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Unexpected Archive Delights : 1920s Children’s Book Adverts

I am constantly surprised by archives. I know that’s an incredibly strange thing to say and one that sounds even stranger when you are supposed to know what you are looking at, but it’s true. I am surprised by archives; the way they give me something that I request that comes with a thousand other delightful things. Much of this is the nature of research itself, that need to pursue one thread of thought whilst ignoring the others that tug at your senses – but sometimes, it’s nice to look at those other things. And so I did and I do, because they tell you everything. They tell you about the texture of that thing you’re looking at. They tell you about the readers, about the writers – everything, really. It’s all clues towards understanding the thing that you’re interested in.

And sometimes, they tell you about the books you have on your shelves, even now.

Here’s some rather lovely adverts for then-new publications from WR Chambers, a firm of publishers based in Scotland. They are a publisher that may be well familiar to a lot of you. These adverts and book reviews come from the Life Of Faith – a weekly religious newspaper that covered ‘spiritual life’. It cost twopence and covered everything somebody involved in religion may wish to know – whether that’s the details of the nearest service, or what books to buy the younger members of their family. There were many other adverts from Chambers but I picked out the ones with the most notable titles and authors.

First up is this lovely advert from November, 1927. I particularly enjoyed the strapline underneath THE SEVEN SCAMPS (did the copywriter give up at this point, we wonder?). I’m also very fond of the title to Josephine Elder’s latest…

A 1927 advert for books from WR Chambers.

Now it’s time for November, 1930, and a slightly longer write up of the new titles (two pictures). The Life of Faith featured books regularly but children’s books only seemed to creep into these end of year round ups. It’s interesting that they did! It tells you a lot about who the reader of the Life Of Faith was – that they had enough disposable income to buy books as (presumably) Christmas gifts, and that they cared about “good, healthy stories”. I think my favourite here is again the rather “I’ve given up and gone home for tea” description of the Chalet School books…

A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.
A 1930 editorial for new books from WR Chambers.

And now, an advert from 1927. It’s the prices that are the most interesting here I think – look at that distinction between “new books” and “cheap editions”. There’s also a story here in how Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School is listed under the ‘New Books For Boys And Girls’ section.

A 1927 advertisement for new books from WR Chambers.

I was also very much delighted to find connections to another popular girlsown author. Here’s an advert from the Life Of Faith in 1916 and in the top right hand corner is a poem. Have a look at the author. Do you recognise that surname? (It’s Elsie Oxenham’s dad…).

A 1916 advert from The Life Of Fait featuring a poem by John Oxenham.

And now for something completely different. Let’s end with a look at a Bovril advert in 1927, and a marketing department that’s decided “go big or go home”.

A 1927 advert for Bovril reading "DRINK BOVRIL ONCE IT'S IN YOU IT'S SINEW"

(Amazing, right?).

Book Reviews

Princess Anne by Katherine L. Oldmeadow

Princess Anne by Katherine Oldmeadow front cover

Princess Anne by Katharine L. Oldmeadow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Princess Anne by Katharine Oldmeadow is a pleasant enough diversion from the world, but it was fairly unremarkable. It reads like a sort of Sara Crewe / Abbey Girls / Pollyanna mash-up, which is delightful but not the sort of thing I’m ever going to be able to review coherently. Because, when it’s done, it’s sort of – just – done. You’ll know the feeling; there are those books in the world that are lovely and satisfying but when you finish them, there’s nothing left. A perfectly good cake that’s perfectly pleasant for a couple of mouthfuls but once it’s done? Nothing, but nothing stays of it.

And I like my books to stay. I like them to find a place in the world and make it their own. I like being able to think of them in ways that I do not expect, and to find connections between them. A web of words, perhaps, if I’m being fancy, but mainly it’s the memory of them. That moment of the read. The thought that I could have it again. The memory of how good it was.

Princess Anne sort of doesn’t have that. It’s put together very nicely for 1925 but does have an oddly patchwork affair. She is orphaned. She’s sent to stay with a horrible aunt. The horrible aunt sends her to school. Some of it works, particularly the moments where Anne makes friends, but mostly it’s a game of catch-up. She’s perky here, despite the awful circumstances, and then she’s perky elsewhere, despite the similarly hideous situation, and that’s great but it doesn’t really make her particularly interesting. If you think of The School At The Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, published the same year, the difference is remarkable. Grizel (a little bit of a cow at the best of times) is interesting. Anne, on the other hand, sort of skips through everything and finds the best in it. Kittens. Rainbows. Unicorns.

(Though I am fond of the point where she finds a friend by quoting Milton at everyone. It’s the sort of ridiculous whimsy that this genre does so very well).

