I’ve mentioned this previously on Twitter but I thought I’d share it with you. This, the below, is part of my Great Project . I am writing a book about the Chalet School series. (I know, right? Joyous nerdery abounds) And these are the two introductory chapters. They’re subject to change, naturally, but I thought I’d share them with you. Because they do, if nothing else, give you an idea of where my thoughts lie on the series. And also how much I dislike Mary-Lou. 😉
This book is a book about stories. It’s about school stories in particular, and the Chalet School books in particular particulariness. And it’s about you, and me, and the people like us who read these books in the twenty-first century, these books that were written a hundred and more years ago.
School stories are a fabulous and beautiful thing. Their appeal comes from both the mimicking and distancing of everyday life. Education is a commonality. We all experience it, albeit in different forms and in different shapes. The school story is, perhaps, one of the most approachable and accessible genres primarily because of this commonality. We do not require codes to crack a world that we’re already part of.
And because we are already part of it, we understand it. We understand what education is. Books about school are different, naturally, due to their distinct bookishness, but they’re somehow still very much the same. The food in one is chocolate, and it’s chocolate frogs in the other, and hot chocolate in the third. The beds are beds, but then they’re in Austria – Switzerland – the Channel Islands. These books live in worlds which are different, but so very close to our own that it makes it all so very nearly tangible. We can touch this world, because we’re already there.
So that’s the story, but what of the reader? Because if I do believe anything about literature, I believe that the reader is crucial. That’s you. You’re very, very important. And this is why:
When you read something, even this sentence, you complete it.
If I write ‘cat’, you see a cat. Not necessarily one dancing over the page (or if you do, your cat is so the boss of you and the two of you need to talk) but one in your mind. Your brain reads the word cat and it remembers your concept of a cat, thereby creating the meaning of the word. Without that thought process, without the sign of the word having that reaction inside your brain, you’re just getting lines on a page.
But here’s the exciting thing. When you read the word ‘cat’, you don’t see the same cat I see; you see the cat that’s curling around your feet, or the one who scratched your hand the other day when you tried to pet it at the bus stop. You see long haired, short haired, fat, thin, ginger, black, kitten, adult; but when I write cat? I see Stephen, my fat white cat who is currently sat opposite me, with the smuggest little grin on his face.
That’s story. Right there. That’s the joy of words, and the joy is that you complete them. Every time you read something, you finish it off in a way that is so very much you. Think about it. When you say ‘dog’, you have a picture of a ‘dog’, caught in your mind, wrapped in emotions and memories. It’s not the same dog as mine. It can’t be.
And because it’s not the same dog, or the same cat, that’s what makes stories explode almost infinitesimally. There’s no boundary to stories. They grow, so very much, and every reader who reads them, finishes them off and re-creates them in their own particular way.
Stories are infinite.
Because of you.
So that’s what this book is about, because it’s what Girls’ Own books were about. They were about you. They were written for you, albeit the turn of the century equivalent you. These books were the popular culture of their time; the Just Seventeen, the Tumblr, the Myspace, and they defined girlhood for so many readers. This is what these girls saw, this is what they read, these were the titles that said what they were, what they could or should be. These were the books that inculcated values and bravery and world goals to a generation of readers, and still continue to do so today.
This is what books – comics – pamphlets – our socially constructed narratives did and still do for people. They are a shared voice, a shared construct, which we accept as a voicing of some part of our day to day culture and that which we accept as a receptacle for us to imbue with our own unique and personal culture. They are both empty vessel and brim full cup. They express the glorious, the inexpressible, and the unimaginable. They are our voice, our spoken, unspoken, knowable and unknowable voice.
That’s pretty amazing, right? The Chalet School is an eternal constant. It is the place we come back to, that we read in our teens, in our twenties, and in our thirties, fourties, fifties, and beyond. It is the place that does not change, regardless of how our lives may suddenly somersault into madness and back again. The Chalet School is a place which lets us map our ups and our downs against it. It allows us to remember what we were like – and what we could be. It allows the awkward girl to win out, the bad girl to come good, the misunderstood girl to save the day. It’s a series that shows us what happens when you come good *coughElizabethArnettcough* and what happens when you remain bad *coughTheklaandBettycoughcoughcough*.
The Chalet School gives us fulfilment, it gives us completion, and it gives us the knowledge that whatever happens, at least we’re not Miss Bubb.
The Chalet School – and therefore you – will – and does – endure.
