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Monica Turns up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Monica Turns Up Trumps  by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer front cover

Monica Turns Up Trumps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The more I read of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer‘s connectors, the more I’ve come to realise that she is an author of extremes. She is either very good or very bad, and only sometimes does she land in the middle. Were I a scientifically minded type I’d call this the “Exile-Althea Equation” and murmur lots of things about context of production and the difficulties of a long and prolific writing career, but I am not and so I shall content myself with merely observing this: it’s easy to figure out what you’re going to get. You can feel it within seconds, and by the end of the first chapter it’s definite. You might be getting pink worms and backflipping ninja geography teachers, or you might be getting searing political commentary, but the important thing is this: you know. And I knew within moments of reading Monica Turns Up Trumps that this was relatively early doors Brent-Dyer, and it was good.

Monica Turns Up Trumps sings of first phase EBD; that richness of setting, flawed and lovable characters, a Misunderstanding Father type who is also an Inevitable Doctor (Brent-Dyer bingo! mark your cards!), and argumentative and somewhat stroppy girls trying to figure out who they are in the world. There are not enough stroppy girls in books, and I welcome more. I think we increasingly try to erase girlish misbehaviour – as indeed, do some of the adults in this book – and yet, Brent-Dyer keeps it in. Girls can be idiots. It’s okay. They’re still great.

Plot? Straightforward, and full of delicious Chalet School connectors. Monica is an idiot. She’s figuring out how not to be. Things happen; she turns up trumps. Honestly, there’s no spoiler here: it’s literally the title of the book. There’s an interesting subtext where her brother advises her father on how to handle her – patriarchy in training, perhaps, but I always see something else when it comes to Brent-Dyer and siblings, not in the least because of the childhood death of her brother Henzell in 1912 and Elinor growing up as an only child. There’s always something curiously sad for me about how she leans towards the big, messy families full of love when the parent/ singular child family tends towards a much more complicated representation. A topic for an essay at some points, perhaps.




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The Oberammagau Passion Play and the Chalet School

It’s no secret that we support the works of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer on this blog (and if it is, then welcome! stay! let us talk about romantic omelettes and improbable speedboat shenanigans!), and the Chalet School books in particular. One of the earlier titles in this sprawling series, The Chalet School And Jo, is of interest to us today. It sees the girls attend the Passion Play at Oberammagau – a ‘once every decade’ piece of theatre that retells the story of the Passion.

I was reminded of this book this week. I was finishing off a research job at the British Library (hire me! I’m very good!) and as is the way when you’re a big nerd, taking some time afterwards to look through the material on my own behalf. The paper was The Wearside Catholic News (1910) and it was fascinating – though I have to admit, the photos of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were quite startling. But that’s research; sometimes you see people before they become history.

I found some rather brilliant reports of the Oberammagau Passion Play and thought instantly of The Chalet School and Jo. I was particularly enamoured to find mention of some of the characters that Brent-Dyer herself references. Here they are. The Wearside Catholic News was a weekly paper and these are all from July 1910. I hope the photographs are legible!

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Book Reviews

Shocks for the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Shocks for the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #29)Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a point somewhere around Peggy that the Chalet School series seems to start to mark time a little. The novelty of the Island setting has worn off, a batch of eminent faces have been shipped off to the Oberland and Canada respectively, and so we’re left with a school that doesn’t quite have the right feel to it because it’s waiting for the status quo(s) to be restored. But then there’s Emerence, and everything comes back right again.

Shocks is the debut of Emerence Hope, a little “firebug” from Australia, and she’s obnoxious and brilliant. I’d forgotten how much I loved her, but then, really, she does everything that she does in this book and it’s a delight. It’s so easy for Brent-Dyer to present girls who adapt and thrive, but she steps back from this with Emerence. She’s allowed to be hideous; and it’s interested to read this sanctioned bad behaviour against somebody like Eustacia who, simply, isn’t allowed to get away with anything remotely similar without being badly physically punished. (I adore Eustacia, she is my secret star of the series).

One of the great things about having so many characters removed from the forefront is that it allows some others to step up. There’s some lovely character work here for Jack Maynard and Captain Christie respectively, whilst the book also contains one of my favourite moments in the entire series. It’s a moment of ferocious particularity but one which has always stuck with me. I won’t spoil it for you but suffice to say it was the first thing to teach me what tautology was. Vocabulary tuition! Plus a lifelong concern about dying from hiccups! What a series this is!

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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.

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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.

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Book Reviews

The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and the Island (The Chalet School, #25)The Chalet School and the Island by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.

I didn’t. Not really.

Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.

The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.

Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.

And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!) 

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 😉

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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?)

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Everything else

Sunday Catch Up

Hello! It’s been a while hasn’t it? I’ve been in France (pain! boursin! beaucoup de bandes dessinees!) and so this is a slightly bigger catch up than usual for it covers two whole weeks. Two weeks! Anything could happen in two weeks! Kirrin Island could get over-run by pirates! Julian could stop being a know it all!

So what’s been happening in the world of children’s literature?

1. The great children’s literature academic and writer Perry Nodelman has released one of his essays online, and it’s a must for anyone who is interested in picture books. Nodelman’s one of the most approachable and interesting writers I know, and his work is always thought-provoking and revelatory. “On the border between Implication and Actuality : Children Inside and Outside of Picture Books” can be read here.

3. On the subject of picture books, here’s a list of positive representations of disabled children in picture books. It’s a comprehensive and lengthy list, worthy of checking out.

4. This list of resources on book banning is excellent – it includes lesson plans, discussion resources and more. There’s a particular children’s literature connection with the discussion on teaching a book where the author has a very specific personal mindset – the example given is that of Orson Scott Card and his YA novel ‘Ender’s Game’.

5. Though it’s an oldie, it’s still worthy of substantial note. One of the first ever children’s literature resources I discovered on the internet (and one that made me realise that the Chalet School was ‘okay’ to be thought of in Proper Tones) was Ju Gosling’s brilliant Virtual Worlds Of Girls. Go. Go browse!  It’s Dead Good!

6. Did you know this ‘ere blog is also on that there Facebook? It’s true, come and like it if Facebook is your thing!

7. There’s a new chair for the Chair of the Working Party for the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals (and yes, I had to copy and paste that wording..!) . Good luck Joy! 😀

7. And finally, I think this might be the topic of the next #kidbkgrp … what do you reckon?

See you next week!  😉

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Everything else

The one where I reach new levels of nerd-dom

So … ummmm …

… ummmmmm…

….I sort of made a Chalet School Edible Book

DCIM101MEDIA

DCIM101MEDIA

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Theory

The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

Recently I’ve been thinking about doing a PhD ( Me! A PhD! Me who didn’t even get her GCSE Maths!), and as part of this I’ve been considering what I’d do it on. There’s a part of me that yearns, genuinely, just to get buried in the books and occasionally pop up and produce a paper on the Freudian significance of Hilda Annersley’s changing eye colours … or something.

Anyway, my big passion remains the Chalet School, but my other thing is the treatment of creativity and talent in stories like this. You know my thing by now, I hope, but if you don’t, my big book loves are pretty much: school stories (Chalet School / Malory Towers / St Clares), dance books (Drina! Veronica! Inordinately sexy Angelo!), horses (Jill! Shantih! Ruth!), KM Peyton and every Angela Brazil where she’s not racist or doesn’t bang on about nature. Something’s been striking me recently which is a sort of confluence of a couple of these divergent strands.

