Slow Train to Switzerland by Diccon Bewes

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In 1863, a young single woman from the North of England went on Thomas Cook’s first Conducted Tour of Switzerland.  Group tours meant it was OK for her to go without a chaperone – hooray!   And, during one of her group’s excursions, they got caught in a storm and took refuge in a mountain hut.  I love how Chalet School-esque that is, over sixty years before the Chalet School opened!    I also love the fact that the author of this book, who retraced her journey -with his mum – is called Diccon, rather than rather than Rick or Rich or Ricky.  It sounds very Frances Hodgson Burnett.  And I’m extremely impressed by just how much Victorian tourists – we’re talking middle-class tourists going for a few weeks, not the wealthy upper-classes who could afford to wander round Europe for months on end and see everywhere at a leisurely pace – got through during their trips.  I like to keep on the go when I’m on holiday, but getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and not getting to the next hotel until midnight, especially whilst dressed in crinolines and corsets, really would be going a bit far.

The idea of this book was that Diccon Bewes (a British travel writer living in Switzerland) and his mum were going to retrace the journey described in the journal of Jemima Morrell.  She’s always referred to as “Miss Jemima”, because the members of the group (which started off with 130 people but was down to seven by the end, some of its members having only gone as far as Paris or one of the resorts on Lake Geneva) had agreed to call each other “Miss Jemima”, “Mr William” (her brother) etc, rather than Miss/Mr/Mrs Surname.  They were obviously well into holiday mode – even if they did have to don formal dress for their evening meals.

Back in 1863, tourism in Switzerland was just starting to take off – and it was mainly a British thing.  The book tells us a lot about the character of the people who went on these tours, and also about Switzerland and how it was changed by tourism.  We think of Switzerland as a wealthy country, but, in 1863, it really wasn’t.  It wasn’t until I saw this BBC documentary in 2014 about children in Switzerland being used as indentured farm labourers even well after the Second World War, that I realised just how recently it is that Switzerland’s become so wealthy. And it was in no small part the growth of the tourist industry that kick-started that.

Diccon Bewes is a very entertaining writer, and the book’s very readable.  I’m not going to recount all his travels, or Miss Jemima’s, but I thought I’d list a few of the points that particularly struck me, in the hope that someone might read them and that they might find them interesting too!  Some of them are pretty obvious, but the fact that something’s obvious doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting .

  1. Miss Jemima being able to travel abroad with no travelling companion/chaperone.  And the development of group tours in general, making travel available to people who just wouldn’t have had the chance otherwise.  Then as now, people can be snotty about group tours, but I’d have missed out on a lot of the best experiences of my life without them.  So would she.
  2. The tourist industry being the impetus for railway building in Switzerland. Quite an interesting concept when you come from Lancashire and have grown up with the idea that railway building was all to do with the Industrial Revolution!
  3. The difference in types of travel hassle between then and now!  OK, Victorian travellers did not have to pass through body scanners or have their luggage rummaged through by security staff.  But they did have to have their luggage paid at every single railway station where they broke their journey, and pay for it.  And Miss Jemima’s cousin, Miss Sarah, another member of the party, was charged 50 cents at the Douane in Dieppe for carrying Yorkshire curd tarts.
  1. And they didn’t have to go through passport control. No passports required.  Individual British passports weren’t introduced until 1915.  I knew that, but I didn’t know that, prior to that, it was advisable to get a group passport for your party, which listed all the men by name but only gave the total number of women!  Huh!!5. As I said, just how much they did!  Usually a different place every day.  Well, sometimes several different places every day.  A different hotel every night would be a better way of putting it – and this was at a time when travel meant going by trains that took far longer than today’s trains do, diligence (stagecoach), steamer, and, in some areas, mules.  And a lot of walking.  Especially for blokes.  If there weren’t enough mules to go round, women got first dibs.  Eighteen hour days, sometimes.  I’ve done some fairly tiring tours, but I don’t think any of them were as tiring as the ones these Victorian travellers did.  How were they not exhausted?  Oh, and Diccon wondered (and so did I) what they did about toilet stops, but, sadly, Miss Jemima’s journal doesn’t mention anything so indelicate!

    6. Environmental issues.  I often wish I could have visited places in the days when they were less crowded – which is totally hypocritical, seeing as I’m part of the crowds.  And before everything was so globalised.  I’ve got nothing against McDonald’s or Starbucks, but I don’t really need to see them everywhere when I’m looking for an Austrian coffee house or a French patisserie.  But, although I get upset every time I hear that Venice has been flooded again, I’ve never really stopped to wish that I could have seen a glacier in the days when it was far bigger, or to be sad that they’re in retreat.  I will do from now on.

    7. The traumas of the mountain weather never change, though!  You’ve been promised one of the best views in the world.  On the day you’re meant to see it, the clouds are so low and so thick that you can hardly see a thing.  As you’re on an escorted tour on a tight schedule, rather than a Grand Tour lasting twelve months, you can’t come back another day.

    8. The British links to the development of Swiss winter sports.  At this point, the British were keener on winter sports than the Swiss were. Thomas Cook even introduced a skating tour of Switzerland in 1905.   The Cresta Run, built in 1884, was a British idea.  We should really be winning medals galore at the Winter Olympics!  Hmm.

    9. The importance of appreciating the simple things.  I do actually do this!   Getting excited over an Alpine flower meadow, rather than wanting to be going bungee jumping off a bridge or the side of a dam.  Obviously Victorian British tourists did not have the option of doing bungee jumping, but some of them were weirdly obsessed with the idea of climbing the Matterhorn.  I’m with Miss Jemima and the Alpine flowers on this one.