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The Vicarage Children In Skye by Lorna Hill

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill front cover

The Vicarage Children in Skye by Lorna Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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Book Reviews

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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Pandora of Parrham Royal : Violet Needham

Pandora of Parrham RoyalPandora of Parrham Royal by Violet Needham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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The New School at Scawdale : Angela Brazil

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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Book Reviews

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

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

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

I didn’t. Not really.

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

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

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

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

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The New Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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Peace Comes to the Chalet School : Katherine Bruce

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

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

But I really like Peace Comes To The Chalet School.

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

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

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

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

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A United Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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

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

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

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

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

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Book Reviews

First Class Murder : Robin Stevens

First Class Murder (Wells and Wong, #3)First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s strange, sometimes, how books can make you long to read them and then freeze a little when you have them finally in your hands. And this was one: I love the work of Robin Stevens. I have adored Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic For Tea. The third in the series, First Class Murder, was something that I was viciously hungry to read – and yet, reluctant to do so. I think that’s something that sometimes happens when books are this good, this continual level of good and wonderful writing and plots which hit all of your sweet spots and just make everything right with the world. You get scared that it can’t last. You get nervous.

There aren’t many contemporary writers I feel like this about. Susie Day is one as is Sita Brahmachari, and I suspect Aoife Walsh may become another.

Robin Stevens is very much up there on this list; a collective of some of the smartest and most exciting author voices working in contemporary children’s literature today. And because of all of that, I was nervous of First Class Murder. I was nervous that it just might not be that good.

So. Let me tell you this before we go on. First Class Murder is just -well, it’s perfect.

I love what Stevens does with her characters. I love that the further on she gets in the series, the more confident her writing feels and the drama becomes more dramatic and the humour becomes more stylish and heartfelt (The ‘Hermes’ moment is one such perfect example). I love that this series is turning into a such a powerhouse that can have jokes about the amount of times somebody vomits, with discussion of some incredibly dark and relevant issues. I love how the female characters in this book are so intensely multi-faceted and rich and capable; and I love how the adult characters, in particular Hazel’s father, are drawn with such sympathy and truth.

I would give these books to the world if I could, because they’re just a genuine joy all the way from the start through to the end, so instead I shall end with a small anecdote about a girl I met in the library once. I asked her what sort of books she liked. She told me that she liked Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. “Well,” I said, “Do I have the perfect recommendation for you,” and then we beamed at each other as fellow bookish folk often do.

This is the perfect book for that girl. It’s also the perfect book for anyone who’s wanting something that has strong and brave characters, a tightly choreographed and controlled dance of a plot, murder, trains, shenanigans and buns. Basically, it’s the sort of book that I am and will continue to be slightly evangelical over.

(Also, these books are begging to be bought together as a series. Just look at those covers! My book shelves long for the three of them to be back to back!)

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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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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… ūüėČ ) 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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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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The Chalet School Encyclopaedia (volume one) : Alison McCallum

ISBN: 978-1-84745-157-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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‚Äôs you ‚Äď you ‚Äď YOU that matters all the time ‚Äď 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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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. ūüėČ

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The Chalet School Triplets

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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Chalet Girls Grow Up : Merryn Williams

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


So, where to begin with this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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‚Äôs what books ‚Äď comics ‚Äď pamphlets ‚Äď 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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“Dance like there’s nobody watching” (I love you Lorna Hill)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is quite the thing.

I love you Lorna Hill.

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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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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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Textual transformations in children’s literature : adaptations, translations, reconsiderations – (ed) Benjamin Lefebvre

Textual Transformations in Children's Literature: Adaptations, Translations, ReconsiderationsTextual Transformations in Children’s Literature: Adaptations, Translations, Reconsiderations by Benjamin Lefebvre

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Textual Transformations is a collection of chapter long essays dealing with diverse aspects of ‘textual transformations’, that is to say a certain form of ‘transforming’ of an original source text to something ‘other’ be that a mashup of Pride and Predjudice with Zombies, a sequel to Peter Pan, through to fanfiction based on the Chalet School series.

Of particular interest in this volume are chapters by Malini Roy, Lisa Migo, Nat Hurley and Maria Nikolajeva. Roy’s chapter focuses on the work of ‘Campfire’ – “the first (and probably only) graphic novels catering to young people in contemporary India” (p21). Migo discusses the route of the Chalet School series from “bookshelf to blogosphere and back again” (p73). Hurley’s chapter discusses the queering of Alice in Wonderland, discussing the reinterpretations of the Alice story with particular reference to Alan Moore’s ‘The Lost Girls’. Finally Maria Nikolajeva provides a closing chapter on the nature of “multivolume fiction for children” (p197), examining the motivations and rationale behind multi-volume publishing and the contradictory / complimentary nature of sequels to the original text.

