter with some degree of hysteria that The Girls of St Cyprians was now available on Project Gutenberg. This, for those of you that haven’t experienced this title, is a Very Good Thing.

Angela Brazil is an experience, really, what with her ‘expostulated’ and her ‘declaimed’ and her pathological need to avoid the word ‘said’ and her distinctly racist moments(oh hello, The School in the South). Sometimes I have to skip the worst of these (viz said racism and also the interminable ‘let’s hear a local legend whilst we skip through the meadows’ / ‘oh here is my inheritance in the form of a mislaid will’ chapter) but that’s all part of the experience of my modern reading of an author who was writing over a hundred years ago. It is, however, something I acknowledge whenever I read her, and something that I balance against that reading.

Here, in The Girls Of St Cyprians, Brazil is really rather on form. St Cyprians engages in a series of competitions with several other local schools in “A kind of Olympic contest? Oh, what sport!” It’s an unusual topic for Brazil and it’s one that she gets her teeth into. Though it is ultimately Mildred Lancaster’s (sensitive musical genius Mildred!) story, and the story of her talent, it reads like more of an ensemble piece once

What’s particularly interesting in The Girls Of St Cyprians is how it reflects several of Brazil’s key tropes. Girls are hearty, happy and well-rounded. Mildred, with her gift, gets a little authorial interjection the moment that she appears: “[her appearance] suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor.” Mildred’s also not quite the paragon some of Brazil’s other heroines tend to be, and this is lovely to read. Obviously Mildred gets her act together by the end of the book otherwise she would not be a Brazil heroine.

If you’re interested in the representation of gifted and talented characters in children’s literature (with a lot of focus on Girlsown books because, well, it’s me), I have a reading list of titles here and an archive of related posts here.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Dimsie Moves Up : Dorita Fairlie Bruce

Dimsie Moves Up (Dimsie, #2)Dimsie Moves Up by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the world of Girlsown literature, there’s a concept of ‘the big four’. These are authors who formed the cornerstones of this genre: Elsie “Abbey” J Oxenham, Elinor “Chalet” M.Brent-Dyer, and Angela “Let’s use all the speech tags in the world” Brazil.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce is the final part of this equation. And this is my first, ever, Dimsie.

(At last! At last! Sound the trumpets, release the hounds, let loose the dogs of war for I have read a Dimsie!)

It’s sort of strange coming to a series when you’ve almost read it through other books. The Girlsown genre really isn’t that diverse (she says, ducking her head) and once you’re familiar with the main tropes, you are more than familiar with them and how they tend to reoccur in various states. It is in how they’re presented, how they’re played with, that the newness comes and the diversity kicks in.

So what is this world of Dimsie? Dimsie Moves Up is the second in the series which presents a slight problem in itself because you’re coming to characters which are already established. If you’ve not read any before it does take a while to catch up, and yes there are moments when the time scales do seem incredibly flexible. It also took me a while to work out who I should be invested for, and why, which partially reflects the nature of the genre as well (Lord knows, if you pick up a late Chalet School you will not have a CLUE who half the people are).

But what’s brilliant is the matter-of-fact reality about Dimsie and her chums. She is a lovely character, but she’s resolutely believeable at the same time. There’s a sort of common sense about her which is (alas) pretty special in the genre. She’s not too brilliant, she’s not too priggish, she is just a really nice kid. And I think that’s probably where the strength of this book lies, in the nuances between Dimsie and her form (and in the AMAZING Anti-Soppist League).

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Bride leads the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Bride Leads the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #31)Bride Leads the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a soft spot for Bride Leads the Chalet School because it’s one of those books where Important Things Happen. This is one of the ways that the Chalet School is almost impenetrable should you enter it at the wrong point. There are books full of the exploits of daughter X of pupil Y who married Doctor Z and Oh No Not That Time When Julie Lucy Had Peritonitis. This is the book in which the latter happens and in a sort of very wrong way, it’s a massive relief to get there at last. After reading “oh no, you don’t want to remind them about the time when poor Ju nearly died” and “Oh she’s going to die because she got hiccups” for what felt like a thousand books, I finally get to read about the saga.

Other things happen in Bride Leads The Chalet School. We’ve lost the wonderfully named Loveday Perowne who gets to go off to the *best* future. We gain the practically legendary Diana Skelton to the school. And even though she’s recycling the school merger plot, Brent-Dyer recycles it to great effect.

What’s also pleasing in this book is being able to see more of the Bettany house. Mollie and Dick Bettany are some of my favourite characters and the sidelining of them to India at the start of the series always feels like I’m being cheated out of them. I love being able to see the Bettany family just being their family. It’s always a pleasure to see Brent-Dyer just ease herself into familial surroundings rather than throwing people off mountains and into crevasses. When she was good, she was very good and caught the relationships between people perfectly. And the Bettany moments are full of that.

View all my reviews

Categories
Everything else Girlsown

“Dance like there’s nobody watching” (I love you Lorna Hill)

I’m not quite sure when I fell in love with Lorna Hill. I think it may have been the moment when she threw ponies into the mix. Ponies + dance books = holy grail for the book obsessed individual that I was (am/is).

So as part of my contribution towards @playbythebook‘s monthly festival of themed children’s book reviews  (which is, this month, focusing terribly handily on dance related books, you’d almost think this was planned or something), here’s a tribute to the great joy that is Lorna Hill.