    10.And, of course, taking shelter in a mountain hut during a storm.  Annoyingly, this bit was actually in France – whilst visiting the Mer de Glace near Chamonix – rather than in Switzerland, but never mind.  All these years, I’ve been reading Chalet School books and wondering how likely it was that people stranded in a storm would actually have been able to find a mountain hut that was conveniently open.  Evidently, it really did happen!

So there.  This is a light-hearted book, but there’s plenty of stuff in it that’ll really make you think.  Very enjoyable.

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New Term at Malory Towers by Pamela Cox

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I approached this book with a fair bit of suspicion, as I would a cover version of an iconic song (I’ve never quite forgiven Atomic Kitten for murdering “Eternal Flame”) or a remake of an iconic film. It just couldn’t be the same as the “real” Malory Towers books which I and some of the other girls in my class at primary school first read way back when, could it? Well, no, it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a midnight feast. The pool barely featured; and Susan wasn’t accused of being “frightfully pi” even once. But I think I quite like this gentler version of Malory Towers. As a kid, I used to think, as you do, that I’d have been well in there with the MT in-crowd. Now, I don’t even want to think about what Alicia and Betty would have done to a swotty fat girl with zero self-confidence and a Northern accent: I’d probably have run away after a week! But I think I might have stayed in this form, with Felicity Rivers and her friends.

Obviously I knew Felicity, Susan and June from the original books.  All the teachers were there too, but, apart from the two Mam’zelles, they didn’t feature much, though. We didn’t see Miss Grayling welcoming any of the new girls to the school. I was slightly put out when I arrived for my first day at secondary school – along with around 110 other first years – and found that we weren’t each going to get an individual pep talk from the headmistress about how the school would turn us all into strong, capable women 🙂 . And, although Darrell and Sally made a brief appearance in the first chapter, and Bill and Clarissa’s riding school was mentioned (sadly without any clarification as to whether Bill and Clarissa were together or whether they were just good friends), none of the old gang were there, apart from Amanda who featured as the Games Prefect.

I always felt sorry for Amanda. GO authors do like to punish characters who break their rules, but it always felt very harsh that Amanda should lose her chance of being an Olympic swimmer and Mavis her chance of a singing career just because they showed off a bit. I’ve also got a weird recollection of, at the age of about eight, telling my grandad about Amanda. Why I thought a 68-year-old man would be interested in Malory Towers, I have no idea – poor Grandad!!

Anyway. The old characters didn’t feature much, but the new girls, and the girls we already knew, were quite well-drawn.  You don’t expect a Malory Towers book to go too deeply into people’s personalities, and this didn’t, but they all seemed quite realistic.

There wasn’t much actual action. Apart from Felicity worrying about whether or not she was doing a good job as head of the form, it was all about who wanted to be friends with whom. Even the tricks, which were, as ever, played on Mam’zelle Dupont, were about trying to impress other people rather than just for fun. Veronica wanted to be friends with Amy, Freddie wanted to be friends with June, Bonnie (were any teenagers in the 1950s actually called Bonnie?!) wanted to be friends with Felicity.  Felicity and Susan tried to get Bonnie to be friends with Amy to get her away with Veronica and to get her off their own backs, people kept overhearing things and getting upset, people were jealous of other people’s friendships … it actually wasn’t a bad reflection of what a group of 13-year-old girls can be like!!  But it was made clear that no-one was all bad or all good. And, in a way more reminiscent of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, people did genuinely try to be nice to all the other girls, even those who’d behaved badly. No-one was sent to Coventry. No-one was the victim of a group bullying campaign.

I don’t think that writing a book like this about the original characters would have worked.  Darrell persuanding everyone to give Gwendoline Mary a chance, or Alicia realising that she’d been behaving like a bitch, just wouldn’t have rung true.  But, because it was a different group of girls, it worked OK.  I’m not sure that it really felt like Malory Towers, though.  Maybe it needed a midnight feast by the seawater swimming pool …  😉

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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Martha Carrier was one of the nineteen people hanged during the Salem Witch Trials.  She was also (born Martha Ingalls Allen) the first cousin seven times removed of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which is apparently mentioned in Prairie Fires … which I might finally buy now that it’s down to £7.99 on Amazon.   And she was a direct ancestor of Kathleen Kent, the author of this book, who’s focused her writing on the effect of the trials on the families of the accused.  The Salem Witch Trials have been called the rock upon which theocracy in America was shattered (some people could possibly do with reminding about this).  But they also shattered the lives of the twenty people (one, an elderly man, was crushed to death for refusing to plead) who were killed, the many others who were also accused, and their families and friends.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Martha’s daughter Sarah – who was also imprisoned, and forced to testify against her own mother – looking back as an adult on her childhood experiences. Sarah was actually only 7 at the time of the trials, but, for the purposes of the story, has been shown as being a few years older than that. Kathleen Kent hasn’t tried to eulogise her ancestors in any way: none of them actually come across as being particularly pleasant, and the book shows that Sarah only really came to appreciate her parents at the time of the trials, when she saw her mother’s great courage and her father’s love and loyalty; but I don’t think anyone could have been all sweetness and light in the harsh conditions of late 17th century Massachusetts (the family lived in Andover, near Salem). And the reader might not like the characters, but they’ll come to admire them – especially Martha, who refused to try to save herself by pleading guilty to witchcraft, but urged her children to say whatever would save their own lives.