It’s endured all the way into the twenty-first century. The School At The Chalet was first published in 1925. In 2025, it will be celebrating its centenary. A book that’s nearly one hundred years old, and yet it remains as vibrant and as pertinent as the day it was written. Though I admit there’s elements that have dated, perhaps most notably ‘that bit where the Yorkshire gentleman proposes marriage to Madge’, there are elements which remain elegantly ground-breaking both in terms of plot and character. A single woman, starting an enterprise, which was then mainly run by women? That endured throughout war and unfathomable society changes? Have a think about the gender semantics of that, and how something like that still remains rare in children’s literature today. And the international nature of the school; how something so resolutely continental exists, in a resolutely European context where the multinational and multicultural nature of the girls is key, it’s not key in the Angela Brazil sort of way where the diverse cultures are all there to reflect Englishness, it’s key in that the multicultural upbringing the multilingual Joey thrives in is aspiratory.
You’re meant to want this, and you do, and you will.
So here’s how, and why, Brent-Dyer does it, and what it all means.
And don’t worry, I’ll sheepdog you through it.
Chapter One: Jacynth
I’m reading Gay Lambert at the Chalet School.
My copy is soft and rubbed at the edges. The glue of the spines coming apart and there’s a crack in the middle of it. It’s a book that has met the bath several times.
And I am crying.
I’m sat in the bath, my stomach curving too-high through the bubbles, and my knees cresting like mountain peaks in the distance, and I am crying over somebody I’ve never met. My body aches after a day spent up at the riding stables and I can hear the rain pounding down outside. But all that, all that doesn’t matter because right now I’m Jacynth Hardy, sat in a garden and I’m being told that my Auntie has died.
There are very few moments in the series which bring me to tears, utter heart-soaking tears, but this moment is one of them.
Brent-Dyer could do sadness. That’s a strange skill for one writing about school stories and children of a (relatively) unkillable nature. That’s not that she didn’t try. The average Chalet girl had lemming like instincts and usually saw the nearest precipice as a challenge which could only be met through the wholehearted throwing oneself off of it. Where other schools would have seen a mountain as a nice walk, the Chalet girls saw landslides to get caught in, crevasses to fall in and the occasional local urchin with smallpox as somebody to be embraced without fail.
In a way, the Chalet School books were the first five minutes of Casualty. You know what I mean: they’re the bottle of bleach on the floor, the phonecall whilst you’re driving, or the overloaded plug. They are the accident waiting to happen.
And yet, for all of that, nobody ever really died. There’s something quite fascinating in that a series of several hundred character, only a handful of them ever actually notably died. That they ever, physically, properly – died.
I remember them, now: Luigia Di Ferrarra. Mademoiselle LaPattre. Captain Humphries. Lilamani’s mother.
It’s interesting to note that all of these deaths, the big noteable grey-inducing deaths, all tend to occur in the first half of the books. Death, in the Oberland, was never quite as present as it was in the days of escaping Nazis and of authorial flair and vigour. Brent-Dyer faltered towards the end, growing tired in her series and her skills, but at the start, she was outstanding. And maybe there’s something more in that, maybe there’s something more in the way she pushed the boundaries (and pushed them quite spectacularly) and then, well, didn’t.
I wonder if it relates to power. To control. There’s power in words; words that make you bend and break and know you’ll follow somebody to the ends of the earth if only they’ll speak to you again. And, in writing, that’s intoxicating. You can kill characters.
And you can save them.
You can make them live and thrive in this world that you, perhaps, can’t. And when your friends die, or your lover, or your brother, you can return to your make believe world and bring redemption to the saddest of souls. Even Thekla got redeemed. Even Betty, painfully, got redemption of a sort through the authorial mouthpiece of Joey. There is hope. There is always hope.
So maybe, just maybe, in a series that was built around death and illness, actually experiencing death was a step too far. Actually making your beloved characters feel the blunt emptiness of death was too much and maybe that’s why they so rarely ever did.
Oh Elinor, your books are troublesome to me. I love them, I love and adore them, but I find them so very problematic. And acknowledging the troublesome things about them is hard. I have travelled the world and always, but always, found myself checking in the nearest bookshop just in case there’s a cheap paperback in there.
But I also acknowledge the difficulties that are inherent in those books,
(How about spousal drugging, suppressed sexuality, Nazism, body image and a blissful denial of feminine health to start with?)
So this is the part where we figure out how to deal with that. And in a way it all starts with Sophy Hamel.
“You don’t mean Sophy Hamel? How is she – chubby as ever? When she was at school she was always known as Fatty.” – Two Sams of the Chalet School
Brent-Dyer was never one for textual consistencies. I think we all can agree on that. Mountains changed position, eyes changed colour, girls changed names, ages, forms, best friends, everything changed and then everything changed again with a fluidity wielded by a great and benign authorial genius / madness / exhaustion.
