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 Chalet School and Cornelia by Katherine Bruce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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