And that is this:  these stories tend to normalise creativity.

Creativity / talent / giftedness is, at its heart, a symbol of difference. Plucker and Stocking (2001) talk about this in their work. They state that students have two key schools of thought and influence by which they compare themselves against : the “internal comparison” whereby the student compares their ability at carrying out task X with their ability at carrying out task Y, and the “external comparison” of the ability of their immediate peer group (537).They also discuss the phenomenon that gifted children, once placed in gifted and talented programmes, regularly suffer a fall in grades (538) because they are then surrounded by other gifted and talented children. The initial gifted child is no longer ‘gifted’ when surrounded by their peers who are of a similarly talented nature as their gift has become normalised through context; the gifted and talented child is no longer unusual and different to their peers.

This is a sort of inverse scenario, the normalising of creativity because creativity itself becomes the new norm. The uncreative – the ungifted – become the oddities. That is what I’d argue swiftly happens in Lorna Hill’s Sadlers Wells books. Dance, artistry, creative expression becomes the norm and those characters who do not achieve an appreciation of this remain ‘out of the loop’. We do not empathise with them because our empathy is based on this mutual code of contextual appreciation and that context is the Arts. Dance. Caroline, gorgeous cake-loving Caroline, practically becomes a new character by the time of the events of No Castanets at the Wells. She becomes normalised within the context of these books.

To survive is to adapt, to fit in is to remain part of the dominating ideology of the narrative – even Grizel Cochrane from the Chalet School series finally gets her doctor and finally fits in, over fifty books since her first appearance in the books . “It’s time for you to eat white bread at last,” says her sagacious, doctor-having, best friend. (shut up Joey). The Collège des Musiciens from The School by the River normalises the creativity inherent in its purpose by only playing host to creative characters – therefore almost neutering the moments of great artistic achievement. There’s a curious sense of flatness to great parts of The School by the River for me. Jennifer’s brilliance, the whole ‘revolution in the city thing’, it’s all just a little bit too run of the mill which is a curious thing indeed for a book solely focusing on gifted and talented characters.

There’s an argument though that the school story (particularly in the era of Girlsown) has this normalising effect by the very fact that it is a school story. The school story genre is one which thrives on nominal equivalence between the characters. Difference is celebrated when it is in forms understandable to the genre: sport, academia, art – but this difference is ultimately subsumed by the needs of the school – the community. The individual matters to an extent, but the greater weight is and always will be the needs of the school.

But then again, there’s an element of normalising talent – of neutering talent – outside of the school story. One of the great examples that strikes me is in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books. Maidlin, as a child, is lovely. She burns from the page. And then, when she grows up, she becomes, well – deeper. “You know how love and marriage have developed Maidlin, who was far too much the artist at onetime [sic]. She’s still an artist and a much finer one than she would have been if she hadn’t met Jock. She’ll be singing again in public in the autumn … and everyone says how much her voice has deepened since she married” (1959:66). So here we’ve got a character who is gifted, intensely so, and one who has been ‘improved’ by her marriage. Her voice has deepened (therefore losing the presumably more girlish higher notes of her youth) and become rounder due to her life experience. Maria Nikolajeva in her excellent  The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature talks about marriage  as an archetypal enclosure suggesting that marrying off a female character allows them to be subsumed into a feminine archetype. (2002:45) If we think about Maidlin, society has effectively normalised and in a way neutered her talent because the gifted wife is more acceptable than the gifted talented, tempestuous and socially abjected teenager. Don’t even get me on to talking about Damaris and her whole marriage episode!

Do you know what? I think I might have an idea for that PhD after all…

(And is traditional here in the land of DYESTTAFTSA, here’s a ‘you made it to the end’ Pikachu. Congratulations! )

Works cited –

Nikolajeva, Maria (2002a) The Rhetoric of Character in Children’s Literature Scarecrow Press Inc: Boston

Oxenham, Elsie (1953, this ed. 1959) A Dancer From the Abbey Wm Collins and Co: London

Plucker, Jonathan; Stocking, Vicki B (2001) Looking outside and inside: selfconcept development of gifted adolescents Exceptional Children Summer 2001: 535-548

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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?”)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The Princess of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #3)The Princess of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Tyrolean part of the Chalet School series remains a constant and beguiling delight to me. There’s something so obvious about Brent-Dyer’s love for the surroundings and her brand new school that I can’t help but adore these early books.

Elisaveta is our new girl for this term and she’s a Princess. She’s a Princess of Belsornia and she’s being sent to the Chalet School to improve her health. (And this always reminds me of “I came for the Waters … I was misinformed”) Naturally hijinks ensue – but then things get a little serious. There’s two men with an interest in the school – and in ‘Veta in particular.

Coupled with this, there’s a new Matron on the scene and her presence inspires the girls to, well, I won’t spoil this but suffice to say it’s the stuff of legend.

This book is spectacular and actually rather unique in the series but it’s not without fault. There are points in it where you could be incredulous and doubtful but to be honest, that’s a hallmark of the series as a whole.

I think what makes it so perfect for me is the sort of the way Brent-Dyer writes it. She’s so confident in her story, so at the height of her ability, that she just doesn’t care about the less than logical bits. This is a very pure, very brilliantly told adventure story masquerading as a school story and one that you pretty much just have to sit down and enjoy the ride.
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Redheads at the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Redheads at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #56)Redheads at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Firstly, I think, I have to clarify the five star rating of this book. When it comes to Redheads, it is necessary to rate it on a wholly different level to the rest of the series. Whilst it’s nowhere near the stunning The Chalet School in Exile in terms of quality, where Redheads scores high is on all round (and splendidly silly) amazingness.

This is an amazing book and it’s one that sort of defies ‘normal’ critique. It’s the one where Brent-Dyer decided to write about criminal gangs, nefarious plots, and all round bad people. It’s a concept she may have got away with earlier in the series whilst at the peaks of her powers but bearing in mind Redheads comes towards the end of the series and in the middle of an all round drop in quality, Redheads becomes a slightly hysterical and giddy experience.

Flavia (I do *love* her name) Letton has joined the Chalet School and is our new girl of focus. She’s joined the school under the name of Flavia Ansell, and had to leave behind her beloved stepfather in a hush hush loose lips sink ships sort of manner. It’s not the only unusual thing about this term; there’s a strange American woman stalking the school with a fixed interest in all the redheaded girls, and somebody’s after Flavia in particular…

It is a different angle to take in the series and it’s one that never quite sits well with the gentle real-world-ignoring that the Chalet School had slipped into at this point. It’s hard to read this book seriously at times but it’s one that very rarely lets up on pace. It’s as if Brent-Dyer decided on this angle and then sort of went ‘oh whatever’ when she got halfway through and decided to throw everything to the wall in the hope that it stuck.

Redheads is such an oddity in the series (We’ll change her surname! That’ll do it! That’ll make them look for the other redheaded girl called Flavia at a school in Switzerland! It’s such a common first name!) that it’s sort of both madly refreshing and sort of joyous to read at a point in the series that is flirting all to seriously with Althea Joins the Chalet School level quality.

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Gay Lambert at the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Gay Lambert at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #20)Gay Lambert at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to compare and contrast parts of this book with the much later A Genius at the Chalet School. Both books feature a genius, or highly talented individual, and yet both books treat their characters distinctly differently. It’s as if, at points, they’re written by different authors. I discuss the representation of genius in the Chalet School here and can never quite get over the short shrift given to Jacynth in her (not even titular) book.

