Home Fetters : Raymond Jacberns

Home FettersHome Fetters by Raymond Jacberns

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a bit of an interesting time in a bookshop recently, spotting a vast pile of those books that you just know are the sort of books that you want. Luckily enough they were also the sort of books that clearly didn’t sell that well in this bookshop, considering by how much dust were on them and the price they were, and so I scooped them up and ran away home, cackling wildly to myself.

Many of the authors in that pile were new ones to me, and my eye was drawn to Home Fetters by Raymond Jacberns as a suitable place to start. Upon hearing the name of this author, my mum turned to me and said, “That’s a pseudonym.” “Is it?” I said, “How do you know?” “I just do,” she said, and then I googled and she was right. Raymond Jacberns was the pseudonym of Georgiana Mary Isabel Ash, and my mum has psychic powers.

Home Fetters was published by the Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1904 and as such is inculcated with a very particular form of values. The moralising is sometimes quite hamfisted, and somewhat unfathomable, but then again this isn’t anything unusual in this particular type of literature. What is unusual about Home Fetters is how good it is despite its marked weaknesses. Not much happens, and that which does happen is a bit episodic, and a little bit ‘wait, why is this all ‘character x’s’ fault’, but what does happen is told in a really genuine and vivid style. Jacberns (Ash) has this great gift of vibrancy which, when it’s allowed to happen, can absolutely shine.

I suspect in a way she’s too early with her style. You can almost feel it fighting against the restrictions of the form to make itself known, and I wonder what we would have had from her if she were writing and working in the context of twenty or thirty years later. She’s a great writer; and when she can express it, this book is surprisingly good.

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Caldicott Place : Noel Streatfeild

Caldicott PlaceCaldicott Place by Noel Streatfeild

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes I suspect that, along with ‘Duvet Days’, there should be ‘Streatfeild Days’ where those people who feel a peculiar ache at their soul that they cannot quite identify should be allowed to take a day off to read a Streatfeild of their choice. I picked this one up from a charity shop recently, delighting in that front cover and its peculiar potent sense of time and place, and it’s a joy. It’s perhaps not her strident and raw best but when you consider what her best could be, you realise that those books which are simply ‘good’ are rather transcendent in themselves.

Tim’s family isn’t having a great time of it; his father has been hurt in a car crash, and money is proving immensely tight. Circumstances conspire to see Tim and his family relocate to the countryside with an old house and several new additions to take care of, whilst the father slowly recuperates from his injuries. It ties everything up appropriately, as stories of this nature ought to do, and there’s a few sudden moments of breathless beauty in it; particularly in the rehabilitation of Tim’s dad.

What Streatfeild manages to achieve here, and always, is this sense of the children stepping up and playing their part – in ways that, perhaps, the adult figures of the book do not realise. She had such a wonderful eye for letting children participate and own the movement of their lives that Caldicott Place sings with this sort of increasing childish strength and power and weight the more that the book develops. Streatfeild also had an eye for the adults in her books, rendering them as flawed and realistic characters full of worries and concerns of their own, whilst never, not once, allowing them to be unsympathetic. I think what I’m trying to say is that she understands people, and her books taste like buttered crumpets on a cold, sharp winter’s morning. They make everything alright again.

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Janie Steps In : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Janie Steps In (La Rochelle, #7)Janie Steps In by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to know where to begin with this delightful little box of tricks, so perhaps we shall be like Fraulein Maria and start at the beginning for that is a very good place to start. And beginnings, really, are a strange thing to find in this book because it is the end of the La Rochelle series and many of the characters face the fate of being interwoven into that series. This is not a problem, if we are precise about it, for Janie Steps In holds approximately 303048 individuals who are destined to be head girls and prefects within its pages. But, it also holds a chapter called The Apple Riot, shines a spotlight on the epitome of dysfunction that is the Chester family, and, what’s more, throws in a little lesson on ‘don’t marry the first hottie you meet’. To be frank, this is Brent-Dyer at her chaotic best.

