“She has torn yet another dress”: Reflections on being a book collector

It’s hard to pinpoint where you fell in love with something when you have been in love with that something for a while. I don’t remember my first book, nor my first library, nor my first story. I remember beats in my journey of literacy, of reading; moments that echo in my heart and sing out, oddly, vibrantly, sharply, when I least expect it. Sitting on my dad’s lap in a great armchair. Telling the librarian what happened in a story. Passing round the salacious bits in a Jilly Cooper (wonderful, wonderful Jilly Cooper).

I don’t remember when I fell in love with the Chalet School. It’s been too long, really, and I can’t begin to unpick the stitch of this book inside of me. It simply is a love; a love I have for an eccentric Aunt that turns up at Christmas brandishing gift, or those moments when you see your favourite thing reduced at Waitrose. Simply, indefinable, truthful moments. Happiness. Satisfaction. Fullness.

But I do remember the moments within the series that cling to me a little harder than most; and one of them is in the below image. It’s a simple paragraph, part of The Princess at the Chalet School, and what I want you to do is read it it and then read it out loud. Slowly. Carefully. Dwell on that last little speech of Mademoiselle’s, and the way that it has so much effortless wonder in it. That final, round full stop of a sentence. It is a perfect paragraph, and perfectly ended.

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Now, there’s a part of me that could talk for hours about the thematic implications of that paragraph and the great symbolism it holds for the notion of feminine power within the series, but I won’t. At least, not now. Maybe later. I’m totally already planning it.

But, for now, what I’m trying to say is that there are moments within a text that make you find your home. I’d forgotten about this one but when I read it again yesterday, I realised that it was one of the best moments of the series for me. It is a paragraph that brings me home.

It is love, caught up in the tight ink curve of letters and of space on a page, it is love.

The Chalet School and the Island : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and the Island (The Chalet School, #25)The Chalet School and the Island by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s perhaps the context that I’m in right now, swithering from thesis research to thesis research, that when I reread The Chalet School and the Island, I was deeply amazed to find a book that I’d never read before. Of course, I knew of Annis and had read of Kester Bellever and of St Briavels and I knew this book.

I didn’t. Not really.

Giving one book and delivering another underneath is sort of the Brent-Dyer trademark. She gives a covert textuality of independence and liberation masked in the genre tropes of a girl’s school story. Midnight feasts. Future potential careers. Middles playing jokes. Potential penury. It is occasionally jarring and it is occasionally poorly done but don’t ever tell me that these books don’t preach a furious ideology of choice. Be who you are meant to be. Not who you should be. Become a Nun, be a mother, teach, lecture on antiquities, go to university, be a vet, a doctor, whatever – all of these are valid and relevant choices for the girls and thus, by that delicious implication of textuality, for the reader. The Chalet School preaches choice. Freedom. Always has, always will, and to dismiss that on the grounds of a misreading or on the grounds of the irrelevance of the non-canonical, populist text, is to dismiss a great swathe of girlhood. Womanhood. Selfhood.

The Chalet School and the Island sees some rather glorious moments as the school relocates once more to an island near Wales. The location, as ever with Brent-Dyer, varies a little over the next few books but for now let’s settle on Wales. Jack eats a lot of crumpets (I have never loved Jack more) as he delivers some healthy exposition on the topic, and then term starts with a hearty not-so-much-of-Jacynth-as-I’d-quite-like but quite-enough-of-Mary-Lou.

Brent-Dyer seems to thrive on change and challenging the status quo of her ever more lengthy books. Some of her writing here is gorgeous, and although she does slip into some slightly rose-tinted paragraphs, the majority of it is rich and refreshing and good. She was good, and her new characters here are wonderful. From the deeply gorgeous Kester Bellever, a famous bird-watcher and naturalist, through to the entire Christy family and the background notes of the established characters such as Doris Trelawney, it’s embracing, warm and lovely.

And it’s powerful, too, dealing with topics as mixed as (deep breath) potential penury, orphans, isolation, religion, future career choices, and the impact of the second world war. That’s the thing about these books. On the surface they’re one thing, but underneath, they’re everything.