Jacynth, poor sad, sweet, Jacynth Hardy is sent to the Chalet School following a lifetime of financial saving from her Aunt. They aim for Jacynth to win the Therese Lapattre scholarship and thus secure her education financially.

On the train to school Jacynth meets and is instantly befriended by impetuous Gay Lambert. Gay’s a vivacious character, full of act-now-think-later, and helps to bring Jacynth through her first term. And it’s a heck of a first term to contend with. There’s been a serious accident and several members of the senior staff – including Miss Annersley – have been injured. That means that for this term the school needs a new head – and it turns out to be the soon legendary Miss Bubb.

Originally published in 1944, and coming off the heights of Exile, Goes to It, and Highland Twins, this was originally titled Gay From China at the Chalet School. When it came to the Armada reprints it got both renamed and given a particularly horrid [slang!] front cover.

Seeing both Jacynth and Miss Bubb adopt to their new environments sees Brent-Dyer at her best and worst. Brent-Dyer handled high drama superbly at this point and the two ‘big’ moments for both characters are amazingly handled. It’s brilliant, and, without divulging spoilers, there’s a point in this book that makes me crumble every time I read it.

So what’s the bad things? Miss Bubb is resolutely unsympathetic and very hard to even vaguely warm too. Though that’s partially her role, it makes for a hard, defensive experience for the reader. As mentioned at the start of this review, Jacynth has a particularly hard row to hoe. There’s something distinctly apposite about the treatment of her ability in comparison to that of say Margia and Nina. As I write this, I’m starting to wonder if that difference could be drawn to something to do with the relative social class of each girl, and of the time period of each book’s publication but that’s a discussion for another time.

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The Chalet School and Sickness

Once upon a time there was a fictional school with a predilection for near-death incidents. These ranged from the understandable (clinging onto a precipice in the middle of raging floods, climbing a mountain and er hanging off a precipice, or falling into a frozen lake – no precipices involved in that one) through to the sublimely fantastical (standing in a draught, staying up all night, the hiccups).

The Chalet School, were it to have existed, would have been in possession of both massive PR bills and massive insurance liabilities. Brent-Dyer managed to rationalise a lot of her incidents by reinforcing the links between the school and the sanatorium but by the end of the series, there’s definitely a sense of illness overload and a vast amount of deja-vu on the part of the reader. We’ve done this a thousand times already and so, it’s sad to say, the later characters and the more dramatic incidents just don’t have the same impact if they would have occurred in the Tyrolean years.

So what’s the actual point of having these illnesses, this intense urge to throw oneself over the nearest precipice / into the nearest lake (I’m looking *right* at you Emerence Hope)?

A lot of it I think initially rose from historical context. Brent-Dyer was born in 1894 and so was witness to the flu epidemic of 1918. At the age of 24, after having experienced all the first world war had to offer, she then witnessed an epidemic that swept an already weakened world.

Additionally, and I’d recommend you read Helen McClelland’s excellent biography of Brent-Dyer for more on this and her life in general. Brent-Dyer lost her brother to meningitis – an incident which comes across as horrific as by all accounts it was only days from diagnosis through to death.

In a way, Brent-Dyer was writing what she knew; that slim line between health and illness, life and death. Death is something she can’t have ever been far from. There’s a dreadful poignancy in some of her earlier deathbed incidents. I’m thinking of the one where Joey gets sung back from the dead by Robin and The Red Sarafan. Despite the awful schlock of the singing, you can’t help but read into Brent-Dyer’s near forensic description of the sickroom and wonder if a lot of this came from her own personal experience. It’s in the way she zooms right into the detail, the one little thing that sticks in your mind (the orange handkerchief of Dick comes to mind) that speaks of experiencing these situations. The episode is, as a whole, a little bit heartbreaking.

The other element I find incredibly poignant in the Chalet School and it’s treatment of illness is the lack of death that occurs. We have some very, very severe incidents and accidents which occur and to be honest it usually just results in a bit of character redemption or a doctor husband (which is pretty much the same thing tbh).

The only explicit deaths which do occur in the series (and I think they can be counted on one hand which in a cast of several hundred characters is sort of bonkers) occur because of prolonged invalidity / illness. I think the main death which impacted on me, one of the few *big* deaths which occurred  was Mademoiselle Lapattre. There’s an intensity here which doesn’t ever quite reoccur in the series; perhaps only briefly when talking about Jacynth and her Aunt. Consider how Mademoiselle’s death is treated in comparison with Luigia di Ferrarra who died in a concentration camp during the war. Luigia gets a retrospective couple of lines in the CS and the Island delivered with a think about it kids attitude, whilst Mademoiselle, quietly sliding away from life, gets a heartfelt and intense and huge part of the story. There’s something scary about the bigness of normal life continuing amidst all of the madness of the war and it combines to deliver a huge book that punches way above its weight.

So I wonder if Brent-Dyer maybe scared herself with Mademoiselle? Maybe she got scared by how big it got – and how much it dominated her books which had heretofore only ever flirted with this sort of thing. Maybe there’s something in how Brent-Dyer only flirted with going that far only a couple of times ever again? The Joey incident in Exile is stunning; grey, heart-breaking, but it’s not just the reader who lets out a big sigh of relief at Jack’s eventual reappearance  it’s the narrator as well. I find it fascinating how he pops up nonchalantly at the end of the book with a sort of ‘I’m just here for the last few pages’ attitude. And I wonder if somehow, someway, it all boils back down to Brent-Dyer realising something fairly amazing about writing.

She could kill these characters. But she could also save them. These books were where she was in control. Not the outside – not the illnesses that swept down the streets of South Shields – nor the bullets of the battlefield. I wonder if her treatment of sickness (and also her decision to directly address Nazism in her work) was something to do with power. Writing is the ultimate act of power – and also of redemption. The love she had for Joey is evident, and paralleled with that she clearly felt for her real-life ‘little sister’ Hazel Bainbridge. Perhaps these books were the only place she could actually be in control and save her characters from the harshness of the world outside.

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Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #6)Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sixth in the series, rich with the gorgeous detail of the Tyrol and the sheer thrill of the early titles, Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is spectacular. It’s sort of a blueprint of everything the Chalet School series could be when it was on form.

Following the now traditional concept of new term, new girls, this term sees Eustacia join the Chalet School. Eustacia is sort of different. She’s an ‘arrant little prig’. It took me a long time to actually figure out what that means but it’s not good. Even the narrator hates her.

Eustacia’s time at the Chalet School isn’t brilliant. She breaks rules left, right and centre – and does it with an insouciant aplomb. And, perhaps inevitably, she ends up making enemies of all and sundry – even the darling of the series Joey Bettany.

If you’ve previously read any of the Chalet School series, you’ll know this sort of behaviour is Not On and Not Becoming Of A Chalet School Girl and Eustacia is Ripe For A Reformation. Eustacia’s reformation is pretty damn spectacular, even in a series obsessed with near-death incidents.

This book is brilliant, but it’s one you sort of can’t judge with anything remotely approaching logic. Basically, it’s like the Chalet School gone a little bit nuts. It’s amazing.

For another perspective on Eustacia, I’d recommend you read this from the excellent Fantastic Reads.

