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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


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

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

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

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

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





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Trials For The Chalet School, an audio review

I’ve been contemplating doing some audio content for a while (I feel like I need to hashtag that liberally but I honestly can’t bear it, so forgive me). The current situation in the world has given me that opportunity and so, here we are with a review of Trials For The Chalet School – a short and somewhat eccentric (play to your strengths, I know) look at some of the most intriguing aspects of this fascinating book. Forgive me my neophyte audio-editing ways, but I hope you enjoy!

Trials for the Chalet School (19:07)

(Music: Xylo-Ziko, used under creative commons).

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Lorna at Wynyards by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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



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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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Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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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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The Lost Staircase : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Lost StaircaseThe Lost Staircase by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love this slim, eccentric story that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. I came to it from the Chalet School series which sees two of the characters from The Lost Staircase attend the school. It’s a bravura step and one which happens in the Chalet School books on a fairly regular basis. I always imagine Brent-Dyer inserting these textual Easter Eggs with a slight smugness and well earned sense of satisfaction.

The Lost Staircase itself is a standalone novel which tells of the adventures of young Jesanne Gellibrand, heiress to the Dragon House. The Dragon House is a stately home that reads, at times, with a delightful giddiness and over-excitement and following the death of family, Sir Ambrose brings his young cousin and closest heir home from New Zealand to come into her inheritance. And then there’s a bit about a Lost Staircase which is supremely wonderful because of its grimly committed presence within the novel.

It’s an odd one this but, as I say, deeply charming. Some of it rests on the tangibility of the book itself; it’s smaller than a traditional Chalet School hardback and much of that is due to it being printed in the economy standards that the second world war. The paper is thin, the text closely typed, and it’s all a rather evocative experience. I always find the object of the book as much interest as the book itself and for this to be published in 1946 and to talk so deeply of richness, of heritage and tradition and of wealth, is fascinating.

Textually, it takes a while to get to the point. Much of this seems to centre on Brent-Dyer’s slight tendency to go a bit Angela Brazil and to revel in the romantic context a tad too much. Yet somehow this is still rather lovely because when Brent-Dyer hits it, she hits it square on. The Dragon House is overwritten but madly appealing. Jesanne rides around, romps with dogs, battles with a governess, and gets one of the best Christmas presents ever depicted in a children’s book. It’s gorgeous. But then, having said that, there’s that traditional moment of eccentricity to be found in a Brent-Dyer book, and in The Lost Staircase a plot point turns upon a banana skin.

The Lost Staircase is ridiculous but wonderful; a sort of dizzying mix of the deeply romantic and practical tips about dog keeping. It’s eccentric. It is gorgeous.

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

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

The school is the world, always.

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

The Feud in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #52)The Feud in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Feud In the Chalet School bears some deep similarities to Rivals of the Chalet School. Following the slightly dramatic incident of ‘their new school having burnt down to the ground overnight’, the new school St Hilda’s is forced to bunk in with the Chalet School. It is when Gillie Garstin reminisces, in a handily expository manner, about the incident, that I utterly fall in love with this ridiculous book. Gillie has a good paragraph of adoration over the lovely uniform of the Chalet School girls. It is rapturous and oddly specific. “The thing which had first caught the eye was their uniform. Such a lovely, deep blue! ….. The St Hilda’s girls had thought it was just a Sunday frock, but now it seemed that it was the school uniform. And was it the tops, with its honeycombing in crimson at waist and shoulders and the little white revers at the neck!” What is a revers? Who would combine crimson honeycombing with deep blue? Were the girls dressed as christmas crackers? How is this any better on the orange and brown combos of before? WHO SPENDS AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN RAPTURES OVER A SCHOOL UNIFORM?

God I love this book. It’s recycled, yes, but you know, massive series and I’d be knackered at this point. It does have some splendid episodes of snottiness between the pupils of the respective schools and it does have a gorgeous episode of stupidity on behalf of the middles that includes Miss Annersley importing some epic advice over wood. I adore this series.