We begin with Lorna Hill. We begin with books that are so beautiful, they’re practically edible. Though I didn’t start with those, I started with the pale and increasingly jaundiced covers of the Pan editions which were published around the late 80s and 90s (and I seem to recall, around the same time of those awful Chalet School reprints).

The thing about Lorna Hill is is this. She wrote beautifully, achievable believable beauty, and she wrote with such elegance that it makes me breathless. There’s a romance about ballet, about dance, about art, even, and it’s something she embraced with gusto. Consider this moment from one of her books. There’s a depth in that passage that astounds me, a mixture of hunger, of jealousy – anger almost – and an urge for this gift, this gift of such beauty, to be shared with the world. And there’s an element in there that is saying – why would you not share this? Why would you keep this beautiful, beautiful thing to yourself?

That’s layered, deep and powerful stuff there. And it’s also nuanced, considering the roles of the dancer themselves but also of the supporting cast and of their environment. It’s something Hill’s particularly good at because she catches people, and voices, very well. Yes it slides into awkwardness the further the series goes on, but her earlier books are full of a rampant delight and joy in this world that she’s created. I do have issues in how she sidelines Veronica so thoroughly in the later books, and how the uniqueness of talent becomes so very normalised through overuse but they’re the sort of issues that arise from my passionate love for these characters and the way I know Hill can write them.

Sometimes, with a dance book, it’s easy to become blase. “She has talent, omg stuff happens, hey ho, she’s made prima ballerina, job done” But Hill doesn’t do that. She shows dancers being great, and also falling from greatness. Of settling for lives lived somewhere else, in different ways, and with different goals.

Which is quite the thing.

I love you Lorna Hill.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A Genius At The Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Genius at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #38)A Genius at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It strikes me as curious that I’ve never actually reviewed this until now. Nina Rutherford is very much a fascination of mine and so this is a book that is very much overdue a review.

Brent-Dyer once wrote a book populated solely by gifted and talented characters (The School by the River). And she did this with great success. The School By The River is a school story with a Ruritanian twist and possesses some of the most attractive characters ever to feature in the school story genre (I’m looking at you Molly). It’s strange then that in her main series, her big life-defining series, Brent-Dyer featured gifted and talented characters with almost palpable reluctance. Of course we have people like Joey, Margia, Jacynth and Nina herself but they are notable in their rarity. The Chalet School was a series built on fitting in and ‘being a real Chalet School girl’ rather than being some icon of God-Given talent. And I think that’s where this book struggles. Nina is so patently a cipher for her talent, a functionary device (have a think about how many of the ‘new girl’ books actually feature their names) that any character development is put quite patently on hold.

And yet I find A Genius At The Chalet School rather remarkable, because Brent-Dyer does something quite strange here. She delivers a plot of glorious linearity but ties herself up in knots through the spectacular un-linear nature of the new girl herself. Nina doesn’t fit in. She can’t and never will. She is a foreign object in a community that does not know how to deal with her and her wild talent.

So yes, this book is pedestrian. Spectacularly, brain dribblingly, so at points. But it’s also fascinating because of the way the Chalet School ideology is displayed, challenged and contravened all due to the presence of this new girl who really is quite unlike anyone else.

Here’s a longer piece I wrote on Nina and genius in the Chalet School series. It elaborates on some of the points mentioned above. Also this is a post I did about the nature of genius and giftedness in the wider GirlsOwn genre.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Two Sams at the Chalet School

Two Sams at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #60)Two Sams at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Two Sams at the Chalet School is a book of peaks and troughs and near-unbearable coincidence. So the same old thing really.

Samantha Van Der Byl and Samaris Davies are two new girls at the Chalet School. Although they’re different ages, and in different forms, they’re drawn into being friends with each other FOR SOME UNKNOWN REASON. It’s sort of glorious the way Brent-Dyer can’t resist going THERE’S A CONNECTION CAN YOU GUESS WHAT IT IS with them, and then when that connection is revealed it’s sort of glorious how a little part of me dies each time.

Two Sams is also full of some nicely telling ideological moments representative of the series as a whole. I’m always pleased to see the recurrence of Nina Rutherford who is a bit of a fascination of mine, and it’s fascinating to see that the issues Brent-Dyer previously had with writing her are still in situ. I don’t think she ever quite found the same level of comfort with Nina and her ‘extreme’ genius, as she did with somebody like Margia Stevens say, and so Nina remains an awkwardly drawn, and very stiff character.

It’s also interesting to compare and contrast the treatment of Nina in this book with the treatment given to Con Maynard. Con is one of those characters who is never quite allowed to live in the way she’s been written to be. I’ve written more about this here.

As a whole though, Two Sams suffers from a lack of focus. I’m never really sure who we’re meant to root for, whether it’s a good thing that THE MYSTERIOUS CONNECTION is what it is, and whether we’re really meant to care. There are moments when the old Brent-Dyer skills shine (say, with Phil in particular) but as a whole it’s a written by numbers affair. One for completionists and not to be read after Adrienne and the Chalet School otherwise you will collapse from coincidence-overload.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet Girls in Camp : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet Girls in Camp (The Chalet School, #8)The Chalet Girls in Camp by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If there was anything that Brent-Dyer was particularly good at, it was shifting tone. She had a skill whereby the farcical could be transferred to the heartbreaking, often within moments on the same page. Whether it was from the Robin singing one of her Raising-Lazarus-esque songs or to Joey hiding behind a curtain in Penny Rest, Brent-Dyer was not afraid of wholeheartedly making her point.