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Location, location, location

On the long drive back from Scarborough (everywhere seems MILES away when you’re a kid), we used to pass this house.  It was a perfectly innocent house but in my head it was where Jill, from the books from Ruby Ferguson, lived.

For some reason this innocent house in my home county, on the way back from the supermarket, became incomparably linked with the Jill stories. It was Pool Cottage in Chatton. It was where Black Boy and Rapide lived. And it was where Jill’s mother wrote her stories. It just was these books. I don’t even know what originally started this idea but it’s something that’s stuck with me for nearly twenty years. Seriously. I thought about doing this post and then I thought about that house and within minutes I had found it on Google Maps.

But that’s the power of location in books. Sometimes, when you really love a book, you can’t help but map it onto your local surroundings to make sure that feeling never leaves you. And that’s exactly what I used to do. This house, for example, is the house at Green Knowe. It bears very little relation to the actual house but it had a garden that just sang of magic to me.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit places that some of my favourite series were actually set. The early part of the Chalet School series is set, indelibly, in the Austrian Tyrol and in particular at the Achensee near Innsbruck. What’s particularly vivid about this memory is my gran and I accidentally mountaineering (“What’s this? A short cut?”) in the middle of the day and then practically breathing in the biggest serving of Weinerschnitzel I had ever seen. And then there was the moment where I paddled in the Achensee and almost collapsed from over nerdiness.

Locations make books. Who can think of Hogwarts without it being, well, Hogwarts? I know for me that my image of Hogwarts was solidified and made something incredible after watching Harry Potter and the Prisoner Of Azkaban. Alfonso Cuarón took what had felt a relatively flat location in the first film and gave it shade. He made it something superb; translating his concept of Hogwarts to the screen. But he’d have had nothing to build with were it not for the gorgeous amount of detail delivered in the book. I’m not a Harry Potter fan, not really, but I can’t deny the superbnosity (thankyou Georgia Nicolson) of Hogwarts.

Locations pay off books. I’m rereading Sarra Manning’s Fashionista books (as a massive massive treat to myself), and Manning knows her London. I’m a yokel, country bumpkin through and through, but even I’m thrilling at the tightness of the model flat and the descriptions of the underground. Manning knows and loves her London very much.

So maybe that’s it? Maybe books with vivid and long-lasting locations, real or reader-impinged, rise from love? Maybe that’s the way to make it – and keep it – real. Maybe you just need to fall in love with your location, real or imaginary, and have to share it with others. Maybe that’s the superpower behind books – that want, that need to share this story and all its colours, shades, lights and darks with somebody else. Maybe that’s how it works.

(Images : Google)

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Girlsown

Fantasy Film Casting : GirlsOwn Edition

I’m going through a bit of a film phase at the moment, and have got a bit obsessed with the idea of film / TV adaptations of some GirlsOwn titles. So, behold, a fantasy casting of some of my favourite literary heroines. Also, whilst reading this, you may get an idea of what my viewing habits tend to be 😉

Maisie Williams as Joey Bettany (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer). I could quite happily see a tv adaptation of the School at the Chalet though it might need to borrow liberally from Princess for dramatic purposes. I  think Maisie would be pretty brilliant as Jo. She’s got the look, and that sort of insouciant edge about her. Plus, according to IMDB, she can dance so she would have the folk-dance scenes down! PS – True story, I couldn’t remember her surname so googled Maisie Gomme initially …

Anne Hathaway as Veronica Weston (Sadlers Wells – Lorna Hill). Stick with me here. I know Anne has done the ballet bit before, and she’s also done the Northern accent bit before, but I think she could actually really do Veronica well.  This is primarily due to my love for the Princess Diaries films and the massive comedic value Anne can give a scene. Veronica is intensely graceful but she’s also very very funny and I think Anne could work the shift between the two really well. And also I have a major girl crush on her.

Miracle Laurie as Ruth Hollis (Ruth Hollis series –  KM Peyton).  So Ruth, she’s one of those quiet characters with a hidden heart of steel. She’s passionate, vital, and stubborn whilst being outwardly calm. Ruth loves, and when she loves, she loves very big. I reckon Miracle Laurie has that serenity (take my love, take my land) combined with the quiet potential for great things that I think Ruth would need to succeed on the big screen. Also, apparently, Miracle can play the ukele. This plays no relevance towards the role of Ruth Hollis but plays a vast part in the sheer awesome factor.

Summer Glau as Maidlin di Ravarati (Abbey books – Elsie Oxenham). Though I find a lot of the Abbey books a bit too SUNSHINEGIRLSFLOWERS, I really like Maidlin. She’s one of the characters that has something rather special about her and tends to fly off the page whenever she’s on. That is, until her neutered adulthood but that’s a different blogpost. Anyway, we all know Summer can do fractured, fragile heroines, and imbue them with a grace and a musicality that’s intoxicating to watch. It’s because of that that  I’d really like to see what she does with Maidie.

Tune in next week for a casting session for some of my favourite male characters! WHO can we get to play Reg Entwhistle? WHO will take on the plum role of  sardonic God Sebastian? And WHO gets to be the tortured adonis Pennington?

Categories
Girlsown Overviews

Children’s literature, food, and frenchwomen

Food is a central theme in children’s literature and school stories in particular. It’s something which has stayed eternally present from the cookery lessons of  the Chalet School, the roundness of Billy Bunter through to the chocolate frogs of Harry Potter. Food is a magical device and it’s particularly magical when used in the school story.

As part of my blog birthday celebrations, I thought we’d have a look at three of my favourite foodiest moments in school story history.

‘Angela lifted the toast on to the table. “I got Antoinette to make anchovy toast for us,” she said’                                 Fifth Formers of St Clares by Enid Blyton.
Image: wallyg (Flickr)

Why has this moment had such an indelible impact on me? I think because it’s one of the key moments in St Clares, a very ‘prank-aware’ school, that food and pranks combine. Fifth Formers at St Clare’s was published in 1945, right at the end of the Second World War. Food was being rationed. The school story was increasingly becoming an idyll of escapism. Right from the train / plane / bus journey to the relevant school, through to their exotic locales (Austria, Islands, romantic manors in the countryside), these stories were havens to the increasingly under attack populace.

The scene in question involves Angela, one of the snobbier girls in the school, and the new girl Antoinette. Angela is under fire from most of her form-mates for using her prettiness and letting the younger girls run after her in a manner unbecoming to that of a senior. Antoinette, the young sister of Claudine – a member of Angela’s form, is a girl who decides to not follow the attitude of the other young girls. Asked to make anchovy toast, Antoinette swaps the anchovy paste for bootpolish, and spreads the toast with this. Angela and her friends are of course sent to Matron for a cautionary dose and Antoinette has wangled her way out of ever doing jobs for Angela again.

There’s obviously several levels in this incident. A little bit of class commentary – the upper class Angela getting her comeuppance – and a level of the younger child winning out against the elder one. But what I really love is the final moment of the episode which involves Antoinette being so upset (oh, don’t worry, she’s really not!) she is given a square of chocolate from Matron in order to calm her soul. Brilliant. How can you not root for Antoinette throughout all of this?

“But there is no need to cook it,” said Thekla calmly. “It is smoked—see!”And she held it so that that they saw the rind was a rich red-brown.                                                                                                                                                                                  From: The Chalet School and the Lintons by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer                                                                                          Image: Hendry (Flickr)

And then there’s Thekla. Thekla von Stift makes her first appearance in Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) and has a stormy time before ending as one of only two girls the Chalet School ever expels. She seals her fate when she decides to have a go at Joyce Linton in the effort to break up the younger girl’s friendship with Joey Bettany.