It’s very hard to try to make sense of what happened. Witch hunts often happened when someone had fallen ill, or livestock had died, and crops had failed, and people were looking for someone to blame, and or an excuse to take revenge on someone they had a grudge against. But, in the Salem area, the accusations started after some young girls in the area started having fits. What caused that? Was it mass hysteria? It’s difficult to try to understand, but it does happen. The film “The Falling” is based on an episode of mass hysteria in Blackburn in 1965, and that’s just one example of many. It’s also been suggested that some sort of hallucinogenic fungus might have got into the food supply. No-one really knows.

And the book doesn’t really focus on that – it focuses more on the way in which bad feeling could spread in a small community, and the interaction between that and the mood of the religious or political authorities – pretty much the same thing, in Salem in 1692. The Carriers had never been popular, having been blamed for a smallpox epidemic which affected the area. They’d also fallen out with family members over an inheritance dispute, a neighbour in an argument over a trespassing cow, and a former servant whom they’d dismissed for misconduct. Being unpopular anyway, they were vulnerable to accusation at a time when hysteria was spreading through the area and allegations were flying about right, left and centre.

And how it all spiralled!  Over 200 people were accused.  Sarah and many other children were amongst those imprisoned.  The book chillingly and brilliantly describes what the conditions in the prisons must have been like – and shows how, even under those conditions, women like Martha tried desperately to preserve their dignity by keeping as clean as they could.  It also shows the struggles of the rest of the Carrier family – and there’s a strange sub-plot in which it turns out that Martha’s husband, Thomas Carrier, was the man who executed Charles I.  I don’t know whether that’s a legend in Kathleen Kent’s family or whether it’s something she came up with for the sake of the book.  Thomas and his children eventually got an apology and compensation for the execution of Martha.  Much good that would have done them.

The book does focus entirely on the times. Whereas The Crucible famously drew parallels between the Salem Witch Hunts and McCarthyism, Kathleen Kent has written a true historical novel, about historical events, with no attempt to make veiled comments about modern-day attitudes. I like that. History teaches us many lessons which are relevant to the present day – the dangers of religious extremism, especially given the issues with Christian fundamentalism in the US, are particularly relevant to our own times – but it’s incredibly annoying when people only use history to make a point about modern-day events. I don’t particularly like the word “weaponise” because it’s an artificial word, but there is a tendency for people to “weaponise” history, and Kathleen Kent’s avoided that. Oh, and she never mentions Laura Ingalls Wilder, despite the publicity it would have brought her, which is also admirable.  It’s not an enjoyable book as such, and it’s not something that you’ll want to read over and over again, but it’s a good one, and I’m glad that I’ve read it.

 

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

The Youngest Sister: A Tale of Manitoba by Bessie Marchant (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Bessie Marchant’s books are great, because her girls get to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures and never need to be rescued by boys!  I was expecting this, published in 1913, to be primarily an adventure book, as most of her books are – the blurb did say “a series of adventures” – but, although it started off with our heroine saving a man from drowning, it turned out to be quite an eclectic mix of genres, with shades of Little House on the Prairie, What Katy Did and Little Women … and then a load of adventures to finish up with!   There were some ridiculously far-fetched coincidences, but it was quite enjoyable, and I liked the idea of having a main character who was neither a self-confident leader, too good to be true nor in need of reform: she was nice without being annoyingly perfect, and her main fault (insofar as it was a fault) was a lack of self-confidence, which I think a lot of readers would identify with.

Heroines of adventure books usually are courageous and outgoing, but Bertha Doyne was … I was going to say a bit of a wuss, but that’d be unfair because she actually was very brave when she needed to be, just, as I’ve said above, lacking in confidence.  Like Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books, she was the youngest of three sisters who’d been orphaned and left without much money.  However, unlike Elizabeth and Anne Temple, the two older sisters, Anne and Hilda, had both got jobs.  Bertha hung around the house, in Nova Scotia, doing the cooking and cleaning and feeling inferior (although she really wasn’t as annoying as that makes her sound), until one day she saved a man from drowning and decided that she clearly wasn’t that useless after all.  But, before she could do anything about it, Anne got married and moved to Australia, Hilda went on a tour of Europe as a governess/companion, and Bertha was packed off to Manitoba to stay with a married cousin, Grace, who’d been very good to the three girls when their mother had died but now lived in the middle of nowhere and had umpteen kids.

She hadn’t been there long before Grace fell off a horse and was paralysed, which meant that Bertha had to do all the housework, look after the kids and look after Grace.  Then most of their wheat, and their neighbours’ wheat, was destroyed by fire.  Bertha’s heroic efforts (hooray!) to stop the spread of the fire meant that things weren’t as bad as they could have been, but Grace’s husband had to go off on an “expedition” because it paid well and they were desperate for money.  And then it turned out that he’d been conned so he wasn’t going to get paid at all.

So much for an adventure novel!  And Bessie Marchant’s books are usually fairly cheerful, but I was beginning to get the horrible feeling that this was going to turn into some sort of preachy religious novel, with Bertha feeling duty-bound to stay there and sacrifice herself for everyone else’s well-being, even though her eldest sister had sent the money for her to go to Australia, and Grace never complaining about what had happened to her.  But it actually never got like that.  It was always quite clear that Bertha was thoroughly pissed off about it all, rather than accepting it with sweet contentment, and that the disaster with the wheat wasn’t some sort of test of their spirit but a result of the farmers’ stupidity in relying solely on one crop.  And Grace, whilst she didn’t complain, certainly didn’t deliver lectures on the School of Pain and the School of Love – just kept on hoping that she’d eventually recover.  In the end she did.  As people in books often do.