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The New Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New Chalet School (The Chalet School, #14)The New Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a moment in this book, relatively early on, where Joey is advised to rub butter on a bruise and it is a moment which fascinates me to this day. Would the butter have to be salted or unsalted? How much of the butter would suffice? Is this really a thing or is it Elinor M. Brent-Dyer having one of her hallucinations? A part of me wants to google whether this is true medical science, and yet an equal part of me doesn’t want to find out.

And so we come to The New Chalet School, a book that is legendary to me for the quality of its small details; a book so full and rich of minutiae that it’s almost not a children’s book at all, but rather something that feels almost like reportage. It’s too real, at this point, this series to me, it is a book that is so thoroughly real that reading this, and the resolution of one of the key sub plots, is almost painful. It’s perhaps one of the few moments in the series where Brent-Dyer delivers a lesson on morality and behaviour that is hard; truly hard, to read, and coming after a sequence defined by happenstance and pratfalls, feels even harder. It’s horrible, really how the subplot is resolved, and I think it’s one of the few moments where Brent-Dyer becomes a hard, and almost cruel author.

(A sidebar: Happenstance and Pratfalls will be my new band name)

But; coupled with that, as ever, is a novel full of glory, and it’s so hard to digest, these wild shifts of tone and style. Brent-Dyer handles the girl’s slow realisation that Mademoiselle is not going to get well with a warm, light and kind hand and again, in contrast, I return to that subplot and the way it’s wrapped up and the hard, hard tones in which it is delivered. A novel of contrasts; the New Chalet School, and yet one I love. I do, despite it all, I do. I don’t think I can’t.

A hard, complicated book to resolve, and I don’t think these are words that I easily associate with the Chalet School. But – here, I do, and this book is fascinating to me and rather important because of that. But. Yes. A review of stutters this, and of contrasts, and of an author who is so very good and somewhat terrifying, somehow, with the skill she has.

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Peace Comes to the Chalet School : Katherine Bruce

Peace Comes to the Chalet SchoolPeace Comes to the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a rule, I find the Chalet School fill in novels complex. A part of me welcomes their presence as it reflects that readerly hunger of mine for this series, and yet another part of me rampantly dislikes it and begins to think of the dilution of intellectual property and the impingement upon Brent-Dyer’s canon of work by others. I get selfish, I think, with these books: I want them all for my own, and so to acknowledge the transformative impact that they have had on others (made manifest in the writing of these novels) is an inherently complicated notion.

But I really like Peace Comes To The Chalet School.

I bought it on a whim, full of pique at all these novels connected to this beloved series of mine (there’s that possessive pronoun again) and at the way that I only had a few of them in my greedy readers hands. I liked the sound of it; the way it dealt with a period of time that was, to be frank, a period which bought some of the best writing from Brent-Dyer. I’ve written about the great grace of The Chalet School in Exile before, and that period also sees some of the greatest moments in Chalet School history. Elizabeth. Betty. Polly Heriot on the train. The Peace League. Lavender’s bath. Bride Bettany. The thought of an another author approaching that period both intrigued me and, in a way, made me a little bit envious. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t think I could adhere to the markers of plot and of structure and of canon that are scattered so liberally before and after.

But Bruce does so very well. I love Peace Comes To The Chalet School and I’d warrant that it’s one of the best fill-ins I’ve read. Bruce balances the needs of the series (the old girls, the religion, the middles!) with a fine awareness of the historical period. Her writing is occasionally too workmanlike and controlled, wrapping off moments before they should be wrapped off or explored further, but those moments are intermittent and fleeting. What Bruce does very well is capture the adults and that sense of wild relief and euphoria that must have come with the news of the wars end. There’s some beautiful and intensely moving moments, which are only further explored with the reactions of the girls. I cried. My heart grew three sizes. Bruce handles that very well and with a distinct element of skill (such a big cast. Such a big cast).

(And oh, Joanna Linders! The European girls!)

I like this novel. I like it a lot, because it feels true and whilst I know it’s a fill in, quite distinctly so at points, there are moments when I forget that. And I think that’s perhaps one of the greatest compliments that I can give it.

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A United Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A United Chalet School (The Chalet School, #15)A United Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full of the vibrant light and deft skill that characterises her early Tyrolean work, A United Chalet School sees Brent-Dyer working at the top of her powers. She’s on her way here to the great heights and nuances of The Chalet School In Exile, and A United Chalet School has much to praise within its pages, with not just some delicious character work on part of the staff but more of the great Betty / Elizabeth pairing.