Thekla’s defining ‘foodie’ moment comes in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) . Joyce, tearaway new girl, has decided to throw a midnight feast to which everybody has to bring something. We have sardines, and cake, and all the normal foodstuffs you’d expect schoolgirls to be able to procure.

And then Thekla brings “raw smoked bacon” which she calmly chomps down on in the middle of the midnight feast.

It’s an amazing moment that reinforces Thekla’s rampant role as ‘Other’ in the series and one that has lasting impact. The midnight feast ends up with illness for Thekla and Mary Shaw, and Joyce Linton, the instigator, “almost dies” with a billious attack. A bilious attack that’s very much helped on its way by Thekla’s calm eating of the bacon.

I love this. Despite Thekla’s obvious awfulness, there’s something rather epic about a stolid Prussian snob eating bacon in the middle of the night.

Image: Great British Chefs (Flickr)

What’s the thing you want most after a shock? A hot sugary cup of tea? Nope.

You want an omelette aux fines herbes cooked by a Frenchwoman who has a bit of a crush on you. This is the fate of Joey Bettany  in The Chalet Girls in Camp (1932). Following an incident in the book which Joey, naturally, is heavily involved in, she is recovering back in camp. Simone Lecoutier (who’s always had a bit of a pash for Joey) decides to cook an omelette aux fines herbes to aid the recovery process.

It’s an incredibly romantic moment. The Chalet Girls have been camping in the Baumersee; an area of intense beauty and full of all the magic Brent-Dyer could possibly imbue it with. Simone is a neat, nimble-fingered, French woman of great charm and the image of her making an omelette  on the camp-fire, seasoning it with herbs, flipping it in the pan, whilst her beloved best friend is recovering from shock is something that borders on almost sensual.

I think I’m going to have to do a follow up post on this! I mean, I’ve not even begun to talk about Guernsey cut and come again cake, watered down wine, garlic cloves vs normal cloves, ginger beer, chocolate frogs  …. 😉

(I am indebted to @wonderlanded for sourcing me the Thekla quote – many thanks!)

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

New Beginnings at the *insert name here* School

This post is part of Playing By The Book’s blog carnival: “I’m looking for a book about…”. Every month bloggers convene on a given topic and this months is: (Starting) School.

The concept of the new pupil arriving at school is a common conceit amongst school-stories. Whether ranging from gym-slip time-slip classics such as Charlotte Sometimes and the more recent Beswitched , (and, fyi,  here’s another excellent review of Beswitched) through to the vivacious charms of Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, it’s a theme that reoccurs time and time again. And no wonder – every new pupil is a guaranteed source of tension, story and excitement as they all bring their own stories through to the fixed world of the relevant school and the reader is left to wonder if the new girl will, or won’t, conform to the status quo.

For this post, I have to go back to my specialist topic and review one of the Chalet School books.

The School at the Chalet is the first in the series (1925) and is perhaps one of the greatest (along with The Chalet School in Exile) of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s books. The essential premise is that the orphaned Bettany siblings, Madge and her twin, Dick and their younger sister, Joey, have been left in the lurch following the sudden death of their guardian. Dick is due back to work overseas, Joey is “delicate and shouldn’t live in a wet climate” and something needs to change in order to ensure the safe future of the Bettany women. That something is  Madge and her plan to start a school in Austria:

“.. I shouldn’t want a large number, not at first at any rate-about twelve at most, and counting Joey. I should want girls from twelve to fourteen or fifteen. I would teach English subjects; Mademoiselle La Pâttre would come with us, and she would take the French and German-and the sewing too. Music we could get in Innsbrück.”

Things progress, and shortly thereafter the two Bettany sisters and Grizel, “the second pupil with a bit of a permanent chip on her shoulder” Cochrane, arrive in Austria and open up the Chalet School in the most romantic and evocative location possible: “Higher and higher they climbed, now and then stopping at a tiny wayside station, till at last they reached the great Alp, or rather Alm, as they are called in the Tyrol, and there before them, dark, beautiful, and clear as a mirror, spread the Tiern See, with its three tiny hamlets and two little villages round its shores, and towering round on all sides the mighty limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.”

Image credit: kaibara87 (Flickr)

What I love about this book is the wild range of characters. We have a world of new girls; English, Austrian, French, and all of them are palpably different. There’s shy, emotional Simone; the hail fellow well met Joey, the stubborn John Bull-esque nature of Grizel and the tall quiet grace of Gisela and Bernhilda, Tyrolean mountain girls. Brent-Dyer was ahead in her genre and colours her books with a warm multicultural respect and genuine love for Austria. This school may be English but that comes to mean something very different than say that Angela Brazil bit where she goes off on a eugenics-esque rant.

This is a book that might be very good to share with families facing international travel and also those engaged in alternative educational methods. Whilst there is one relatively scary incident at the end, it’s one of those incidents which sort of doesn’t lend itself to a morbid ending. It’s also notable for the strong multicultural warmth and the genuine faith in the startlingly realistic girls. I would also reccomend this to those readers who are devouring Malory Towers and St Clare’s – it’s a little stylistically different due to age (there’s mention of fires in bedrooms which *totally* baffled me as a child) but it still stands up very strong in comparison.

And, the best bit, is that this title (in direct comparison to some of the others) is very easily available. I checked on Amazon and there’s a load of copies available from 1p. It’s also one of those books that turns up more often than not in charity shops so it’s worthwhile keeping your eyes open. You’ll be picking up a book that quite often, to be honest, reads as if it was written yesterday instead of nearly 90 years ago.

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Everything else Overviews

Baby, it’s cold outside

Well. Er. I wish.

But doesn’t that single line conjure an amazing image? Did it make you think of Kurt and Blaine, Cerys and Tom, Ella and Louis or Ricardo and Esther? Did it make you think of Christmas and burning log fires and snow piling down outside?

Weather (typo *most* intentional) it did or it didn’t, I want to talk about weather in children’s literature. To be precise, school stories.

School stories exist in a bubble of their own and boarding schools especially so. The train, with its connotations of departures and arrivals, provides a connection between the two worlds. The child – Harry, Darrell, Pat and Isabel, Joey or whomever – gets on the train and they depart from their “real” world existence and enter that of their “school” existence. The school existence where they may be head girl, queen of their form, boy Wizard, but back home they’re just a kid at the command of their parents or living in drudgery under the stairs. The differences between the school world and the real world are palpable and the train provides a conduit between the two. CS Lewis even goes to the lengths of using the train as a quite literal method of departing the real world in The Last Battle.

One of the other key connectors between the real and school world? Weather.

Heat, dry and strong and curiously nourishing, is one thing I will forever associate with the Chalet School books – particularly the early ones set in Austria. The dampness in England is not conducive to Joey’s help (though she does get a fire in her bedroom which is BRILLIANT). Much is made in the stories of how the difference in climate is positive for the girls’ health and Brent-Dyer sets up a Sanatorium as both a guaranteed source of pupils and pathos in equal measure.

