The Chalet School Returns to the Alps by Lisa Townsend

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  This, the latest Chalet School “fill-in”, is a lovely book.  It covers three topics within the series which I’ve always felt merited more attention – Nancy Wilmot’s apparent personality transplant between her schooldays and her teaching days; the story of Sue Meadows, who’s in a rather Victorian position as “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob; and, albeit briefly, Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard.  The characters are true to how they appear in the “canon” books, the style is very much like Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s, yet it avoids those traits of Elinor’s which grate on people slightly – Joey Maynard is helpful rather than overbearing, nobody preaches, and there are very few references to Nancy’s weight!   My only gripe is with the rather odd cover picture.

However, this is yet another “fill-in” which, rather than filling in, runs parallel to an existing book – in this case, The Chalet School and Barbara.  Several of the scenes are those already seen, just told from a different viewpoint.  I’m not criticising the fill-in authors in any way, but wouldn’t their talents be put to better use in writing more original stories?  There’s all sorts of scope for spin-off books about a number of characters, or for sequels to the La Rochelle books.  Or, if GGBP want to stick to school stories, how about a book set at the Carnbach branch of the school?

That’s not to take anything away from this book, which is highly recommended if you are a fan of the Chalet School fill-ins.

The original series is rather prone to inconsistencies, affectionately known as “EBD-isms”, and one of the many is that Nancy Wilmot, who as a schoolgirl was described as lazy and had a particular dislike of maths, returns as a maths mistress, and is so efficient and hard-working that, by the end of the series, she looks set to become the next headmistress.  The obvious explanation is that, like so many people of her generation, she was changed by her experiences during the war, and that’s what Lisa Townsend shows here.  We also see Nancy’s close friendship with Hilary Graves, nee Burn, which, although it is mentioned in The Chalet School and Barbara, seems to be forgotten thereafter – rather like Peggy Burnett and Rosalie Dene being cousins, and Phoebe Peters being Reg Entwistle’s childhood mentor!

One of the biggest strengths of the Chalet School series is that we see the viewpoint of the staff as well as the girls, and we see Nancy having some issues fitting in, and being concerned that she’s not seen as a “proper” Old Girl because she’d been at St Scholastika’s.  The issues arising from the merger of the two schools were an issue in The New Chalet School, but the series jumped two or three years so they were never mentioned again.

There’s a vast amount of fanfic about Nancy, but most of that centres on her relationship with Kathie Ferrars.  As this book’s set long before Kathie arrived at the school, that obviously doesn’t come into it, but it’s good to see more attention being paid to someone who becomes such an important character.

The other main character in the book is Sue Meadows.  I’ve always found Sue’s story interesting – she’s in Switzerland as a “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob, and her fees are being paid by Leila’s mother, who seems concerned only about Leila and not about Sue.   It’s something different, but it’s never really explored.  Also interesting is Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard, who sadly gets very few storylines.  Even with that one, we get Con being summoned to the San, and a lot of talk about how it might affect her, but  it then all seems to be forgotten, and we never hear of the two girls seeing each other again!  The friendship isn’t really gone into here, but we do see the triplets getting to know Sue and then getting to know Leila.  Sue’s story is gone into in far more detail – we learn that her parents are in America due to her dad’s job; and we see what a complex situation it is, with both Mrs Elstob and Sue genuinely frightened by Leila’s medical condition but Sue’s needs being neglected as a result.

It all fits together very well, along with a sub-plot about Mary Woodley, the girl who bullies Barbara Chester.  It really is a very good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I just think that, now that most of the “missing” terms have been “filled”, it might be better for GGBP and the authors to go in the direction of writing about something new, rather than writing about events which EBD’s already written about.  But that’s in no way a criticism of either this author or this book – it really is a lovely book.

 

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

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Pity the Coronation Street scriptwriters, who’ve tried so hard to reflect the reality of Covid-era Britain but, not having crystal balls, couldn’t foresee the imposition of Lockdown Two and Tier bloody Three.   And so the episodes we’re seeing now, filmed three months in advance, are sadly a long way removed from what’s actually happening.  Now pity, a million times more, Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), who moved the Chalet School and Jem Russell’s Sanatorium from post-Anschluss Austria to the safety of Guernsey, only for the Nazis to occupy the Channel Islands almost as soon as she’d put down her pen.

The need to get the School and the San over to the British mainland in the next book meant that EBD didn’t have much chance to write about their time in Guernsey, and this new “fill-in” … well, fills that in.  It includes quite a lot of detail about life and restrictions in the early part of the war, which is fascinating from a social history viewpoint.  The Armada editions of the wartime books, the ones in print when I was a kid, annoyingly had a lot of the detail specific to wartime cut out of them.  It’s good to have so much included here.  Our favourite characters may be fictional, but they live(d) in a real place, in a real time.

Fill-in authors do, obviously, have to work with what EBD wrote.  And, as much as I love the wartime books – The Chalet School in Exile really is a very special piece of writing – , it does have to be said that some of what’s in them is a bit bonkers.  Karen, Anna, Frau Mieders and her sister, Herr Laubach, and Emmie and Johanna Linders all somehow escape from/”get themselves smuggled out of” the Third Reich, and a whole gang of people, two of whom have escaped from a concentration camp, somehow all end up meeting up in Bordeaux.  Too many escape stories told in detail would have just been too unconvincing, but I’m delighted that the one we get here is Karen’s … even though I maintain that Karen wasn’t actually a Pfeifen but a family friend (yes, I know that everyone else thinks she was a Pfeifen), and that Anna was Marie’s cousin rather than, as stated here, Marie’s sister (but the books are rather unclear on this).  I’d love to know just how EBD thought they all managed to escape, and indeed to enter the British Isles without the necessary visas, but never mind!