It is the second half of the term which began in The New Chalet School and thus, United sings somewhat oddly if you come to it in isolation. There are references to events which occurred in the New term and they are references which baffled me for years until I finally got my hands on a copy of New and figured them out. There’s also not much in the way of length to United as originally it was all part of the same book as New. Making United into a separate novel does eke out the tension of the Saints / Chaletians pairing in a suitably commercial manner but I’m not sure there’s much else to justify making this a standalone book and I don’t think I’ve ever read anything which satisfactorily explained this to me. A mystery! We’ll chalk it up to the same person who did all those hideous edits later in the Armada paperbacks!

In the brief space that United exists in, not much happens. There are two or three key incidents and, by themselves, they do not seem to take up much space nor concern. But this is Brent-Dyer and right here, right now, she is so very good. She understands her girls and her circumstances so perfectly that it is achingly good to read. The punishment delivered for a prank (and the prank itself) is deliciously done and speaks of such a sympathetic knowledge of girls and how they feel.

It’s a slim book, United, but quite potent in its way. I will never tire of the coach scene, nor the moments where Miss Wilson takes command, nor that moment where Miss Annersley steps to the forefront (oh!). They’re all relatively small moments but in actuality they’re so big. This is writing that is. It’s fat writing, thick writing, layered writing that presents a simple moment but makes that moment ache with resonance. A United Chalet School is slender but so very sonorous. I rather love it.

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New Beginnings at the Chalet School : Heather Paisley

New Beginnings at the Chalet SchoolNew Beginnings at the Chalet School by Heather Paisley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First published in 1999, New Beginnings at the Chalet School has been in my consciousness ever since. Partially, it’s because of that searing front cover but also because of the fact that this was one of the first big non-EBD titles that I was aware of. There were a flurry of fill-in and continuation Chalet School titles out around this time. 1999 saw the publication of the Voldemort of the Chalet School world – The Chalet Girls Grow Up, and 2000 saw
Visitors for the Chalet School, in addition to a host of other non-fiction titles which were already out including Helen McClelland’s lovely and warm biography of Brent-Dyer herself Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer.

It’s interesting for me to consider New Beginnings in that sort of a context and particularly against The Chalet Girls Grow Up. The latter book, a complex and angry text which I discuss more
here, fascinates me. It speaks of an attempt to pull the fictional into the real world, to marry this odd and eccentric series with the world it was inhabiting – a world which it had increasingly refused to take part in. I think it’s intriguing that, to my knowledge, this is the only ‘official’ fill-in title to attempt to do such a thing.

New Beginnings takes a very different route but it’s one that is, very conscious, of this road less travelled. The blurb speaks of its truth to the spirit of the series (such an intriguing statement that, and one I could ruminate upon for hours), and in Paisley’s introduction, she speaks of being conscious that other continuation novels had not been well received. Whilst I suspect this preface was written latterly, it’s interesting to get all Genette on it and consider it as part of the text itself (Gerard Genette saw elements as the front cover, the copyright, the preface etc as being integral and part of the story). Situating New Beginnings in this space of opposition and characterising it by truth and adherence to the spirit of the series fascinates me so much that somebody needs to do a PhD on it for me.

So what is the story of New Beginnings? It’s set three years after Prefects of the Chalet School and things are moving on. Everybody’s getting married and making decisions. Len is still with Reg (boo), and Con and Margot are getting settled and sorted respectively. Jack Lambert is, rather deliciously, head girl. The story utilises the traditional new girl technique that the Chalet School does so well and introduces Charlotte (Charlie). As is the way, her new term is somewhat rocky.

Paisley’s strengths lie in her palpable knowledge and joy in the Chalet School world. Her detail is intensely convincing and speaks of a level of research and awareness that is to be lauded. At points this is a little too much and I’m thinking in this instance of one of the chapter headings which, to those in the know, gives away the conclusion almost instantly and thus robs the sequence of any jeopardy. Paisley also uses the supporting cast to great effect and I was particularly struck by her handling of Jack Maynard. She manages to capture him especially well which is an achievement in a book dominated by women. Quite often in the Chalet School world the male characters are drawn so thinly that, if you held them up to the light, you’d be able to see through them.

