The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s by Talbot Baines Reed (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hadn’t particularly expected to.  I thought that, being a Victorian (it was published in 1881) boys’ school story, it’d be full of preaching and violent bullying, but there was no preaching, and the bullying was no worse than it is in most later school stories.  It was really good fun!

There are three main characters, and three main storylines.  Oliver Greenfield, a Fifth Former, is wrongly accused of cheating in a scholarship exam, but the other boys eventually realise that they’ve got it wrong and that Oliver is actually a jolly good fellow.  Stephen Greenfield, Oliver’s little brother, is a new boy finding his way in one of the junior forms.  I love the relationship between the two brothers.  The masters barely get involved at all, even when there’s obviously something serious going on, but Oliver steps in when he sees Stephen being attacked by bullies, and Stephen rallies his crowd of juniors in Oliver’s defence when the rest of the school unjustly sends him to Coventry.  Then there’s Edward Loman, a Sixth Former, the real cheat, who lets Oliver take the blame, falls into drinking and gambling, gets into debt with a local publican, and – the end’s a bit tropey! – runs away, gets caught in a storm, and is rescued by, of course, Oliver … but sees the error of his ways, as bad boys/girls in school stories always do!

The idea of the challenge was to read a book about a pupil writing a book/play/newspaper/magazine, and, although it’s a minor storyline, one of the other Fifth Formers in this produces a newspaper called “The Dominican” – which sounds more like Punch than the usual type of school magazine, being full of sarcastic articles about other forms and other pupils!  Only one copy, so it goes in a wooden frame, and somehow survives without being torn or otherwise damaged.

Getting back to the more general storyline, there’s very little preaching.  The only time religion really comes up is in a letter from the Greenfield boys’ mother.  The morality’s all about the schoolboy code of behaviour, and school traditions are also a very big thing.  The boys in Oliver’s form all belong to one of two fraternities, the Guinea-Pigs and the Tadpoles, and the big feast they have after a cricket match is an annual tradition, not a spontaneously-planned jolly jape of the sort found in Enid Blyton books.

Sport features a lot, as you would expect.  Annoyingly, “football” is used to mean rugby (I was going to say “rugby union”, but this was pre-split!).  Proper football, which public schoolboys would call “soccer”, isn’t mentioned!  Cricket is also mentioned.  Unusually for a school story, we don’t get one of the heroes scoring the winning try or run – the big rugby match against a county side is lost, and the big cricket match is drawn.  There’s also plenty of fighting, but most of it’s more “boys will be boys” fisticuffs than actual nastiness, apart from one unpleasant incident in which Loman beats up Stephen Greenfield – who is then hailed as a hero by his classmates.

And, of course, there’s the fagging system.  As well as being asked to make tea, polish boots and the usual stuff, the younger boys are sent out on errands into the nearby town.  It’s very different to the mid-20th century girls’ boarding school stories in which no-one’s supposed to leave the premises without permission from a teacher.  The boys even go down the pub … although that’s how Loman gets into bother.  The town’s called Maltby, but I think it’s meant to be a fictional town rather than Maltby near Rotherham.

The masters are just barely involved at all.  One of them steps in when Stephen’s obviously struggling with his work in the early days, but that’s about it.  The headmaster, seeing Stephen’s bruised and battered face after Loman’s beaten him up, realises than an older boy’s attacked a younger one, but does nothing about it.  Even when the boys all show the school up in front of a load of visitors, by hissing when Oliver gets his scholarship prize at Speech Day, nothing’s done.  Nor do the captain and the monitors intervene very much in what’s going on.  It’s not the sort of public school that’s seeking to train boys to run the Empire and sees older boys bossing younger ones about as training for that.  Loman does go to Australia for a while, but it’s as a farmer rather than as an administrator.  Oliver Greenfield becomes a barrister rather than a soldier or a bigwig in the Indian Civil Service, and his best friend Wraysford becomes a Cambridge don.

And they do actually work quite hard!   Getting good marks in exams is not seen as being uncool, and boys who do well are seen as bringing credit to their forms, rather than being sneered at for being swots or geeks.  Where it goes wrong in when part of a scholarship exam paper goes missing, and Oliver, who was seen near the headmaster’s study at the time and later wins the scholarship, is wrongly suspected of taking it.  Everyone turns on Oliver, apart from Stephen and the rest of the Guinea-Pigs, which is really horrible.  OK, it’s not physical violence, but being shunned by everyone else, and accused of something you haven’t done, is probably worse than a smack in the mouth.

