The Lost Staircase : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Lost StaircaseThe Lost Staircase by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I rather love this slim, eccentric story that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. I came to it from the Chalet School series which sees two of the characters from The Lost Staircase attend the school. It’s a bravura step and one which happens in the Chalet School books on a fairly regular basis. I always imagine Brent-Dyer inserting these textual Easter Eggs with a slight smugness and well earned sense of satisfaction.

The Lost Staircase itself is a standalone novel which tells of the adventures of young Jesanne Gellibrand, heiress to the Dragon House. The Dragon House is a stately home that reads, at times, with a delightful giddiness and over-excitement and following the death of family, Sir Ambrose brings his young cousin and closest heir home from New Zealand to come into her inheritance. And then there’s a bit about a Lost Staircase which is supremely wonderful because of its grimly committed presence within the novel.

It’s an odd one this but, as I say, deeply charming. Some of it rests on the tangibility of the book itself; it’s smaller than a traditional Chalet School hardback and much of that is due to it being printed in the economy standards that the second world war. The paper is thin, the text closely typed, and it’s all a rather evocative experience. I always find the object of the book as much interest as the book itself and for this to be published in 1946 and to talk so deeply of richness, of heritage and tradition and of wealth, is fascinating.

Textually, it takes a while to get to the point. Much of this seems to centre on Brent-Dyer’s slight tendency to go a bit Angela Brazil and to revel in the romantic context a tad too much. Yet somehow this is still rather lovely because when Brent-Dyer hits it, she hits it square on. The Dragon House is overwritten but madly appealing. Jesanne rides around, romps with dogs, battles with a governess, and gets one of the best Christmas presents ever depicted in a children’s book. It’s gorgeous. But then, having said that, there’s that traditional moment of eccentricity to be found in a Brent-Dyer book, and in The Lost Staircase a plot point turns upon a banana skin.

The Lost Staircase is ridiculous but wonderful; a sort of dizzying mix of the deeply romantic and practical tips about dog keeping. It’s eccentric. It is gorgeous.

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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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Three go to the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Three Go to the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #24)Three Go to the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of my favourite films is Stagecoach, which stars John Wayne. There’s a shot in this film (which you can see here) that makes John Wayne a star. The camera swings into him with such exuberance, and then when it meets him, it keeps going and ends up framed on that face. This is a director making a star, and it’s the first thing I thought of when I reread Three Go To The Chalet School. This is a book where several big characters debut: Mary-Lou Trelawney, Verity-Ann Carey and Clem Barras, and it’s a book which features several of the landmark incidents of the series. You know the sorts of incidents I mean; they’re the ones that somebody indirectly mentions thirty seven books later and everyone laughs, and you’ve not actually read the book that the original incident occurs in, so you’re just all well whatever …

I’m digressing. Three Go To The Chalet School’s a well told book, and it’s purposeful and direct. A lot of it takes place outside of the school and I rather love that. Much of that also speaks to the calibre of the new characters we’re about to meet; the new girl usually gets a bit of backstory, but that backstory halts when they get to school. This time it doesn’t, and the adults remain constantly present throughout. I rather love that. The more I read these books, the more I start to realise that perhaps the great longevity of them is precisely that constant adult presence. It’s in the way that we see inside the staffroom (was it just me who was fascinated with what went on in there?) and become party to adult discussions. These are school stories, yes, but there’s a whole world in there. But then, isn’t that the girls’ school story genre in a nutshell? That expression of femine power and absolute strength, wielded in a constructed and fiercely delineated space of gender parity and uniquely formed ideology?

The school is the world, always.

One other thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School is how Brent-Dyer handles Joey. Joey, at this point, had undergone something of an awkward transition. Still at school, but not. Mother, lover, schoolgirl, adult, writer. And here, Brent-Dyer sort of manages to relax with her and step away from that awkward effort to pigeonhole a character who denies such easy categorisation. Joey Maynard climbs trees and then goes inside and darns socks. She helps people through deep, lasting trauma and she plays slides on the drawing room floor. It’s rather delightful because it’s so unforced and through that lack of concern, she becomes intensely real.

I lied. There is a final, final thing to adore about Three Go To The Chalet School and it is a moment right at the end of the book with Clem and Tony Barrass. I won’t outline the situation, just in case you’ve not read in it, but there is a line here that makes me cry, every time. It’s a line borne out of life and living and of hurting, I think, and it reminds me how good Brent-Dyer really really could be.

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A Leader in the Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

A Leader in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #49)A Leader in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two Chalet School reviews in a row! I imagine you can guess that I am in a mood for comfort reads at the moment; I want fat, luscious, clean reads that I can just sink into and enjoy. Perhaps it is a reaction to finishing a draft of my thesis. I rather suspect it is.

I have enjoyed revisiting these later Chalet School books more than I thought I would. A Leader In The Chalet School is one that is more workmanlike than most of the ones around this point in the series, but somehow it is strangely appealing. There are moments of EBD at her best – “and her French was weird and wonderful” – and there are moments of EBD at her worst – writing a tear-filled confession with copious ‘wa-ahh-ahh’ is never a good idea. Consider that my first and best writing tip. Never write ‘wa-ahh-ahh’. Or else I will glare at you.