Brent-Dyer, being Brent-Dyer, naturally milks her climate for all it’s worth. I love how we have flooding, ice-breaking, summer storms, earth-fissures and more … all in the first ten books or so. It’s something that can (and rightly so) become hysterical but there’s something quite glorious about it. You can almost see all this stuff happening (admittedly not in such swift succession) but EBD writes with such passion and love for her Austrian surroundings that it all becomes palpable and possible.

Out of the Chalet school books, weather provides a less catalytic role. It always feels to me that it is forever summer in the Abbey books and Rosamund, Rosabel, Rosalin, Rosella et al do nothing but dance on the lawns and engage in genteel picnics of reflective thought and sisterly spirit. Every now and then there’s an incident involving somebody throwing themselves into the pond or standing outside in the rain but that’s more of a Delicate Soul having a Crisis as opposed to the OH MY GOD THE MOUNTAIN BROKE attitude of EBD.

More modern school stories take a subtle attitude and tend to use weather rather as a shading element to the story as opposed to acting as a key protagonist.  Kate Saunder’s Beswitched has lines like “the sun was too hot and the sweat dripped off their pigtails” which provide a tangible quality of both awed-disgust and skin twitching empathy. It’s excellently done. JK Rowling uses weather primarily as a reflection of current events and the termly structure of the early books (note how the weather shifts through seasons as we go through the school year). It’s in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that weather gains a more threatening and aggressive  quality with the introduction of the Dementors: “He felt the unnatural cold begin to steal over the street…The cold was biting deeper and deeper into Harry’s flesh”

What the weather does in all these stories, regardless of how emphatic it is used, is that it helps contribute to a rounded “whole” of the world. The Chalet School is rampantly exotic in Austria and, to be frank, tends to lose a bit of that when it goes to Armishire. You can almost feel EBD revelling when she manages to hoik the school onto St Briavels because it’s not long until we have sea-storms, mists, and shipwrecks for the girls to contend with.

Weather finishes off a book-world. And admittedly it can be awful at times but in skilled hands it’s a superb narrative tool to employ.

And now, because I’m this far from pulling an Elphaba, I’m off to get an ice-cream. 😉

Categories
Girlsown

My proudest moment this week

Categories
Girlsown

The Chalet School : If There’s A Mountain, We’ll Try To Jump Off It

I wondered once,  somewhat facetiously, how much the insurance premiums would be for the Chalet School. There are very few titles in the series that don’t have some sort of life-threatening incident. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Chalet School for me, that sort of insouciant disregard for Common Sense and staff members with the sudden ability to backflip from speedboat to speedboat. If you add to that Grizel’s predisposition for trying to kill Len, we have ourselves one hell of a series that shifts from the melodrama to gritty socio-political commentary with barely a pause.

So I decided to infographic some of my more favourite incidents. I’m a little bit obsessed with infographics at the moment (I am teaching myself how to make them for work as I think there’s a lot of potential in them for library purposes) and I thought I’d practice with some for the blog. The below were all done via easel.ly.

I will have missed some of the accidents (and must acknowledge my massive debt to this awesome list) but I do hope you enjoy what are, quite certainly, the first ever Chalet School infographics. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go off and infographic what happens to all the Minettes.

Categories
Girlsown Theory

On Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

“The world of juvenile literature is made the poorer by the death on Saturday of Miss Elinor Brent-Dyer, whose 56 “Chalet School” stories, set in the Austrian Tyrol, attracted a huge readership from all over the world – not only of children but adults also.” 

(The Times : 1969)

Poorer. I like that. It speaks of riches lost and a genuine, palpable sense of something being taken away. Brent-Dyer was pretty awesome. Yes, she slunk into self-parody at the end of her career but when she was at her full strengths as an author, her books stand squarely in the camp of world-class.

I’ll be the first to admit that the later books in the Chalet School series are sort of  hysterical. I’ve just read the Summer Term at The Chalet School and the list of incidents are as follows: randomly running into your guardian whom you’ve never met before on Oxford Street, some eeeevil modern girls who just need a good wash,  a  train crash, fire, adopting a potential orphan, a girl trips over which leads to a broken bone in her foot, a bee-perfume swarming thing, a sort of meteor strike, a violent storm, a  landslide / earth opening double whammy, and a DISAPPEARING FRINGE.

(Amazing, right? And I’ve not even got to Althea Joins The Chalet School where Miss Ferrars goes all Terminator and backflips from speedboat to speedboat… )

I read the later books with a kind of loving attitude. I give them leeway. And a lot of that is due to the heights Brent-Dyer achieved in her earlier work. I will forgive a lot from an author who produces some of the most ground-breaking work of her generation – one of which I’ll discuss at some length here as part of my entry into the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival.

The Chalet School In Exile is outstanding. First published in 1940, it slammed into a heavily suffering world. The impact of the Second World War was massive at this point and being felt by everybody. Exile provides a complex, provocative and frankly challenging counterpoint to the events occuring in the wider, non-Chalet School world. It addresses reality and it makes no bones about it.

“I’m afraid of Germany’s demands on Austria. I think she’s going to try to bring Austria into the Reich. It’s very likely … I doubt if Miklas and Schuschnigg would involve their country in what could only prove to mean appalling bloodshed” (1951:18)

“Hitler is speaking of including all the German-speaking peoples on the continent in the Reich … you’ll never get a monomaniac to see anything he doesn’t want to see. And I distrust his methods.” (1951 : 19)

You can see by those page references that it doesn’t take long for Brent-Dyer to start making her point. And it’s subtle, and delicate and bloody brave to be doing this in the middle of wartime. Her point is careful and comes to emphatic clarity during the next few pages.

“The girls themselves had held a meeting … they had solemnly formed a peace league among themselves and vowed themselves to a union of nations whether they should ever meet again or not.” (1951 : 33)

This is the birth of the Chalet School Peace League. And I can’t even begin to fathom how stunning it is to be writing this when she was writing it.

 “We, the girls of the Chalet School, hereby vow ourselves members of the Chalet School League. We swear faithfully to do all we can to promote peace between all our countries. We will not believe any lies spoken about evil doings but we will try to get others to work for peace as we do. We will not betray this League to any enemy whatever may happen to us. If it is possible, we will meet at least once a year. And we will always remember that though we belong to different lands, we are members of the Chalet School League of Peace.” (1951:35)

A couple of things to note about this. Firstly an equivalent to this these days might have been something like JK Rowling pausing to acknowledge the invasion of Iraq or 9/11. Secondly this is, what people in TV call, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a term which harks back to the theatre where people performed in a three walled space (ie: the stage) and the audience formed the fourth wall. Acknowledging the presence of the audience is when you “break the fourth wall”. Here Brent-Dyer, through careful usage of gender-free language (note how only the first sentence is gendered – remarkable for a series with a distinct female bias ), and the usage of ‘We’ as opposed to ‘I’ creates an all encompassing effect to the Peace League vow. It is a statement that is as much addressed to the reader as it is to the Chalet School girls.

The Peace League was a way for women to ‘fight’  – and for children to ‘fight’. Brent-Dyer is clear throughout Exile that women, and the school, are at the mercy of masculine power. Madge Russell expresses this succinctly:

“Must I finish it [the school] just because a set of men have gone quite mad?” (1951:64)

The subtle differentiation of power continues throughout Exile. Jack Maynard, Brent-Dyer’s perhaps most perfect man in that she allows him to marry her beloved Joey, refers to the Peace League quite specifically as “your League” (1951:189) despite only moments earlier having heard his wife refer to it as “our League” (1951:189) Jack fights with his physicality on the front line and Joey fights with her words and ideology. Women fight with words and men fight with fits. Nowhere is this more clearly stated then by Joey Bettany upon the safe arrival of old friends who had escaped from a concentration camp.