A gripe.  It traumatises me when people use “England” instead of “Britain” or “the UK”, and “Russia” instead of “the Soviet Union”.  I am a pedantic historian.   I always pick up on that.  Moan over!

Then, getting back to what EBD wrote, there’s the rather unlikely coincidence of Bob Maynard just happening to have a friend who just happens to have an enormous house to let, which just happens to be close to where Paul Ozanne’s just got a new job.  But, again, never mind!    Ernest Howell’s appearance at the School is one of the scenes which overlaps with The Chalet School Goes To It/The Chalet School At War; but there aren’t many of them, and it wouldn’t have made sense had that one not been included.

It’s nearly all original stuff, other than that.  Some things which never quite get explained by EBD are explained here, which Chalet School fans will enjoy –  notably Rosalie Dene’s job change and Evvy Lannis’s comings and goings.  It’s also great to see a positive portrayal of Marilyn Evans, who’s vilified in the “canon” books without ever actually appearing.  I’ve got a lot of sympathy for Marilyn, the Head Girl who put her school work ahead of the vast array of duties which the Chalet School expects from its prefects.  She was actually at the school to get an education and some qualifications!  She appears in this book as a new girl, and her hard work is actually appreciated at this point.

As much as I love the books, I do get quite frustrated by the attitude towards Marilyn, and the attitude in the wartime books and immediate post-war books towards education, qualifications and university entrance in general.  They don’t say anything very positive about women’s place in life, and that ties in with the very strange scene which we see at the beginning of the The Chalet School in Exile, in which it’s Jem Russell, rather than Madge Russell, who turns up at a staff meeting to say that the School’s going to be moving to the Sonnalpe, and Jem who makes all the decisions about moving to Guernsey.

Until then, Jem hasn’t really got involved in the running of the School.  Why would he?  He’s got more than enough to do with the San.  And he respects the fact that it’s Madge’s school.  Then, later on, Gay Lambert’s brother writes to Jem, rather than to Madge.   And Jack Maynard orders Miss Bubb about, and in front of a pupil to boot!   Miss Bubb’s the acting headmistress, and he’s only the owner’s brother-in-law.  It’s rather odd, in a series which starts with a strong young woman making her own choices and decisions, and shows women managing perfectly well to run a school without any male input.

Anyway.   In this book, Jem and Jack don’t deliberately take over, but we see Hilda Annersley coming to speak to Madge about leaving Guernsey, only to find that Madge is out … and talking it through with Jem and Jack, who both just happen to be around, instead.  It ties in with what EBD wrote, but I do wish EBD had let Madge be the one to decide – or, at least, Madge and Jem jointly, given that the San was affected too and they obviously had to move together.  But, hooray, in this book, Madge does go to the staff meeting at which all the details are discussed.

Before then, there’s a wonderful original, and wonderfully original, chapter in which we see some of the older girls taking part in a rehearsal/role play scenario of what might happen in the event of an invasion.  It’s based on real life events, and it’s fascinating –  a real taste of wartime Guernsey, and a reminder of how frightening those times were.

And there’s also a lot about Melanie Kerdec, a character who appears in the wartime books without it ever being made clear whether or not she’s the same Melanie Kerdec who was part of “The Mystic M” in The New Chalet School.  Presumably she was, but we’re never told.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, in case anyone’s reading my waffle – is anyone reading my waffle?! – and is getting the book as a Christmas present, Melanie is a prominent character in this, in a classic “troublesome new girl eventually settles in and decides the school is great” storyline.

This is the second wartime fill-in in a row, and it’s really interesting to see our old friends – the characters are our friends, aren’t they 🙂 ? – against the background of such a difficult time, and in a setting which is firmly rooted in a particular time.  We know what lay ahead.  EBD didn’t.  And the characters didn’t.  What did EBD have planned for the Chalet School in Guernsey?  We’ll never know, and it’s sad that she never got the chance to write it, but maybe this was some of it.  And any Chalet School fill-in is always a good comfort read, and that’s something which I think we could all do with at the moment.

 

The Bettany Twins and the Chalet School by Helen Barber

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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.

Bess on her own in Canada and Sharlie’s Kenya Diary by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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These two stories, the second pair of “geography readers”, will probably only be read by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completists; but I enjoyed them.  I thought that they were very well-written, and I’m sorry that they weren’t longer: full-length books about Bess and Sharlie would have been so much better than, say, “Beechy of the Harbour School”!  The plot of the Canada book is rather thin and silly, and the Kenya book hasn’t really got a plot, but, for stories of this length, that doesn’t matter: the appeal is in the descriptions of the Okanagan region of British Columbia and many areas of Kenya.  Considering that EBD never visited either, she does pretty well with them.  The stories were intended to be educational and there’s some information in them about farming and produce, and also about soil erosion and vanishing lakes in Kenya, which may strike much more of a chord now than it probably did in the 1950s, but they’re more descriptions of the scenery than anything else.  There’s also quite a bit about the wildlife in Kenya, although, sadly, no-one has a pet lion cub (I love “Born Free”).

And both main characters are very appealing.  They both come from uncomplicated backgrounds.  Sharlie’s parents take her to Kenya with them because they *don’t* want to dump her somewhere, but she also has a term at school there because both she and they accept that kids do actually have to get an education and look towards getting a job!  Neither has a major character flaw requiring reform.  They’re just nice, ordinary girls, the sort who never get to take centre stage in full-length books.  And these are very nice reads.