There’s an issue with books of this in that, quite often, there’s a limit on how far contributors can go within such a limited space. This is something that happens all too often in this collection and I’d welcome more work from Roy and Migo. Roy’s chapter in particular is one of the most interesting in the entire book and I’d love more work from her on this. Her discussions of the nature of cultural memory and how the graphic novels published by Campfire were perpetuating a certain notion of this was fascinating.

I also wanted more from Migo’s chapter on the Chalet School as I felt this ended just as it was starting to becoming fascinating. In particular I’d welcome more work addressing the contradictory nature of the Chalet School fandom whereby a fan can appreciate both the brilliance and the banalities of the original series without losing their love for the series as a whole. (And on a separate note, I repeatedly have a yen to collate a fan journal of Chalet School critique by some of the excellent bloggers I read due to the acuity of their work and also because of the scarcity of academic literature discussing the series)

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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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The New Normal : The Normalising of Creativity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works cited –

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

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

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

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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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Peggy of the Chalet School : Elinor M Brent Dyer

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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Theodora and the Chalet School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Loyal to the School : Angela Brazil

Loyal to the SchoolLoyal to the School by Angela Brazil

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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

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

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

A Pair of SchoolgirlsA Pair of Schoolgirls by Angela Brazil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

My copy of this was downloaded from the amazing Project Gutenberg.
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Dear Lorna Hill, this is why I love you

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

From Rosanna Joins the Wells by Lorna Hill


The curious case of Con Maynard

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

Consider Con.

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

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

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

There are no other writers in the Chalet School series.

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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.

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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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 ūüėȬ†Anyway, here they are in all their glory!

David Wenham as Jem Russell (Chalet School РElinor 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 ūüėČ ¬†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!).


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 ūüėČ

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?

Girlsown Overviews

Children’s literature, food, and frenchwomen

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

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

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

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

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

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

‚ÄúBut there is no need to cook it,‚ÄĚ said Thekla calmly. ‚ÄúIt is smoked‚ÄĒsee!‚ÄĚAnd she held it so that that they saw the rind was a rich red-brown.¬†¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†From: The Chalet School and the Lintons by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†¬†Image: Hendry (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Great British Chefs (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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


Choose Your Own (GirlsOwn) Adventure

Image: kthread (Flickr)

As part of my blog birthday celebrations, I decided to write a Choose Your Own Adventure style story and I decided to set it around a birthday party in the fictional school of St Swithin’s. You take the role of a new girl and, as the story progresses, have to decide how to navigate the social nuances of schoolgirl life!

I am heavily indebted to this post for technical guidance and inspiration. Writing a story like this is hard – they get so big so quickly! ūüėÄ But I am very pleased I persevered and it was sort of fascinating for me to see the way it developed. It did get a little Star Wars-ish at points (will you choose the way of the Jedi or the Sith?) during the development phase, but I hope that’s not translated too much to the final version.

So – here we are. Hyperlinks are underlined and there’s one or more on each page (apart from the ‘Your Adventure Ends Here’ pages) and that’s how you navigate through the story. Hopefully it works and you enjoy¬†The New Girl At St Swithin’s¬†!

PS – Let me know if you can guess which bit in the story was inspired heavily by Enid Blyton!

Girlsown Theory

The nature of genius in GirlsOwn Literature

Margia Bettany. Maidlin di Ravarati.Mildred Lancaster.

Three characters, from three distinctly different authors. The one thing they have in common (apart from starting with the letter M..)? They’re all gifted and talented characters in their respective books.

Genius in GirlsOwn Literature is a curious thing. It’s almost precluded to be gender specific due to the dominance of female characters in these books. Being female in a GirlsOwn book tends to mean you’re part of the status quo. You fit in. You’re part of the dominant species.

But then, when you’re gifted, when you’re a genius, you become something very different.

You become something quite incomprehensible in a literary construct full of parity and equality. You become something very dangerous indeed.

You become Other.

Consider Veronica Wells. A dancer of incredible ability, prima ballerina assoluta, she’s skilled in an art which involves a curious dichotomy. She has such¬†an intense passion for simply¬†living¬†and being,¬†and yet her lifework is to obey an artform which consumes that individuality through asking practitioners to maintain the rules and standards and movements set in stone by a host of dancers before them.

The gifted dancer in GO literature is a contradiction. She is both controlled and uncontrollable. She is action and music; woman and dancer, line and note.