“they had contrived to escape, thanks to the help of three men whose names they flatly refused to give. ‘Oh, why not?’ cried Joey. ‘I wanted to pray for them, seeing it’s the one thing I can do in the circumstance” (1951:186)

The subtlety of Exile does not end there. Brent-Dyer also explicitly draws a difference between Nazism and Germans. Not all Germans are Nazis and not all Nazis are Germans.

‘Gottfried! It isn’t you : it’s the Nazis. We don’t blame you ; we don’t even blame the German people for all this.” (1951:84)

“‘It isn’t the Germans who are doing it,’ said Robin. ‘It’s the Nazis.'” (1951:118)

“‘You see,’ said Gertrude … ‘I’m not English. I’m a German – I was a Nazi. You can’t want me here when you know that’. The man grinned cheerfully. ‘We don’t war with women and kids,’ he told her” (1951:145)

“I don’t hate Germans – I’m too sorry for them, poor wretches!…” (1951:169)

Perhaps the most subtle message of all in Exile is the  experience of Gertrud(e) Becker. She joins the school as a spy, tasked with discovering their secrets. Her Damascene conversion into Real Chalet School Girl  is inevitable and occurs with an elegance that is superbly handled.

“…the Chalet School atmosphere was working more and more strongly in the German girl. She noted how careful the girls were to speak as kindly as they could about her country. She saw how they did everything in their power for peace, hushing the younger ones when they talked about ‘horrid Germans’ and, by word and deed, setting an example in tolerance that could not fail to have an effect” (1951:137)

‘I’m not [a Nazi] now-I couldn’t be. Not after they torpedoed us like that. Besides, the School made a difference’” (1951:145)

Gertrude is iconic rather than realistic. Once she is converted her story is complete. Gertrud provides us with an empowering cipher – an image of a redeemed Nazi and hope for ‘British’ ideals being triumphant.

The Chalet School in Exile possesses an impact and an immediacy distinctly lacking in any others of the series.. It represents a distinct shift in school story writing and the adoption of an ideology which bears resonance and weight to the present day.

And that’s why I’ll forgive Elinor M. Brent-Dyer marrying off Len to Reg. I’ll forgive her for the whole torturous “You can eat White Bread now” maxim to Grizel (SHUT UP JOEY WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME). I’ll even forgive her for bloody Mary-Lou.

When she was good, Brent-Dyer was world-class. Game-changing. And so very very brilliant.

(Even if she did do that whole OH NOES WE HAVE A PINK WORM IN THE ENGINE thing in Althea).

Categories
Girlsown

It is a truth universally acknowledged…

… that Summer Term at the Chalet School is a little bit pants. Train crashes! Swarming wasps! Impoverished orphans! Craters!

But oh, this illustration is superb. The edition I’m reading is a very tattered old hb (on loan from library) and so I’ll apologise for the picture quality. If I had a scanner, I’d have scanned it in but you’ll have to do with a photo.

And now that I’ve done that, please enjoy and LOL at Joey’s hair! Pastry missiles! The EARS of the schoolboy! The UTTER DRAMA OF THE SCENE!

 

“Erica bit firmly into a pastry roll and a large dollop of whipped cream shot out of the further end.”

Categories
Book Reviews Girlsown

The Highland Twins at the Chalet School : Elinor M Brent-Dyer

The Highland Twins at the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #16)The Highland Twins at the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I used to always think that The Highland Twins at the Chalet School was one of the poorer books. Coming so soon after the dizzy heights of the Chalet School In Exile, I always found Highland Twins at the Chalet School a little – well – cheesey.

But now, after a re-reading of the hardback edition, I feel I need to make an apology to it. Highland Twins at the Chalet School is actually, very quietly, one of the strongest titles in the series.

Following the nearly now-traditional format of new girl, new term, the eponymous Highland Twins Flora and Fauna (sorry, Fiona) McDonald are experiencing their first term at the Chalet School. The twins, having grown up on a remote Scottish island, have very little experience of the world outside their home. Thrown into a furious maelstrom of wartime hardship, schoolgirl feuds, and tragedy, the twins have to come to terms with a whole new world (and a new fantastic point of view).

The hardback edition is worth seeking out if you can as there’s a whole new subplot featuring Elisaveta which has been rampantly cut out of every paperback edition I’ve ever come across. It’s strange, really, as if there’s any peculiar joy about the Chalet School series it is to be found in the encyclopedic recounting of old girls’ exploits. Although, if you do manage to grab the hardback, you’ll have to cope with some spectacularly hideous phonetic spelling every time one of the Highlanders speak. It’s quite something – there’s a whole word of “nefer” and “iss” and “haf”

What makes Highland Twins at The Chalet School work, and indeed all of Brent-Dyers wartime Chalet School books, is her focus on personal responsibility. Nazism, and the evils therein, are resolutely and (quite amazingly considering the national psyche at the time) portrayed as individual choice. There is a moment where two old girls arrive at the Chalet School having escaped from Germany and the recounting of their experiences is an emotional surgical strike. Nazism is described as a disease, a sickness which has infected Germany, and there is always a careful distinction between Nazism and the everyday German.

The other part of Highland Twins at the Chalet School which has a deceptively sharp impact is Fiona’s ability with “the sight”. This is the part that always hit me as superbly cheesey despite the dramatic emotional contexts she utilises her abilities in. But upon this re-reading, I was struck by the almost symbolic usage of her skill. There’s a moment where Fiona does something massively important for an individual (I’m trying desperately not to spoil anything here) and it’s hard not to read a certain wistful angle to this entire episode.

If you’re into the Chalet School, you’ll read this regardless. But if you’re not, I’d genuinely recommend this period of books (starting off with The Chalet School in Exile) as a worthwhile stepping on point. These are books which are almost hiding as children’s books whilst presenting some massively serious and provocative ideologies that still bear weight today.

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Girlsown

Eustacia and Eustace

The lovely Ali from Fantastic Reads has done a post which I am ridiculously pleased to be able to share with you today.  If you’ve not checked out Fantastic Reads, may I heartily reccommend it? Ali knows her children’s literature and her reviews and posts are always an utmost delight to read. 

Now – to back injuries and dragons! 

Eustacia and Eustace

     Image: childrensbookshop.com

I am a fan of school stories. In particular I am a fan of the Chalet School, the fictional school first set up in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s, trilingual and international both in its pupils and staff, and in its education.  I longed to enrol as a pre-teen attending a suburban comprehensive in the 1980s.

Eustacia goes to the Chalet School, first published in 1929, was never one of my favourites, but is a book that, on recent re-reading, I realised I remembered almost every detail except one very important plot detail which I will outline later.

It is a book I find quite troubling. Eustacia Benson is the daughter of an elderly professor of Greek and a Doctor (of what we are not told) who had “great theories on how to bring up children” (what these are we are not told).  At the beginning of the novel both parents die suddenly, and Eustacia is left to the care of her married aunt who is the mother of five sons. Like Mary from The Secret Garden, Eustacia, an “arrant little prig” as she is described in the first line, upsets her cousins by telling tales. In desperation, she is sent to the Chalet School by her aunt and uncle.

