The Chalet School in Guernsey by Katherine Bruce

Standard

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.

 

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

Standard

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!