Where Feud makes its mark is in its treatment of Miss Ashley who is determined to remain unaffected by the Chalet School. The resolution to this (come on, you all know what’s going to happen to her) is a bit rubbish – but the bits beforehand are fascinating. It reminds me a lot of Miss Ferrars’ debut and I start to wonder – is this the point where the series about schoolgirls started to actually become a series about adults? Is this the point where actually I’ve been misreading it and instead, somehow, this is the point where everything started to actually have grown up – ?

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The New House Mistress : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost missed this book. I was settling into my traditional ‘let’s check the B section in the bookshop just in case but there won’t be anything there’ frame of mind, and when I saw The New House Mistress tucked behind Angela Brazil (as it were), I couldn’t quite understand what was seeing. It wasn’t a Chalet School title and it wasn’t anything to do with La Rochelle and it was tiny. It is a small, slim, standalone book originally published in 1928, the same year as The Head Girl of the Chalet School, and it seemed to have passed me by.

Reader, I bought it. I hyperventilated somewhat as I did, but I bought it, and then I ran home like Gollum with the One Ring, and I sat and I read this strange little book. It’s a fairly straightforward premise; there’s a new house mistress, and the girl’s aren’t keen on her until oh look they are. (The delicious comfort of school stories and their tropes!)

The New House Mistress isn’t the best written title in Brent-Dyer’s canon. I was startled to figure out the publication date, because that period of time is a good time in Brent-Dyer land. The Tyrolean Chalet School books are wildly vivid stories and The New House Mistress kind of isn’t? It’s not got enough space to breathe; there’s too much scene setting and rules to get through, and substantial amounts of the book are devoted to telling (along the lines of ‘and then she said this, to which Miss so and so did this, and then that’) as opposed to the delicious revelry that Brent-Dyer could deliver.

But then I got to The Incidents, and I deliberately capitalise them because this book is somewhat hysterically brilliant and utterly perfect because of the series of incidents which occur throughout the term. There is a Tree Incident, a Fire Incident, a Crocodile Incident, and a Dancing On The Lawn Incident, and they’re basically so convoluted and hyperbolic and ridiculous that they reach Althea Joins the Chalet School level quality. The Tree Incident, by the way, provides one of my utterly favourite pages ever in literature (page 20, fact fans)

This book is gorgeous, and it’s ridiculous and it’s too brief and it’s hideously written at times and it’s kind of spectacularly off its tree and I guess that that more than anything makes it a wonderfully perfect representative of Brent-Dyer’s work.

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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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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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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

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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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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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The Susannah Adventure : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

I’d never heard of this book.

Isn’t that awful? I’d never heard of it. And so, when I came across it at a book fair, I bought it and reader, I read it.

It’s not the best of Brent-Dyer’s efforts. I feel that’s something we need to make clear almost immediately. It’s part of the Chudleigh Hold series (apparently? Gosh, I am immensely blank on this book…) and features some individuals who posses some of the best names in all of Brent-Dyer. Seriously. Anstace Roseveare. Humphrey Anthony. Tom Vinton. Mr Jago Halcrow. Kennetha Mackenzie. Kevin Mackenzie.  Jabez Vinton. It’s rare that Brent-Dyer goes full Angela Brazil with her names, but when she does, she goes there with gusto.

So, our improbably named crew of Anstace and Humphrey are aboard the Susannah (and that’s the name of the boat – God, this book is killing me) and one night, Kevin and Kennetha (shortened to Kennie) climb aboard. They are orphans, escaping from the dubious care of Mr Jago Halcrow. Humphrey and Anstace try to help them out – but then adventures ensue. And there’s some dude with a barge, some military chaps, and some random other Evil Bloke pops up. I’m exhausted.

Okay. What else? Well, this is set during wartime, so there’s a lot of subtle references to The Enemy and The Bad Things They Will Do If They Find Out This Secret Which Handily Is Now Known By All The Kids. It’s really a book painted in quite broad brush strokes which surprises me considering that it comes out in 1953, alongside Bride Leads the Chalet School and Changes for the Chalet School. Whilst Brent-Dyer certainly wasn’t at the heights of her powers, she certainly wasn’t at the depths of Althea Joins The Chalet School.