Our interest in this episode is Nan Blakeney who hasn’t got over the death of her mother quick enough. She is not helped by her cousin having quite the family likeness (really not Nan’s problem for not getting over things then, is it?) and thus is sent off to Janie Lucy who is the spit of Joey from the Chalet School books and clearly one of Brent-Dyer’s great literary loves. Everything gets a bit hysterical, the servants do all the work, The Apple Riot is an outstanding chapter borne from something I can only attribute to a fever dream, and this is just good, brilliant stuff. Everyone is jolly, and everyone loves each other in a hearty sort of fashion (except Rosamund who is CLANNISH and Cannot Cope With Interlopers) and did I mention the apple thing?

I honestly think this might be one of my favourite Brent-Dyer books. She could hit some lows, and I’ll never be backward in pointing those out, but she could also hit some heights. This is amongst the best of her work; it’s warm as sunlight, easy and friendly (even when dealing with the more dramatic bits) and lovable. These characters are occasional tools, but madly vibrant. You finally get to figure out why everybody was super weird about Barbara Chester when she joined the Chalet School. And, if that wasn’t enough, there’s even one of those spectacular EBD ‘there’s no clues but X has been pregnant and whoops here’s a baby’ moments.

I loved this. I really, really did.

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Five Fall Into Adventure : Enid Blyton

Five Fall into Adventure (Famous Five, #9)Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a little part in this where Julian, after detailing the current predicament that the Famous Five have gotten themselves into, remarks, “…This is all very stupid and melodramatic” and it’s kind of the highlight of the entire book for me. It’s a breaking of the fourth wall, a moment where Blyton throws all of her stubborn fire at the critics and goes ‘well, yes, it is kind of melodramatic but it’s what happened and besides I’m writing this and not you’ and I love it. The Famous Five are such iconic figures, even to those who maybe have never read any of the original books, that Julian’s wry little comment sings of wall-breaking and authorial intervention, and it’s great. Give me more of this Blyton, more of this author and her stubbornly determined narratives that barely pause for breath.

The ninth of her Famous Five adventures, this is a fairly standard sort of affair. Something happens, something else happens, somebody pops up, shenanigans, shenanigans, everything’s fine and we’re back at home in time for tea. And oh the food in this book! It’s great, and a reminder of Blyton’s childish eye for detail. Note that I don’t use childish in the pejorative manner, but rather as a recognition of Blyton’s eye for perspective. She got children. She understood them. And, for a book first published in the 1950s, she knew what made them tick. Food. Fun. Friends.

This isn’t high literature, and that’s a debate that, in a way, I’m bored of when it comes to Blyton. What I find interesting and exciting about her work is how it is so fiercely determined to make sure the reader has a good time. These are books that will be read even when the reader isn’t sure that they want to do such a thing and they’re still remarkably accessible even to present-day readers, what with her use of syntax and bluntly direct prose. It’s not pretty, but it is remarkable and so very, very, brilliantly readable. I suspect that it’s long past time to bring Blyton in out of the cold, and let her be remarked upon as one of the canonical lights of children’s literature.

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Seven Scamps : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

This is my last read of 2017! I wish you a lovely new year, and if festivities aren’t your thing, I also wish you the chance to spend the evening with a Very Good Book….

Seven Scamps (La Rochelle)Seven Scamps by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a delightfully weird book. I’m aware that’s a label that can be applied to much of Brent-Dyer’s work for me, but here it feels particularly pertinent. The Seven Scamps are actually a bunch of brats, abandoned by their restless father who goes off abroad, picks himself up a new wife with a daughter of her own, and then pops back. There’s some mad oddness here, with the father being attracted to his new wife and her daughter because of the daughter’s blonde plaits, a theme that carries on with the father being proud of his own children’s hair. It made me think of how long hair, and the ‘inappropriate cutting there of’ is actually quite a strong theme throughout Brent-Dyer’s work (see Janeways, Lavender, etc…). There’s a thesis in that. Could somebody write it for me?

