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

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

But again, I digress.

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

Plus there’s Rufus.

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

God I love these books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you EBD.

The Chalet School Encyclopaedia (volume one) : Alison McCallum

ISBN: 978-1-84745-157-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dearest Mama,

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

Oh yes, apparently a story also happens.

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

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

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

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

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

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

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