The only time I’ve ever enjoyed an exam was when one of my General Studies A-level papers asked for the historical background to the war in Yugoslavia. I love Balkan history. I even love the history of fictional Balkan countries, so I’m delighted that, as a change from school stories, Katherine Bruce has written a book about Crown Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia’s flight from her homeland, as Nazi German troops prepare to invade, to safety in Britain.
We’re given the outline of the story of Elisaveta’s journey by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), and it has to be said that it’s one of several rather silly and unlikely episodes in the wartime Chalet School books. For a kick off, Belsornia moves from the NW Balkans to the SE Balkans. Then, on arrival in Britain, the princess takes a job as a charlady until she can afford to kit out herself and her children with clothes from a second-hand shops, and then takes a taxi to Armishire! I mean, what on earth?! Why didn’t she just report to the authorities? Or send a telegram? And who would employ a well-spoken woman, and one who probably had a foreign accent, as a charlady anyway? Plenty of Continental royals sought refuge in Britain during the war, but none of them worked as charladies!
However, Katherine’s made a brilliant story out of the brief account of the long and extremely eventful journey, and has clearly done a lot of research into the situation in Europe and North Africa at the time. She’s even made sense of the charlady affair, and generally made everything as realistic as a book about an unlikely journey made by a Ruritanian princess could be. We even, touchingly, see Elisaveta going to London to sign the Allied Declaration condemning the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.
At the beginning, we see the visit of Elisaveta, her fiance and his aunt to the Tiernsee, and then we see the royal wedding, both of which are referred to by EBD after the events, not actually shown. GGBP “fillers” are consistent with each other, but Bettany Press books evidently aren’t included, because neither Madge Russell nor Jack Maynard attend Elisaveta’s wedding in this book, although they did in Two Chalet Girls in India. However, we do get some senior Yugoslavian and Bulgarian royals there, bringing Belsornia and Mirania into the real Balkan world. It may be a Ruritanian country, but there’s nothing Ruritanian about the Second World War. We jump forward to 1941 by means of letters exchanged between Elisaveta and Jo, and then the “adventure” part begins. It all comes across very well and very realistically, as we hear that German troops are massing on the Miranian border and will in all likelihood soon reach Belsornia, and Elisaveta, her children and her maid are leaving, initially planning to go to Turkey and take ship from there, until things went wrong.
The name “Constantinople” is used even though the city had officially been called Istanbul since 1930; but, to be fair, EBD did that too. And I could have done without the repeated use of “England” for “Britain” and “Russia” for “the Soviet Union”, but both were and are very common. EBD sometimes even used “England” when referring to places in South Wales! Also, the afterword mentions that a family with whom they travel are Armenian, which isn’t clear in the text as they had Turkish names. Sorry, I’m a right nitpicker. There are only minor nits to be picked, though! The one big EBD-ism/KB-ism was saying that Jem Russell had been knighted. He wasn’t knighted: he was created a baronet. But what would a Chalet School book be without an error? It’s all part and parcel of Chalet lore! Having said which, Hilda Annersley would ban computerised spell-checkers, which don’t pick up typos such as borders for boarders or miner’s for miners’.
There’s a lot of careful detail about how they manage for food and shelter on their journey through Turkey and North Africa, and also about the ups and downs – literally! – of sailing on a small boat. Arletta must have had superhuman strength to have been able to carry both the boys, but there wasn’t really an alternative: EBD doesn’t seem to have considered the practicalities of travelling with a newborn baby and two small children! Just as an aside, my first ever piece of Chalet School fanfic featured Freddie Helston, Elisaveta’s eldest son, as the hero, so I was very pleased to see him in a “real” book.
The section about their time in Spain and Portugal is a bit rushed, but it would have been a bit samey to have heard any more about trekking and looking for food and shelter. There’s no suspense element because we know that they’d make it safely to Armishire in the end, but then you kind of know anyway that children’s adventure books will have happy endings, and it doesn’t make the exciting bits any the less dramatic. And Katherine’s done an excellent job of making sense of what happened when they arrived in Britain, by saying that the six week wait was due to quarantine after coming into contact with a scarlet fever case, that the charring job was shared with a woman with whom they travelled from Portugal, and that they only took a taxi from Armiford station to Joey’s! She’s also shown Elisaveta being in touch with Belsornian officials in Britain, and other Belsornian exiles, which EBD curiously never does. Much more realistic than the idea that an exiled Crown Princess would just have a jolly time living with an old schoolfriend.
I thoroughly enjoyed this. I wonder if we’ll see more “fillers” along this line, a bit of a spin-off. I think all the missing terms have been “filled” now, and books retelling the story of a “canon” term from a different viewpoint are limited as to what they can say because the story’s already there. I’d certainly read anything else like this one: it was excellent.
Maybe, at some point during her stay in Britain, Elisaveta got to meet the young Princess Elizabeth. I am so saddened by the loss of our beloved Queen. May she rest in peace.