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.