However, although it is hoped that European girls will be more sympathetic to Eustacia’s old fashioned ways (for example, she refuses to wear climbing breeches because they are “unmaidenly”), her tale telling, self-conceit and self-righteousness makes her unpopular in the school; in particular she and Joey Bettany (prefect and protagonist of the early Chalet books) clash. Eventually Eustacia decides to run away from school and gets caught in a flood. She is rescued but has damaged her back. “Stacie” as she is called after her accident remains in a wheel chair for several novels.

On re-reading the novel, I was struck by the amount of punishment Eustacia undergoes. She is shaken several times. She is banned from the library for a month; for a book-loving girl, surely a terrible ordeal. She is ignored and snubbed, and finally terrified and temporarily disabled by her night on a mountain.  Madge Russell, the owner of the school and Joey’s sister, describes Eustacia’s character, reformed through suffering, as having been buried deep inside her, but now they’ve “got those layers scraped off” Stacie can appear.

Image: barnesandnoble.com

The image of sloughing skin reminded me of Eustace Scrubb from C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I realised why Eustacia’s punishment made me so profoundly uncomfortable. Again, a child is being punished for his intellectual, “advanced” parents. Again, the punishment is physical (Eustace is turned into a dragon; Eustacia is bed- then wheelchair-bound). Again, the language of redemption and deliverance is used as both are “born again”. Both Brent-Dyer and Lewis are profoundly Christian writers; in fact Cadogan and Craig in their study of girls’ fiction, You’re a Brick, Angela accuses the Chalet School books of “religious sentimentality”.  This smacks of both bullying, inverse snobbery and self-righteousness on the part of both writers.

I mentioned an important plot detail that I had misremembered. Eustacia is rescued by a rescue party made up of the school’s neighbours, and not by Joey Bettany, as I had thought. Joey is laid up after having had a tooth extracted. However, my mistake can be explained by Joey’s remarkable feats of rescuing: as Cadogan and Craig point out, in the first five Chalet School books, Joey rescues the lives of “six girls and a dog”! This is, however, one of the aspects of Chalet School stories I love so much; separated from boys and families, girls get an opportunity to be heroic. Long live the Chalet School!

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Girlsown

The Chalet School and Genius

“That’s what comes of being a genius, my dear. You be thankful you aren’t one. It makes you a sickening nuisance to your friends and relatives at times!”

Excitements at the Chalet School 

Nina is unlike any other girl to join the Chalet School community. She’s really got no choice in being so unique. Her introductory book is called A Genius at The Chalet School. It’s a technique rarely deployed by Brent-Dyer and only in situations where, perhaps, we are asked to view “new” characters through certain already established social stereotypes (viz. The New Mistress at the Chalet School and The Princess of the Chalet School as opposed to more generic, open titles such as The New Chalet School and The Chalet School Wins the Trick)

The title influences us before we have even reached the central text of the narrative.  The new girl is a Genius (capitalisation most intentional).  She is identified primarily by her function. We read her as a genius before we read her as Nina.

“We’ve got a musical genius this term. Did you know, Mrs. Maynard? She’s Nina Rutherford. I heard her practising in Hall last night and I was simply stunned. I never heard any other girl play like that. It was marvellous! I felt as if my efforts were just a schoolkid’s strumming beside that.A Genius at the Chalet School

What is fascinating however, is how her genius is treated within the Chalet School world. Brent-Dyer takes several opportunities to expound upon the concept of genius and, through the mouthpiece of authorial-favourite Joey Maynard, begins to elaborate upon the inherent difficulties that those “afflicted” with genius will experience in a boarding school context. The following extract is taken from the first prefects meeting in the term:

“…you always have to pay heavily for a very valuable thing and the geniuses of this world pay very heavily for their gifts … it’s like a lever, propelling you along one straight path and it won’t let you side-track – or not for long, at any rate. Sooner or later, you have to come back to it, and no one and nothing can ever really come between it and you. That’s why so many geniuses make unhappy marriages. They’re so absorbed in their art and it means so much to them that they have very little time for anything else. You see it’s an obsession and obsessed people are never quite – well – sane … they’re lopsided. And the ordinary happinesses [sic] of life can never be theirs.”A Genius at the Chalet School

Poor Nina. She’s screwed before she’s even begun. This is the moment where a Genius at the Chalet School becomes really interesting for me. This is big stuff. The parallels between genius and madness are palpable. The ‘narrow focus’ of genius propels the bearer towards a less than fulfilling existence. And, it cannot be escaped, that this fulfilled existence conceptualised by Joey does include love and therefore, marriage.

Through using Joey to provide the dominant ideological point of view regarding genius, Brent-Dyer is imbuing her with an authority that is very much absent from any other character in the series. Joey plays a specific and unique role in the Chalet School series. From acting as the school’s first pupil, she never quite releases her ties with the school and ultimately acts as an embodiment of the Chalet School both physically and psychologically. What Joey says is accepted as truth. It is the nearest we get to direct authorial intervention in the text.

But then, what do we make of musical Margia Stevens? Bright, bold and brilliant Margia who remains, as far as I can tell, a musician and single and not particularly lopsided? Are there levels of genius in the Chalet School and are Margia and Jacynth Hardy (sad shy Jacynth!) fated to never achieve the greatness of Nina? It’s interesting to note that both of these other musical virtuoso’s are very deliberately never presented as geniuses. Margia, commonly accepted as one of the more brilliant of Brent-Dyer’s creations, remained a highly-talented individual and yet distinctly removed from genius. She has a “mania”, a “passion”. But she does not have overt Genius (and if she does, it’s been cut out of the pb texts which are my primary references).

Jacynth Hardy is however extremely gifted and one of the few characters who come close to playing a similar role to that of Nina. Matron, another voice of authority both internally and externally to the narrative, is the one to bring it to light: “…if Jacynth is a genius – or near-genius – as Mr Manders implies…”  Gay Lambert at the Chalet School 

And yet, and this always strikes me as such a sad moment, the affirmation of Jacynth’s talent is immediately negated. Matron, a woman of practical skills and hard fact, seems to doubt her authority in assessing this intangible quality of genius.  Matron defines Jacynth as a genius and then, near-instantly, retracts her statement. Jacynth is not viewed as a genius because she is not accepted universally as such. Her genius and talent is not socially recognised in the Chalet School and therefore comes across as being of distinctly less importance than the ability of Nina. This is confirmed, again, by Joey Maynard:

“Jacynth was very highly gifted, but from what I can gather, Nina is even more so. And all her previous training has helped to deepen her idea that her art must come first and foremost and I doubt if there can be very much done about it now” A Genius at the Chalet School

 It’s perhaps notable that Nina, in a cast of eventual-thousands, is unique in her extreme creativity. The school story does not react well to difference. The Chalet School in particular takes overt pleasure in creating ‘the Real Chalet School Girl’ model of behaviour and, as a direct consequence of this, ‘genius’ cannot easily thrive in such a context. It’s perhaps why we see so few many of the Chalet Girls engage in extreme creativity, despite a lot of them having obvious proclivities towards such an aim (Amy and her poetry, Samaris and her flute etc).

And it’s why, despite being one of the perhaps most overtly linear books to read (new girl comes to school, gets a grip, turns into good egg), I find A Genius at the Chalet School really rather remarkable.

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Everything else Girlsown

Meet the family (confessions of a book collector)