I suspect some of this is due to her being somewhat at sea with the subject (no pun intended). She very rarely touched the out and out thriller and her strengths were, as ever and always, to be found in how she wrote people and girls and the life they lived together. Those moments where she writes people are perfect. Those moments when she tries something like, oh, Redheads, are moments to be forgiven. And even though I think that The Susannah Adventure is not her best effort (really, it’s not her best, let me emphasise that a little bit more), there are moments in this book which do still sing. Anstace cooking fat spitting sausages and mash on the beach. Humphrey doing The Right Thing. The shy and nervy Highlanders. The Susannah Adventure has enough of those moments for me to forgive it so much else.

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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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now where’s my will?

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s interesting to look back at the phases of Chalet School life. We have the glorious idealism of the early Tyrol phase; epitomised in moments such as Madge going, “Well, I thought I’d start a school.” Later in the series, around the war books (say Highland Twins and Lavender in particular), we get some intense and searing social commentary wrapped up in a pseudo-simple girls’ school story. Later still, we get the second (third?) generation of family pupils to attend the school and the whole ‘do you remember when?’ This phase is at times the Swiss ‘Enterprise’ to the Tyrolean ‘Next Generation’ of the Chalet School. That is, to say, not very good.

And here, in Carola, though I’d never quite twigged it before, is Brent-Dyer’s ‘batty relative phase’. There’s a connection now needling at me between the propensity of relatives to be a bit rubbish (Annis’ Aunt, Kat Gordon’s … Aunt, Carola’s whole family) and the way that all the girls concerned decide to take control of their own stories. To be honest there’s now also a connection needling at me about the propensity of Chalet School staff / groupies to hang around in seaside bed and breakfasts but that will wait until I eventually scrape up some dosh to do a phd.

So this book! It’s great because it’s early enough to still have some semblance of plot and that plot is delivered with Intense Verve. Basically: Carola pitches a fit after Biddy of the Lush Irish Hair And Never Fading Accent tells her lovely stories about the Chalet School and then runs off to join it whilst leaving her Aunt on a cruise ship to Jamaica. As new girl stories go, it’s one of the best. (“Has she drowned?” “No, she’s at the Chalet School.” “But we’re in the middle of the sea.” “She’s your relative, Miss Curry, not mine.”)

Carola’s first term is excellent. I always think that the girls who were at the School during the St Briavels phase miss out slightly as their surroundings aren’t quite as dominant as Switzerland or Tyrol. Of course Brent-Dyer works her usual melodramatic brilliance on the Island (There’s a phd in the whole ‘why does Joey keep getting almost / actually shipwrecked’, I think), but somehow it never quite rings true to me. I think perhaps it’s epitomised best in this book where Carola goes to the Maynards’ (naturally) house, and then several chapters later accidentally discovers the house again (“Oh this is Mrs Maynard’s house!” “But of course it is Carola, you’ve already been here you big div”) as she’s walking around the island with Taciturn As All Scottish Characters Are Scottish Jean.

But this book remains lovely and glorious in a way that only a Brent-Dyer can be. I haven’t even begun to mention the epic flame-throwing d’enouement.

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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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Everything else Girlsown

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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Book Reviews Girlsown

The Chalet School Triplets

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Girlsown

Peggy of the Chalet School : Elinor M Brent Dyer

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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Theory

The nature of inspiration

Image: gasboyben (Flickr)

I recently went to see the Jersey Boys in London and was struck in particular by the story of Bob Gaudio. Gaudio was the songwriter behind some of the greatest and most enduring songs in 20th century music – ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Rag Doll’, ‘Beggin”, and so many more. There’s a moment in the musical where, in a moment of pure theatricality, Gaudio steps out of the narrative and tells us about how he wrote the song Sherry only fifteen minutes before a rehearsal. In this video he talks about it just popping into his head and having to catch it with ‘silly’ lyrics that eventually stuck.

And that was something that made me think. I’m very interested in genius, creativity and talent and how it’s represented in children’s literature. In particular, I’m very much  interested in the nature of inspiration. The moment where something clicks and somebody creates something superb. Whether it’s a physical thing, a chemical thing or something other worldly – that’s the bit that fascinates me.

