A Refuge for the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s The Chalet School in Exile, seen by many people as the most important book in the series, falls into two distinct parts – the Anschluss and the flight from Austria forming the first half, and the re-establishment of the school in Guernsey and the early months of the war forming the second half, with a gap in the middle. Presumably the gap was left because the book was long enough already, and Elinor wanted to bring the story on to a wartime footing without waiting another a year; but it means that the reader misses several key events, including a birth, a marriage and a death. This book fills in the gap. As the school’s closed at this time, it’s not a school story, but one of the main attractions of the Chalet School world is that it *is* a world, not just a school. I really enjoyed seeing, in a very well-written book, several much-loved characters settle into their new lives, particularly those who are sometimes neglected in the “canon” books, and some of the domestic details which Elinor wrote so well in her La Rochelle series alongside more typically Chalet School scenes.

If anyone’s reading this – warning, it will make no sense unless you’re familiar with the series.  Sorry!!  But, if you’ve never read the Chalet School books, you’re missing a treat – give them a go!

It must be very difficult to write Chalet School fill-ins, partly because readers will have their own ideas about what happened and they won’t always agree with the author’s, and partly because of the problems of trying to work around all the inconsistencies in Elinor (EBD’)s books. Was Marie Pfeifen’s husband called Andreas or Andre? It changes within the same book sometimes! Was he Austrian or French? How come Daisy had never seen England before 1940, when she stayed there for a while in 1938?! There are uncertainties as well as outright inconsistencies – when did Jo convert to Catholicism, and where was Biddy whilst the school was closed? I have great admiration for the way Amy Fletcher and other fill-in authors cope with it all, and for the trouble they take in explaining why they’ve interpreted things as they have.

Wartime books also have the additional issues of being tied into real life events: it’s the one period during which the series is set at definite points in time. The book isn’t overly political, but we do see Madge’s distress at hearing about Kristallnacht (and let us hope, in 2019, that the new Labour leader will work hard to rid the party of the scourge of anti-Semitism), Jo and Jack’s disgust at the Munich Agreement (something which many people applauded at the time, appalling as it seems now), and the sadness at the news of the sinking of the Athenia.  We also hear the characters’ fears for the friends they left behind in Austria and Germany.  (As I’m typing that, I can hear Christopher Plummer’s voice saying “Austria?  There is no Austria”.)  And we get the actual declaration of war, and Jack’s departure, which are rather bizarrely missed out in The Chalet School in Exile (Exile).  And, on a happier note, we get the white Christmas of 1938.  This is the Chalet School world in the real world.

One of the standout features of the Chalet School series is the incorporation of the events of 1938-1940, in particular, into the books, and I just want to say again how brave it was of Elinor to write Exile, published in 1940. To bring a Nazi mob murdering an elderly Jewish couple and a Catholic priest, and the death of a longstanding character in a concentration camp, into a school series was such a big thing to do. And, whilst I don’t suppose the Gestapo were monitoring the contents of children’s books, who knows what might have happened? A lot of people would have thought at least twice before sticking their heads above the parapet.

The style of writing in this is quite similar to that in EBD’s books: there’s nothing that will grate on the Chalet School fan. I found Anna speaking English with German syntax a bit much, but no more so than I do Biddy O’Ryan’s Oirish accent or Flora and Fiona McDonald’s “pig sister” Highland speech.  Anna’s escape from Austria is very sensibly explained, incidentally – EBD’s comment about her getting herself “smuggled” out always makes me think of a French aristocrat escaping the Terror by hiding in a laundry basket, but this version makes far more sense!  So does the explanation of Rolf Maynard’s mysterious death – and it’s rather nice to see Jack’s relatives here, given that we never actually get to see any of them other than Mollie in the EBD books.

