Jo returns to the Chalet School sees the beloved headmistress, Mademoiselle Leppâtre, discovered unconscious in her room and rushed to the Sonnalpe for an emergency operation.
If it fails she’ll die.
It’s not the first time that the reader of the Chalet School series has been presented with illness. In fact there are times when the early Tyrolean books verge on pastiche with their regular occurrences of severe illness, life-changing accidents and death-defying moments.
However this is the first time that an adult becomes ill with such stunning and heart-wrenching effect. You see, adults in a school series are secondary creatures. They are rocks around which the story is built but the story is not about them. It’s about the new girl, or the girl with the secret or the antics of the lower fourths. Adults tend to populate the background.
Not so in the Chalet School. It’s a revolutionary series in many ways (the ground-breaking anti-Nazi polemic of The Chalet School in Exile being one example) and pushes the boundaries of what series fiction as a form can do. It presents death, illness and the troubles of life with a candour which is rare to see.
And, most intriguingly, the Chalet School tells us of the adults. You can read the early books in many ways. The constant joys of Anne Seymour putting her foot in it. The growth of Joey from an obstreperous middle to a woman that even the author fell in love with a little and couldn’t let go. But then, with an even-handed touch, we learn about unsure Ivy Norman and her personal history that makes her so nervy about dealing with Joyce and Thekla. We follow the journey of Hilda Annersley from a young mistress into one of the cornerstones and – in some ways – the heart of the series. We learn their names. I can’t stress how important this was, and is, to me as a reader. We learn that the adults – the teachers – they’re real people.
And I think that’s why the illness of Mademoiselle Leppâtre catches me every time. And it’s why, when Jacynth learns of the death of her Aunt and Miss Wilson comforts her, I sob each and every time I read that scene. Because I know Miss Wilson’s backstory – I know about Cherry – and that adds to the moment in ways I can’t quite comprehend. It makes it real. I know how much everyone loves Mademoiselle because I love her too. And I love Miss Wilson in that moment. And I love Miss Annersley when she advises that the children should know if a family member is ill. Because I know that she’s lived through it.
It’s a series where it’s not about pure blunt didacticism. It’s not “do as I say”. It’s “do as I do”. As Matron says, when discussing whether to tell the girls about Mademoiselle, “We want to make strong, helpful women of them – not spineless jellyfish”.
And she’s not just talking about the pupils at this point. That’s a message to the reader in a book, first published in 1936, which still bears resonance today.