Various other things were going on too.  In between the various disasters, Bertha had been trying to get some writing published – like Jo March in Little Women, although it didn’t occur to her to try writing “trash” (I do wonder what was in some of the stuff Jo wrote!) just to try to bring some money in.  And, when she’d rescued the man from drowning, he’d put his coat on her to keep her warm … and she’d found a load of diamonds in the pocket!  As you do.  But he’d never come back for them, which was very odd.  And then he’d disappeared.  Also, it had transpired that Tom (Grace’s husband) had a nasty but rich old uncle, who’d just been robbed.  Fancy that!  Bertha had been stressing about the diamonds and returning them to the mysterious coat owner ever since she’d found them.

Then, whaddaya know, the coat owner turned up, thousands of miles from where she’d last seen him!   Not only once, but twice – first, he just happened to be passing whilst the wheat was burning, and came to her assistance, and then she saved him (again) from a runaway sled in a blizzard.  As you do.  Only she didn’t realise who he was until it was too late – and then she decided that she’d have to ride thirty miles or so to the nearest town, and hope to catch up with him there.

But, on reaching the town, she found out that the mystery man, Edgar, was no longer there: he’d taken a job as a navvy and was miles away by then.  But she was so stressed about the diamonds that she decided she’d have to go to the railway camp … but, en route, the end carriage in which she and her chaperone were travelling became uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, with nobody else seeming to notice, was left perched precariously on a rickety bridge in a gale.  Ah, this was more like Bessie Marchant!   The chaperone was swept out of the door by the gale, but Bertha rescued her.  Hooray!  And eventually they did get to the railway camp.  It turned out that Edgar was not in a fact a navvy by trade, but was a nice middle-class bloke (which was a jolly good job, because Bertha really fancied him and obviously we wouldn’t have wanted her taking up with someone with no prospects) who’d been forced to work as a navvy after being wrongly accused of embezzlement.  It was all happening now!   But, when she tried to hand over the diamonds, he said that he knew nothing about them and had no idea how they’d got into his pocket.

Right.  He then offered to escort her home, because her chaperone was too traumatised by the carriage on rickety bridge affair to travel back immediately.  I’m not sure that this was very proper, but never mind.  On reaching the hotel where they had to wait for the train, he found, waiting for him, a letter bringing the news that his name had been cleared.  Wa-hey!!  But, oh no – they also heard that everyone on Tom’s expedition had been found frozen to death.  More woe!   On reaching home, they found that the nasty rich uncle was there, full of contrition and offering to support Grace (who was still recovering) and the kids.  Oh well, that was one thing sorted – that’d leave Bertha free to ride off into the sunset with Edgar.  Er, no, sadly not.  Edgar wanted to marry Bertha, obviously, but felt that he couldn’t ask her because a) he still hadn’t got any money and b) he didn’t want to ruin her writing career (he clearly hadn’t read any GO books in which married women continue to write books).  And Grace couldn’t possibly accept charity from the rich old uncle, because he was nasty, so Bertha would have to stay with her.  Oh dear.  Oh dear indeed.

Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the nasty old uncle recognised Edgar as the man who’d robbed him – yes, of the diamonds.  Of course, there was a perfectly simple explanation.  They’d both been attending meetings at the same hotel, and had left their coats in the cloakroom.  Obviously you’d really leave a coat with a bag of extremely valuable diamonds in the pocket in an unattended cloakroom in a public place.  Edgar had picked up the wrong coat without realising it.  And not noticed that there was anything in any of the pockets.  Bertha handed over the diamonds … but the uncle collapsed with the shock of it all.  Edgar rode post haste to get the doctor … and, en route, found a man lying collapsed in the road.  It was Tom!  He’d miraculously survived!  Hooray!

The uncle then obligingly died, leaving the diamonds to Tom and Grace.  Bertha’s book was published, Edgar got a good job, and Bertha and Edgar got married and presumably lived happily ever after.  OK, OK, it was ridiculously far-fetched, but it really was quite a good read – I was genuinely quite excited as I waited to find out how Edgar had come to have the diamonds!   It combined a number of different genres quite well, and Bertha made a good heroine.  It’s available for free on Amazon, and I think it’s also on Project Gutenberg, and, for free, it’s certainly worth a go.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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It makes a refreshing change to read a book which treats the Pendle Witch Trials as what they were, the state-sponsored persecution of vulnerable people, resulting in the judicial killings of eight women and two men, rather than as some sort of Gothic romance or Disneyfied fairytale. I understand the desire to bring tourists into the Pendle area, but I could scream every time I hear the X43 bus route, linking Manchester to Colne and passing within a few hundred yards of my house, called “The Witch Way”, and see silly pictures of pointy hats and broomsticks on the sides of the vehicles. This book, whilst it features real people, is fictitious, but set against the background of the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, and ties the story of Alice Gray (or Grey), the only one of the accused to be acquitted, to that of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the then mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.

See what I mean!!

 

It’s the author’s first published novel, and that does show: it’s lacking a bit in style and polish, and some of the language is anachronistic … but very few people produce Gone With The Wind at the first attempt, and it’s a pretty creditable first effort. The author’s not a historian, but she’s clearly done a lot of research into this particular subject. Whilst most of the characters are real people – including the Shuttleworths, the people accused of witchcraft, Roger Nowell who was the magistrate presiding over the trials, and Thomas Potts who was the clerk of the court – the story is fictional, but Stacey Halls hasn’t really messed with the known facts, and has explained clearly in the afterword that this is a work of fiction. If only all authors would do that!

