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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First Class Murder : Robin Stevens

First Class Murder (Wells and Wong, #3)First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s strange, sometimes, how books can make you long to read them and then freeze a little when you have them finally in your hands. And this was one: I love the work of Robin Stevens. I have adored Murder Most Unladylike and Arsenic For Tea. The third in the series, First Class Murder, was something that I was viciously hungry to read – and yet, reluctant to do so. I think that’s something that sometimes happens when books are this good, this continual level of good and wonderful writing and plots which hit all of your sweet spots and just make everything right with the world. You get scared that it can’t last. You get nervous.

There aren’t many contemporary writers I feel like this about. Susie Day is one as is Sita Brahmachari, and I suspect Aoife Walsh may become another.

Robin Stevens is very much up there on this list; a collective of some of the smartest and most exciting author voices working in contemporary children’s literature today. And because of all of that, I was nervous of First Class Murder. I was nervous that it just might not be that good.

So. Let me tell you this before we go on. First Class Murder is just -well, it’s perfect.

I love what Stevens does with her characters. I love that the further on she gets in the series, the more confident her writing feels and the drama becomes more dramatic and the humour becomes more stylish and heartfelt (The ‘Hermes’ moment is one such perfect example). I love that this series is turning into a such a powerhouse that can have jokes about the amount of times somebody vomits, with discussion of some incredibly dark and relevant issues. I love how the female characters in this book are so intensely multi-faceted and rich and capable; and I love how the adult characters, in particular Hazel’s father, are drawn with such sympathy and truth.

I would give these books to the world if I could, because they’re just a genuine joy all the way from the start through to the end, so instead I shall end with a small anecdote about a girl I met in the library once. I asked her what sort of books she liked. She told me that she liked Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. “Well,” I said, “Do I have the perfect recommendation for you,” and then we beamed at each other as fellow bookish folk often do.

This is the perfect book for that girl. It’s also the perfect book for anyone who’s wanting something that has strong and brave characters, a tightly choreographed and controlled dance of a plot, murder, trains, shenanigans and buns. Basically, it’s the sort of book that I am and will continue to be slightly evangelical over.

(Also, these books are begging to be bought together as a series. Just look at those covers! My book shelves long for the three of them to be back to back!)

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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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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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