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?

“But there is no need to cook it,” said Thekla calmly. “It is smoked—see!”And 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  …. 😉

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

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