It’s very much a book about women, told in the first person with Fleetwood Shuttleworth as the narrator. In fact, none of the men come out of it well at all. Fleetwood’s husband Richard Shuttleworth is keeping a mistress (the character is Judith Thorpe, another real person, who did later become his second wife). Alice Gray’s father doesn’t care about her plight. Roger Nowell is more interested in furthering his own prospects than in seeing justice done, and will manipulate anyone and anything he can in order to get a result. It emerges late on that Fleetwood, as a child, was abused by a man her family planned for her to marry. And Fleetwood has a very low opinion of the king.

The question of motives in the Pendle Witch Trials is fascinating, especially as we can only guess at how people’s minds were working. Why did some of the “witches” confess? Were they genuinely convinced of their own powers, or were they tortured to a point where they’d have confessed to anything? Why did some of those involved denounce their neighbours and even members of their own families – were they settling old scores, or thinking that doing so might save their own skins, or, in superstitious times, did they genuinely believe what they were saying? To what extent was misogyny a factor? In witch trials everywhere, the majority of those accused were women. Even now, the word “witch” is often used as a term of abuse against women in positions of power, whereas “wizard” is used as a compliment.

Were Roger Nowell and others hoping to win favour by convicting people of witchcraft, knowing how strongly King James felt about the subject? How much was this about the authorities trying to impose control in what was then a fairly remote area? How much of it was motivated by anti-Catholic feeling? Catholicism remained strong in the Pendle area, as in many other parts of the North, long after the Reformation. And, as is so often the case in any form of state-sponsored persecution – the Spanish Inquisition’s probably the best historical example, and the anti-gay laws in Brunei prove that this is still an issue – religion, in this case Protestantism, was both a motivating factor and an excuse. And, once an idea’s taken hold, hysteria soon sets in, and the situation takes on a life of its own.

We don’t see much of the actual “witches” here, but Roger Nowell features prominently, and is very much shown as being out for himself, whilst other people are caught up in the panic and ready to believe that witchcraft is at work. We all struggle to accept that things can just happen: we want a reason, an explanation. In times when there was little scientific knowledge to provide that, if a family member suddenly died or suffered a life-changing illness, or a horse dropped dead, or a cow stopped producing milk, or a crop failed, it was all too easy and convenient to put the blame on a “witch”. It may have been to settle a personal score or it may have been genuinely believing, whilst distressed and grieving, that someone had done harm. And the reign of James I, and, later, the Civil War period, provided very fertile soil for that.

James I (of England, 1603-1625) and VI (of Scotland, 1567-1625), was in many ways an excellent king at a very difficult time, had a real bee in his bonnet about “witches”, apparently partly due to getting it into his head that witchcraft caused the storm which nearly sank the ship carrying him and his new wife Anne of Denmark from her home country to Scotland. There were witch trials in many places in the period from around 1450 to 1750, but James was particularly obsessive about the subject. In 1597, he published a book called “Daemonologie”, about witchcraft, and apparently he even personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. “Daemonologie” is mentioned several times in this book. It was hugely influential.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, part of the Lancashire Witch Trials which also involved alleged witches from other parts of the county, became very well-known because so many people were involved, and because of the publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” – copies available on Amazon for around a fiver, four centuries later! Then, in 1848/9, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a “romance” based on the trials – not at all historically accurate, but very popular. And, just over a century later, Robert Neill wrote another one. Today, you can buy “witch” costumes and little models of “witches” from shops in the Pendle area, the Pendle tourist info office by the Boundary Mill car park near Colne will provide you with all manner of leaflets about “witch trails” in the local area, and, as I’ve already said, the X43 bus route linking the Pendle area with Manchester is called “The Witch Way”. I get the desire to bring in tourists to boost the local economy, but I find it to be in rather poor taste. Nine people were judicially murdered (and an tenth in a separate trial, and one died whilst awaiting trial). We’re not talking about Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle.

So what did happen? The known facts are explained in this book, as part of the story. A young woman called Alizon Device, on her way to Trawden Forest (note to self, must get to Wycoller Country Park some time this spring), got into an argument with a pedlar called John Law, and cursed him. He suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, and his son accused Alizon Device of witchcraft. This opened a can of worms, much of which seems to have been due to a feud between two local families, the Demdike/Device family and the Chattox/Whittle family. Various allegations were made of harming and even murdering people by witchcraft, and then there was a meeting at Malkin Tower, the home of Alizon Device’s grandmother, on Good Friday 1612, which (may well have been a secret Catholic service, but) was alleged to have been a witches’ coven.

Twelve people were arrested. Family members, notably Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device, gave evidence against each other, and some of the “witches” confessed. It really isn’t clear why they would have done that, although they may well have been genuinely convinced of their own powers. In a poor area, at a time when it was difficult to keep body and soul together, especially for women – and with the safety net of the convents long gone – being a “wise woman”, or even claiming to have magical powers, was a way of earning a living. Or maybe they were tortured to the point where they gave in and gave the inquisitors what they wanted.