The Chalet Girls In Camp is one of those points. It is fat and round and glorious, glowing with the smile that still echoes in my mind from the toddlers I saw bouncing along the road this morning with their mother. I love this book. It’s one of the most evocative ones she ever wrote, set during a period where the Chalet Girls decamp (badumtish) from the shores of the lovely Tiernsee and head up to the hills to camp in the equally lovely Baumersee.

As it’s still so very early in the series, Brent-Dyer is on fire. She is painterly at points, drawing her landscape with conviction and with passion. There’s moments from this book that live with me forever; the ‘JUST KISS’ moment where Simone whips up a sexy little omelette for her beloved, the moment where Rufus is awesome, and the part where Cornelia goes wood gathering.

It’s books like this that build a series, that pull you to them like moths to a flame. It’s books like this that left me convinced of the cannibalistic nature of Pikes, of the need to loosen guy ropes in the rain, and of the need to not, er, annoy the local insect life.

And it’s books like this that leave me in love with Brent-Dyer and leave me desperate, so very desperate, to go and sing songs around a campfire in the middle of Austria.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Jo to the Rescue : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo to the Rescue (The Chalet School, #21)Jo to the Rescue by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An odd one this, one of only a couple in the series set wholly outside of the school context and as such reading as a sort of curious hybrid of impenetrable relationships stuck in a picture postcard setting somewhere totally alien. Jo To The Rescue is this weird beast, a sort of ode to domesticity wrapped up in the summery surroundings of the Yorkshire Moors and with a tragic, forlorn heroine in need of serious rescuing.

And it’s also the book that introduces Reg. (Reg, Reg, boo hiss Reg and your eternal pantsness).

I’m from the North, from the Yorkshire Moors to be precise, and I have a real loathing of those books that write Yorkshire characters “talkin’ reet lark that ooor pet.” And when they do it in phonetic spelling, then that really really winds me up. Brent-Dyer borders on this previously in the series with the legendary Yorkshire gentleman chatting up Madge on the train in The School at the Chalet, which I can forgive her for due to the spectacular nature of the incident. But it’s an awkward, tentative sort of forgiveness on my part. I remain embroiled in my difficulties with Rescue, dealing as it does with brusque Northerners and homely sensible un-artistic servant folk who don’t quite understand the artistic traumas and fanciful natures of their bosses. It seems so odd to me considering that Brent-Dyer was a South Shields native.

Once I get past this, Jo to the Rescue is really quite charming albeit sprinkled with a healthy level of Chalet School eccentricities. The Robin / Zephyr subplot makes my utter day everytime I read it “I can’t make her be your friend, but I will sort of yes actually make her be your friend”.

There’s also a great pleasure in witnessing the Quartette in their role as grown-ups (of a sort) and I love Simone in particular. She’s always been one of those characters who improved as she grew up.

Jack Maynard makes a healthy appearance, albeit a distinctly eccentric one, which is always a joy. I never stop enjoying his subtle (!) transformation into Doctor-cum-Superhero-cum-patriarch. There’s always been a sense of authorial adoration about Jack Maynard and it’s an adoration wholly present throughout this novel.

And then there’s also romance, which is always a heck of a thing whenever EBD tries it, so frankly this book could sell itself wholly on that.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Lavender Leigh at the Chalet School

Lavender Leigh at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #19)Lavender Leigh at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a soft spot for Lavender Leigh at the Chalet School for some very particular reasons. Published in 1943, during both the real Second World War and the Chalet School wartime books, it’s a tightly domestic book that still manages to deliver some intense ideological messages.

It is, as ever, the first term of our titular new girl. Lavender is a strange little creature, cossetted and nervous from her odd lifestyle where she travelled the world with her Auntie who then wrote books about their adventures, featuring Lavender heavily in them. Following Auntie Sylvia being called up to wartime service, Lavender is enrolled in the Chalet School and, as ever, experiences the traditional near-death incident on her way to becoming a true Chalet School girl.

My edition of this, a chewed up Armada, features one of my favourite parts in the entire series and it’s a part which confounded me for many years. Mid conversation, the characters switch names and arguments, leading to a slightly discombobulating reading experience. And it’s a mark of the books that I’ve never been sure whether this has been introduced into this edition or something that Brent-Dyer did right at the start and nobody ever picked her up on…

Another favourite moment, and one where Brent-Dyer is genuinely a bit outstanding, is during the scene between Auntie Sylvia and Miss Wilson. It’s a moment where Sylvia expresses her discomfort with the juniors hearing war news and essentially Miss Wilson tears her to shreds. The speech itself is outstanding and it’s something I won’t attempt to precis for reading it in context is one of those landmark moments. Brent-Dyer was a brave, outstanding author during the wartime years and through ideological devices as this inculcated that bravery indelibly on her readers.

There’s also something particularly lovely in the presentation of the Juniors throughout the entire book. They are juniors, foolish, loud, funny and impetuous. They’re vivacious characters, and even Peggy Bettany is an attractive individual. I also love how they express their support to an individual who experiences a lifechanging event – they show their sympathy and love for her through the tiniest of gestures. A new pencil. A new rubber. It’s adorable and something incredibly touching. This was a book where she got the juniors and got them really well.