¬†‚Äú…there‚Äôs only one Veronica. She lives every role she dances. She¬†possesses such extraordinary musicality that she can tell by the way a note or chord is played exactly what it means. She‚Äôs ‚Äď she‚Äôs just the essence of music!‚ÄĚ Jane Leaves The¬†Wells (1989b:70)

Veronica is everything, and she sings from the page.

Until, one day, she stops.

‚ÄúWhether it was that her life was dedicated¬†to her art ‚Äď even her marriage coming second ‚Äď or that she naturally couldn‚Äôt lead a gay,¬†sophisticated life, but must practise every morning, and go to bed early each night when¬†she wasn‚Äôt on the stage, the fact remains ‚Äď the pale oval face, with the big dark eyes and¬†sweet sensitive mouth, was still that of a child.‚ÄĚ (73)

There’s a tension here, an immediate distancing of her gift from her marriage. Veronica Weston, the dancer, is not Veronica Scott, the wife and mother. Her life is a series of roles and, as the series progresses, there’s a strange feeling that she’s comfortable in none. Is this the impact of her genius? To be permanently a child, longing solely for a daughter (viz. the Vicki / Nona swap) ¬†who can continue her artistic legacy?

Veronica’s experience, Hill’s patent discomfort with letting her character “grow up”, ¬†is in severe contrast to the fate of Damaris, the titular dancer of A Dancer From the Abbey. Damaris is marriage fodder, nothing else, and the brunt of what always seems to me to be a very severe attitude from Elsie Oxenham.

‚Äú‚ÄôI should say that she would be wrong to deny her gift its full expression just for the¬†sake of ease and comfort; to settle down at home and enjoy herself [comments¬†Mary-Dorothy, a friend of the family] But if she loved some man, I’d say she was¬†right to give up even her dancing for him. I’d think it was wrong to let her career¬†spoil the happiness of two lives ‚Ķ ‚ÄėYou can’t deny that Damaris is one-sided. At¬†present only her artist part is being developed. We shall see where she ends.‚Äô‚ÄĚ A¬†Dancer From the Abbey (1959:65)

I still can’t read that without my jaw dropping. Even the un-named narrator joins in at one point:¬†‚ÄúWould Damaris really be strong enough to¬†turn from her career, if Mary Damayris had a great triumph?‚ÄĚ (1959:222)

The novel is concerned primarily with whether Damaris marries and leaves the stage. To be frank, it’s obvious where she’ll end up and sure enough Damaris quits dancing to get married.

So is that it? Is that all giftedness is?

Not in a Noel Streatfield novel. Streatfield allowed her gifted and talented characters to use their gift in a practical setting and explore alternative options to a more traditional career path. Ballet Shoes sees Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil achieve highly in the fields of dance, acting and engineering. Circus Shoes sees Peter and Santa find a home for themselves and their abilities in the circus.

Children in a Noel Streatfield novel are viewed at the same level as adults. The preponderance of orphans (and therefore the absense of parents) allows the child to engage in adventures without adult authority. Talent is a positive catalyst for development upon both the individual and the wider world.

So are there moments when talent is a distancer? When it pushes the child away from others, and forces them into isolation?

I think so, and I think The School by the River by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer provides one of the most cogent examples of this.

“…I¬†think that, if God prospers the work, we may give two more such [geniuses] to¬†mankind in Tamara and the little Jennifer. Theirs [sic] is the divinity that makes the¬†difference between Talent and Genius. They will pay for that divinity again and again¬†in bitter tears, deep sorrows, and griefs [sic] such as are known only to the few. It¬†must be so, or they could not have the gift. For most of us, there is steady work, and¬†a lesser knowledge of woe. But none of us can make the most of what God has¬†given us unless we do our best to live as he would live … no man ‚Äď nor woman¬†either ‚Äď has ever been great who did not yield up self and evil. No one has ever¬†been great who has not first suffered greatly. And no man comes to greatness¬†except another hold out to him first a helping hand?‚ÄĚ (1999:221)

Brent-Dyer was never one for beating around the bush and here she is perhaps at her most coherent and emphatic through the mouthpiece of Signor Mirandos as he addresses one of the “bad” girls at the school – Emily. Signor Mirandos mentions Jennifer Craddock, central heroine of the novel, and refers to her gift in a most intriguing manner.

Jennifer is not gifted. She is a genius. But she is not gifted in her own right. She is gifted from God. Brent-Dyer’s very clear about the role of religion here and it’s clear that the giftedness is not owned by the child. They are merely caretakers of the gift. These children¬†have achieved¬†Godhood and therefore become worthy of worship in their own right. They’re no longer children and indeed, as the book processes, the difference between “gifted” Jennifer, and “normal” Jennifer, become near-palpable.