I decided to look into it. From my list of books featuring gifted and talented characters, we have a variety of circumstances that push the protagonist into the full exploitation of their talent. By this I mean, those moments where the individual  In no particular order, and from the three books / series’ I know the best:

  • Nina Rutherford (Chalet School) writes her first ‘adult’ piece as a tribute to Joey’s newborn daughter, Cecil. There’s a long note (no pun intended!) in the text where Nina, Joey and the author all realise that ‘the promise of Nina’s future’ is written in this piece. Nina is ‘dazed’ by this, physically feeling the delivery of the piece. 
  • Veronica (Sadlers Wells) reaches her great heights initially through reacting to the Northumbrian countryside. There’s a particularly lovely quote in A Dream of Sadlers Wells where the connection between her dance and her surroundings is made explicit. Veronica is able to read and interpret this beauty through her movement and that’s when she starts to develop as a dancer.
  • Pennington (Pennington series) achieves his greatness through a sort of permanent defiance against a society that seems convinced to stereotype him. His talent is further developed through the benevolent / paternal influence of both Ruth and The Professor, but still retains that initial sense of anti-establishmentism.

So what’s this tell us? Primarily that a sample of three titles isn’t representative of the whole, but what they do tell us is that these books feature a very distinctive form of ‘literary’ genius. The genius in these books doesn’t quite reflect stories such as Gaudio’s. The genius in these books reacts and acts in the context of being book-bound. There’s a tendency to reason from cause to effect (let’s all guess where I got that phrase from 😉 ) and a tendency to ‘explain’ the talent of the protagonist through logical / rational influences.

I do wonder though if there’s a book out there that explores the fragmentary, intangible nature of genius, and seeks to do so without this ‘rationalising’. I look forward to finding it if it does exist!

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Book Reviews Girlsown

Theodora and the Chalet School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Short Stories

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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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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Theory

When you read one book, but can’t stop thinking of another

It’s an act of literary bigamy. That moment when you pick up your new read but can’t help but contrast it against that other book you read.

And it happened to me this week.

I’m not going to review the new read because I don’t think I can do it objectively. I’ve got no bones about doing a ‘bad’ review, but I do have issues when I know that I’ve read one book in a spirit of heightened critical awareness.

So what can I do? Well, I can tell you all about the book that I couldn’t stop thinking of and some thoughts this process has triggered in me. The original book was War Horse by Micheal Morpurgo. It’s an inestimable book and one that’s repeatedly defined my attitude towards children’s literature as a whole. I don’t think I’d be far off if I described it as nearly wholly defining and creating a genre of its very own. There’s a totality to War Horse that few other books have achieved. Harry Potter, yes, and Twilight and  probably The Hunger Games also make the list. They’re all books that have transferred successfully to another medium and been integrated into our social consciousness. I’d imagine there’s not many people out there who haven’t heard of War Horse, whether that’s from reading it, seeing it, or witnessing Joey rearing on top of the National Theatre during the Jubilee boat thing on the Thames.

I know there’s another instance where I do a similar thing. With Elinor M. Brent-Dyer reaching such stupendous heights of creation in The Chalet School in Exile, I know I’ve read books from Angela Brazil (published during a similar timeframe in World War Two) and done nothing but compare them against the stunning polemic in Exile. 

There’s a theory that there are only seven plots in the world, so if you subscribe to that school of thought, in a way we’ve already read every book that’s been written – and we’ve also read all of those that haven’t been written. So maybe what I’m actually doing here, when I read something and compare it sharply back to a previous book, is that I’m actually trying to replicate the way that previous book made me feel. Maybe I’m trying to subconsciously recreate the ‘hit’ of that book and experience an inevitable disappointment when it does not occur.

(Maybe this is just all part of the addiction, the curve and cycle of your reading habit, how you long  to recreate that moment when you broke and wept and cleansed your head of all the pain and darkness in your mind just because of the way a stranger ordered some letters on a page).

So I put my other book down, I step away from it and I make a decision to read it in the future when my mind is less clouded.

And I pick up my copy of War Horse.

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Everything else Theory

Identifying geniuses in children’s literature

Genius is one of those almost unidentifiable things. You either have it, or you don’t, and until you become able to manifest it in ways we understand and can legitimise (ie: through a Mensa Test) , it may remain a relatively hidden talent.