The publishers have padded the book out with long introductions.  There’s nothing wrong with them, except that the Kenya one bizarrely mixes up Lancashire and Cheshire, but, having paid for fiction, I think I’d rather have had some short stories instead.  Oh well.  There’s also a note about the “patronising” language used about the natives in Kenya.  I’m not sure that it was any more patronising than the language used in EBD’s other books about the “peasants” in Austria and Guernsey, but they are given a voice, whereas, unfortunately, we don’t actually hear from any black characters in this.  However, EBD did devote a fair bit of the book to discussing the local customs – even if, as in A Chalet Girl from Kenya, she misunderstood/misused the word “shauri”, but she must have read that somewhere – which a lot of authors at the time would not have done.

Bess, then.  Fifteen-year-old Bess and her parents and two younger brothers live on a wheat farm in Saskatchewan.  When her dad suffers an accident which is going to put him out of action for several months, Bess is dispatched to Vancouver Island to find a cousin with whom they have lost touch and whose address they do not have (their letters to him have been returned), to ask him to abandon his own affairs and come and help. As you would.  The idea is that she’ll go to the first post office or police station she finds, and they’ll be able to track down the said cousin.  You do wonder why her mum didn’t write to the post office or police station, or indeed just engage a manager, but, OK, that would have spoilt the story.

She goes off with a woman whom she meets on the train and, hey presto, the woman’s brother-in-law knows the cousin.  But he’s moved.  To the Okanagan Valley.  So off Bess goes again, and she then goes off with a man whom she meets on a ferry, and, of course, he knows the cousin too.  Her propensity to go off with complete strangers is really rather worrying, but she finds the cousin, he agrees to come and help out, and she gets to spend some time looking round the area.

It’s a very silly plot, but the descriptions really are lovely.  Sadly, we hear very little about Vancouver (which for some reason is referred to as “Vancouver City”) or Victoria, which are both wonderful cities, but we do hear a lot about the Okanagan Valley, and the fruit farms there, and life around the lake.  It really made me want to go to British Columbia again!   It’s such a lovely part of the world, and that came across very well in the book.

Chalet School fans will know that Ted Grantley’s eldest brother was fruit farming in British Columbia, and that Bette Rincini was living in Saskatchewan.  I do wish that EBD had written about the experiences of the many Chalet School characters whom she dispatched, temporarily or permanently, to different parts of the Commonwealth; but she didn’t.  However, Sharlie and her parents meet a Mr and Mrs Scott in Kenya … are these Paul and Maisie Scott, the parents of Jo Scott?

Sharlie’s dad has to go to Kenya on business, and his wife and daughter accompany him.  The story’s in the form of a diary which Sharlie keeps to show her schoolfriends when she gets home.  They travel around, and it sounds wonderful – they see the main cities, go on safari, see lakes and waterfalls, and also see one of the “shauris” which Jo Scott talks about.  There’s some environmental stuff.  And some talk about locusts – which I associate with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “On the Banks of Plum Creek” but which are still causing problems in parts of Africa now – and also a bit about the history of East Africa.  Am I the only one who, whenever I see the word “Zanzibar”, immediately thinks “Ah, Freddie Mercury,” or does everyone do that 🙂 ?

So, two fairly short stories, but I liked them.  No-one other than an EBD fan is going to spend £13 on this book, but I’m glad I did!

International Women’s Day – 10 influential female authors

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Seeing as it’s International Women’s Day, and seeing as we’re getting a film version of “Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret” and a TV series of the “Malory Towers” books (please, please don’t let them mess them up!), let’s have a list of ten female authors whose books have played a big part in my (admittedly not very exciting) life  These aren’t necessarily my favourite authors, or the authors of my favourite books, but they’ve all been significant.  Starting with Enid Blyton, because most things start with Enid Blyton.  And ending with Helen Fielding, because Bridget Jones shows us that, even once you accept that you’re never going to be Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara or Emma Harte, all women are still heroines in their own way.

  1. Enid Blyton – I did read Chicken Licken and Huckle the Cat and various other things, when I was about 3, but then I got into the Noddy books and the Amelia Jane books, and, for the next few years, it was all about Enid Blyton.  The adventure stories, the mystery stories, and, of course, the school stories.  People can say what they like about Enid Blyton, but she has a unique place in our culture, and (for what it’s worth!) in my life.  She gets kids into reading.  That’s important

2.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer – starting with Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, when I was 8.   The Chalet School books are the greatest school stories ever.  My first holiday without my mum and dad (unless you count a school trip to Paris) was to Austria.  And, from October 2004 – OMG, that’s over 15 years ago! – onwards, I’ve been privileged to be part of a wonderful online community which I just can’t imagine life without, and that all started with the Chalet School books.  I don’t know where I’d be otherwise, I really don’t!

3.  Judy Blume – as well as Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, my particular favourites are It’s Not the End of the World and Deenie, but, between the ages of about 10 and 13, I read most of her books (the ones which were around then).  And, yes, I read Forever.  Everyone read Forever!  I will never be able to meet anyone called Ralph without sniggering.  But Margaret’s the standout heroine … although I did spend several years giving every day a grade, like Karen did!  Judy Blume wrote (and still writes) about all the things which Girls’ Own authors didn’t, but never in a prurient or sensationalist way.  I forget who, but one author said that Judy Blume taught her all she needed to know about being a girl.  I wouldn’t go that far, but her books are definitely important.  Also, Forever was our “naughty book”.  All groups of tweenagers/teenagers should have a “naughty book” – it’s a rite of passage!