Plus Bride, and her actions at the school assembly, remain outstanding.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The New Mistress at the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New Mistress at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #41)The New Mistress at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s rare in the later books for a character to so firmly bounce from the page as Kathy Ferrars does. Jack does, almost, and I think Flavia does, sort of, but in the rapid character turn and turn about that Brent-Dyer slid into once the school returned to Switzerland, no other character comes quite close to having the seminal impact that Kathy Ferrars does.

Kathy is the titular new mistress at the Chalet School. She is not an old girl, nor is she married to a doctor. She’s a young, bright, almost foolish soul who shines from the first paragraph in which we meet her and witness her getting the news of having got the job. Her aunt, laughing, as aunts do tend to do in these books when they’re not dying tragically, tells her to act her age and to try and stand on her own two feet from now on. This proves to be difficult advice for Kathy to come to terms with during her first term where she runs up against a series of obstacles; the (amazing) Yseult Pertwee, the magnificent Maynard triplets and the one and only Mary-Lou.

It’s a classic combination, and one that reads excellently. It’s hard not to love Kathy and the moments when she’s a bit of an idiot, and it’s hard not to empathise with her over her confusion over Mary-Lou. Mary-Lou’s one of those marmite characters and I tend to err towards the side of having substantial difficulties with her. Plus, in a less tactful manner, I think I’d loathe her in real life. I’m very much Team Kathy in this book.

I also massively enjoy the whole play scenario. There’s something so incredibly specific about the putdowns and the references that it always makes me laugh. Yseult’s attitude throughout the episode and her ultimate attempt to resolve it is so superb it’s worth a star of its own.

It’s a shame that Brent-Dyer so rarely went ‘behind the curtain’. She does it with great effect when Joey returns to the school to teach in Jo Returns to the Chalet School and it’s a similar joy to witness here. She’s so good at humanising these characters from a distance, as she’s done throughout the series, that there’s something intensely lovely about witnessing them all having a sly cigarette and chocs and gossiping about the girls.

A key addendum to this review needs to be made. Regardless of how good this book is, I remain deeply confused about the whole magical fifth form structure that seems to change from day to day depending on dramatic need and purpose. It’s almost as bad as Miss Annersley’s eye colour…

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School in Exile : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School in Exile (The Chalet School, #16)The Chalet School in Exile by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m surprised to realise that I’ve not formally reviewed The Chalet School in Exile. I’ve mentioned it repeatedly across my blog, and made no bones of my admiration for it. So now, it’s time to redress the balance and let you know why – and how – this book is outstanding.

Published in 1940, it became part of the narrative of the Second World War. Authors working in this time had roughly two choices (she says, generalising massively). They could either acknowledge the war – address it – or ignore it. Some of Brent-Dyer’s contemporaries sailed gloriously into a lavender scented future that made no reference to the tumultuous events occurring in the world outside their books. Brent-Dyer, however, did things a little differently.

Exile is a provocative and brave book and one that reaches beyond its nature as a ‘simple’ girls’ school story. This book is dense with ideology, and makes no bone in what it is. Just take a moment to think about that – a book being published, right when we’re in the middle of fighting the war against Nazism – that deliberately – and boldly – points out that not all Germans are Nazis. That nuanced ideology doesn’t end there, even after the Gestapo persecute the Chalet School community and lead to a group of the girls, Miss Wilson, Jack Maynard and Gottfreid Mensch escaping through the mountains to freedom.

Wrapped up in all of that, is some impressive notions on how women can fight war. There’s a deliberate and conscious separation of the women of the Chalet School from the ‘men’s war’ and even that most assimilated man into the community, Jack Maynard, very clearly refers to the Chalet School Peace League as “yours” and not his. Words and language are how these women fight – and survive – and the power of these words is potent, when the Peace League itself faces discovery.

So we’ve got all that, which to be honest is a book and a half by itself. But what we also have is a powerful journey of growth by these girl characters – a cipher if you will for the adolescent WW2 reader – and we have a society that we’ve come to love, surviving against all odds. The Chalet School – and therefore you – will – and does – endure.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Prefects of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Prefects of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #62)Prefects of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

There’s a sort of addictive quality to the Chalet School series when you reach this point; an awareness that the best books are many moons behind us and somehow all that’s left is melodrama and farce, but it’s a melodrama and farce that you just can’t quite give up yet.

And then, suddenly it’s over and all you can do is go “Oh … is that it?”

All good things come to an end, and the Chalet School outlived its natural end point by many many books. This final installment is tired and more than a little bit sad when you look back and consider the epic wonders we’ve lived through to get here. And we’ve lived through a lot together. A disproportionate amount of hot doctors, Joey-will-get-well moments, St Bernards, and the eternal oh heck look it’s a natural disaster moment. I love these books. I just do not love this saggy, deflated ending. And, to be fair, it’s a deflation that doesn’t start here but rather kicks in somewhere around A Future Chalet School Girl.

Prefects comes straight after Althea Joins the Chalet School, so the opening chapters will baffle you if you’ve not read Althea. (“Pink worm? What’s this about a pink worm? And SPEEDBOATS?). There’s also a mildly confusing (and somewhat sudden) friendship between Jocelyn Marvell, Althea Glenyon and Erica Standish in a sort of “cameo-of-the-last-few-books” moments.

It’s the final term of the Maynard triplets, and Len in particular is stuffed with a particularly thrilling sounding future. If you’ve not read it, I won’t spoil, but I will offer counselling once you read the offending moment in question.