It’s a difficulty faced by geniuses in children’s literature and one that I’m going to explore in this post. I’m going to focus on female characters this time round and write an accompanying post when I finally get my hands on Simon Mayo’s “Itch“.

So. How do we recognise the female genius? How do we treat her in the context of the narrative? Is it as something precious – something cliched – or something resolutely Other? How do writers handle difference – difference so manifestly extreme as Genius?

Angela Brazil in a splendidly airy manner tended to give her characters a ‘certain indefinable something’ and then promptly went about describing it. It’s particularly interesting to compare and contrast her (elaborate) descriptions of Mildred Lancaster and Lottie Lowman in The Girls of St Cyprian’s.

The two class-mates who entered the room at that moment were certainly entirely unlike as regards personal appearance, and the dissimilarity went deeper. Lottie Lowman, the elder by six months, was a brisk, alert-looking girl with a fresh complexion, a rather long, pointed nose, a thin mouth, and a square, determined chin. Her forehead was broad and intelligent, her light hazel eyes were very bright and sparkling, and her brown hair held just a suggestion of chestnut in the warmth of its colouring. Lottie’s general effect was one of extreme vivacity. She loved to talk, and could say sharp things on occasion—there was hardly a girl in the Form who had not quailed before her tongue—and above all she adored popularity. To be a general favourite at once with mistresses, companions, and the Lower School was her chief aim, and she spared no trouble in the pursuit. Her flippant gaiety appealed to a large section of the Form, her humorous remarks were amusing, even though a sting lurked in them, and if her accomplishments were superficial, they made a far better show than the more-solid acquirements of others. She could do a little of everything, and had such perfect assurance that no touch of shyness ever marred her achievements. She knew absolutely how to make the best of herself, and she had a savoir faire and precocious knowledge of the world decidedly in advance of her sixteen years.

Mildred Lancaster, though only six months Lottie’s junior, seemed a baby in comparison, where mundane matters were concerned. She was slightly built and rather delicate-looking, with a pale, eager face, a pair of beautiful, expressive brown eyes, and a quantity of silky, soft, dull-gold hair, with a natural ripple in it. The far-away look in the dark eyes, and the set of the sensitive little mouth, suggested that highly-strung artistic temperament which may prove either the greatest joy or the utmost hindrance to its possessor. Mildred was dreamy and unpractical to a fault, the kind of girl who in popular parlance needs to be “well shaken up” at school, and whose imagination is apt to outrun her performance. Gifted to an unusual degree in music, at which she worked by fits and starts, her lack of general confidence was a great impediment, and often a serious handicap where any public demonstration was concerned. The feeling of having an audience, which was like the elixir of life to Lottie, filled Mildred with dismay, and was apt to spoil her best efforts.

It’s a long quote and one I feel worthwhile in indulging in because there’s a lot here. There’s a certain level of nuance at play which is rather unusual in a Brazil (I love her but she’s not subtle). Lottie’s ability with music is obviously of a lesser quality than that of Mildred. Mildred possess a ‘sensitive little mouth’ whilst Lottie’s is merely ‘thin’. Mildred is ‘gifted to an unusual degree’ , Lottie doesn’t actually have any direct comment on her talent whatsoever. It goes on throughout the book and essentially suggests that giftedness manifests itself in the (repeatedly mentioned) sensitive bearing and appearance of Mildred. Basically Lottie’s got no hope for achieving ‘high’ art after that rather waspish introduction.

I’ve spoken before about how the treatment of Maidlin in the Elsie Oxenham books strikes me as hideous. In a way, she’s neutered by her marriage. Her wild, tempestuous, Italianate nature disappears and in the few post marriage books I’ve managed to find, she’s described less by her physical appearance and just as Primrose (her Queen colours). It’s narratorial consumption. Now admittedly this is a fate that befalls a lot of the Abbey girls (womanhood? Nope, not for you petal), but it always strikes me as awful with Maidlin, the vivacious child tempered and subdued by adulthood.