4.  Barbara Taylor Bradford.  The transition phase!  Moving on from what are now called “young adult” books to Proper Grown Up ’80s blockbusters.  OK, OK, A Woman of Substance was actually published in the late ’70s, but I didn’t read it until the mid-’80s.  For a lot of people in my class, the infamous Virginia Andrews books were the transition books, but for me it was all about Emma Harte, the ultimate ’80s rags-to-riches heroine, the Northern working-class woman who made it in a man’s world.  None of BTB’s other books are anything like as good, but that one was the first Big Grown Up Book I read, and it was a really good one.

5. Jane Austen – whose books I keep coming back to, over and over again.  They’re over 200 years old and they still say so much.  Helen Fielding could borrow heavily from them in the 1990s and still be completely relevant.

6. Colleen McCullough – I don’t think any other book I’ve ever read, not even the greatest novel of all time (coming up next!) has the sort of emotional and descriptive passages that The Thorn Birds does.  It is incredible.  I’m always quoting bits of it, usually to myself, when I’m being melodramatic … which is quite often.  Oh, to be able to write like that!  I’ve read a couple of her other books, and they’re just not a patch on it, but that one book … what an achievement.  It says so much about how people think and feel, and just how people work.  Meggie’s the heroine, and Justine’s the one who gets to live happily ever after, but the most interesting character is Fee (Fiona).  I often think about things that Fee said.

7.  Margaret Mitchell – because Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written.  No, it wouldn’t be written today, but it wasn’t written today.  The characters, the emotion, the way it draws you in, the strength of the book and the strength of Scarlett O’Hara. And Scarlett and Ashley – the sadness of loving someone with whom you can’t connect.  I once decided to re-read the whole book in a day, and I was in bits afterwards, even though it wasn’t the first time I’d read it, because how do you deal with coming down from that?  And, ultimately, it’s about female survival. Yes, Rhett’s the one who helps Scarlett out in times of crisis – and, weirdly, I quote Rhett even more than I quote Scarlett – but it’s Melanie who’s really got her back, and it’s about Scarlett and Melanie both surviving, in their different ways, when their world collapses.  No Gotterdammerung for either of them.

8. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Her Morland books and her recent War At Home books are good, but her Kirov Trilogy‘s her crowning achievement, for me, and they’re the best Russian historical fiction books I’ve ever read.  They really took me much deeper into Russia, into Russian history and culture, than I’d been before … and I’ve never really come out!  I think Annette Motley’s Men on White Horses was the first adult Russian historical fiction book I read, and even that was a couple of years after I’d really got into Russian history, but the Kirov books are special.

9.  Jean Plaidy  – not because her books are all-time classics, but because, even after getting a degree in “medieval and modern history”, I still didn’t quite get medieval history until Jean Plaidy’s books showed me how fascinating it could be.  Elizabeth Chadwick, Anne O’Brien and Sharon Penman actually write better medieval historical fiction than Jean Plaidy did, but hers were the ones I came too first.  At school, we had one year of medieval history, which was largely about motte and bailey castles and the lives of monks.  Why would anyone think that 11-year-old girls wanted to know about the lives of monks?!  At university, it was German emperors and Anglo-Saxon peasants.  Hardly anyone signed up for the optional medieval history modules, after that: everyone flocked to the modern history ones.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for showing me what all those teachers, doctors and professors failed to!!

and finally … 10. Helen Fielding.  You think that you’re going to be part of the in-crowd at school, and have lots of adventures.  Failing that, you at least think people are going to play fair by you, if you try to be nice to them.  Judy Blume does, to be fair, help you to accept that sometimes they’re not – Blubber is great for that.  Then you hope that’s life’s going to be full of romance, like it is in Jane Austen books, and success, like it is in Barbara Taylor Bradford books.  Or that, even if you’re not destined to be the person who gets it all, at least it’ll be full of drama and emotion, like it is for Jean Plaidy’s royal heroines, for Meggie, for Anna (in the Kirov books) and, most of all, for Scarlett.  And then you realise that you’re getting upset because you’ve put on 2lbs even though all you’ve been doing is lying in bed overnight, and that you’re running late for work again, not that you actually want to go to work, and that everyone else seems to have everything way more sorted than you.  It’s not good.  That is not how heroines’ lives turn out.  But, hooray, there is Bridget Jones, the heroine whose life hasn’t turned out like heroines’ lives are supposed to do either!  So, yep, Bridget shows us that we’re actually all heroines.

And there are always books … to take you wherever and whenever you want to go to.

So hooray for Bridget, hooray for books, and hooray for wonderful female authors.

“Honourable mentions” for Laura Ingalls Wilder, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Sue Townsend, Charlotte Bronte, Maisie Mosco, Helen Forrester, Maeve Binchy (because everyone in my class at school was obsessed with one of her books, in 1988), Pamela Belle and Reay Tannahill.   But that would have been another 10, and then I’d have thought of another 10 …

Shocks for the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, revisited

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I’ve read this umpteen times, and the first time was over 35 years ago; but this is the first time that I’ve ever read the uncut edition, and I’m now thinking that some wonderful potential plotlines got missed there.   For a kick-off, we’ve got the 17th century pirates, Dai Lloyd and his unnamed ship’s mate/”boon companion” who, having disposed of the rest of their crew, moved in together and lived happily ever after with all their ill-gotten treasure.  Hey, was this Elinor (EBD) wanting to make a stand against stereotyping and write a gay pirate romance, 60 years before the genre became a thing?  Posh pirates, of course, this being Chalet School land.  They lived in a stately home.  With extensive grounds.  All the better for burying your treasure in.

