First Term at Malory Towers : Enid Blyton

First Term at Malory Towers (Malory Towers, #1)First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

And so my Blyton marathon reaches another great classic, her series of school stories set at the deliciously described Malory Towers. It’s a school set nebulously on the Cornish coast somewhere, but the detail is what makes this school sing. Turrets. Towers. A swimming pool that’s crisp and refreshing on the hottest of days. A central court with a sunken theatre, roses, and Arcadia found. It’s Darrell Rivers’ first term and, as is the way with the school story, we follow her on her journey into acclimatising into her brave new world. It is an acclimatisation full of pitfalls, of temper, and of high-jinks and of friendship, surprisingly, enduringly formed. It is lovely.

Malory Towers is so, so good. Blyton can write, she writes with what I can only describe as a ferocious readability. There’s not much artifice here, no narrative dodging or sleight of hand. This is story, handed out wholesale, and it’s great. Blyton can write and she can give story, and she will give you story whether you want it or not. There’s something quite brilliant about her when she gets like this. It’s unafraid, unabashed, unrelenting storytelling that’s equally terrifying and equally addictive.

It’s worth nothing that, in the edition I read, the slapping incident between one pupil and another now involves shaking, though the attempted drowning beforehand remains curiously intact and unedited. I’m struck, really, about the tone of editing here. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong decision to this incident, but I’m conscious really of how I read the original incident when I was a child. It was so dramatic to me, so gobsmackingly awe-inducing, precisely because of the slapping. And whilst I’m so very conscious of that, I’m equally conscious of the necessity to understand the needs of current readers and different sensibilities. A quandary. What would you do with the relevant incident? I’m not sure it’s a call I can easily make.

But enough of editing and of nerdly niggles, and back to this wonderful book. It’s epochal, really, because it does what it does with such genuine aplomb. There’s almost too much to enjoy. Everything and everyone feels rooted, real. This is storytelling, pure and simple, and because Blyton is so determined to make this work, she does. There’s such latent power in literature like this.

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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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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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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 Sixth Form at St Clare’s : Pamela Cox

The Sixth Form at St. Clare's (St. Clare's, #9)The Sixth Form at St. Clare’s by Pamela Cox

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thanks to my local charity shop, I recently picked up a batch of the Pamela Cox fill-in titles for both St Clare’s and Malory Towers and was a bit fascinated to see what I thought of them. I’d registered that they existed but had never, quite, wanted to read them. It’s hard to quantify why I didn’t but I think it had something to do with the whole fact that, well, Enid Blyton is so resolutely Enid Blyton that thought of somebody else trying to be Enid Blyton blew my mind a little bit.

And these books do feel like they are undercover Enid Blyton titles. There’s something interesting in how Cox’s name doesn’t appear on the front and instead we see that familiar signature of Blyton’s on the cover. It feels a little like these are packaged as Blyton books rather than, say, a book written in the St Clare’s series but by another author. And that’s interesting to me. Do we buy these books as St Clare’s books, or Blyton, or Cox? What sort of pre-reading do we come to these books with; these books that both fit and don’t fit into the Blyton school story canon?

The Sixth Form at St Clare’s is one of the books that I felt a greater affinity with and that was primarily because I was already acquainted with the characters. I already loved them, really. My reading of the Malory Towers fill-ins (they’re the story of Felicity Rivers and her journey through the school) have been substantially different in that I have had to let go of the fact that I want them to be about Darrell and Sally and Alicia. I want that story. And there’s a necessary reading process of grieving for that.

So here we are with Pat and Isobel, the don’t care O’Sullivan twins, and it’s all rather lovely. There were a few plot twists which felt far too modern and a little off-canon (I found the ‘coming to the sixth form with your problems’ plot, very problematic), and certain of the new girls didn’t quite gel with the context of the series as a whole.

But I did enjoy it. I enjoyed it because I’ve always wanted this story. I’ve always wanted to know what happened – and Cox is very good at delivering that. She knows her series and she knows the motifs of it so well, Mam’zelle Dupot and Mam’zelle Rougier, Miss Potts, midnight feasts, Miss Theobald being awesome (Carlotta being awesome…). It’s a lovely book. And I think the key for my enjoyment of it was to acknowledge what it wasn’t, and understanding why it wasn’t that, and then appreciating what it was.

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The Glass Bird Girl : Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird GirlThe Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of books out like this at the moment (no bad thing -ed). The school story with a hint of mystery seem to be having a little bit of a resurgence (like I said, no bad thing -ed) and that’s clearly no bad thing at all (finally -ed).

The Glass Bird Girl is a very beautiful little book. From the precise eloquence of that title, through to the old-time feel of it, it’s a book that harks back to the classics of the genre and one which both plays with and pays tribute to the genre itself.

The first in a series, it tells the story of Edie who’s been sent by her uncle to Knight’s Haddon School to keep an eye on the daughter of one of his clients. Anastasia, a Russian princess, is finding school hard and there’s something afoot…

It’s a book which I liked a lot but also had a few troubles with. It’s a reticent book which, I grant, fits the nature of the beast but it’s also one that is not quite easy to grasp onto. I liked it, as I say, but there were moments when I felt quite removed from it. I wonder if a part of that is due to the nature of it being an opener to a series (and thus, having to set A Lot Of Things Into Place), but it’s something I’d like addressing in the next title in the series.

What is clear, is that Kerr is an eloquent, graceful writer and she does something I will always admire and pay tribute to. She’s written a book where school girls are school girls and where adults are mysterious, fallible, and three-dimensional. It’s always good for a school story to acknowledge the fact that the adults are people too because it invariably adds weight to the text of itself. It gives the story, the world, import. And Knight’s Haddon is full of truth, of import and of weight. I loved that about it.

This is a perfect book for those readers who are looking to graduate on from something like Malory Towers or St Clare’s onto something a little more mature and challenging. Kerr writes in a lovely, eloquent and accessible manner (though some of the ‘home’ scenes are little difficult to reconcile with the grace of the ‘school’ story itself). A book of two halves! It’s a good job the school part works so well.

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An introduction to the school story – ten titles to begin your reading journey

So you know I have a bit of a thing for school stories, right?

Just in case that comes as a bit of an awful surprise to you, you’re either new (in which case, hi!) or haven’t been paying attention (in which case, remedial prep for you and Antoinette will bring ‘anchovy’ toast to your study later).

So, to clarify, I do enjoy the school story and the girl’s boarding school story genre in particular. Here’s a thing I wrote about why you should read the genre itself but what I want to do in this post, is tell you about a few titles (nb: in no particular order) which I think will serve as an excellent introduction to the girl’s school story.

I’ve picked titles from The Dawn Of Time and also some very contemporary books and over a fair few differing age groups and I have, I know, omitted a few very popular authors. It’s one of the problems and joys of lists of this nature. What does, however, unite all of these titles is that they are great and lovely things and I have hugely enjoyed them all. I hope you have the chance to do the same.

And do let me know what you’d add as number ten?

(My thanks to @nonpratt for inspiring this post! She wrote an excellent book btw, fyi and all that.)

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