This ‘divine giftedness’ ¬†is something which is made explicit in ¬†The Girls of St Cyprians by Angela Brazil. Mildred Lancaster, playing at a public¬†occasion, is described thusly: ‚ÄúShe had got at the heart of the¬†musician’s meaning and those who listened felt that throb of pure delight which can raise¬†common-place lives for the moment to the level of the skies.‚ÄĚ The Girls of St Cyprians¬†(1969: 70)

Mildred comes to a moment of realisation about her talent (and, to be honest, it’s a realisation that only Angela Brazil could have written): ”¬†[She had] a rare and special talent such as God gives to but very few in this world¬†‚Äď a talent to be taken humbly, and rejoiced in, and treasured zealously, and¬†cultivated carefully ‚Ķ it seemed to her that, in spite of her lack of lands, she was not
quite portionless [sic]. God’s gifts to His children were not all alike‚Ķto another the¬†genius that has the power to create for itself. Which was the nobler bequest she¬†could not tell, but she knew that after all she, too, had an inheritance.‚ÄĚ


So Giftedness, if we mention God, seems to shift into a sort of indentured servitude where the “holder” of the gift spends their time trying to repay and live up to the divine gift upon which they have been bestowed. There’s also an element of rationalising the gift; the child is no longer “other”, they are merely blessed and can be effectively managed within society providing we are all aware of this gift.

So what’s the point of genius? Why even have it in your GirlsOwn book at all if it’s such a difficult beast to manage?

Because this is reality. These characters, with their furious anti-establishmentism force us to question who¬†we¬†are. We define ourselves in relation to others. Joey Bettany, when presented with Nina Rutherford, vehemently defines herself as “not a genius”. Joey is “normal” (LOL). She fits in to the world she is a part of.

And that’s what they do. Mildred, Margia, Maidlin, Nina, Damaris et al, they make us question and realise who we are. We read their great giftedness, their talent and their skills, and we define ourselves alongside them. GirlsOwn Literature is at heart about growth, about becoming who you are and not “spineless jellyfish”.

Some of us sing songs. Some of us play music. Some of us do an arabesque that can bring tears to your eyes.

We’re all human.

And the warped literary mirror of giftedness, genius, talent, whatever you may call it, allows us to realise that to stunning effect.

Everything else Overviews

Baby, it’s cold outside

Well. Er. I wish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Angela Brazil and the Case Of The Verb Vendetta

File:A Popular Schoolgirl - book cover - Project Gutenberg eText 18505.jpg

Angela Brazil taught me a lot of things. There’s a lot of fun to be had with a camp fire and a well meaning lady of suitable class to ‘pash’ on. Don’t go for a walk in the countryside without a handy story on the local mythology. And never ever drive a motor car when you’ve not taken off the brake.

I admit that a lot of her work borders on bonkers now but Angela Brazil retains a very special place in my heart primarily for her mean vocabulary. Take this extract of the first 10 pages from The Luckiest Girl In The School.

sighed Mrs. Woodward / suggested Percy / volunteered Winona / objected Winona / said Percy / replied Mrs. Woodward / she asked her brother / replied that light-hearted youth /  said Winona / she said / interrupted Winona / ejaculated Winona / she exclaimed / wavered Mrs. Woodward / he declared / exclaimed Percy / groaned Winona / flared Winona / teased Percy / said Letty / retorted Winona / said Percy blandly / declared Winona aggrievedly.

Ten pages of solid stuff (with naturally a brief dalliance to describe Winona’s appearance, local flora and fauna) and Brazil practically kills herself before having to use “said” again. It’s amazing. It’s like she has a vendetta against verbs of one syllable.

Brazil is an education and one I¬†recommend¬†most heartily. If she does nothing else, she’ll help out your vocabulary. But do feel free to skip past the¬†interminable¬†“Teacher Regales A Local Legend Whilst The Girls Are On A Nature Walk” chapter – I really won’t judge you as I’ll be doing the exact same thing!

There’s a nice biography of Brazil available here and a ton of her books are available via Project Gutenberg.


The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival: Elinor M. Brent-Dyer round


Hello! This is the final round up of posts for the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival round on Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. I will add (most welcome) latecomers to this list – so please keep an eye on it! ūüôā

I’d like to thank the bloggers who took part in this round. Although it’s small, it’s very perfectly formed and the quality of these bloggers deserves a world of attention and appreciation so please feel free to RT and share with all and sundry.