Oliver, a bit like Katy Carr, doesn’t seek to prove his innocence, but just lives it down – the difference being that Katy was accused by a teacher and the other girls didn’t believe any of it, whereas poor Oliver is ostracised by his classmates and by most of the other boys as well.  His behaviour’s very noble, and that and his success in another exam persuade the others that they’ve been wrong about him, but I’m not sure how realistic it is.  Even more bizarrely, when the missing paper is later found inside one of Loman’s books, by the headmaster, in front of the entire Sixth Form, nearly everyone accepts Loman’s claims that he didn’t take it and had no idea how it got there!

Loman eventually runs away, because of the financial trouble he’s got into, gets caught in a storm, is rescued by Oliver – with a bit of help from Stephen – and becomes seriously ill.  That’s all a bit tropey, as I said, but we do later learn that he’s made a full recovery and is now leading a decent life.  Oliver has become a successful barrister, and Stephen is now the school captain.  Hurrah!

Just a couple of other things.  The forms are very confusing!  Twelve-year-old Stephen is in the Fourth Junior, i.e. the Lower Fourth, which makes sense, but there only seems to be one Fifth Form and one Sixth Form, so the 12-year-olds are only two forms below the 16-year-olds.  On a totally different note, I was quite chuffed to learn that Talbot Baines Read was a cousin of Edward Baines, of History of the Cotton Manufacture fame.  And also that there was a TV adaptation of The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s in the 1960s, with the bloke who played Tom Howard in Howards’ Way playing the headmaster.

All in all, I really enjoyed this!   And it’s available either for 99p on Kindle or free on Project Gutenberg.

Malory Towers – BBC iPlayer

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What brilliant fun this is!   It’s clearly aimed at a young audience, but, especially as we’re confined to barracks at present, I suspect that a lot of “grown-ups” will be having a cracking nostalgia-fest with it.  They really have done an excellent job with a limited and mostly very young cast.  The main characters are all in there, and we’ve got midnight feasts (although I can’t say that I ever envisioned them involving china cups and teapots), lacrosse practice and tricks being played on teachers.  Am I the only person who’s ever tried to make a lacrosse stick by attaching a piece of wood to a bin?  OK, don’t answer that. I was only about 7 at the time, to be fair.  I’m quite sure I’m not the only person who was obsessed with the idea of midnight feasts, though.

And they’re swimming in a seawater cove.  I assume that the pool in the books was actually a proper pool, just somehow fed by seawater, but this is way better.  The moral lessons, which aren’t overly preachy in Blyton books, are in there, and a bit of feminist debate’s been chucked in too, with Darrell doing a lot of talking about careers for women, and Gwen only wanting to bag a husband.   Some of the storylines from the first book are there, and the actual characters of the girls are true to the books.  There are several plots which definitely aren’t in the books – one of them’s been half-inched from “Theodora and the Chalet School”, and I’m not sure how a ghost story got in there – so purists may have a few issues with it, but it’s nice, clean fun, and I’m sure we could all do with some of that at the moment.

Alicia has somehow become American, which completely confused me because I thought at first that she must be Sadie, and then remembered that Sadie was at St Clare’s, not Malory Towers, and got even more confused!  [ETA – oops, sorry, she’s Canadian!] I’m glad that they’re pronouncing it A-LISS-ee-a, by the way, because that’s how I’ve always pronounced it, but the name now seems to have become A-leesh-a.  The colour blind casting is great, but the American accent did confuse me a bit.  Mamzelle (Rougier, but a combination of Rougier and Dupont) has been made very chic, but I suppose the idea of the stupid Frenchwoman might not work so well now.  The same with the famous slapping scene – that definitely doesn’t feature. [ ETA – a-ha, yes it does, it’s in the 4th episode, and I’d only watched the first three when I wrote this!!]  Miss Potts is also rather elegant, and no-one’s yet referred to her as “Potty”.  Matron is now the comedy figure.  Miss Grayling is suitably wise and inspirational, although sadly we didn’t get her famous speech welcoming Darrell to Malory Towers.