The content’s different to that of most Chalet School canon books or fillers, but that’s inevitable because of the circumstances – and I really liked seeing Jo going for fittings for her wedding dress, and house-hunting with Jack, and setting up home. I don’t know how much that would have appealed to me when I first started reading the books at the age of 8, but most Chalet School readers now are adults and therefore more likely to enjoy the domestic stuff! (Am I an adult?!)   Having said which, I must also have been around 8, or even younger, when I first read about Meg March, Anne Shirley, and Laura Ingalls setting up home with their respective husbands, and I’ve always loved all that.  As with Meg, Anne and Laura, we get a few domestic mishap scenes, which are very Jo and work very well.

We also get to see Jo getting ready on the day of her wedding, which we do with Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books but don’t with Madge in the Chalet School books – and the depiction of the wedding itself, with some humour and some sentiment but not too much of each, was great. It’s also nice seeing David and Sybil meeting baby Josette, and there are some lovely “nursery” scenes – EBD does these very well in Exile, but not elsewhere – and a very enjoyable chapter in which we see the Chalet School ladies and the La Rochelle ladies getting to know each other. It’s not typical Chalet School stuff, but I think it’ll really appeal to most fans of the series.

Things that weren’t how I personally would have imagined them … Jo choosing some of her nieces/nieces-by-marriage but not others as bridesmaids, and Jem leaving it to someone else (Gisela) to tell Daisy and Primula about Margot’s death. This is just my personal view: obviously we don’t know how EBD would have written any of this! There often seem to be bridesmaid politics at Chalet School weddings, and Sybil often seems to be the one to miss out (Elinor really did have it in for poor Sybil), but I wasn’t keen on the idea of Jo, as shown here, having Peggy and Daisy as bridesmaids but leaving Bride, Sybil and Primula out. It seemed very mean. But then I also think it was mean of Juliet not to ask Grizel, Daisy not to ask Sybil, Josette and Ailie, and Simone not to ask Sybil (poor Sybil!)!

And I just can’t imagine Jem leaving it to someone else to break the news of Margot’s death to her children, nor an intelligent 12-year-old like Daisy not realising that something was wrong – but that’s just my view. I hate that whole storyline, but that’s EBD’s fault, not Amy’s!   EBD seemed to want surplus adults removed, so first Ted Humphries and then Margot Venables got bumped off. And Daisy and Primula were packed off out of the way whilst Margot was dying, which seemed to contradict completely everything that was said about giving the Balbini children chance to say goodbye to their mother.  Always riles me!  And there are various hints about what’s expected in November, when I don’t suppose Jo would have gone full term with triplets, but then EBD doesn’t say anything about them coming early – obstetrics don’t seem to have been her strong point!

Sorry, enough moaning!  Back to singing the book’s praises.  I loved the scene involving a Christmas play put on at Bonne Maison – it was very Chalet School, without dragging on and on like some of the plays do, and with all the humour that we get in the Tyrolean books – it’s quite reminiscent of the time when Jo & co use some of Madge and Jem’s best stuff for charades, but with that lovely Chalet School Christmas sentiment as well.   And, hooray, Gretchen and Jakob/Jacques Monier/Le Mesurier were included.  I’m so chuffed that Amy did that: the poor kids usually get forgotten.  It was also nice to see how Gillian, Joyce, Grizel, Rosalie, Biddy and Cornelia fitted into things whilst the school was closed, and to see more about the plans for reopening the school.  As I said, the Chalet School isn’t only a school.  It’s a world.

The portrayal of Jo in this book is great – she’s involved with everything, and does a bit of fainting, but without ever being OTT and annoying.  And it’s a joy to see Madge still at the centre of things too. The book ends with Jack’s departure, to join up, and Jo being comforted by the knowledge that there’s always hope.  The reader knows, as neither they, the characters nor EBD herself did in 1940, what lies ahead.  They know that the Chalet School, the San and the characters will soon have to uproot themselves again, when Guernsey falls to the Nazis.  They know that the war will go on for six long years.  They know that Jack, after being feared dead, will come home safely.  They know that most characters will survive the war, but some will not.  It must be very hard to get that poignancy and uncertainty into the book when we know what happens, but I think Amy manages it.  It was a brave move to take on this, seminal, part of the series, but she’s done a wonderful job with it.  GGBP still have copies of this book – if you haven’t got yours already, order them whilst you still can!