On a different note, we could have had Elfie Woodward making it to college via night school classes, which played a very important role in both Britain and America in the late 1940s and 1950s … except that, only eight weeks or so after leaving boarding school, she’s back.  At least it’s now accepted that a girl’s education and future plans do now matter, though.  Or we could have had Emerence pioneering demands for a vegetarian option at school dinnertimes –  but the issue of vegetarianism ismentioned once and never again.  Oh, all right, all right, I’m not really suggesting that any of these storylines would really have appeared in a Chalet School book (although it would certainly have been fun if they had), but there are all fascinating side roads down which the books, especially in their unabridged versions, send your mind wandering.  It says a lot about just how good they are.

Why on earth do pirates and buried treasure, from the 17th century or otherwise, feature in a girls’ boarding school story, we may ask ourselves.  Had EBD had noted the popularity of Enid Blyton’s adventure books in the 1940s, and decided to try to shoehorn something adventure-story-ish into one of her books?  17th century pirates are more GA Henty than Blyton, though … and Henty would never have let pirates (sorry, “freebooters”) who deliberately sank their own ship, killing all those on board, get away with the treasure!  Anyway, whatever the reason, after a teacher falls into a disused well, a pupil nearly drowns in dense mud and parts of the grounds are flooded, we get this story about how the landlord (and father of three of the pupils) had an ancestor who was a “freebooter”, and blocked up part of the natural drainage system, inadvertently creating miasmic swamps leading to deaths from mysterious fevers (EBD really did get a bit carried away with this) because he’d hidden treasure there.

The basic story’s in the abridged version, but most of the detail’s cut out – including the bit about how Dai Lloyd The Pirate’s ship’s mate moved into “The Big House” with Dai, and the two of them lived happily ever after.  Dai never married and or had children: the estate passed to his great-great-nephew.  This has got to be a gay pirate romance, hasn’t it?!

Well, OK, we can’t possibly know if that’s what was intended or not. EBD probably just wanted to find a companion for Dai to live with, and, as the storyline required him to be childless so that the estate would pass to a relative whom he’d never met and who therefore didn’t know about the treasure, it worked better for that to be another man!  But I do rather like the gay pirate romance idea.  And, in all seriousness, in recent years a lot of attention has been paid to possible same sex relationships in school stories written at a time when authors couldn’t openly refer to the two characters concerned as anything more than “close friends” or, in this case, “boon companions”.

In later Chalet School books, Nancy Wilmot and Kathie Ferrars are always together, even buying a car together, and a pupil notices “what is between” them when Kathie collapses with appendicitis and Nancy cries out “Kathie, darling”.  At this, earlier, stage of the series, Nell Wilson, whom many readers think is the partner, as well as the best friend and co-headmistress, of Hilda Annersley (and, before Hilda, of Con Stewart, with whom she turns up at a party hand-in-hand), has been dispatched to run the new finishing branch, and there’s been a bit of speculation that that was because the editors thought that Nell and Hilda were getting too close.  Happily, they are reunited later on!  And what’s great is that neither of these couples are in any way stereotyped, unlike Boyish Bill and Glamorous (once she’s taken her glasses and braces off and sorted out her hair) Clarissa in the Malory Towers books.

So, is it possible that hink that EBD was cocking a snook at both stereotyping and at any negative comments that might have been made about Hilda and Nell’s relationship, by hinting at a gay pirate romance? I believe that this genre is now rather popular, so, if she was, then she was way ahead of her time!  Well, OK, probably not.  But it’d make a great story, wouldn’t it?

Moving on to Elfie Woodward’s storyline, the “needed at home” plot had been used before, notably when Mary Burnett left school suddenly, clearing the way for Jo Bettany to become Head Girl. In this case, Elfie leaves school to keep house for her father and two young brothers following the death of her stepmother. It doesn’t actually seem to serve much purpose, other than her best friend Bride Bettany finding things strange without her – and, then, just after half term, Elfie reappears, and we’re told that a distant and hitherto unmentioned cousin has appeared from nowhere and will take over the role instead. Even more pointlessly, the storyline’s repeated in the very next book, when Bride’s sister Peggy decides to drop out of finishing school to care for their mother, who’s been ill … and, again, hey presto, a hitherto unmentioned relative appears from nowhere and … you get the idea.

However, ignoring the way it turns out, and ignoring Peggy, who was only planning to “go home” after school anyway, it’s interesting because of the contrast in reactions to Mary’s news and Elfie’s. No-one has anything at all to say about the fact that Mary, who had always wanted to go to university and then vote her life to teaching/academia, is having to abandon her plans … although she does later turn up at the school as a teacher, so maybe a long-lost relative intervened in her case too! But everyone comments on the effect that having to leave school early is going to have on Elfie, who’d hoped to train as a PE teacher. Attitudes towards middle-class girls’ education and post-school plans have really changed.

And we’re then told that this will only be a short-term thing, until Elfie’s youngest half-brother is old enough for boarding school, and that, in the meantime, she’ll be able to continue her education at night The idea of night school as a way for people to continue their education and or learn new skills after leaving school goes back to Victorian times, initially mainly for men but, especially as time went on, for women too. Helen Forrester, in her biographical novels set in the 1930s, writes about how it completely changed her life. In the late 1940s and 1950s, it played a crucial role in filling post-war skills shortages. It wasn’t generally associated with people from well-to-do backgrounds, though, and it’s rare for it to be mentioned in Girls’ Own or Boys’ Own books. It very much goes back to the 19th century idea of self-help and working to improve your status in life, and Chalet School land is not big on that. Girls whose fathers are self-made men are inevitably Very Bad Indeed – Elma Conroy’s got a boyfriend (the horror!), and Vera Smithers and Diana Skelton both end up being expelled/removed.