The book suggests that Jennet Device may have hoped to be adopted by the Nowells. Her story’s particularly interesting: a nine-year-old child wouldn’t normally have been allowed to give evidence at a trial, but James I was so obsessed with witches that he allowed the normal rules of court to be suspended in cases of witchcraft trials. It would have been easy to depict her as a frightened little kid being manipulated by powerful authority figures, but that’s not how she comes across here, and she makes a fascinating character. It’s also suggested that the Devices made allegations against the Chattoxes to try to divert attention from their own family, which certainly seems realistic. However, whilst it’s generally accepted that Alizon Device, in particular, did genuinely believe herself guilty, it’s suggested here that those who confessed did so only because of torture. At the end of the day, we just don’t know: we can only surmise. But the account given does suggest that Alizon confessed in court when confronted by John Law – which doesn’t happen in this book, which shows Law as being so badly affected by his stroke that he was unable to speak clearly. Having said that, what’s in the account given by Thomas Potts may not be 100% accurate. It’s not thought to be wildly inaccurate, but it should be noted that both he and Roger Nowell did indeed do quite nicely careerwise out of it all.

The book doesn’t really go into the witch trials and what was going on with the Devices and Chattoxes in detail, though – the focus in terms of the accusations is on Alice Gray, the only one of the accused to be acquitted. Her name’s normally spelt Grey, but it’s spelt Gray in this book … but spellings of names do vary. More annoying, though, is the spelling of Westmorland as Westmoreland: the extra e does appear in some Georgian and Victorian documents, but it’s certainly not used now and it’s unlikely to have been used in the 17th century. I didn’t really need to see “now Cumbria” added to it, either, but that’s probably just me.

A few other things grate, as well. “Mr” and “Miss” were not used in the 17th century, a gentlewoman like Fleetwood Shuttleworth would not have used her first name when introducing herself to complete strangers of a lower class, “Mum” and “Dad” certainly sound far too contemporary, and there’s the odd bit of language in the narrative that sounds distinctly 21st century American – even though the author’s local. And some of the plot’s very far-fetched: the idea of the heavily pregnant teenage wife of a local squire roaming around remote parts of the countryside on her own, going into alehouses and threatening to shoot people has to be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. But it is the author’s first published book, and it’s far better than a lot of books I’ve read by long-established authors.

There’s a definite touch of the Victorian Gothics about it, especially with the appearance of animals which we’re presumably meant to think could be “familiars”. A house is set on fire, and that made me wonder if the author had, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by Charlotte Bronte, who’s known to have stayed at Gawthorpe Hall and to have based Ferndean Manor on nearby Wycoller Hall. Just a thought.

We don’t know why Alice Gray, accused alongside Katherine “Mouldheels” Hewitt of murdering a child, was acquitted. In this book, she’s shown as being a midwife, employed by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley. It now belongs to the National Trust, and is quite a nice place to visit. It’s got a painting of a meeting of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which I always get excited about! In 1612, the house did indeed belong to Richard Shuttleworth, later High Sheriff of Lancashire and then a Parliamentarian colonel and MP. His first wife was Fleetwood Barton, and we know that they had two sons, one born not long after the trials.
There’s no evidence to suggest any connection between the Shuttleworths and any of the Pendle “witches”, or even that Alice Gray was a midwife, but it’s a plausible idea. “Wise women” were often amongst those suggested of witchcraft, and having being spoken for by someone with influence in the area would explain Alice’s acquittal.

The story is that Fleetwood has suffered three miscarriages and has found a letter which she takes to mean that neither she nor her unborn child will survive her fourth pregnancy. She meets Alice by chance, whilst feeling unwell, and, when Alice gives her some infusions which make her feel better, becomes convinced that only Alice can bring her and her child through the pregnancy alive. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood is determined to save her. The explanation given for the story behind Alice’s arrest is again, whilst entirely fictional, quite plausible – that she found John Law after his stroke and tried to help him, and that the child she was alleged to have murdered had died of what would now be recognised as an epileptic fit, but that the child’s widowed father, with whom she was romantically involved, had blamed her. It all gets completely melodramatic, with Fleetwood threatening to shoot the bereaved father and persuading him to give her a signed testament saying that Alice was innocent, collapsing on the way home, going into labour, and persuading her husband to read the testament out in court so that Alice would be freed and could come to save her life in childbirth!

As I said, it needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. But I enjoyed it, I was very impressed by the fact that the author explained what was fact and what was fiction – I do wish all authors would do that – and, most of all, I was so pleased to see someone treating a romanticised episode in our county’s history, and our country’s history, as what it really was. The story of the Pendle witches isn’t about pointy hats and broomsticks, or black cats and cauldrons. It’s about persecution.

In some countries, this still goes on – there are still cases of women being put to death for alleged witchcraft. In many other countries, vulnerable groups of people are persecuted for a wide range of other reasons. It certainly isn’t romantic and it certainly isn’t funny. But the Pendle area is beautiful, and well worth visiting. And this book’s worth reading – not bad at all.

 

The Chalet School and Cornelia by Katherine Bruce

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There are a lot of things about Cornelia Flower, one of the most memorable characters in the Chalet School series, which are never satisfactorily explained. Notably, how she was suddenly transformed from being a lying, cheating bully, breaching the Chalet School code of honour in pretty much every way, in her first few weeks at the school to being naughty but nice thereafter, and how she came to have such a close relationship with Mademoiselle Lepattre. This book covers the second half of the term which Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) described in The Head Girl of the Chalet School, which, as the foreword explains, was very eventful but rather rushed through, and answers some of the questions. I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers remaining, though – maybe they could be answered in a sequel at some future date 🙂 ?

It can’t be easy trying to make sense of the contradictions in someone else’s work – and, as is often said in discussions in the Chalet School magazines, Facebook groups and internet fora, the books were written for children and EBD can’t possibly have expected them to be analysed in quite as much detail as they are now. I like to think that she’d be very pleased to think that there was so much interest in and discussion about the Chalet School books, nearly a century after the first one was written, though. It’s a great testament to how well-loved the books are.