  1. Chalet School locations : Bosherston Lily Ponds” by Bert of¬†Make and Bake With Bert.
  2. The New Mistress at the Chalet School”¬†by Ali at Fantastic Reads
  3. “Still, grey and to all appearances … curled up in the corner lost with the Chalet School” by Knit Two, Pointe Two, Bake Two Together
  4. On Elinor M. Brent Dyer” by me.
Girlsown Theory

On Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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

(The Times : 1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude is iconic rather than realistic. Once she is converted her story is complete. Gertrud provides us with an empowering cipher ‚Äď an image of a redeemed Nazi and hope for ‚ÄėBritish‚Äô ideals being triumphant.

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

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

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

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


The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival: First round up

I am so pleased to be able to share with you two early submissions for the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival on Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. ¬†I will do another sweep of posts tomorrow (1st April) and post an update then. For now, please enjoy these amazing posts on Brent-Dyer and do leave a comment!

Bert of Make and Bake With Bert posts a gorgeous post on Chalet School holidays – focusing specifically on the location of Bosherston Lily Ponds. I adore this post; it’s amazing to actually see where Carola rescued Signa with the aid of Handy Local Doctor (a Chalet School trademark) and it’s also lovely to see how accurate Brent-Dyer was in describing an area.

Bert also made these gorgeous banners and images which I can’t help but fawn over each and every time I see them!

My second post that I’m so pleased to be able to share with you is from Ali at Fantastic Reads. She’s written a guest post before for me on the similarities between Eustacia and Eustace and I was thrilled to see another piece from her for the GO Blog Carnival. Her review of The New Mistress at the Chalet School is a beautiful discussion of the only book in the Chalet School series written from the new teachers’ perspective.

If either of these posts or the lovely banners have inspired you ¬†– it’s not too late to get involved! ūüôā Further info on the Carnival available here or tweet me.

Book Reviews Girlsown

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

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews


The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival – Call For Submissions


(Or, rather, due to the nature of the deadlock, we have two topics (author-specific / character-specific) of which I, in a fit of editorial authority type thing, have chosen one)

So, for this round …

(drum roll please)

The Girls’ Own Blog Carnival first topic is Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

That means, you are invited to write,review, draw, dramatise, fanfic, cook a sexy little omelette aux fines herbes for your beloved … anything as long as it’s related to Brent-Dyer and her books. Now obviously this includes the Chalet School books, but it includes so much more. The fill-in books (what would EBD have thought of Chalet Girls Grow Up?), the La Rochelle series, the awesome Janeway books and so on ….

You have until April 1st!

On April 1st, blog the results on your own space, or send them to me at and I’ll post them here, or¬†let me know the link through a comment here / @ me on Twitter (@chaletfan). As long as I know about it somewhere, I’ll share the link with everyone.

Any questions, leave a comment / email and I’ll get back to you.

Now, sort yourselves! As the Parson said to the wife, or the vicar, or something … ¬†ūüėČ

BREAKING NEWS – WE HAVE BANNERS! ¬†This is all thanks to the amazing Bert, whom I urge you to go visit here. The banners and badges are available here and if you could link back to this post if you use them (to provide some sort of context to the whole thing ) I would love you all greatly. And thank you Bert, you’ve made my day ūüėÄ

Everything else Girlsown

Girls’ Own Blog Carnival


I would cordially like to invite you to participate in what is, I believe, the first Blog Carnival of Girls’ Own Literature.

At this stage, I’m seeking topics and ideas – please feel free to chuck your thoughts in the below poll. If there’s no consensus as to specific topic, we’ll do a general Girls’ Own Carnival thing. ¬†Posts, pictures, fanfic (whatevs) related to the topic will then be posted from April 1st (I feel it’s appropriate). You can either email me your contribution ( and I’ll post it here, or you can just let me know a link through a comment here / @ me on Twitter (@chaletfan) or ¬†email and I’ll do a regular link round up.

If this all works (fingers crossed), I’m happy to then pass it on to another blogger and they can host it for the next round and so on and so forth…

As this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, I’m quite happy to admit it’s a learning curve ūüėČ If you’d like to get involved, please do email me.

And if somebody would like to make a logo, I would be quite happy to officially anoint them Head Girl for the duration ūüėÄ


Eustacia and Eustace

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

Now Рto back injuries and dragons! 

Eustacia and Eustace


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


The Chalet School and Genius

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

Excitements at the Chalet School 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Reviews Girlsown

You’re a Brick, Angela! : Cadogan and Craig

You're a Brick, Angela!: The Girls' Story 1839-1985You’re a Brick, Angela!: The Girls’ Story 1839-1985 by Mary Cadogan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’re a Brick, Angela! is an encyclopedic review of girls’ books between 1839 and 1985 and is practically essential for anybody interested in the study of children’s literature.