So I really like the idea of Elfie writing to tell Bride that she’s going to night school, meeting lots of people from different backgrounds, and that she’s passed her exams, applied for college and got in (CS characters always just get into the further education institutions of their choice, applications and exams and interviews apparently unnecessary).   It would have been something very different, and it would have been very 1950s: I’m genuinely not putting a modern slant on this bit.  But, instead, Elfie just comes back to the Chalet School.  I think that the night school version would have been much more interesting!

The brief reference to night school is in the abridged version, but somehow I never seem to have picked up on it before.  The mention of the Hope family being vegetarians is cut out, though. The hardback version says that the Hopes are complete cranks, with Mr and Mrs Hope thinking that children should be able to do whatever they want. Being vegetarians appears to prove that they’re cranks, rather like Eustace Scrubb’s family in the Narnia books. I don’t know whether Armada cut that bit just to save space, or whether they felt that suggesting that vegetarians were cranks was no longer acceptable by the 1970s (the book was originally published in 1952). Then it’s never mentioned again. Presumably EBD, if she thought about it at all, assumed that Emerence would just eat whatever she was given.

Even when I was at primary school, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you just got what you were given, no choice (although, if you had school dinners at secondary school, a choice was provided there). So I do get that the idea of offering a zillion different alternatives is pretty new: I’m really not saying that the Chalet School should have done Meat Free Mondays!  Rationing was still in force when this book was published, apart from anything else.  Going back to my primary school days, we got utterly vile soya meat substitutes, to avoid any issues over religious dietary laws, but I think our school was unusual in that. But, if you were at a day school and there were genuine religious or ethical reasons why you couldn’t eat the meals provided, presumably arrangements could be made for you to go home for dinner, if practical, or to take your own food; but what would have happened at a boarding school if someone had insisted that they couldn’t eat the meals?  Is it ever mentioned anywhere?  Or is it one of those situations that we just assume would never have occurred?  And wouldn’t it have been far more interesting to have had Emerence staging a rebellion over school dinners, rather than refusing to use the back stairs?!

So there we go.  Three new thoughts on a book I thought I knew so well.

The book is basically bonkers, incidentally!  Loveday Perowne is told, in front of all the other prefects, that she’s only been appointed Head Girl because she’s a few months older than the three other candidates.  Well, that can’t have made either her or the other three feel very good, can it?  There are some irritating inconsistencies with form names and with Michael Christy’s title.  Jo writes to tell the staff that she’s had another boy, before she’s even given birth. Why??  Jack tells Hilda and Rosalie that the Maynards and the Russells will pay for them to go to Canada, as a Christmas present.  What?? The prefects steal the mistresses’ underwear, to use in a game.  Is it me, or is that a bit weird?  And the “final, delightful shock” (per the blurb on the back cover) is Jo turning up at the Christmas play, which is a bit of an anti-climax!

But it’s a nice book.  All the characters are likeable – “bad girl” Emerence is wayward and cheeky, but she’d never deliberately hurt another girl either physically or psychologically, unlike some of the bullies in other school stories – but none of them are prissy or preachy.  There’s no one dominant character at this stage of the series, and that works well.  Rosalie Dene, the school’s overworked secretary, actually gets a plotline, even if it is only going to the foot of our stairs … sorry, sitting at the foot of the stairs.  And we get to see Madge Russell, which happens all too infrequently after the Tyrolean era.

Also, the year group leading the school in this book do mark a turning point in the series, and Elfie’s storyline, showing that it’s no longer considered acceptable in CS land for a girl’s education to be viewed as unimportant, is part of that.  In the year above them, many girls will just be “going home” after school.  In this year, pretty much everyone will be going on to some sort of further education or training.  This is probably the only school series which goes on long enough to show social and cultural shifts, and that’s one of the reasons it’s so special.  And, who knows, if it had gone on long enough, maybe we’d have seen Con Maynard writing gay pirate romances.  I do hope so!

 

Judy The Guide by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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This is one of the best Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) stand-alone books I’ve read, although the ending’s completely bonkers!   Judy, a Canadian girl sent to an English boarding school by one of those rich and generous godfathers who seem to abound in books, gets off to a bad start when she breaks a vase belonging to one of the in-crowd.  When there’s then a spate of theft and vandalism, Judy is suspected.  It’s obviously going to turn out that she’s innocent, so who is the real culprit.  Another girl, causing trouble?  Somebody sleepwalking?  A teacher or a maid with an old grudge against the school?  No.  It turns out that a lady living nearby has got a pet monkey, which has got out of her house at all hours, climbed up a ventilation shaft into the school (on numerous different occasions), got into classrooms and dormitories without being noticed (or, presumably, leaving any “evidence” of its presence), and smashed vases, stolen exam papers, spilt ink and run off with a copy of the Bible.  Well, at least it wasn’t predictable!

The book’s set in on the Hertfordshire-Buckinghamshire border, and, unusually for EBD, real place names are used.  And, despite the title, it is very much a school story rather than a Guiding story.  The book was published in 1928, a year after The Princess of the Chalet School in which there are so many Guiding references that it becomes rather annoying.  However, in this book, Guiding, whilst it’s an important part of the story, doesn’t intrude into areas where it’s not relevant … other than the holding of a Guide Court of Honour into the allegations against Judy and the bad feeling that they’re causing, which I didn’t really get because none of the alleged incidents took place during Guide activities.  Every single girl at the school seems to be a Guide, though.  Did not one person choose not to join?!    EBD was clearly very into Guiding at this time in her life, and also into country dancing, which also features.  She’d clearly also been reading Elsie J Oxenham’s books, as one of Judy’s friends is called Nanciebel!   But, as I said, it’s a school story, not a story about Guides.