It’s certainly very strange that Cornelia is described as a liar and a cheat, i.e. dishonourable, just about the worst thing that a Chalet School girl could be, shortly after arriving at school, and is so unpleasant that she not only reduces Simone to tears but also nearly comes to blows with peaceful Frieda … and then she becomes a perfectly nice girl without any sort of explanation/drama! The series is full of girls who, one way or another, are brought to see the error of their ways, but we normally at least see some sort of showdown scene, usually with one of the major characters involved. And there’s hardly anyone who’s as bad as Cornelia seemingly is to start with; and, when a new girl is difficult in any way, there’s usually something in her background that explains it, which there isn’t in Cornelia’s case.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery, especially as we’re never even told what she lied about or how she cheated – although, to be fair, Cornelia appears during only the fourth book in the series, when both EBD and the Chalet School were still finding their way. The explanation given here, that she never actually did lie or cheat and it was all a misunderstanding, and also that she’d clashed with Jo because Jo had been in a bad mood due to her worry about Madge following the birth of David, makes a lot of sense. I’m assuming that anyone reading this, if anyone at all actually is reading it, is familiar with the Chalet School books and knows who all these characters are, by the way!

And there are several one-to-one scenes with Mademoiselle Lepattre which show how their relationship develops. I think Mlle deserves that as much as Cornelia does, because, whilst she always comes across as a lovely person, she seems like a very weak headmistress when handling Eustacia and the feud with St Scholastika’s.  Her handling of Thekla’s behaviour is also poor, and asking the prefects to decide about Biddy’s future is just bizarre. Madge is shown as becoming a mother figure to Juliet, Robin and to some extent Grizel in the early books, and it makes sense that Mlle, the next person in charge of the school, would have come to fulfil that role for Cornelia, whose mother has died and who doesn’t seem to have any grandmothers, aunts, older female cousins or other mother-figures in her life, but we never actually get to see it happening. It’s great to have that gap filled in.

It’s also nice to see Mlle commenting that no-one minds the odd practical joke, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s one of the joys of the Tyrolean era – no-one objects to a bit of harmless mischief. Compare that with, for example, the Middles in Peggy of the Chalet School having to endure an all-day punishment for using Regency language.

The book does cover a term that’s already covered in “canon”, and so, inevitably, there’s a certain amount of repetition of scenes and events that we already know. It’s the third recent fill-in book to cover a term that EBD wrote about herself, and, much as I’ve enjoyed reading them all and much as I love the Tyrolean era, I’m hoping to see future fill-ins covering areas in the chronology where there are gaps. The gap in the middle of The Chalet School in Exile is crying out to be filled, as are various parts of the wartime years.

We do see the revisited scenes from a different angle, generally Cornelia’s point of view, though. The rescue scene at the end is the obvious one, and another is Marie and Andreas’s wedding – one of my favourite parts of the entire series. I love the insight into the local culture, and I love the fact that the servants/domestic staff are treated as people with their own lives, not just ciphers who are there to serve the other characters. EBD wrote a lovely scene, sadly cut by Armada, in which Jem says how pleased he is that Marie and Andreas have got together; and the Pfeifens are as much a part of the early books as the Mensches or the Maranis are. Sadly, that doesn’t survive the Tyrolean era. By the end of the Swiss books, Rosli has worked for the Maynards for eight years without the reader even being told her surname!

There’s not really anything new in those scenes, though, but we do get to see a lot of other things which EBD either skipped over or only mentioned retrospectively; and I really enjoyed seeing those. During the Tyrolean era, the books aren’t “just” school stories in the way that they are later: the family lives of major characters form a big part of them, and a whole world develops, with many Old Girls living nearby. As time went on, and the average age of readers got younger, it probably made sense to focus more on the school and on schoolgirls, but, now that most readers are “grown-ups” (am I a grown-up?!), I think there’s room for hearing more about events out of school.

Madge having such a difficult time giving birth to David is one such instance of an important event only being touched on by EBD. When Jack Maynard turns up and tells Jo that she’s got to come to the Sonnalpe at once, and is quite brusque with his own sister, who’s clearly shocked and upset, it’s clear that Madge is in a bad way; but EBD couldn’t say much more because some of her young 1920s readers might well have been thinking that babies were found behind a gooseberry bush or brought by a stork. She’s often criticised for unrealistically suggesting that Jo gives birth to triplets with very little effort, and is winning swimming races against super-fit Roger Richardson shortly after giving birth to twins; but what happens with Madge reminds us that she was well aware that childbirth could be dangerous. Madge’s gynaecological history is quite interesting, with both Sybil and Ailie arriving well before they were expected, come to think of it!  Anyway.

Now, we get to see Jo’s anxious questioning of Jack as they head up to the Sonnalpe, and the conversations between her and first Jem and then Madge when she arrives. We also get to see the new parents and the new auntie with David. His arrival’s a really big thing for the school – it’s a real community at that point, and the girls get busy making toys for him, and scrap over who’s going to get to hold him when Madge visits. Later books say that David looks like Madge, but it’s nice to see Jem trying to claim that he looks like his own side of the family (as people tend to do with new babies!), and mentioning his sister Margot, to whom EBD doesn’t refer at all until later in the series.