Every now and then though this book steps away from weirdness, and hits raw and ferocious heights. Brent-Dyer still can’t handle a proposal without getting lost in a knot of euphemisms and Meaningful Looks, but she can handle a sickbed scene. The one in Seven Scamps is something else and for me, made the book what it is. She might not be able to cope with the new style she was attempting to adopt here (“episodic lolz”) but when she writes about people, the fragility of them, and the strength of love, she is remarkable.

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The Wrong Chalet School : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Wrong Chalet School (The Chalet School, #28)The Wrong Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is so wholeheartedly a good book. In a way, it’s a prototype for the ideal school story. The new girl arrives; highjinks jink, a Talent Is Discovered, and another girl gets her comeuppance. The difference with The Wrong Chalet School is that it’s so fiercely dippy that you can’t be held back by doubt or questions. This book is what it is. It doesn’t hold back from itself and that’s what makes it so special.

Katherine Mary Gordon is our new girl, and could it be that she’s been sent to the wrong Chalet School? Of course she has, and that’s where the joy of this begins. It’s delivered with such conviction and such heart that even as the coincidences continue, and the plot gets delightfully caught up in itself with pay-offs and cross-references, you just love it more. And when Brent-Dyer cracks out one of her patented moments of heartbreaking loveliness, you just cry and then you love it a little bit more.

I’ve been on a Chalet School kick at the moment and I suspect that I’ll leave it at Wrong for a while. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to these books because I will always come back to my beloveds; but rather, to say that I don’t want this read to be diluted. The ‘island’ phases of the Chalet School have always had a special place in my heart because they are just so richly done; more so than ‘stately home in the country with a Queen Anne vibe’ and, forgive me, than ‘the kind of magically extendable Swiss Platz’. I believe these books in the Tiernsee and here, where the girls hold ridiculously elaborate pageants in the sea, and have swimming lessons and accidentally get stung by jellyfish. I don’t know, this is my heart maybe, this place of ridiculous joy.

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The Chalet School and Barbara : Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Chalet School and Barbara (The Chalet School, #34)The Chalet School and Barbara by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the point in the series where we have what we’d now refer to as a reboot. There are now two branches of the Chalet School, plus St Mildred’s, plus the girls who act as companions to sick relatives and sort of pop in every now and then for a bit of algebra, and it is all very confusing. But then that’s always been the way if you look at the detail of this series. The Chalet School is not one for precision, not consistency, nor parsing the timetable and wondering if a girl has her lesson with the lower or upper form does that mean that the entire school is studying the same subject at the time?

I’m digressing; this is charming. It’s gentle, too, in that sort of delightfully comforting way these books can be. Nothing really much happens; people think about how much Beth Chester’s turned into a fox and how sad she’s not been snapped up, we have the phrase “the very latest thing in lifts” which is so unbearably delightful I can’t bear it, and the equally joyful piece of ridiculousness that is “put forth a tiny rootlet”. It is too, too delightful.

To return briefly to the point about Beth for a moment, it’s important to remember that this book was first published in 1954 and that a whole generation of women would have still been coming to terms with their status in a new world. There’s something oddly mournful here for me, and it centres, perhaps, on the way EBD clearly yearns for marriage for so many of her characters. Even Grizel gets married (and she’s a right nightmare). I won’t dwell on this topic any more here but will simply recommend Helen McClelland’s outstanding biography: Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M.Brent-Dyer. It’s great, and sensitively done.

So! Charming, gentle, and oddly beautiful, this book’s a joy. It’s one of those Chalet Schools that revels in the detail and you don’t really care, because you’re discovering this new world at the same time that the girls are. I can imagine this obsessive detail about the pattern on the curtains (I’m still not 100% sure of what cretonne is), the order of morning baths, and Clem’s weird ‘stick a leg out of your curtain thing’ might pall to new readers, but really if you’re reading this then you’re not new. You’ve been indoctrinated, and your life is all the better for it. These books are ridiculous. They are wonderful. They are everything.

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