My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s interesting to compare and contrast parts of this book with the much later A Genius at the Chalet School. Both books feature a genius, or highly talented individual, and yet both books treat their characters distinctly differently. It’s as if, at points, they’re written by different authors. I discuss the representation of genius in the Chalet School here and can never quite get over the short shrift given to Jacynth in her (not even titular) book.
Jacynth, poor sad, sweet, Jacynth Hardy is sent to the Chalet School following a lifetime of financial saving from her Aunt. They aim for Jacynth to win the Therese Lapattre scholarship and thus secure her education financially.
On the train to school Jacynth meets and is instantly befriended by impetuous Gay Lambert. Gay’s a vivacious character, full of act-now-think-later, and helps to bring Jacynth through her first term. And it’s a heck of a first term to contend with. There’s been a serious accident and several members of the senior staff – including Miss Annersley – have been injured. That means that for this term the school needs a new head – and it turns out to be the soon legendary Miss Bubb.
Originally published in 1944, and coming off the heights of Exile, Goes to It, and Highland Twins, this was originally titled Gay From China at the Chalet School. When it came to the Armada reprints it got both renamed and given a particularly horrid [slang!] front cover.
Seeing both Jacynth and Miss Bubb adopt to their new environments sees Brent-Dyer at her best and worst. Brent-Dyer handled high drama superbly at this point and the two ‘big’ moments for both characters are amazingly handled. It’s brilliant, and, without divulging spoilers, there’s a point in this book that makes me crumble every time I read it.
So what’s the bad things? Miss Bubb is resolutely unsympathetic and very hard to even vaguely warm too. Though that’s partially her role, it makes for a hard, defensive experience for the reader. As mentioned at the start of this review, Jacynth has a particularly hard row to hoe. There’s something distinctly apposite about the treatment of her ability in comparison to that of say Margia and Nina. As I write this, I’m starting to wonder if that difference could be drawn to something to do with the relative social class of each girl, and of the time period of each book’s publication but that’s a discussion for another time.