OK, this really wasn’t what I was expecting! I don’t want to give the game away for anyone who’s got this book but hasn’t read it yet (I never know whether anyone actually reads anything I write or not 🙂 ), but let’s just say that it involves a wartime spy story about an Indian jewellery box and a Nazi plot, in which are embroiled both Dick Bettany’s new house in Devon and the Armishire poacher once encountered by Daisy Venables and her two best pals. Rather more Enid Blyton than Elinor M Brent-Dyer. However, as the author points out, the “canon” books also include spy stories – Gertrud Beck for one and the Chart of Erisay for another – and strange adventures (notably the one where a kidnapping drug gang give Val Gardiner rich creamy milk and pay for her train ticket, and not forgetting Professor Richardson’s spaceship). And it means that we get to see Madge being the heroine of a dramatic car chase through the countryside. I love Madge, so I particularly enjoyed that bit.
If you were expecting Sales, Christmas plays, showdowns in the study, prefects’ meetings and tea parties at Joey’s, though, you’re going to be out of luck – and, given that people pay the premium prices for the “fill-in” books because they want to read about the Chalet School, some readers may have issues with that. But there’s school stuff in there too, we get to see plenty of the Bettany and Russell families (and not too much of the Maynards, which makes a pleasant change), and we get to see quite a bit of interaction between the School and the locals, something which most people love about the Tyrol books and bemoan the lack of in the British and Swiss books. This isn’t one which I’ll read over and over again, but I did quite enjoy it.
I love the family scenes in The Chalet School in Exile and Bride Leads the Chalet School, and am always sorry that we don’t see more of the Russell and Bettany boys during the course of the series. I was disappointed that David Russell, for whom I’ve got a soft spot, didn’t feature in this, but, as the title makes clear, it’s mostly about the three sets of Bettany twins – Madge and Dick, Peggy and Rix, and Maurice and Maeve. People on fan fora/fan groups often say that it’d be interesting to see more about how the Bettany family got on when two families suddenly became one – Madge, Dick and the two youngest children, who’d lived as a family unit in India, and the four eldest children, who’d been brought up by Madge and Jem alongside the Russell and Venables children. So I think this was a great idea for a fill-in book.
As we – i.e. Chalet School fans – know, there’s a bit of a muddle over the Bettanys’ return from India. The three short “retrospectives”, Tom, Rosalie and Mystery, seem to forget that there’s a war on, and so we get Dick, Mollie, Maeve and Maurice sailing from India to Britain in wartime, which seems very odd, and then there’s also a mention of them spending time in Australia, which doesn’t seem to fit with anything else. So Helen Barber did face quite a challenge in making sense of it, and explained it by saying that Dick was involved in secret war work which necessitated his return home.
I thought that that was a good idea, but the spy/mystery/adventure story itself really is very far-fetched, and, as I said, seems to belong far more to an Enid Blyton series than to the Chalet School. Also, we see quite a few characters who are Helen Barber’s own creations from her Taverton books, rather than being the old Chalet School friends for whom most readers are probably looking. But the school scenes and the family scenes do work very well, and it’s nice to see Miss Wilson in her role as brevet auntie as well as her role as headmistress.
The characters are all very well-portrayed, too. Maeve and Maurice are only seven at this point, and the Chalet School books don’t include many school scenes with such young children – apart from the excruciating ones in which Robin Humphries is treated like a toddler, and, even with those, we don’t see things from Robin’s own viewpoint. We do with Maeve in this book, and Helen Barber manages that very well.
All in all, this wasn’t what I was expecting, but it’s a fair point that the Chalet School books do sometimes veer off into spy stories, adventure stories, etc … and I did love the idea of Madge whizzing round country lanes in pursuit of a Nazi spy who’d got Maeve and a Welsh harp in the back of his van. We also hear that Madge has recently been appointed secretary of the local WI. I love the description of Madge in the later books, sounding a bit like Audrey and Marjory from To The Manor Born, involved on loads of committees, and always wish we’d seen some of that during the war years, as I’m sure Madge would very much have wanted to Do Her Bit. Go Madge! If you were looking for a classic Chalet School story, this isn’t one. But, if you want a general GO book to read, then this isn’t a bad one at all.