As far as Darrell starting at the school goes, it’s been explained that she and some of the others have changed schools.  It never did make sense how they arrived for the first year but some of the girls had already been there a while, so that sorts it!

And I’m very glad that it’s been left in the 1940s, where it’s meant to be.  The books don’t actually say anything to set it in a particular time, but this showed a soldier and a sailor on the platform at the station, and reference was made to Darrell’s mum and others being traumatised by the events of the war.  The uniforms are utterly vile, though.  Couldn’t they have dressed them in brown gymslips?

Don’t be expecting the story to be faithful to the books, because it isn’t, but I really am enjoying it.  In these strange times, something safe and familiar from childhood days is very welcome.  And there are 13 episodes, so, if you’re in a country with access to BBC iPlayer and you haven’t done so already, get watching 🙂 !

 

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!

Malory Towers

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As a little girl, I was obsessed with Malory Towers.  When I was 6 or 7, one of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like “a miniature Enid Blyton”.  I only wish I did – I could use the zillions of pounds she must have earned in royalties!  I tried to write a pantomime like Darrell Rivers did – with the parts going to my dolls and teddy bears.  I told my sister that we were going to have a midnight feast and we had to nick food from our tea.  You get the idea.  Then, as I got older, I began to find aspects of the books more and more unpleasant.  The bullying, the malice, the snobbery.  Let’s face it, as a swotty fat kid with a Northern accent, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at the place.  Alicia and Betty would have made mincemeat of me!  But I’ve still got that childhood affection for the books, for the midnight feasts and the seawater swimming pool and the tricks played on teachers, and I booked to see this stage adaptation pretty much as soon as tickets went on sale.  And it was a really nice interpretation of the books – not exactly faithful to them, and with some elements that verged on being spoof-like, but with added depth given to the problem characters to explain their unpleasant behaviour, and an overall emphasis, on friendship, pulling together, and becoming the sort of kind, strong women whom Miss Grayling talked about in her legendary welcome speeches.

It started with a group of girls in a modern school, and my heart sank … but that was only some silly intro bit that’d been added for no good reason, and it didn’t last long!  Soon, we were off to Malory Towers. No midnight feasts, and only one trick, but we did get the swimming pool – thanks to the clever use of graphics and other special effects, which formed a big part of the performance. There’s obviously only so much that you can show on stage, especially in a production that’s only aimed at relatively small theatres, but the graphics were very effective in showing things that couldn’t have been included otherwise.

Only seven characters featured – Darrell, Sally, Gwendoline Mary, Alicia, Bill, Mary-Lou and Irene. If I’d had to pick seven of the girls to include, I’d probably have gone for exactly the same seven (ignoring the fact that Bill didn’t actually appear until the third year, and this was meant to be the first term of the first year), but I did wonder how it was going to work without Miss Grayling, Miss Potts, Mam’zelle et al. However, in the end I didn’t really miss them that much – and Miss Grayling did feature when needed, as a silhouette and a disembodied voice!  Headmistresses in school stories are always terribly wise and inspirational – I was fully expecting some sort of inspirational speech on my own first day at secondary school, and was rather put out when all we heard about were timetables and lockers and dinner queues – and we needed her words to remind us what Malory Towers was supposed to be about, but the emphasis was on the girls and the bonding between them.

It was a musical, but the music wasn’t really that memorable: it was all about the storyline.  As far as that storyline went, several storylines, from different books, had been combined, so it wasn’t for the purists. There was also a clifftop rescue scene which had more echoes of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, and a Shakespearean play storyline which had more echoes of Kingscote than of Darrell & co’s pantomime. Even aspects of the characters had been merged: Bill was an “Honourable”, whereas in the books that was Clarissa. However, the general themes were there, and much of the story hinged on the iconic scene in which Gwendoline holds Mary-Lou under the water in the swimming pool and furious Darrell slaps her. That scene’s been taken out of some modern reprints, which rather annoys me.  It’s meant to be violent. The whole point of it is that slapping people isn’t acceptable. And it’s much more dramatic than the storyline in which Darrell’s framed for breaking a pen, which is what causes most of the first term’s trouble in the book.