Other things of note in this book include an incredibly bizarre moment where a gang of youths head towards the San with intention of kidnapping a millionaire’s daughter who’s a patient there. The racket they make wakes everyone up in the school and they all get into a bit of a tizzy. It’s an incident worthy of mention primarily because of the fact that Mary-Lou randomly arrives at the school in the middle of it, after having apparently hitched a lift up with the police. In the middle of the night. With the intention of bobbing over to Freudesheim and asking for a bed. There are moments when you can understand why Jack Maynard does what he does in The Chalet Girls Grow Up.

Can you tell I find this title a rather depressing experience over all? There’s a sense of everybody being farmed off and packaged up for their respective fates, and an increasingly anachronistic feel to the schools very presence. This isn’t what I signed up for, and it’s not why I love these books so much. I’m going to read myself some The Princess of the Chalet School to recover.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School and Richenda : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Richenda (The Chalet School, #44)The Chalet School and Richenda by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a lot of love for this one, even though it’s left me with the following ailment. Whenever I’m introduced to somebody with the surname of “Fry”, I automatically think “Fry. Are you related to Elizabeth Fry, the great reformer?” Damn you EBD, damn you and your stubbornly addictive books.

Anyway, this is towards the end of the series so quality’s a bit pap but that’s a given, as is the fact that Joey will Sort Things Out (despite having to have an operation!) and somewhere in there, we’ll have Highjinks Involving The Middles. The main plot of Richenda is rather straightforward (she says…) Basically, Richenda’s dad is a bit overly severe, sends Richenda off to school as a punishment because she touches his priceless vase, Richenda gets all matey with the trips and Len in particular, ends up being nearly blinded by an obnoxious small child and ultimately things all end up okay between her and her dad. Like I said … straightforward. I love this period of the books, where the quality dips but the plots go bananas (see evidence a – Redheads at the Chalet School)

One of my other favourite parts of this book comes during the flooded river scene. I love how it’s time for the big girls to earn their keep and so the magnificent Joan Baker and Nancy Wilmot basically get to save the day because of their size. This is a rarity in Chalet School lands, and for Joan in particular (who never really gets to become a real Chalet School girl).

Not the best, but not the worst (I’m looking at YOU Althea Joins the Chalet School).

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School Reunion : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School Reunion (The Chalet School, #54)The Chalet School Reunion by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This one cracks me up, primarily because it’s such a sort of underwhelming exercise. If you’ve got this far in the series, you’re fairly committed to the Chalet School. You get it. You get the whole ‘mountains shifting position’ and the ‘Mary Lou is the second coming’ and ‘Miss Annersley’s pale blue-grey-pink-delete as applicable eyes’. You get that.

But then you get this, and it always feels to me as rather a by the numbers exercise. It is a reunion of the ‘foundation stones’ of the school, all of those from the Tyrol days, to coincide with the arrival of mean-girl Grizel at Freudesheim.

So why does it get four stars from me? It gets four stars because of the following moments. I shall give you ten and if they do not convince you then I shall eat my hat.

1. The intense discomfort Brent-Dyer has in giving Grizel her ‘happy ending’.
2. The ‘sturdy young sapling’
3. Frankly the ‘sturdy young sapling’ and the role it plays in the Grizel / Len incident gets a star for itself.
4. The fact that Sophy Hamel is ‘sonsy’.
5. The torturous white bread metaphor that is repeated. REPEATED.
6. THE PONY AND TRAP TO THE SAN THING.
7. Mary-Lou’s Pollyanna moment.
8. Bruno’s attempt at Seppuku
9. Corney Flower appears in it. This is awesome because she is Corney Flower.
10. The best piece of London geography related flirting you will ever read. “They say, if you walk down Oxford Street, you’ll run into someone you know” *bats eyelids*

Seriously, if you have got this far, you owe it to yourself to read this one and to savour the joyous banality and eccentricity that is a book at this point in the series. And if you haven’t read any of the others? For God’s sake, don’t start here. Do anything but start here. It really won’t end well.

View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown

Peggy of the Chalet School : Elinor M Brent Dyer

Peggy of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #26)Peggy of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If there’s ever a point in the Chalet School series, where it could be described as to having jumped the shark, that point comes for me in this book. It comes for me in several ways; the chicken scene, the train scene(s), the resolution of the train scene(s), and at a certain point where Joey arrives tumultuously on the island. The latter moment in particular is a moment I read and enjoyed in a ‘here EBD goes again’ manner (similar to when Joey met Mrs Laynard in, I think, Exile?), but not one that I enjoyed in a ‘behold the amazing writing’ manner. But that’s the dichotomy of the Chalet School reading experience, right there.

In a way, St Briavels never really works for me. The undeniable romance of the location remains precisely that. Romance. I don’t think EBD really did the pastoral vibe very well after the Tyrolean years. It’s as if she burnt herself out, writing some very brilliant books that embraced the romance, the danger and vitality of the location.

So why read Peggy in the first place? Read it for Dickie Christie, and for the amazingly grumpy Polly and Lala before they turn into Real Chalet School Girls. Read it for Maeve and her bumptiousness, and for Mary-Lou (who is admittedly bordering on paragon status already but still remains somehow palatable in this book). Read it for the moments between Polly and Lala and their mother. And read it, just to see, if you go all Tellytubbies whenever you see Lala’s name being mentioned.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Theodora and the Chalet School

Theodora and the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #46)Theodora and the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Theodora is one of the titles I have many many copies with. There’s something amusing to me about how it pushes its way into my collection, either bundled up as part of a double with Trials or as a falling apart Armada.