So; Jack Lambert’s first term. She’s destined to be Head Girl isn’t she? But fanfics aside, this is the traditional ‘new girl encounters hijinks and ultimately gets all sorted out by the end of it’ formula. It is, as I mentioned, workmanlike, but it works. it really does. It’s briskly told and well told, if a little basically at times (there’s a delicious moment where somebody says something to somebody else off the page as it were, and the text just goes ‘well, whatever she said, clearly worked’. Lol. A thousand times lol.).

What makes A Leader distinct is that I think it’s the first time Len really becomes centred in her own right as an Important Person. She’s left the rampant character assassination of Theodora and the Chalet School (Len’s treatment in this book utterly fascinates and confuses me), and she’s now Somebody. And she’s not hideous. She’s really rather lovely and real. The dynamic between her and Jack is delightful and it’s understandable. And that’s what drives this book; it’s about relationships and identity and selfhood and in a way, it’s not really about a school at all.

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

The Feud in the Chalet School (The Chalet School, #52)The Feud in the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Feud In the Chalet School bears some deep similarities to Rivals of the Chalet School. Following the slightly dramatic incident of ‘their new school having burnt down to the ground overnight’, the new school St Hilda’s is forced to bunk in with the Chalet School. It is when Gillie Garstin reminisces, in a handily expository manner, about the incident, that I utterly fall in love with this ridiculous book. Gillie has a good paragraph of adoration over the lovely uniform of the Chalet School girls. It is rapturous and oddly specific. “The thing which had first caught the eye was their uniform. Such a lovely, deep blue! ….. The St Hilda’s girls had thought it was just a Sunday frock, but now it seemed that it was the school uniform. And was it the tops, with its honeycombing in crimson at waist and shoulders and the little white revers at the neck!” What is a revers? Who would combine crimson honeycombing with deep blue? Were the girls dressed as christmas crackers? How is this any better on the orange and brown combos of before? WHO SPENDS AN ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN RAPTURES OVER A SCHOOL UNIFORM?

God I love this book. It’s recycled, yes, but you know, massive series and I’d be knackered at this point. It does have some splendid episodes of snottiness between the pupils of the respective schools and it does have a gorgeous episode of stupidity on behalf of the middles that includes Miss Annersley importing some epic advice over wood. I adore this series.

Where Feud makes its mark is in its treatment of Miss Ashley who is determined to remain unaffected by the Chalet School. The resolution to this (come on, you all know what’s going to happen to her) is a bit rubbish – but the bits beforehand are fascinating. It reminds me a lot of Miss Ferrars’ debut and I start to wonder – is this the point where the series about schoolgirls started to actually become a series about adults? Is this the point where actually I’ve been misreading it and instead, somehow, this is the point where everything started to actually have grown up – ?

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The New House Mistress : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The New House MistressThe New House Mistress by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost missed this book. I was settling into my traditional ‘let’s check the B section in the bookshop just in case but there won’t be anything there’ frame of mind, and when I saw The New House Mistress tucked behind Angela Brazil (as it were), I couldn’t quite understand what was seeing. It wasn’t a Chalet School title and it wasn’t anything to do with La Rochelle and it was tiny. It is a small, slim, standalone book originally published in 1928, the same year as The Head Girl of the Chalet School, and it seemed to have passed me by.

Reader, I bought it. I hyperventilated somewhat as I did, but I bought it, and then I ran home like Gollum with the One Ring, and I sat and I read this strange little book. It’s a fairly straightforward premise; there’s a new house mistress, and the girl’s aren’t keen on her until oh look they are. (The delicious comfort of school stories and their tropes!)

The New House Mistress isn’t the best written title in Brent-Dyer’s canon. I was startled to figure out the publication date, because that period of time is a good time in Brent-Dyer land. The Tyrolean Chalet School books are wildly vivid stories and The New House Mistress kind of isn’t? It’s not got enough space to breathe; there’s too much scene setting and rules to get through, and substantial amounts of the book are devoted to telling (along the lines of ‘and then she said this, to which Miss so and so did this, and then that’) as opposed to the delicious revelry that Brent-Dyer could deliver.

But then I got to The Incidents, and I deliberately capitalise them because this book is somewhat hysterically brilliant and utterly perfect because of the series of incidents which occur throughout the term. There is a Tree Incident, a Fire Incident, a Crocodile Incident, and a Dancing On The Lawn Incident, and they’re basically so convoluted and hyperbolic and ridiculous that they reach Althea Joins the Chalet School level quality. The Tree Incident, by the way, provides one of my utterly favourite pages ever in literature (page 20, fact fans)

This book is gorgeous, and it’s ridiculous and it’s too brief and it’s hideously written at times and it’s kind of spectacularly off its tree and I guess that that more than anything makes it a wonderfully perfect representative of Brent-Dyer’s work.

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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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