As far as the portrayal of the characters went … well, for a kick-off, most of them didn’t have posh voices, so maybe yours truly would actually have been OK in this version of Malory Towers!  Well, if the other girls could have got past the fat and swotty stuff!   And the only two who were really true to how they were in the books were hot-tempered but good-hearted Darrell and timid Mary-Lou.  They were all a bit caricatured – but it has to be said that Enid Blyton’s characters can be rather one-dimensional, certainly when compared to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s or Antonia Forest’s. But this adaptation did give more depth to the two problem girls – Alicia and Gwendoline Mary. Alicia, rather than being malicious and, it has to be said, rather a bitch, was shown as playing the part of class comedian to try to cover up her academic failings. That was venturing a long way from the books, in which Alicia was very clever, but it fitted with the purpose of the show, which had everyone coming together at the end to support each other.

As for Gwendoline, in the books she was only redeemed towards the end of her final year, when her dad became ill. In this version, we were told that the reason she was so badly-behaved wasn’t that she was spoilt, as it was in the books, but that she had a troubled home life because her dad was suffering from shell-shock after the war.  And her dad actually died – it was strongly suggested that he’d taken his own life – and the other girls rallied round her, and so she became part of the crowd.   Again, it was a long way from the books, but it worked for the purposes of this show. It was also interesting to see the effects of the war on this generation of young people brought into the story. It was never mentioned in the books.  It really did all get quite dark, partly with the suicide storyline and partly with Gwendoline half-smothering Mary-Lou with a pillow, driving her into running away.  The books certainly weren’t all jolly hockey sticks, with some pretty nasty stuff going on, but this took things to a different level.

Sally’s story was changed as well – she was far more serious and bossy that she was in the books, and her issues were put down to, rather than jealousy of her new baby sister as they were in the books, being neglected by parents who weren’t really interested in her. Again, it all formed part of this idea of the girls needing each other, and realising that in the end. Irene didn’t really feature much, and had lost her scatterbrained nature and her interest in maths: she was the one character whom I felt could really have done with a bit more of a story and a bit more action.

And so to Bill, who’s had all the press coverage because the part’s being played by a non-binary actor. Some of this has been bigotry from the religious right and is therefore best ignored, but there’s also been some valid concern, from people who are not in the least bit transphobic, that the casting decision gives the impression that a cisgender female has to be into frilly pink girly stuff and that a tomboy can’t identify as being female.  The issues of gender identity and sexuality weren’t actually referred to, but there was certainly something going on.  Bill was referred to as a “knight in shining armour” for her part in the clifftop rescue, strode about in jodhpurs and riding boots, like a Jilly Cooper character, whilst all the others were in school uniform, and shared a “moment” with Sally when their parts in the Shakespearean play required them to kiss.

I personally have never seen Bill as being non-binary or transgender: whereas George (Georgina) of the Famous Five dislikes being seen as a girl and is pleased when people see her as a boy, there’s never any suggestion that Bill identifies as anything other than female. But, like many Girls’ Own fans, I see Bill as being gay, and imagine her ending up in a relationship with Clarissa Carter. There’s a lot of fanfic “shipping” the two of them – and quite a bit of it is by authors who are themselves gay and say that they identify with the characters and find it helpful that characters like them do exist in older books for children. I think we’re also meant to see Miss Potts as being a lesbian – she’s a rather clumsy stereotype, unlike Miss Wilmot and Miss Ferrars in the Chalet School books, but the point is that there are strong LGBT undertones in some Enid Blyton books, although it’s George rather than Bill who doesn’t want to be seen as a girl, and so there’s no “agenda” involved in portraying that in stage or film or TV adaptations. Children’s books of that period did not include openly gay characters – the first children’s book I read which did include an openly gay character was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and that wasn’t written until the 1980s – but there were definitely those aspects to Malory Towers and other Girls’ Own stories.  Anyone claiming that it’s been made up for political correctness or to push an “agenda” or anything else really needs to have a good read of the books!

Nevertheless, as I said, this wasn’t for the purists, because storylines and characters had been changed; but the general themes, the positive themes, of Malory Towers and of Girls’ Own books in general were all there.  Pull together, work with your friends, try to deal with any aspects of your own character – a bad temper, jealousy, bullying tendencies – which are problematic – and try to “learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on”!   It’s great to see Malory Towers back in the news, and it was great to see a lot of teenage girls there last night, and some younger children as well.  I’d thought it was all going to be people aged 35 and over, but it looks as if the Girls’ Own baton is being carried on into another generation.  Hooray!!  Or, as Enid Blyton would have said, hurrah!

