The Chalet School at War : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School at War (The Chalet School, #17)The Chalet School at War by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s easy for me to be flippant about the Chalet School and, to be frank, it is a mode I adopt quite often when discussing this bizarre, brilliant and all too frustrating series. But it is not easy for me to be flippant about The Chalet School at War; a book full of ache and of pain and so, I shall not.

I didn’t think I felt like this about The Chalet School at War. I remembered it being slightly leaden, a piece of filler coming after the great The Chalet School in Exile, mostly considering of Welsh people being very Welsh, Gwensi being boring and only enlivened by the great friendship split between two key middles. That was, alas, about it, and so when I came back to it, I don’t know what I expected.

I do know that I did not expect this, this book that as ever with Brent-Dyer when she was at her fiery best, this book that is about one thing and yet wholly about another. Originally published in 1941 and titled ‘The Chalet School Goes To It’, The Chalet School at War is a book about love. It is a strange thing to apply, this sentiment to a series which resolutely stayed away from pashes and the like, but it is a sentiment I apply most wholeheartedly.

This book is about love.

This book is about family and ties and people being split from their homes and realising that none of that matters if they are together. This book is about women, banding together in the darkness and being brave and hopeful and furious against this war of men’s making. This book is about England and her ‘mettle being tested’ in these dark, dark times and it is a message to the readers that says – you will live through this. You will survive. You will endure. And this book is about marriage and happily ever afters; some given with near-tangible authorial grief to characters who are ‘too dear and sweet to spend their lives teaching’.

This book is about pain.

My God, it is so very much about pain.

The war is on, there are girls still inside Nazi Germany (not all Germans, Brent-Dyer reminds us, are Nazis, and again this fine distinction in this wild and so often ridiculous series makes me gasp at how good she could be). There are girls forced to live a life that they have not chosen with people that they have not chosen. There are women trying to do the best for the children in their care and there are these children who are growing up in these tumultous times and clinging to simple things. Hope. Honesty. Respect. Everything embodied in that painful, jagged little league of hope that’s called ‘The Chalet School Peace League’

And all of that is delivered in this school story about vegetables and about inter-form arguments and babies and I didn’t see it coming. Quite often, with Brent-Dyer, when she is this good, I don’t see it coming and it’s only when I finish and close the book that I realise what’s just happened. It’s only then that I remember just how outstanding an author she could be.

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First Pages : ‘The School at the Chalet’ by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

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Front Cover : The School at the Chalet

Welcome to a new feature here on DYESTAFTSA, and what better book to debut it with than one of my beloved Chalet School books?

‘First Pages’ is precisely that. I plan to have a look at some of the first pages of some of the best books in the world, she says nonchalantly, and try and share with you a little bit as to why these books are so good. I also want to tell you a little bit about the book themselves. E-Books are wondrous, mind-blowing things, but they don’t hold the history that the book as object holds. Some of these books have been around the world with me. Some of them are almost as old as me. Some of them have been in the bath, some of them are page-creased and torn, all of them are beloved.

Let’s begin. This edition of ‘The School at the Chalet’ is a “facisimile edition of her first Chalet School book”. Published in 1994, it’s a replica of the first edition of the Chalet School book. That explains the delightful typeface you’ll see on the first page (how evocative can a typeface be? Very, I think, very). The book itself is unedited and features everything that that first edition would have included – but it doesn’t include the pictures. Which is a definite downer. Nina K Brisley’s pictures are vivid and lovely things.

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Page One : The School at the Chalet

Chapter One is called “Madge Decides”. Think on that title a moment. The agency of that chapter is already being placed in the hands of Madge. We don’t know who she is – we just know that she’s in charge. That’s exciting and it’s a note that sets us up so  well for the series. Madge is a woman making a decision – we don’t know what it is yet – but she’s making that decision herself. It’s not “Madge and ‘somebody else’ decide”. It’s Madge.

The first sentence in the book is spoken by Dick. He refers to two girls, and he’s immediately met by Madge’s light-hearted replies. She’s not concerned. Dick is (he’s all exclamation marks) but Madge definitely isn’t. The control, the narrative agency of this page, is all hers. Again, it’s such a beautiful and appropriate note to kick off this series with – a woman being in charge of her own situation.