Judy is one of five children in a family from Saskatchewan, originally from Ireland.  It’s interesting that EBD chose to make her heroine a Canadian, because, for all the talk about the Chalet School being multinational, all the “own book” Chalet School heroines are British.  Well, Adrienne was brought up in France, but her parents were British.  And, although several characters go to live in Canada, I can only think of Miss Moore, a fairly minor character, who actually comes from there.  Anyway!  Unfortunately, it’s done in quite a negative way, with Judy getting a lot of nasty remarks about being a wild colonial.

There’s also one of those weird EBD unfinished plots.  At half-term, Judy’s brother Denis takes her out for the day.  They meet Peter, the younger brother of one of Denis’s friends, and he and Judy get on well.  We’re told that Judy’s made one of her firmest friends, but then he’s never mentioned again!

The book finishes with Judy preventing a disaster at a Guide event, in front of the District Commissioner, and being hailed as a heroine by everyone.  That’s classic school story stuff – very clichéd, but fair enough.  The monkey thing, though … what was EBD thinking of?!  Still, despite the daftness of that storyline, it’s a very entertaining book, with believable characters, and it’s certainly one of EBD’s best non-Chalet/La Rochelle stories.  The quality of her one-off books varies from very good to dire, and this is definitely at the “very good” end of the scale.  Despite the monkey … 🙂 !

 

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!

A Quintette in Queensland and Verena visits New Zealand by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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These are two of the four “geography readers” written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), the author of the Chalet School series and many other books, in 1951, intended to inform readers about different Commonwealth countries.  They’re intended to be educational but are written as stories – one about five cousins on a sugar cane farm in Queensland, and one about a girl touring New Zealand.  The word “reader” makes me think of an American school text book, but, whilst these are clearly meant to be educational, and contain a huge amount of information, they are stories, and they’re quite good fun.  Also, given that these books were written nearly seventy years ago, it does EBD great credit that it’s made clear to Verena that “Some of our finest men have been Maoris”.  There are a lot of info dumps, but they’re all interesting, and they’re all woven into the stories.  I enjoyed these far more than I was expecting to.

A Quintette in Queensland is about a group of five children at a sugar cane farm in Queensland. Is “farm” the right word? I keep wanting to say “plantation”, but that’s obviously wrong. Station, maybe? Anyway!  We’ve got the three children who live there, and their two cousins who are visiting from New Zealand during the long school holidays. Three boys and two girls – four of whom are aged between 14 and 16, and one who’s younger. So, apart from the setting, it’s quite an Enid Blyton/Lorna Hill/Arthur Ransome set-up. The kids are all at boarding school, which seems a bit unlikely, and the book’s set in July – which fits with both the British long school holidays and the cane cutting season, but certainly doesn’t fit with the Australian school year. You’d think EBD would have realised that! Oh well, never mind. Seeing as she seemed to think that Toronto was full of French-speaking convent schools and that fictional countries moved around the Balkans at will, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised. Bless her!

It’s only a short book, so we don’t get to know any of the kids that well, but they’re all generally nice kids – no-one is bossy, or a troublemaker. The three who live there are the children of the owners, rather than of the people who actually cut the sugar – although it is pointed out that it’s hard to get domestic staff there, so the mum has to do the housework herself (yes, really!).  The girls have to help – and Chalet School fans will be amused to find that this includes taking the mattresses off the beds and airing them every day. The boys do not have to do housework, but the older boys help with cutting the sugar. This was published in 1951, so I’m not going to moan about the gender division of labour, but I’m just pointing it out!   And, although the girls and the younger boy have to take shelter in bad weather, later on, whilst the older boys front it out, the girls do generally get to be equally involved in everything, and no-one suggests that machinery and industrial processes won’t interest them.  Hooray!!

EBD does write quite well about mixed gender groups.  She never really tries it in the Chalet School series, except in Joey & Co in Tyrol … and it’s not easy to judge the quality of someone’s writing on a book in which a man who’s planning to take off in a home-made spaceship turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin.  I’m always sorry that we see so little of the Russell and Bettany boys.

Anyway!  There’s a huge amount of information in it. I’m afraid that all I really know about the Australian sugar cane industry is that Luke O’Neill in The Thorn Birds devoted himself to cane-cutting, instead of living with his wife Meggie. However, apparently everything in the book is pretty accurate, with the possible exception of a reference to houses having “winter rooms” that were only used when heavy rain meant that people couldn’t leave their homes. We hear about the plant life, the animal life (especially the toads!), and, in a lot of detail, about the processes of cutting and refining the sugar cane, and about the lives of the owners and the staff … although the staff don’t really don’t feature that much.  We even hear about the type of clothing that the cane cutters wear.  The idea that they need to wear clothes made of material that absorbs sweat, to make sure that they don’t get rheumatism, is very EBD, a bit like keeping your blazer on whilst hiking up a mountain on a swelteringly hot day, but the idea that wet clothes caused rheumatism was certainly very common back in the day.