From a more modern perspective, one of the key female geniuses in children’s literature has been Hermione Granger. Although Hermione faces a suppression of her academic ability in the early parts of Philosophers Stone, her skills and intelligence rapidly become lifesaving. She’s a vital part of the trio. Debuting with ‘a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair, and rather large front teeth’, this changes later on in the books due to a variety of factors:

It was Hermione. But it didn’t look like Hermione at all. She had done something with her hair; it was no longer bushy but sleek and shiny, and twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head. She was wearing robes made of a floaty, periwinkle-blue material, and she was holding herself differently, somehow–or maybe it was merely the absence of the twenty or so books she usually had slung over her back. She was also smiling–rather nervously, it was true–but the reduction in the size of her front teeth was more noticeable than ever; Harry couldn’t understand how he hadn’t spotted it before.

It always struck me as painful (and yes, this is over-identification, what of it?) that by removing the manifestation of her skills (ie: the books), she achieved beauty. There’s a sense of the resolutely academic brilliance of the early Hermione softening as she becomes more rounded and integrated into Hogwarts society. Yes, she is brilliant, and remains so, but it’s not the first thing we identify about her (or at least, it wasn’t for me).

So is it even possible to identify the genius and the gifted in children’s literature or is the entirety of this post based on a conceptual fallacy? It’s hard to identify genius when the author doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge it. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer backs away from labelling her darling Joey thus, negates any sense of Jacynth being a genius and ultimately affixes the label solely to Nina Rutherford. Nina, being the only genius in the Chalet School, is a rather unique achievement considering Brent-Dyer’s affinity for the concept of musical talent.

I think that , rather than distinguishing the physical characteristics of ‘actual’ genius and sliding into Angela Brazil “Oh the Lady!” style worship,  it is possibly to distinguish one of the stages of genius – the pre-integration stage. The awkward, inwardly focused stage where the character is so locked into their talent that they’re not even responding to the whims of the author let alone the reader. The stage where the character is so locked in their own narrative.

And I think that’s maybe why we can identify that stage rather than the appearance of a genius because that stage  appears in nearly every book featuring genius. Geniuses are different – regardless of their talent – and it’s the ‘management’ of that talent which then forms the rest of the story and that conflict is a necessary driver for the story. Now the question of why that management usually results in a ‘normalising’ of the talent is a question for another post..!

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Book Reviews

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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Book Reviews Girlsown

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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Girlsown Theory

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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Book Reviews Girlsown

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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Everything else

An esoteric and distinctly biased list of 50 children’s books you probably really should read (part three)

The Last Unicorn – Peter S. Beagle

I came to this after watching the amazing animated film (I’m ALIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIVE) and fell in love. It’s a fantasy classic that tells the story of the last unicorn and her journey to find all the others of her kind. It shifts from pantomine, to pathos, to heart-breaking. Beautiful.

Similar to : the Last Unicorn movie (which is still a treat but is very scary in places so be warned if you watch it with littlies)

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

Although this is a few titles on in the series, it is one of the best pieces of wartime children’s literature you will ever read. Brent-Dyer’s attitude and treatment of the Nazis remains stunning and her invention of the Peace League as a way for women to fight war is ideologically miles ahead of its time. Amazing, thought-provoking book. (Ignore the hideous cover!)

Similar to : the rest of the Chalet School series. Start with The School at the Chalet.

Millions – Frank Cottrell Boyce

A ridiculously stunning book, Millions is the one book I would have loved to have written. Brothers Anthony and Damien have a whole shedload of money fall into their hands after witnessing a train robbery. Trouble is, they only have days to spend it because Britain is about to join the Euro and the money they’ve found is all in pounds. This book is very very perfect and Damien is an amazing character.

Similar to : Nothing. Perfect. Go read it.

The Animals of Farthing Wood – Colin Dann

Dann was a keen naturalist and it shows in this tale of animals banding together to find themselves a new home after their current is threatened by the encroachment of man. Writing the animals as Fox, Vixen, Badger etc, Dann carefully avoids sentiment and over anthropomorphising and creates a thrilling animal saga.