Cadogan and Craig provide a sweepingly brisk overview of the girls’ story – and they’re not particularly tactful when it comes to discussing their likes and dislikes. They deliver some stinging judgements that border on the vitriolic. X is ridiculous. Y is awful. Z is frankly nasty. Whilst I’m never afraid of people offering an opinion (heavens above, I’m doing it right now), comments like these in a book of this weight just jar. A book published in 1885 and read by somebody in 1885 and then in 1985 will naturally have different reactions. It’s rare that Cadogan and Craig acknowledge the role of the reader being as equally important as the role of the text – and I feel this is a key deficit in this book.

It’s a shame because both Cadogan and Craig write knowledgeably and fascinatingly. Their discussions of the Girls’ Own papers, for example, are superbly interesting and I found the sections on Angela Brazil to be a joy to read.

I do recommend this book but it’s one that needs to be read with confidence in your own critical abilities. And maybe a pinch of salt.

View all my reviews

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Meet the family (confessions of a book collector)

My books! My lovely lovely books! Behold the heart of my Temple of Solitude! The left hand side is all Brent-Dyer, and a few Lorna Hills on the bottom. When you’re a book collector, you remember where so many of them came from. It’s almost as important as the book itself.

My Chalet School collection is worldwide. I picked up Tom Tackles the Chalet School in Auckland (hyperventilating that I’d crossed the world to find a book I’d been after for ages), and I picked up my Armada paperback double of Jo Returns and New in Heathrow of all places. Running for a flight, I saw it on the bookshelves and I screeched to a halt. Caroline the Second came from Reading University archives (which I do reccomend if you’re a school story nut, they have some fabulous things there).

An obsession grips you when you’re book collecting. You stare out the child in the shop and will them to PUT THE BOOK DOWN¬†(in my defence I was only twelve). You want to complete the series. You need to do it. And then, once you’ve done it, you move on to the next. You move on to the EJOs, the Angela Brazils and even, in a fit of confused longing, you hit a May Wynne and an Ethel Talbot or two.

(The one on the far right is a very bashed up Abbey Girls compilation which my Grandad once decided to duct tape together. My reaction to this suggestion is not appropriate to be shared).

And, just because I love her, here’s some Angela Brazil. The spines! The way they feature girls with lustrous locks! “Oh jimminy,” expostulated Elizabeth, “These books are just perfection!”

Everything else Girlsown

The animated Chalet School

An alternative title for this post would be “The One Where I Reached A Zenith Of Nerdiness”

Behold. It’s that scene where they all bobbed off for a walk around the Tiernsee and Joey gained go-go-gadget legs and somehow managed to jump into the lake. I think it’s safe to say that this was one of the ideas which should be thought about but never really followed through (I’m so sorry for what I’m about to subject you to ūüėČ ).

Though I *will* be waiting by my phone for that call from Pixar.

I am also now very much aware that viewing this without the knowledge of the context makes the gif look very, well, er, odd and rather like a Jackass stunt gone horribly wrong. This, I feel, is a somewhat fitting tribute to the series.

Everything else Girlsown

On fan-fiction and fill-ins

I am a fanfiction author. I dabble in fandoms. I do fanfic. 

My fanfiction is mainly Buffy the Vampire Slayer. To be more precise, I write stories about Faith and Xander. I’ve done a few Doctor Who things but nothing too exciting. My big thing is Faith and Xander. I write them because I get their voices and because I love the characters. I write Faith and Xander like a musician tunes up their instrument. It’s practice for when I kick into *my* writing. It’s the stretch-out before the race.

The appeal of fanfic for me is twofold. I get more about a world I am invested in. I fell into writing Buffy stories just because the series cancelled. Same reason I fell into graphic novels. I wanted more of the Buffiverse, more of the world that had come to mean so much to me.

And it is, with that knowledge, with that history behind me, that I am surprised that I don’t really care about the Chalet School fill-in novels. I broached the topic of this earlier this week on Twitter and was reminded me (thanks to the fabulous @actuallyaisha¬†who blogs here¬†¬†– check out the Marlow readthrough she’s been doing recently) of this monstrosity.

I’m sure it’s perfectly lovely but there’s something so madly Stepfordian about it, it just makes me want to run away screaming. And possibly gouge out my eyes more than a little whilst doing said screaming. This cover, dear reader, was partially where my problems began. I think I can cope with fanfiction and fill-ins when I’m in control. All I could think of when looking at this was how much I wanted to redesign it and COULD THEY BE PUSHING LEN MORE TOWARDS REG WHEN ALL I WANT TO DO IS SCREAM RUN SISTER RUN SAVE YOURSELF FROM A LIFETIME OF DRUDGERY!!!