Have a look at the actions on this page. We can reason fairly effectively that both Madge and Dick are sat down when it begins. The “She got up…” paragraph is fairly explicit on that. And it’s this paragraph that I want to focus on and what comes after. Madge stands up. She walks across the room and Dick ‘lifts up his fair boyish head to look at her’. Take a moment over that. The height issue. The power is all with Madge, again, Dick is looking ‘up’ at her; she’s all affirmative action (even if that action is just a walk – it’s an action). Dick is talking. Madge is doing.

The final note that I want to draw your attention to is in the final paragraph. It’s perhaps the first note of what we could call Chalet School style. Madge is “not pretty in the strict sense of the word, yet … good to look at.” That’s an interesting stylistic choice to take and it’s one that signifies a few things to me straight away. The school story was very well known at this point and people were familiar with it and some of the key hallmarks of the genre. There are books by certain authors where every girl in the school is basically a supermodel with glorious hair, amazing looks and everybody ‘pashes’ on each other. This sentence about Madge, I think, is Brent-Dyer signifying a fairly strong stylistic turn away from that genre. She’s saying that this heroine, this heroine, she’s somebody you should be looking at and she is not cliche. She is not the sort of heroine you’re used to seeing.Everything about this page is coded to make you look at Madge and then here’s this sentence going – think about who you’re looking at. She’s not ‘pretty’. She can’t be classified as easily as that.

Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series eventually went on to sprawl into almost sixty titles and forty-five years. In my opinion, the Chalet School books became the series that defined her. It’s hard, and slightly unnerving, for me to imagine writing a series now that I’d still be writing forty-five years later. But that’s what she did.

And all of that began here.

The Head Girl of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Head Girl of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #4)The Head Girl of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It always fascinates me how early this series shifts things; how early things change. The status quo of the first few books is already being changed at this point. Head girls have been and gone (my beloved Bette Rincini has not had her moment in the sun but this is addressed by Helen McClelland’s excellent Visitors for the Chalet School) and now it is Grizel’s turn. Grizel is a complicated beast, one of the most intriguing characters ever to walk the stage of the Chalet School, and coupled with this – Madge has left the school to get married. Mademoiselle Lapattre (Le Pattre, La Pattre… ;) ) is now the headmistress.

And the problems begin before we even get to school. Joey and Grizel, their fractious and vividly real relationship makes Things Occur. Grizel is hotheaded. Joey is tactless. Brent-Dyer’s writing is superb. She’s so early on in her sprawling, generational saga of school stories that her writing is fresh, sharp and so so lovely. There are of course the traditional ‘oh my god is she dead’ moments that only the Chalet School can carry off, and an amazing cameo from an already established character in the series. (A brief pause: we’re four books in, four!, and yet this series is already so layered and thick and satisfying and Brent-Dyer is quite genuinely throwing everything at it like some gorgeous mad scientist of writing and I love it, I love it).

Also it’s Cornelia Flower’s first term. She has yellow hair and a ramrod chin. Still not *quite* sure what a ramrod is, mind, but Corney is awesome.

God these books are good.

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Jo of the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Jo of the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #2)Jo of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s very little to say about the early Chalet School books other than to rhapsodise over how awfully lovely they are. And they are. They are like snow on the day when you don’t have to go to school. There’s something other worldly about them at this point in the series and it is something rather special and beautiful.

So! Here we are. It is only book two and the school is still finding its feet. We are on the side of the bluest lake in all of Austria and it includes one of my most favourite moments in the entire series. It’s no spoiler to say that there is a point in this book where Joey disappears and nobody knows where she has got to. Dear wonderful Simone insists on looking for her inside the piano. How glorious a sentence is that? There is everything in this series inside that moment; the earnest belief in ones abilities, the knowledge that Jo is a skinigallee (sp, naturally), and the glorious innocence that characterises so much about these early books. It’s lovely. I adore you young Simone and a part of me wishes you’d retained that romantic dippiness of yours for ever.

The Robin makes her debut in this book and I remember spending hours studying the pages and wondering when she lost her ‘The’. That still fascinates me. The Robin (oh lord, I’m doing it now) is rather lovely here and winsome and a welcome addition to the cast (and one, might I add, who should have had more book than she did, but I digress, yet again).