A lot of events that are referred to but never actually shown at all are worked into the book, as well. Gisela’s wedding. Wanda’s wedding. Three weddings in one book does sound a bit more Hello! than Chalet School, but they’re all very different, with Wanda’s wedding involving a trip to Vienna, somewhere we never see the girls visit in the original books. Joey’s climb up the rocks, which she refers to in The Coming of Age of the Chalet School. I’m never entirely convinced by EBD’s insistence that so many people invited the entire school to their weddings, and I’m even less convinced by the idea of Wanda and Friedel interrupting their honeymoon in order to attend a school concert, but fill-in authors obviously have to work with what EBD tells us! Poor Friedel!!

Much of the plot of The Head Girl of the Chalet School is a bit bonkers, really! I always cringe a bit over Herr Arnolfi being referred to as a “madman” and a “lunatic”, but, OK, EBD was writing over ninety years ago. The whole story reads very uncomfortably to modern sensibilities – man holds young girls prisoner – but it was written in very different times. There’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian Gothic about it, in a lot of ways. And it’s early in the series, and EBD does try out a lot of different ideas early on – Eustacia’s accident is very reminiscent of What Katy Did. It certainly is different, as opposed to all the avalanches and blizzards we get in the Swiss books!

The idea of the salt caves was great, but is never really followed up on, so it was lovely to see the girls getting to visit the caves, and hear about local businesses preparing hopefully for an influx of visitors. And I really liked Katherine’s explanation that Herr Arnolfi had been a professional museum and that his illness was the result of the stress and pressure of his career: I thought that worked very well. There are so many minor characters in the Tyrolean books, and in The Head Girl of the Chalet School in particular, some recurring, some only appearing in one book, and I always want to know more about them! And I think he deserved a background story. Tales of someone living alone in a remote area, with local people saying they’re the devil or whatever, belong more to times well before the 1920s, but they certainly exist. It’s a sad story, and his life deserved that extra information.

In a different way, I’m not comfortable with Jo referring to Sophie Hamel as “Fatty” and making spiteful remarks about how a boat she was in would have capsized had Sophie been one of the party; but it does tie in with something she says in Two Sams at the Chalet School, and also with her nasty comments about Frau Berlin’s weight in The School at the Chalet. Considering that personal remarks are supposedly considered “ill-bred” in Chalet School land, there are an awful lot of digs about people’s weight all through the series. Three cheers for Jem Russell for telling Madge (in Joey & Co in Tyrol) that she looks fine as she is and doesn’t need to go on a diet! I enjoyed seeing the boat/rock-climbing incident, too. It’s so frustrating when EBD refers to something in a later book, and you think you must have missed it, or forgotten it, or that it’s been cut out of a paperback edition, and then you find out that, no, it’s just not there at all!

There’s also quite a lot of Austrian history in this. Good good! My personal specialisms are British, Russian and American history, but one of my best marks at university (apologies for “bucking”, as Grizel would say) was for an essay on Austrian history, and the tutor involved really couldn’t understand why I insisted on going for Austrian history rather than something more obvious such as the French Revolution. I would have explained, but I didn’t think he’d understand 🙂 . It’s told in a way that should appeal even to readers who aren’t historians, rather than sounding like something copied out of a textbook as it has to be admitted that some passages in the Swiss books do!

It’s also good to have Mr Flower’s back story filled in: the reference in The Chalet School in Exile to his having spent time in South Africa strongly suggests that his wealth came from some sort of involvement with precious metals or minerals, but we’re never actually told, whereas it’s expanded on here. I love the idea of his father having been a Forty-Niner, and of he himself having travelled the world and taken Cornelia with him.

There’s definitely something of the international man of mystery about him! Not so much at this point, but certainly later on. As I said, I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers! Most of them relate to the period covered by The Chalet School in Exile, set several years later, so obviously they couldn’t be answered in this book, but maybe they could in some future book 🙂 ? Why on earth did Mr Flower buy up the school buildings – what was he planning to do in a fairly remote part of a country that had just been annexed by the Third Reich? And, the following year, what was he doing in Bordeaux, and how come umpteen other characters all ended up there with him?

There’s also a cryptic remark earlier on about Cornelia getting such mothering as not even Mademoiselle Lepattre could provide. I can only assume that EBD intended to provide Cornelia with a stepmother and then forgot about it! Finally, why did the late Mrs Flower give Cornelia two Russian-sounding middle names – Naida (an abbreviation of Nadezhda) and Anastasia? Anastasia is obviously associated with the youngest of the Grand Duchesses, and I’m guessing that Naida was a misspelling of Nada and that EBD got the name from Nada (Nadezhda) Mountbatten, nee Torby, Marchioness of Milford Haven. Maybe she just liked reading royal gossip … or did she have some mysterious link to the Romanovs?!

Anyway! This book does a great job of answering the main questions that arise when we first meet Cornelia, and of describing events which EBD mentions but doesn’t show. There’s the odd EBD-style-ism, notably Friedel von Gluck being described as Bernhilda’s fiancé rather than Wanda’s fiancé, and the odd typo such as Carinthia being spelt “Carinithia”. And I’m fairly sure that Andreas never worked at the school, and that Marie moved to Die Rosen – I gather than the references to “Die Rosen” as “Die Blumen” are genuine EBD-EBD-isms, and have just been replicated here 🙂 – as soon as Madge and Jem got married, rather than after her own wedding, but, hey, no Chalet School book would seem at all authentic without one or two slips.

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I know that an awful lot of Chalet School fans have already bought it and read it. There’s something magical about the Tyrolean era of the Chalet School, and anything that takes me there is incredibly welcome!