And, relatively unusually for a later Chalet School title, it’s quite interesting. This is Theodora’s first term at the Chalet School – and her big secret is that she’s been expelled from three schools beforehand for general insubordination and highjinks. Naturally things start to turn around at the Chalet School for the newly rechristened ‘Ted’ but it’s not without problems. And one of those problems is named Margot Maynard.

Ted herself is a lovely character and one that I always feel a bit of regret over. As the series progresses from this point, she becomes more of a foil to Len and the triplets, and loses that bright independence she shines with in her introductory novel. This is one of the things that Brent-Dyer was Not Good At. She’s got a habit of introducing the most fascinating characters (viz. Richenda, Prunella, Jo Scott etc) and then pushing them merrily into the background when she’s had enough of them.

The greater interest in this book comes from Margot and her permanent ‘get out of jail free’ card. She engages in some particularly nasty behaviour and it’s eye-opening to read, particularly if you bear in light some of the actions she engages in later in the series – Chalet School Triplets comes to mind, as does the whole ‘how on earth did she not get expelled’ thought. Also, and particularly relevant for Theodora, I’m always struck by how blame for the more dramatic incidents of Margot’s behaviour is apportioned equally towards Con and Len.

So Theodora’s a bit of a mixed bag really. On one hand you have the standard subsuming of the new girl into a Real Chalet School Girl, and on the other hand you have a storyline of bulllying and all round mean girl attitude balanced against that empowering journey of self-discovery. It’s an intriguing, dark and thought-provoking mix.

(And now that I’ve said all that, can Mary-Lou please sod off for the entirety of this book? Thanks).

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A Rebel at the Chalet School

A Rebel at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #11)

A Rebel at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book explains everything. It took a long time for me to find a copy of it, and when I finally did get a copy, it explained everything. Want to find out what happened to X ? Want to find out the reason why X held a massive grudge against X (for what felt like FOREVER)? Want to find out why X jumped on X at the X? (That last sentence sounds particularly euphemistic!).

It’s all here.

Rebel is a curious, dark book full of some quite intense moments involving the girls behaviour towards a particular member of staff. Brent-Dyer was at the height of her power at this point and delivers a swift, pacy book (which, as it was originally published as part of The Chalet School and the Lintons, may not be entirely her doing but I digress).

At its heart, Rebel is a book about power and control. Girls struggling against each other, girls fighting against staff, and the ramifications of that struggle. For a relatively small book, it deals with some massive themes quite unconsciously and then, because it’s a Chalet School book, ends on a note of special bonkersness.

As ever, massively recommended.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Short Stories

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Short Stories (Chalet School)Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Short Stories by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A collection of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer’s other work brought under one title is a great and glorious thing and it’s one that produces several very lovely treasures.

At one level it’s naturally appealing to the academic, revealing themes and nuances lost perhaps in the more broadly known titles of her own. Brent-Dyer’s poetry for example makes a brief and startling appearance (and I would have welcomed more of this). There’s a furious, brittle rage in ‘War’ and this rage is powerfully expressed throughout the rest fo the poem.

Another highlight for me was the inclusion of the Chalet Girls’ cookbook, though it’s worthwhile to note that parts of this were expanded to form the Cookbook itself so there is some sense of repetition. This also happens with the chapter on The Triumvirate Go Ski-ing, which was co-opted to form a chapter in the Chalet School and Robin.

As a whole though this book is full of lovely moments and it’s a definite treat for the EBD fan. I loved the ‘cameo’ appearances of Miss Maynard, Joey and the Robin in ‘The Rescue of Woolly Bear’ and had a lot of enjoyment to finally read a version of ‘Jack’s Revenge’, Brent-Dyer’s earliest published piece. Though this is a collection definitely for those ‘in the club’, it’s a collection worth hunting out and savouring.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Loyal to the School : Angela Brazil

Loyal to the SchoolLoyal to the School by Angela Brazil

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It may be the result of me binging on a lot of Angela Brazil novels at the moment, but Loyal To The School genuinely struck me as a bit poor. Lesbia Ferrars’ guardian and his family decide to emigrate to Canada and Lesbia is expected to join them. Acting on the spur of the moment, Lesbia runs away from the ship and heads back to the family of her nearest schoolfriend – convinced by her friend that they will put her up. It turns out that this is far from the truth, and it’s an awkward year in prospect for Lesbia when she is passed from distant relative, to distant relative, and forced to earn her keep at school as a sort of ‘teacher-student’ to the lower forms.

Loyal To The School is full of the typical Angela Brazil motifs. It’s also got a particularly glorious chapter where the new incumbent headmistress decides to address the ‘sentiment’ dominent in the lower forms. This leads to some slightly hysterical protests on behalf of the girls that can’t help but read awkwardly in a contemporary climate (“..Any time was kissing time!”)

Despite the faults of heavy moralising, and ‘lesson learning’ from Lesbia, it’s still full of the Brazil charm that makes it distinctly appealing at points. Lesbia herself however isn’t really amongst the best of Brazil’s characters and never quite reaches the heights of say, a Winona or Monitress Merle.
View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

A Pair of Schoolgirls : Angela Brazil

A Pair of SchoolgirlsA Pair of Schoolgirls by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s always a difficulty in reviewing an Angela Brazil for me in that all of her books pretty much resemble another. We have the girl in transition who is caught at a key point in her life (if you ignore all the hyperbole, it’s essentially puberty), some romantic nature / historical interludes, some inter-form based squabbles, a macguffin, and impoverished noble gentle folk who, by the end of the book, have resumed their rightful station in life.