And whilst all this is a strength and a genuine strength, I find myself thinking again about the book that cannot speak its name and how New Beginnings works both with, and against, that. I find myself thinking about the nature of continuations and fill-ins and how, quite often, they reveal so much more about the fan and their nature of interaction with the series. Paisley loves the Chalet School, that much is clear, and New Beginnings reads very well. It’s a joyful, and occasionally deeply moving read.

But.

It is a read very much fixed within the Chalet School bubble and whilst that is good and joyous and perfect for those moments when you wish to be in that bubble and to escape and to dream (and lord knows, I want to do that so much and so often), I think that for me, I need something that explores and considers what could happen at that moment where the bubble starts to connect with something else.

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First Pages : Eustacia goes to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Eustacia goes to the Chalet SchoolWelcome back to another one of my intermittent looking at the first pages of books series. I’ve chosen the great Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School for today’s post, and a lot of it hinges on that near legendary first sentence:

“There is no disguising the fact that Eustacia Benson was the most arrant little prig that ever existed.”

What a sentence. What. A. Sentence. It’s one with at least two words that I remember not understanding the first time that I read this, but my word, how I understood that sentence. It’s full of authority; and it’s an authority which almost breaks the third wall. This is the great authorial voice speaking and it’s one that, at this point in the series, is full of strength and vigour. Brent-Dyer is pretty much speaking straight to her audience. Eustacia is awful, she’s saying, and you need to know this before you know anything else about her.

(For those of you who remain unsure – and I grant, I just had to double check I was getting the meaning of ‘prig’ right – it means “a self-righteously moralistic person who behaves as if they are superior to others” according to Google. So there we are. Eustacia is horrible. Even Google says so).

That’s such an odd way to introduce a protagonist to the series. We know that Eustacia is to be the protagonist of this book; she’s named in the title, she is the title of the first chapter, she is in the first line. She is central and yet, hated. She is a character constructed – and “subjected” – to a childhood that is defined by the absence of normal things. There’s a lovely little line towards the end of the first paragraph where Brent-Dyer groups herself with the reader and muses: “We have little difficulty in guessing the effect of those theories when we meet Eustacia for the first time…” Have a look at the construction of this sentence in conjunction with that opener. Eustacia is an arrant little prig. She is not pleasant. We know this, you and I, because I (the author) am standing on the side of you (the reader) and we’re studying this strange “unfortunate” creature together.

I find Eustacia such a fascinating individual. She’s introduced as somebody quite horrible and yet somebody who’s going to go to the Chalet School. Note the construction of the title: “Eustacia goes to the Chalet School.” It’s not “Eustacia at the Chalet School”. It’s not “Eustacia of the Chalet School” (The of and at constructions are titles used liberally throughout the series, but goes only occurs twice when related directly to school based adventures, and once in the ‘fill-in’ episode of Joey goes to the Oberland). That title suggest a girl who is being sent and yet, will not belong. A destination, but one that is not welcoming. Previous to this episode in the series, we’ve seen another new girl introduced – The Princess of the Chalet School – and Eustacia’s not destined for a similar experience. She is alien, really, to everything in this series and around her, and she is fascinating.

Brent-Dyer at this point in her writing career was so, so strong in how she could draw a character and context together. Eustacia is, for me, one of her more enduring and complex creations and it all centres around that opening sentence: “…the most arrant little prig that existed”. I think it’s madly intriguing that she set this book around such a resolutely unlikeable heroine – and one that she only, very briefly, admits is not to blame for being so unlikeable. She is the “unfortunate Eustacia”, who has been “subjected” to her childhood.

And maybe that’s the crux with this page, that little brief coda in the depths of the opening paragraph, that little mark of humanity and careful word choice that shows that maybe, underneath it all, Eustacia isn’t that bad a thing. She’s a victim. She’s obnoxious and superior and, as one might phrase it nowadays, rather full of it; but she is not to blame.

That’s such a careful nuance and it’s one that, I think, this whole page hinges upon. Eustacia’s character is laid out for all to see here, mercilessly so – but it is not all that she is. It is well for both the author and reader to see the cracks in it, even at this early point. It is the smallest of moments but it is so indicative of what is yet to come. Eustacia is a victim. And this book is going to explore just exactly what that victimhood has created.