Similar to : Tarka the Otter

The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas

This was originally published in serial form and it shows. There’s a gorgeous sense of readability to it, the pacing is brilliant and it remains a classic of its time. There’s swords, swash-buckling, derring-do and some amazing intrigue going on. Last month I went to a Musketeer festival in the South-West of France where people sauntered around the centre of the village and slapped their thigh a lot and called for beer. It was amazing and this book is wholly to blame for that (and also for my obsession with ‘sturdy Gascon ponies’)

Similar to : The Man in the Iron Mask

The Silver Brumby – Elyne Mitchell 

The Silver Brumby is one of the richest books I know. Set in the wilds of the Australian outback, it is the story of Thowra – the silver brumby. The first of a massive (and gorgeous) series that sings with love for the landscape it is set in, it’s a treat for horse-lovers that remains beyond compare.

Similar to : Bambi

Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

An intensely vivid and personal graphic novel, this is the autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, a girl growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. Full of a witty, and sharp sense of humour, and also a sardonic self-reflection on life, this book is superb.

Similar to : the film version – also very very brilliant.

Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

Nominally a book about a horses life, this proto-animal rights book remains superb and relevant to today. There’s also a rite of passage in it that every reader must go through – frankly, if you don’t weep buckets when XXXXXX XXXXXX then I’m going to come and have a word.

Similar to: Watership Down

Macbeth – William Shakespeare

Shakespeare gets a bad rap sometimes and it’s not fair. This play is brilliant. There’s death, witches, ghosts, trees and come-uppance(s) a plenty. I love this play and it is very much worth reading. Take the lines out of the book and play with the language. I still love the witches parts for example.

Similar to : The Duchess of Malfi (but there are MAJOR adult themes in that one so be warned).

Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfield

Streatfield wrote a ton of stuff about children on the stage and exploring alternative avenues of fulfilment (ice-skating, circus(ing) etc). This is one of her best-loved and it’s endured for a reason. The story of Pauline, Petrova and Posy remains engaging, warm and very very lovely.

Similar to : Sadler’s Wells

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Girlsown

Fantasy Film Casting : The Boys!

Following on from my lady-centric film casting post of yesterday, this time it’s the turn of male heroes from Girlsown fiction to be cast. I had a little bit of  a Damascene moment when considering Pennington. He needed to be represented by different actors for different periods of his life, so please forgive me for the slightly nerdy detail I go into regarding him 😉 Anyway, here they are in all their glory!

David Wenham as Jem Russell (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Look at that picture. Now look at it some more. Now look at that as if you were a woman in a burning train carriage, needing to be rescued by a handy doctor type. That is all.

*collapses ever so slightly*

Tom Hiddleston as Sebastian Scott (Sadler’s Wells – Lorna Hill).  I almost went with Benedict Cumberbatch for this one, but decided that Tom just edged him out. Primarily because I like the longness of Tom, his ranginess, and yet his utter stillness when he needs to be still. Sebastian is a man of dark arrogance at times but also of utter brilliance. And I really rather love the thought of pairing him against Anne Hathaway who I cast as Veronica.

Arthur Darvill as Jack Maynard (Chalet School – Elinor M. Brent Dyer). Now, just to clarify, it’s not Arthur when he has his hair like this. I’d like him to sport the new Rory hair (can you tell what I watched last night?) and a lot of tweed. And um, I’m getting distracted again, so let’s move on!

 Sean Bean as adult Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). This is Pennington in his later years (approximately around the time of Marion’s Angels if you want to be picky 😉  as opposed to the main books). That shy, bluff nature masking a man with great precise ability and genius. Sean’s an actor with that sort of silent power about him and a guy who acts very naturally. Perfect for the battle-worn brilliance of adult Pennington.

Jeremy Irvine as young Patrick Pennington (Pennington series – KM Peyton). Young Pennington plays piano, bewitches Ruth, beats people up and rails against the class system. He’s basically a proto-Byronic hero and is generally full of all-round epicness. Look at the photo. Yeah. Jeremy could do that *rather* nicely.

So there they are! Alternative casting lists very welcome becauseI’d love to hear your thoughts regarding those people I missed. I couldn’t quite think of somebody to play Reg Entwhistle primarily because of The Proposal…. (frankly I don’t think *any* actor could do that justice!).

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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?