Then, at the end, the children go on a camping trip – with the parents initially in attendance, which would never have happened in a Blyton, Hill or Ransome book! This being an EBD book, there’s a weather trauma and a medical trauma, but it’s nothing very serious – thanks to the use of permanganate crystals. Chalet School fans will know that Stephen Venables, Jem Russell’s nasty brother-in-law, met a sticky end after wandering around in rural North Queensland without permanganate crystals!

All in all, it’s very readable, and it feels a lot less didactic than the sections in the Swiss Chalet School books in which mistresses lecture the girls about the places they’re visiting.  I was a historian pretty much from birth  :-), so I quite like the info dumps on the school trips, but I know that a lot of people don’t … and I’m not convinced that the Chalet School girls do!  The story format in these “readers” works really well.

Verena visits New Zealand has much more of a typically EBD set-up.  Thirteen-year-old Verena has been very ill with scarlet fever, and “outgrown her strength”.  An uncle who is over in Britain from New Zealand on business offers to take her back with him for a year (as you do), because the sea air and the wonderful New Zealand air will be just what she needs.

This one, without wanting to give too much away,  feels far more like a plug for immigration!  Emigration, rather, seeing as it seems to be aimed at a British audience.  There’s a lot of talk about how wonderful the education system is in New Zealand, and the opportunities there.  But it’s made clear that only people who want to work on the land are needed.  No white collar workers.  And definitely no wusses – only tough people!  Seems like a rather insensitive thing to say to someone who’s so weak that she’s been told to take six months off school, but a lot of EBD characters do tend to be a bit tactless!

Again, there’s a huge amount of info, but this is about the country as a whole, not just one area or aspect of it.  Verena visits Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and the geyser, hot baths and mud pools at Rotorua, and volcanic Mount Tarawera, as well as spending time at her aunt and uncle’s sheep station (station? farm?) and seeing the shearing, and at fruit farms and a family friend’s dairy farm.  We also hear a lot about New Zealand’s history.  I found this one more interesting than the first one, but that’s just a personal thing: I’m better with history and travel than with tractors and toads 😉 .

Verena also visits a Maori village, and her aunt talks to her about the Maori people.  Modern readers may be a little uncomfortable with the use of the word “civilised” and the fact that wearing European clothes is seen as a marker of this, and obviously this is quite a challenging subject at the moment, ahead of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing, but we need to remember that the book was written nearly seventy years ago.  “Auntie” makes it clear to Verena that Maoris have equal rights and equal privileges with white people, and are able to get into top jobs.  “They are intelligent and friendly.  Some of our finest men have been Maoris.”  Bearing in mind that this was written in 1951, I think that EBD deserves great credit for it.

Verena, presumably having recovered from her illness (which I don’t think is actually mentioned again after the first chapter!), then starts at a school in New Zealand, and makes friends with a girl whose family are from Akaroa, which was established as a French settlement. The friend explains that her grandma came over from France (I’m not sure that any French settlers actually did come over after the initial group arrived in 1840, but never mind), and likes to be addressed as “Grand-mere”. She then explains that the rest of the family are as English as everyone else, because, after all, they are New Zealanders!  I’ve been told by older people from both New Zealand and Australia that many people there still regarded themselves as being very British (EBD has a habit of using “English” rather than “British”, even when talking about places in Wales!) even into the second half of the twentieth century, but I think EBD did go a bit overboard there!! But credit to her for including a little-known piece of New Zealand’s history and heritage.

The two stories are quite different – the Queensland one contains a lot of detail about the ins and outs of the sugar cane industry, whereas the New Zealand one’s more of a travel guide to New Zealand as a whole.  But they’re both good reads, and I think that children reading them at the time would have learned a great deal from them without ever feeling that the books were like school text books.  I’m really looking forward to reading the other two stories, set in Canada and Kenya, when they’re republished.

Incidentally, I’d love to know how EBD came to write these books, which are quite a departure from her usual stories. The introduction written by GGBP, who’ve republished the books – thank you, GGBP, because they were incredibly hard to get hold of previously! – suggests that her publishers, Chambers, were hoping to widen their readership in different parts of the Commonwealth with books written about those countries by an already popular author, but I don’t really follow that. Although these are stories, they’re primarily meant to be educational, and surely they were intended to teach British children about other countries. Kids living in those countries presumably had plenty of educational books about them, written by people who actually lived there or had at least been there! If it was about selling more books worldwide, surely school stories, holiday stories or adventure stories set in the countries concerned would have sold better – maybe involving some of the many CS connections there.

It’s also pointed out that the local authorities seem to have been involved, certainly for the Queensland story which contains a huge amount of information which would probably have been difficult for EBD to access in the UK. Is it possible that they’d approached Chambers about the possibility of their producing books educating British children about their region/country?

They presumably can’t have been thinking of attracting tourists.  How about attracting immigrants?  Whilst this was the age of the Ten Pound Poms, it’s hardly likely that EBD’s audience of (mainly) girls aged between 8 and 14 would have been inspired to plan a career in cutting sugar cane, seen as a male-only job.  The one about New Zealand, however, does very much seem like it’s encouraging people – as long as they’re hard enough!! – to think of moving there.  Or maybe they just wanted people to know more about their region/country?   I think we’re now obsessed with the idea that anything taught to children has to be taught for a reason.  It doesn’t!

Perhaps the people at Chambers thought that there was a lot of interest in different parts of the Commonwealth at this time, and books on the subject by an established author would sell well? Maybe they thought schools would buy them? Hey, maybe EBD just fancied trying her hand at something a bit different!  Whatever the reason, I’m very glad that she did write these, and I’m glad that, thirty-six years after I read my first Chalet School book, I’ve finally had the chance to read these too.