The above is true, but a bit harsh because it’s a groove that works. This book is one hundred years old this year (what’s left of it!), and it’s sort of fascinating to see how much it has dated. There are parts that haven’t dated in the slightest: the quickness of the schoolgirl relationships, the longing to go round to somebody’s house after school, the relationship between pupils and staff. That’s what Brazil was good at, phenomenally good. She had voice down. So very down. The language of these children whilst naturally archaic to a modern reader sings. Utterly. There’s a lightness and vivacity to it, and it’s the sort of language that you know (you utterly utterly know) that you’d only find in an Angela Brazil.

All of the big school story authors had their quirks. Oxenham had her country-dancing, Brent-Dyer had the marrying them off to doctors thing, and Brazil had her plot twists. The twist in A Pair of Schoolgirls is a thing of epic wonder and epic hysteria all at the same time. It’s always joyous when we hear the ‘confession’ in a Brazil, and this time is no exception to the rule.

A Pair of Schoolgirls is very run of the mill as far as a Brazil book can be, but I loved the twist here. And I loved the levels she gave Dorothy, even though those levels came with such deep levels of authorial intervention that I skipped a few of the longer ‘Dorothy was learning…’ paragraphs.

With some of my favourite authors, I always tend to wonder what they’d be like in real life. Brent-Dyer would be a bit giddy, a bit tipsy even though the nearest she’d come to alcohol was as a word in dictation. Oxenham would be sat sagaciously in the corner, like a rather wise old Judi Dench / Maggie Smith hybrid. And Angela Brazil would be one of those terrifyingly astute and severe ladies who could give you a *particular* look, and you’d do whatever she wanted.

My copy of this was downloaded from the amazing Project Gutenberg.
View all my reviews

Categories
Girlsown

Dear Lorna Hill, this is why I love you

“Mary Martin, coming out of the class to seek a register, paused on the threshold of the practice room and held an astonishing sight. An extraordinarily beautiful and graceful little girl was dancing exquisitely all by herself in the empty room! Moreover she was dancing with all her heart and soul. Jealous filled Mary’s heart. Which ballet school owned this lovely child? Which school (and she knew them all) could possibly have trained a dancer like this? The child’s ports de bras were big and flowing, her beautifully turned out limbs, her strongly arched feet, the graceful carriage of her head, set on a long and slender neck, her expressive face, her whole style – oh, it was just not possible! Mary couldn’t bear to think that the child hadn’t been trained by her! Or that someone else would take the credit for giving this dancer to the world”

From Rosanna Joins the Wells by Lorna Hill

Categories
Girlsown

The curious case of Con Maynard

I’ve spoken before on how Giftedness in the Chalet School series is a strange and curious thing. But I’ve never really spoken about the curious case of Con.

Consider Con.

She’s a girl who is ‘dreamy’ (Daniel bit the Lions), speaks before she thinks (the whole Theodora/Ted/Margot going bonkers incident), and a girl who gets an entire subplot devoted to the disappearance of her fringe (one of the questionable highlights of Summer Term at the Chalet School).

But she’s not really ever described as a writer. Instead (and rather curiously I always think) Con seems to come across a bit of an enigma. She’s either a numpty (“Yes Sam, but of course you can ski on the black slope ski jump thing we sort of magically have on the ever expanding meadow, for I am yea verily thinking of a sonnet and thus cannot be concerned with your impending doom”), somebody who gets blamed for Margot flipping her lid (“I express the things we all want to say to you at this point Margot, you mayor of Crazytown you, even though I know I will be blamed for you going to DefCon One and trying to kill Betty Landon with a spatula”), or somebody who is too busy having storybook friends to have a ‘real’ friendship (“Oh Mary-Lou, what’s wrong with me?”).

And yet, this is a girl who is almost predestined to take over the mantel of her mother – the undoubted darling of the series. I’m loathe to describe her as having an Electra Complex but I feel that there’s maybe something there in that. She is competition. She is the ‘next generation’. Con is set up to be the writer – and here’s the key.

There are no other writers in the Chalet School series.

Of course there’s Amy, or Eustacia, or several others who show ‘talent’ or ‘ability’ with language, but they all tend to disappear into the ether. Stacie writes academically under E Benson and this writing is explicitly gendered as masculine (a new girl exclaims something along the lines of “E Benson? But I thought that was a man?”). Amy just gets ‘delicate’ and then bobs off to Oxford and then into the great unknown (if I recall correctly), and then, well, that’s it.

There are no other (creative) writers (that matter) in the Chalet School series save Joey. So I wonder if that’s the thing, if that’s why Con never really succeeds in the books, and if that’s why she remains such an unfulfilled character to me?

Because if she succeeded, if she became the Writer, the Maynard Writer, the one that people think of when they say Writer, then what’s the point of having Joey still around? Wouldn’t Con’s ability ‘normalise’ Joey’s? Wouldn’t it make the all singing and dancing nature of Joey ‘Superhero’ Maynard a little less … super?

Maybe, after so long with her, Brent-Dyer just couldn’t let Joey be replaced.