New Class at Malory Towers by various authors

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This is a book of four short stories (not four full-length books), about four different new girls in the same form as Darrell, Sally & co, and with an eye to increasing diversity in GO books.  They’re not classics, but they’re not bad – although the quality does vary from one to another.  I’ll just say a bit about what I thought of each one, in case anyone’s interested!

The Secret Princess by Narinder Dharma – this was the third one in the book, but I’m putting it first because I thought it was the best.  Whilst I think it’s a little unfair that people criticise Blyton and other GO authors over the lack of non-white characters in their books, given that they were living and writing in a predominantly white society, I take the point that the lack of diversity in the books can make some readers feel excluded  I also take the point that, whilst the UK at that time wasn’t the multicultural society that it was today, girls would have come from other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth to attend British boarding schools.

The protagonist in this story is Sunita, an Indian girl who’s attending Malory Towers whilst her dad, a leading scientist, is working in the UK.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, Gwendoline Mary mistakenly gets the idea that Sunita’s the daughter of a maharajah, and Sunita and the other girls play along with it.  It’s brilliantly done, because, whilst it makes the point that the character is Indian, it doesn’t in any way make her seem “other”: she’s just one of the gang with Darrell and the others, taking part in a practical joke.  I do feel a bit sorry for Gwen, who must be the most maligned character in GO literature, but she does ask for this one with her snobbery, which rings very true to how Enid Blyton wrote her.  Very good story.

Bookworms by Lucy Mangan – this is just a light tale in which Darrell becomes friendly with the girl in charge of the library, and starts reading some well-known books – Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis are both name-checked!  Alicia gets jealous, and various pranks are played.  It’s hardly a classic GO tale, but it does play cleverly on the fact that GO characters are usually in with the in crowd, captains of the lacrosse teams, etc, whereas those of us who grow up reading GO books are more likely to be like Eustacia Benson in the Chalet School books – sat in a quiet corner with our noses in a book!   It flows very nicely, and it’s an entertaining little story.

A Bob and a Weave by Patrice Lawrence – hmm.  I think the author of this maybe tried too hard not to fall into the trap of making an ethnic minority’s ethnicity the be all and end all of the character, if that makes sense!   I’d read an interview in which the author talked about how she’d spoken to a number of black women, mainly originally from Nigeria, who’d attended British boarding schools, and that was what I was expecting to be reflected in the story.  However, the fact that the character, Marietta was mixed race, was only mentioned once, in a vague reference to her having dark skin like her mum – and even that could have been taken to mean that she was Asian, or white with olive skin, rather than that she was black.  There were references to her hair, and I think we were meant to read that as her having a traditional African hairstyle; but it really wasn’t clear, and I’m not sure I’d have picked up on it at all had I not read the interview.  I don’t want to read stories in which a character’s ethnicity is the only thing about them, and I certainly don’t want clichés or stereotypes, but, given everything that’s been said about making GO books more inclusive,  if you’re going to write about a black or mixed race character then you do need to make clear the fact that she’s black or mixed race.  Take Margot in the Trebizon books – her being black is not an issue in any way, but the reader is aware of her West Indian heritage.  This just seemed to miss the mark, somehow – although probably with the very best of intentions.

Marietta’s story was that her family worked in a circus, and that she didn’t want the other girls to find out about it.  It felt like a bit of a copy of the Carlotta and Eileen stories in the St Clare’s books, but I suppose it was very Blyton.  I just didn’t feel that it worked that well.  But that’s just my humble opinion, and other people may think it’s great!

The Show Must Go On by Rebecca Westcott – in this one, the new girl, Maggie, is Gwendoline’s cousin … but she’s a poor relation, having her fees paid by Gwen’s parents.  And she makes her mark early on by pointing out that it’s not actually normal “to have all your meals cooked for you and your clothes washed for you while [sic] you swan about the place, riding your ponies and sketching in art books”.  That’s definitely not something Enid Blyton would have written 🙂 – although it’s probably something I’d have longed to say had I ever gone to Malory Towers, not that I’d have had the nerve!   What is very Blyton is that the girls are supposed to be putting on a show, none of them can think of anything much to do, and, whaddaya know, it turns out that Maggie is a brilliant dancer.  There’s also a rather Brent-Dyer-esque plot involving an accident and a rescue.   And, hooray, for once, an author actually lets Gwen reform and become part of the crowd.   I think this is the one which would have worked best as a full-length book – it was a good story, but it felt a bit rushed.