But nobody ever quite gets spoken about in the way that Sophy Hamel gets spoken about here.
Or in the way that people speak about Hilda Jukes.
Or Winnie Embury.
Or Nancy Wilmot.
Fatness, in the Chalet School, nullifies characters. We don’t have brave fat girls, we don’t have leading fat girls, we don’t have fat girls achieving Things Of Note. We have fat girls being consumed by the cultural hegemony of The Gang, of Mary-Lou and her resolute jollyness, of the characters they just happen to be related to, or being insulted by the authorial mouthpiece of the series.
And what happens when they grow up? When they leave school? Of course nobody ever really leaves school in this genre, but if they do, if they remain fat, these girls have the fate of Nancy Wilmot to look forward too. An increasingly masculine, physical presence where you define your appearance against that of others and occasionally burly your way across a flooded river (a situation which coincidentally allows Hilda Jukes to shine, a situation where the fat girls, the earthen solid made of clay girls, get to shine and it’s a moment where they stand fast against a natural disaster but only to save the weaker and more fragile girls!).
In a genre where the characteristic is key, where the unique characteristic becomes your defining characteristic, your USP, the fat girl is fated to a lesser status because her fatness is all she is. The pressure of the Girlsown novel, set at school amidst a cast of thousands, means that characters need that little bit more to stand out. Dorita Fairlie-Bruce writes Dimsie, a vibrant, friendly every-girl character who is thoroughly appealing. But then, in the same breath, Fairlie-Bruce writes about Hester Harriman and refers to her indirectly as ‘swine’.
It’s a tension that discomforts me, primarily because it’s a tension that still exists in children’s literature today. It’s lesser, yes, but it’s still there; that subtle way that books and printed media tell you what and how you should be, and tell you this at one of the most impressionable times of your life. I wrote about it for VOYA magazine (The Body Beautiful. How Do Young Adult Readers Read the Superhero? February 2011), and about how the teenage reader interacts with these images of body perfection, and heightened ideals.
And it’s something that concerns me, because I don’t just read it in the modern book I pick up in the library, I find it in the Chalet School. It’s in Nancy Wilmot’s tensely self-aware reaction after seeing Winnie Embury. It’s in the way that Samaris is teased about her puppy fat, and the perpetrators aren’t told off, and it’s in the way that Miss Ferrars goes “Well, yes you are fat, hey ho” and then wanders off.
It’s in the way that this series can let you throw bookends at people, blame your devil, and yet not let a fat girl be okay.
So here, now, I need to separate myself. And remember what I said about the reader? Maybe that’s what the problem is; maybe I’m reading the series and these moments through my own perspective and when it comes to these moments, I read them through my fatness.
But even after acknowledging this, and disengaging myself from my personal relationship to the series, I can still conclude that there’s something off here. And that’s perhaps what is key to these difficulties that are so very present in the Chalet School series, an awareness that they’re there and removing them from the filtration of your own particular context, but not removing them all together.
That last part’s vital. Loving something is okay, but loving it blindly is not.
This idea is maybe best illustrated in the case of The Chalet Girls Grow Up. It’s a difficult book, one that polarises opinion still to this day. And I think this is all wrapped up in the conundrum it presents to the reader.
Chalet Girls Grow Up is a real book. It’s a book that is all about the real. It’s the real world, it’s a book that pulls the series, mercilessly, into the real world. And it’s a book that reads like a complex, angry and vividly in love relationship between the author and the series as a whole.
It was possibly the first piece of Chalet ‘fanfic’ that dealt with the Chalet world as a real world, and that’s a very complicated premise to take with a series that is all about escapism in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
I sort of think that maybe it’s possible to love and hate the Chalet School at the same time. I think that’s what the Chalet Girls Grow Up tells me and I think that that that realisation gives you power. And it’s a power that circles back to the recognition of the things that prove troublesome, it’s a thing that acknowledges that some parts of this series are bad and wrong and poor, and it’s this:
You can love a series, but understanding how that love can be interpreted by others, and how that love is filtered through the respective experience of that individual will ultimately enhance and bring a new level of understanding towards your own relationship with the series.
You need to be able to see how you fit in, in order to understand how you fit in. And you do fit in, that’s the thing you need to remember as a reader. Your conscious experience of the books creates the books. And your understanding of that experience gives the fiction a sort of tangible truth. These characters – this world – matters because you made it matter.
What is a book without a reader?
Nothing but silence. Nothing but stillness.