This is an excellent wartime-era Chalet School “fill-in”. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I *am* sometimes to be found grumbling in discussion groups about the characters not really “doing their bit”. So I’m delighted to see Amy Fletcher addressing that issue in this book, set in the spring term of 1945, in which we see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the local community and some of the adult female characters without jobs doing important voluntary work with the Red Cross.
It’s very much a Chalet School book, though, with weather-related mishaps, plans for a Sale, prefects’ meetings, and ridiculously unlikely coincidences. Oh, and there’s a parrot, which is a bit more Blyton or Ransome than Brent-Dyer, but it’s a very cool parrot. However, it’s specifically a wartime Chalet School book, and it’s obvious that a vast amount of research has gone into it.
The “Guernsey girl” – no, not “Jersey girl”! – is Jacqueline Le Pelley, who’s mentioned briefly in two of the “canon” books. At one time, no-one seemed to talk much about the occupation of the Channel Islands. It was years before I realised that a lot of children evacuated from the islands had spent the war years in our local area, especially Oldham and Stockport. However, in recent times, it’s become the subject of a lot of attention; and, without wanting to post any major spoilers, we learn a lot about the experiences of Jacqueline’s family.
This includes her mother’s work with the Red Cross. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I do get rather irritated by aspects of the wartime ones. In Exile and Goes to It, admittedly, people seem to be trying to do their bit for the war effort, bot not after that: why do we not see Madge getting involved with the WI or the Red Cross, or the Chalet School Guides doing any sort of war work? And, when people are doing their bit, it doesn’t always make sense. Why on earth have Shiena MacDonald, primary carer for her two young sisters, and Sylvia Leigh, primary carer for her niece, been directed into the Forces, rather than doing one of the many other forms of war work? Robin even suggests that Joey, who at the point in question has three children under the age of four, could be conscripted!
It’s at least acknowledged that Sylvia Leigh wasn’t called up until Lavender was fourteen, but Bride Bettany remarks that she was able to “get off” war service until then, and the unknown Jean McKenzie suggests that Joey take in Flora and Fiona to avoid having working-class evacuees from inner city areas billeted on her. And, at one point, someone – Nell Wilson? – even moans about how inconvenient it is that young women are doing war work rather than applying for jobs as Chalet School maids! Yes, I’m sure that there were people who thought like that, but it hardly fits with the ethos of the Chalet School. Or, indeed, the general ethos: many women who were exempt as they had children under fourteen volunteered to do their bit anyway. It was during the Second World War that “school dinners” became a thing, because so many mothers of school age children were out at work during the day. I wouldn’t particularly expect the mothers of the Chalet School girls to be signing up to work in munitions factories, but I *would* expect them to be doing the sort of voluntary work which Amy shows here. I like to think that Madge was busy doing all sorts as part of the WI, but, if she was, Elinor M Brent-Dyer never tells us about it!
Elinor’s insistence that every single Austrian and German character is anti-Nazi just isn’t realistic. Nor is the apparent absence of food shortages. And don’t get me started on how the main reaction to Bob Maynard being killed in action is a lot of moaning about the inconvenience of Jack inheriting Pretty Maids!
Rant over! I love the Chalet School books to bits, and I admire Elinor M Brent-Dyer greatly for her brave writing in Exile, highlighting the way in which the Nazis were persecuting Jews such as the Goldmanns and political opponents such as Herr Marani, but aspects of the war books really do get on my nerves! What we see here is much more how I like to think of the characters of the Chalet School world behaving
We see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the community, and hear quite a lot about the challenges posed by rationing. There’s also a chapter devoted to the death of Hilary Burn’s fiance. TBH, I think that EBD just forgot that she’d mentioned that Hilary was engaged: some years after the war, Hilary becomes engaged to and eventually marries Phil Graves, and what happened to the first fiance seemed to be a mystery until a reader actually asked about it! But his loss is covered here. We don’t actually see Hilary hearing the news, but we hear some of her thoughts later on. The stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on response, which sees Hilary returning to work within a few weeks, fits with the times – and also with Hilary’s character, as it’s pointed out that people deal with grief in different ways.
I was sorry not to see more of Grizel in this book, but that’s just my personal feeling. I was also sorry not see more of Madge. We see quite a bit of Jo, but much of that’s in the context of Charles Maynard being ill: we don’t see Jo barging into the school uninvited, or being consulted about difficult pupils with whom the staff and prefects are apparently unable to deal without her, which can get rather irritating! Daisy; who’s one of my favourite characters, is Head Girl in this book and a friend of Jacqueline’s, so she plays a big role.
More typical Chalet School plotlines include a group of girls getting lost in the mist and, you guessed it, finding a hut to shelter in, and work being done for the Sale. So it is very much a Chalet School book, but it’s a wartime Chalet School book. The war permeates everything. And that’s how it would have been. There can’t have been any pupil who didn’t have friends and relatives on active service, living with the constant fear of hearing bad news, and this book does reflect that, as well as the general effects of was on everyday life.
There’s one other storyline which is specific to the wartime era, and that’s the introduction of Anna Steiner, a young Jewish Austrian girl who’s come to Britain on the Kindertransport. She isn’t a pupil at the Chalet School. Hmm, now that’d would have been an interesting storyline. My old school, along with some others locally, made a number of places available on scholarships to Jewish girls who’d come to Britain as refugees … but I suppose that what worked for a day school in Manchester would probably not have worked quite so well for a boarding school in rural Herefordshire with a strong Christian ethos. Anyway, Anna is staying with a family in the area, and we see some of the Chalet School girls going round to meet her and to talk to her in her native German. However, there’s an utterly ridiculous coincidence as it turns out that Anna is from Tyrol and that her elder sister was best friends with the sister of one of the Chalet School characters. But, hey, those sorts of coincidences happen an awful lot in the Chalet School books, so I suppose it’s authentic from that viewpoint!
Unlikely coincidence aside, the inclusion of the character of Anna Steiner is a lovely idea, and fits in very well with The Chalet School in Exile. Some of the wartime Chalet School books just don’t: it’s hard to think how you go from the girls rushing to help a defenceless elderly man being attacked by a Nazi mob to talking about “getting off” doing war service. But everything about this one does. And yet, although it’s so different to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s wartime books, it always feels like a Chalet School book. Bravo, Amy! A very, very good book.