So there we are!   And Malory Towers is very much in the news at the moment – I’ll be seeing the musical in September, and will probably be writing about that, if anyone’s interested!

 

 

 

New Term at Malory Towers by Pamela Cox

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I approached this book with a fair bit of suspicion, as I would a cover version of an iconic song (I’ve never quite forgiven Atomic Kitten for murdering “Eternal Flame”) or a remake of an iconic film. It just couldn’t be the same as the “real” Malory Towers books which I and some of the other girls in my class at primary school first read way back when, could it? Well, no, it wasn’t. There wasn’t even a midnight feast. The pool barely featured; and Susan wasn’t accused of being “frightfully pi” even once. But I think I quite like this gentler version of Malory Towers. As a kid, I used to think, as you do, that I’d have been well in there with the MT in-crowd. Now, I don’t even want to think about what Alicia and Betty would have done to a swotty fat girl with zero self-confidence and a Northern accent: I’d probably have run away after a week! But I think I might have stayed in this form, with Felicity Rivers and her friends.

Obviously I knew Felicity, Susan and June from the original books.  All the teachers were there too, but, apart from the two Mam’zelles, they didn’t feature much, though. We didn’t see Miss Grayling welcoming any of the new girls to the school. I was slightly put out when I arrived for my first day at secondary school – along with around 110 other first years – and found that we weren’t each going to get an individual pep talk from the headmistress about how the school would turn us all into strong, capable women 🙂 . And, although Darrell and Sally made a brief appearance in the first chapter, and Bill and Clarissa’s riding school was mentioned (sadly without any clarification as to whether Bill and Clarissa were together or whether they were just good friends), none of the old gang were there, apart from Amanda who featured as the Games Prefect.

I always felt sorry for Amanda. GO authors do like to punish characters who break their rules, but it always felt very harsh that Amanda should lose her chance of being an Olympic swimmer and Mavis her chance of a singing career just because they showed off a bit. I’ve also got a weird recollection of, at the age of about eight, telling my grandad about Amanda. Why I thought a 68-year-old man would be interested in Malory Towers, I have no idea – poor Grandad!!

Anyway. The old characters didn’t feature much, but the new girls, and the girls we already knew, were quite well-drawn.  You don’t expect a Malory Towers book to go too deeply into people’s personalities, and this didn’t, but they all seemed quite realistic.

There wasn’t much actual action. Apart from Felicity worrying about whether or not she was doing a good job as head of the form, it was all about who wanted to be friends with whom. Even the tricks, which were, as ever, played on Mam’zelle Dupont, were about trying to impress other people rather than just for fun. Veronica wanted to be friends with Amy, Freddie wanted to be friends with June, Bonnie (were any teenagers in the 1950s actually called Bonnie?!) wanted to be friends with Felicity.  Felicity and Susan tried to get Bonnie to be friends with Amy to get her away with Veronica and to get her off their own backs, people kept overhearing things and getting upset, people were jealous of other people’s friendships … it actually wasn’t a bad reflection of what a group of 13-year-old girls can be like!!  But it was made clear that no-one was all bad or all good. And, in a way more reminiscent of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, people did genuinely try to be nice to all the other girls, even those who’d behaved badly. No-one was sent to Coventry. No-one was the victim of a group bullying campaign.

I don’t think that writing a book like this about the original characters would have worked.  Darrell persuanding everyone to give Gwendoline Mary a chance, or Alicia realising that she’d been behaving like a bitch, just wouldn’t have rung true.  But, because it was a different group of girls, it worked OK.  I’m not sure that it really felt like Malory Towers, though.  Maybe it needed a midnight feast by the seawater swimming pool …  😉

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!