The other thing that Jo of the Chalet School benefits from, quite immensely, is that Madge is still on the scene. She’s such a glorious character; vivid, sharp and lovely and rather inspirational in her own way. What a character she is, and [potential spoiler alert] what a shame she gets married off so swiftly.

But again, I digress.

What makes this series so glorious in its early days is this sense of greatness about it. You feel that this is real. You feel that this is happening. You feel that this is, to paraphrase a certain somebody else, a very great adventure and you feel privileged to be a part of it. And even now, even 88 years later (!), you can feel that there is something quite beautiful and pure and elegant and joyful about these stories and that is a something which deserves to be treasured.

Plus there’s Rufus.

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The Chalet School In The Oberland : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School in the Oberland (The Chalet School, #26)The Chalet School in the Oberland by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Coming back to the Chalet School after some time away is the most comforting of things. Whilst my books have been in storage, I’ve been relying on public libraries and second hand bookshops and the odd, hysteria-inducing car boot sale (“Quick, they’ve got a hardback copy of Princess! You chat to him nonchalantly whilst I pretend to look calm!”).

But lo, now my books are out of storage, and I have been reunited with them, it is time to begin the great ‘let’s read the titles I’ve forgotten about’ exercise. The Chalet School In The Oberland was the first I selected; partially because it was one that I had great personal memories of, and also because I remembered it being one of Brent-Dyer’s more ‘scandalous’ novels. To quantify the last comment, scandal in the work of Brent-Dyer is an oddly nebulous and varying beast and the scandal in The Chalet School In The Oberland does not disappoint.

So where are we in this series, this country-striding, doctor-marrying, occasionally-bordering-on-the-edge-of-farce, touched with brilliance series? We’re in the Oberland and it’s not actually the Chalet School at all. This is St Mildred’s, the finishing branch, which as far as I understand it, seems to specialise in not actually grading people for the work they do, the odd evening of corporal punishment, before cancelling all education in the latter half of the term in order to put on a pantomime (“Let’s do the show right here!!”).

God I love these books.

The Chalet School in the Oberland does, however, have some greatly unique points about it which contribute to a fascinating read and an oddly tense narrative at points. Looking at the work of Brent-Dyer always makes me feel as if there’s a definitive line between the ‘Chalet World’ and the ‘real world’. The two of them very, rarely, come together easily. When they do connect, they meet head on and either create pure brilliance (The Chalet School In Exile) or pure, painful prose (Redheads at the Chalet School). They never seem to coexist comfortably for me.

And in the Chalet School in the Oberland, we sort of get to explore that tension via the conduit of Elma Conroy. She’s a defiant rebel who smokes (“meh, not so bad but we’ll have to have a chat to confirm whether that’s alright or not”) and plays cards (“OH MY GOD!”) and is engaged in a relationship with a bounder by the name of Stuart Raynor.

It’s as oblique as anything Brent-Dyer’s ever written but there’s some fairly heavy hints of inappropriate, predatorial, money-orientated intentions on the part of Stuart towards Elma. It’s very dark to read when you stop and think about it; this member of the Chalet School community (please, everyone who is anything to do with the Chalet School always gets converted, they’re worse than the Borg) is being preyed upon by a boy who does not want her for who she is. He wants her for her money. For her privileged status in life, nothing more, nothing less.

In addition to this, we have a priggish individual learning the error of her ways (a fairly similar rehash of Eustacia who remains one of my favourite characters of all time), several staff putting their feet up with a cigarette or two, a healthy serving of Dickie Christie (whom I also love, quite greatly) and lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots of Peggy Bettany. Lots. Lots.

It is, to be fair, a fairly solid Chalet School book. It features great joy, great hysteria, some incredible writing, and a spectacularly unhysterical pantomime that goes on for approximately 3503 pages.

Have I told you about how much I love these books? Because I do. I really rather hugely do.

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Happy Birthday Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

It’s hard sometimes to quantify the influence that Brent-Dyer has had on my life. Clearly there are the obvious factors, such as my longing for every doctor to be both good in a crisis and rather dashing (and also a solid lump of comfort), and the fact that I now know enough German to order coffee and cakes and that I need to be careful of how much a cup of coffee costs in Swiss stations.

But on a more serious note, I think it’s in the way that she told me that children’s literature could do great and magnificent things.