I am a selfish reader and I’m a pernickety reader. I make no bones about it. I’m so connected to the Chalet School world it seems slightly sacrilegious that somebody else dare write about it. ¬†I think this is why I really don’t click with much in the world of CS fanfic and fill-ins. There are the odd moments of genuine brilliance (somebody on Twitter referred me to the most amazing diary thing set on Facebook during Kathie’s first term with the staff bitching ten to the dozen). And it was after reading this one that I thought I have to bite the bullet. I have to get over this. Not every CS fill-in can be as bonkers as Chalet Girls Grow Up.

I’ve downloaded a sample chapter of Two Chalet Girls In India. Wish me luck.

PS – I’m still not going anywhere near the Chalet School Librarian.

PPS – I read Chalet Girls grow up when I was sixteen. Nearly thirteen years later I’m still spectacularly scarred. “Bonkers” really does not even begin to describe it.


Val McDermid’s doing a Chalet School documentary!

Or to be more accurate, she’s done her part now as it was yesterday, but mixing my tenses makes for a less exuberant title. Anyhoo. Here’s the info straight from the lady herself via the awesomeness that is Twitter:!/valmcdermid/status/80526573844955137!/valmcdermid/status/80767151551676416

Thanks to Ali of Fantastic Reads ¬†for the heads-up ūüôā

** UPDATED ***

And here’s the programme itself!


Twins in Girlsown fiction

Somebody/ies on Livejournal have put together a nice  essay on twins in girlsown fiction (EBD, EJO, Enid Blyton, Drina etc)  Рpart one here and part two here.

On another note Livejournal still doesn’t float my boat.

Everything else Girlsown

“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?”

So. You may have heard that a certain couple is getting married tomorrow. As I’m never going to be the one to refuse the opportunity to jump onto a bandwagon, here are four of my favourite marriages /partnerships / expressions of love from children’s literature. Love, as one great sage once said, love changes everything.

1. My first couple is ¬†Jo March and Prof. Bhaer from Little Women. Their proposal says it all really. It’s all awkwardly blunt ¬†and really rather resolutely stripped of romance. Yep, it’s a little cheesey now, but if you consider it in the context of the day, for a man to prostrate himself emotionally before a woman, it’s kind of groundbreaking.

“‘Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you; I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?’ he added, all in one breath.

2.¬†Roy and Silo from And Tango Makes Three¬†are my second couple of choice.¬†This is one of the books that regularly appears on the most controversial lists. Slightly ironic really as, to be honest, it’s primarily just about Penguins. And Tango Makes Three actually is one of the most relevant picture books we’ve had recently. Families don’t come in a 2.4 scenario anymore. They come in all shapes and sizes and it’s right that literature reflects this. Plus, it’s ridiculously heartwarming. and anything that makes me cry over penguins automatically equals win in my (excuse the pun) book.

“We’ll call her Tango,… because it takes two to make a Tango”

3. This is one not between humans, but between a lot of people and a horse. I’ve spoken about my love for¬†War Horse¬†¬†before but it fits here as well. It’s ironic that a book about war and death and tragedy should feature such intense love throughout. From Albert taking solace with Joey, knowing that the horse is the only one who understands him in a changing world, through to Joey and Topthorn’s heartbreakingly beautiful relationship, this book makes me bend and break each and every time.

But any fear I had was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of sadess and love that compelled me to stay with Topthorn as long as I could. I knew that once I left him I would be alone in the world again, that I would no longer have his strength and support beside me. So I stayed with him and waited. 

4. My final choice moments are pretty much every proposal from the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. From Len’s wince-worthy capitulation to the dorkish Reg (“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?” NO LEN JUST SAY NO, IT’S LIKE WITH PEER PRESSURE AND THE DRUGS AND YOU’LL REGRET IT NO END) and through to Grizel finally being awarded with her doctor after being a nightmare to all and sundry for the past kazillion years (although I do have sympathy for her having to put up with Joey’s splendidly inane white bread theory). And then there’s the classic below…

Madge would have tried to console her; but Jack Maynard gave her a shock. Holding Joey very tightly to him, he said in tones there was no mistaking, “Never mind, my darling. It’s all over, and Robin is safe. . .”

And before the stunned Madge could gasp out any ejaculation, Joey sobbed, “Oh, Jack – what a – solid lump – of comfort you – are!”