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School and Jo : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Jo (The Chalet School, #7)The Chalet School and Jo by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Destined for head-girl ever since day one, she’s finally done it. The Chalet School and Jo sees Joey assume the mantle of head girl. She’s not happy at the prospect and goes off grumbling to the intensely serene now-married-and-making-of-the-babies former head Girl Gisela. Gisela puts Joey on the right track, and Joey sets about making her term a success.

However. There’s worries about the Robin’s health, there’s a raven haired Irish orphaline with a begorrah-worthy accent wandering the Platz and those pesky Middles are being, well, pesky. Who knows how things are going to end up?

Well, to be frank, we all do, because we know how the system works by now. The middles, even at this early stage in the series, are tempestuous souls and their activities in this book are a bit amazing. We have the (soon to become legendary) Oberammergau incident, and also the Biddy-in-the-shed incident. It’s sort of glorious and bonkers all at the same time (and if that’s not a good way to describe the Chalet School series as a whole, then I’ll hand in my book-nerd badge at the door).

Coupled with this though is the story of Robin. Brent-Dyer wrote life, when it dances on the edge of death, so very very well and this book sees some of her finest work. There are points in it, full of stillness and pain, that make me weep. And I imagine they’ll always make me weep.

But then, in comparison with that, we have the odd little romance subplot between Juliet and A.N. Other. (“She’s left school! Marry her off!”) It’s a constant fascination to me how Brent-Dyer kept these distinct tonal opposites in complete harmony. It’s a skill that even she lost eventually (evidence a: “I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?”)

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Jo Returns to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo Returns to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #13)Jo Returns to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jo Returns To The Chalet School, or ‘the one where EBD couldn’t let go’, is, as nearly all of the Tyrolean books are, of a distinctly high standard.

This book sees Joey, our darling, return to the school in a teaching capacity having left the school the previous term. The term also sees the arrival of Polly Heriot, a girl with possibly the best hair ever, Joey deciding to write her first book, and the beloved Mademoiselle Le/La/Lepattre/Lappatre being rushed up to San for a serious operation. This last event sees a landmark quote from Matey that comes to define the series’ attitude towards illness, death, and self-identity.

There’s a lot going on, but it’s handled in such a deft manner that it doesn’t feel rushed. It’s also interesting in that we see behind the scenes in this story, and learn more about the staff and their foibles. This happens rarely in the series (other than the usual “Let’s go and have some of Mddle’s ambrosial coffee!” moments) and perhaps is only really paralleled by the experience of Kathy Ferrars many years later.

EBD could write a superb illness scene and I’ve talked more about that here. I sort of wonder if though with Jo Returns, there’s another element of the story – one of growth, saying goodbye, and bringing these characters forward into a new post Joey generation. And I also wonder if there’s a distinct element of self-identification between EBD and Joey at this point, the two of them writers, teachers, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Essentially this is a good, good book, full of all of the hallmarks that make the Chalet School great. Plus the Robin didn’t do my nut in in this one which is always worth a star in itself.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Adrienne and the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Adrienne and the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #53)Adrienne and the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There’s no escaping that Adrienne is, as a whole, a relatively poor book. It’s written with the tiredness that affects the end of the series, a sort of written by rote and necessity attitude that pervades the entire book.

So, we know our format by now, for it is one that is rarely deviated from. A new girl arrives at school; she has trials and tribulations, before ultimately becoming the ideal Chalet School Girl.

What is unique about this book, and sort of fascinating however, is the subplot involving Robin. Yes, that Robin who’s been farmed off many books ago to a Nunnery (‘Get thee to a nunnery!’) is back and she’s sort of turned into a Terminatrix nun. She rescues Adrienne from a life of dodginess (and awful faux-French accents), and sends her to the Chalet School.

There’s a further plot concerning Robin which I won’t spoil here, but to say it’s possibly one of the most audacious moments in the final books. It always struck me as hysterical upon the ‘listening to the revelations’ moment, one of the characters goes ‘Wow, you’d have thought that’s something you’d have read in a book, but gosh, look at that, this is real life’. It’s possibly the first and only point Brent-Dyer went all avant-garde and meta-textual on us.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

Althea Joins the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Althea Joins the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #57)Althea Joins the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It’s no secret that quality dips substantially towards the end of the Chalet School series, and Althea is emblematic of that shift. Following the now traditional format of ‘new girl attending the school’, we witness Althea’s eventual and inevitable integration into a true Chalet Girl during the first half of the term. The Borg-like overtones of the Chalet School at this point in time are hard to escape, and resistance is truly futile.

There are moments in this book which are truly legendary, and not in a good way. Whilst the actual quality of the writing has slipped, the tendency to ‘throw a maelstrom of incidents into the plot that make little to no sense’ has not. As a result of this, we get to witness a genuinely jaw-dropping moment where, and please note this is not hyperbole, Miss Ferrars manages to leap from one speeding motorboat to another. Frankly it’s an incident which sells the entire book.

Even though these latter books are locked in self-referential tales of the Old Girls and Their Doctors That They Have All Married, there’s still an inexplicable joy that surmounts all disappointment. By this point, there’s a feeling of being in it for the long run and seeing it through, and that sort of attitude on the part of the reader is not won easily. Brent-Dyer was amazing in her day. When her sun shone, it shone hugely. It’s just that in this book, it’s beginning to set.

View all my reviews

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Princess of The Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent Dyer