I believe, very much, in the power of literature. You find your voice through reading. You find yourself through reading. You find yourself and your voice and you find out who and what you can be. I read children’s literature for a long time, but it was only in the past few years that I came to realise, and to be able to verbalise, how important that is.

And that, so much of that, is built on Brent-Dyer and her school of nations, her families of a hundred or more children with different coloured hair and eyes, her St Bernards, her ‘girls which keep falling off of mountains’ and of a voice that spoke in the darkness of world war two of acceptance, forgiveness, and truth.

The Chalet School was a multilingual school. A multi-faith school. A school where girls were allowed to be bold, and brave, and who they were and who they could be. That empowerment still astounds me. The way that Brent-Dyer, even in her painful, tired, last books was so concerned with letting her girls grow up and be strong, confident woman (and not spineless jellyfish).

She has given me so much. She has given me the support to write books about girls. About girls, and about women, and the golden, brilliant, lovely relationships between them. She has given me moments that have still, somehow, never been surpassed in my reading life. She has given me other moments which have made me cry and fold and hunt for my own vibrant orange handkerchief to stem my tears.

This is what a good author can do. Heck, this is even what a bad author can do and Brent-Dyer had her moments of both. This is what an author can do when you connect with them. This is what happens when you read and the gap between the page and you narrows to the extent that

This is why I believe that books are an opener of doors. That they are a gateway to the world and to beyond. This is why I will fight for the right for people to read, and to read what they want. It is for moments like this when I think back to the Chalet School that I dropped in the bath by mistake and patched it back together with tape and panic. It is for moments when I think how a reader can be made. How they can be formed. How they can be built and how they can be helped and how they can be saved, even by a woman who I have never met  and who has been dead for 18,827 days.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, you and I, and it is right to raise a glass every now and then.

Thank you EBD.

The Chalet School Encyclopaedia (volume one) : Alison McCallum

ISBN: 978-1-84745-157-6

Doing pretty much what it says on the tin, in distinctly impressive style, The Chalet School Encyclopaedia is an encyclopaedia of everybody who has played a part in the Chalet School world (up to D). Interspersed between the letter sections are a few one-off entries detailing various aspects of Brent-Dyer’s work. This volume has: School Uniforms at the Chalet School, Books written by Josephine M. Bettany, Bit Parts and Leading Ladies, and a Character Index by Christian Names. 

It is one of those books which awes me in the scale of its scope and yet frustrates me equally as much as it impresses. It is a boon to anybody considering Chalet School research (or fanfic!), as McCallum has got some beautiful entries which sum up every mention a character has had.in the books. There’s something very lovely and endearing about browsing the entry for Miss Annersley and seeing how many times the colour of her eyes are mentioned. (For those of you who are interested, it’s eleven, though I may have got that wrong as I got distracted and then highly amused by the fact that she also has ‘preternaturally sharp ears’ Shocks, 94).

That sort of satisfying segue and then another segue is a key joy of a topic like this. For example, the entry for Chudleigh, Peregrine ‘Hawk’ has made me really rather desperate to read Chudleigh Hold. How can you stay away from a book which features a character described as ‘a dark silent youth who is known as Hawk, partly due to his name, partly because he has a beaky nose and partly from his habit of hovering over a subject and then pouncing suddenly on the main point. He is something of a loner’ (Excuse me whilst I go and giggle over that one some more).

So where’s the annoyance? It lies, I think in the illustrations. There are some glorious images throughout this book and none of them are labelled. You can work out a lot of the context through where they are, but there are others that aren’t immediately as accessible of these, Labels, references, some sort of citation at least would connect these a lot more to the text as at present, the illustrations feel rather like a closed reference. You understand and know where they’re from if you know, but if you don’t, then they could be from any edition and if you’ve not read the relevant title, then it’s a magical mystery tour.

And that’s not good, really, in a book which is so gloriously detailed in other ways to be a bit blase about a substantial part of the books appeal. It is at odds with the obvious care and attention given to the volume as a whole.

(And now, now that I’ve said all that, if somebody would like to break down the illustrations on the back cover for me, I’d think you were amazing as I’m dying to know which girl is serving a horses head to somebody… (update: “re girl with horse head. It’s from Mystery and part of a Christmas play with character serving a boar’s head” Thank you Twitter!!)