Marjorie Dean, High School Freshman by Pauline Lester (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Published in 1917, this is a fairly standard early school story in which there’s a big falling out amongst the members of one form, someone tries to frame someone else for a crime they didn’t commit, and the truth all comes out in the end. However, it’s an American story, and different in several ways from the British school stories I usually read.  Apart from the differences in the actual school system, the girls often refer to each other as “Miss Surname”, and they seem to spend a lot of time going to parties.  There’s a Hallowe’en dance, a Thanksgiving party, a New Year’s Eve party, a post-Easter masquerade ball and a May Day picnic.  And they dance with boys – perish the thought of such a thing happening at the Chalet School or Malory Towers!    As in Daddy Long Legs and What Katy Did At School, there’s a huge amount of snobbery and social division, just as much as there is in many British school stories; and that’s actually the main theme of the book.

I know I sound as if I’m putting a British interpretation on it all – sorry, but I’m used to British school stories 🙂 . This one starts when our heroine, the eponymous Marjorie Dean, has to move from the city of “B” (Boston, maybe?) to the small town of Sanford (Maine?  New York?  Presumably not the one in Florida?) because of her dad’s job.  I think this is the first time I’ve come across an American book which just refers to a town or city by an initial, and it’s rare in any book written in the 20th century.   Charlotte Bronte famously refers to Sheffield as “S”, but I was surprised to find Pauline Lester doing something similar.  Oh well, whatever!

I expected “High School Freshman” to mean someone of around 14, but Marjorie and her classmates are 16, and studying for public exams. They only take a small number of subjects, and gym is not compulsory – hooray!  The book starts with Marjorie saying her sad farewells to her old friends, which is nice – new characters in school stories usually arrive with apparently no existing friendships at all.  Having said which, that’s life, isn’t it?  Or, at least, it was before social media.  I often think about all the people I knew at school, either primary or secondary, and wonder what’s happened to them all.  Anyway.  They present her with a butterfly pin, and we’re told that this is going to cause issues in the future.  There are a lot of comments along the lines of little did she/they know what problems something or other was going to cause in the future!  And a lot of adjectives and adverbs – it reminded me of my primary school headmistress’s obsession with “description”, and how we’d all use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible to try to keep her happy.

All the “Miss”-ing is rather confusing, because it’s sometimes hard to remember which characters were pupils and which were teachers. It happens to some extent in What Katy Did At School, but not to the extent that it does here.  Adding to the confusion is the fact that the school secretary, Marcia, is a similar age to Marjorie, and on the side of the snobby girls in her form.

Anyway! The main storyline of the book is the division amongst the girls in Marjorie’s form.  Marjorie takes a shine to a girl called Constance, but Constance is snubbed by the snob element because her family are poor.  The snobby girls, led by one Mignon, who’s supported by one Muriel (having so many “M” names gets confusing, as well) initially welcome Marjorie, and invite her to join their basketball team, but Marjorie’s friendship with Constance leads to a split in the form, and to Marjorie being pushed out of the team.

I’m not sure how any of them pass their exams, given that they seem to spend all their time going to parties, feuding and playing basketball; but, as characters in books do, they seem to manage quite well without doing much work!   The feuding deepens when Mignon accuses Constance of stealing a bracelet that she’s lost at, you guessed it, a party, and even more so when she fouls another girl during a basketball match, but her opponent is the one blamed for foul play instead.  As they do not have the benefit of VAR, this drags on for a while, before – at yet another party! – one of the older girls comes forward to say that she saw what happened.  The innocent girl is exonerated.  In a lot of books, this would have led to Mignon either being expelled or turning over a new leaf, but, probably more realistically, in this case it just makes her even nastier.

At yet another party, Constance impresses people with her wonderful singing, and it looks as if the tide of school popularity might be turning in her favour.  However, disaster then strikes!   Marjorie loses her butterfly pin, and Constance is seen wearing it.  Some of the girls assume that Marjorie’s given it to her, but Marjorie jumps to the conclusion that Constance has stolen it, and Mignon says that this must prove that Constance stole her bracelet as well.  Surely our heroine cannot have been so wrong about her new best pal?  Surely Constance cannot be a thief?  What can the explanation possibly be?

It transpires that it isn’t actually Marjorie’s pin at all. It’s just one that looks very like it, and has been given to Constance as a present by a hitherto unmentioned rich auntie who has suddenly got back in touch.  Let’s say that this wasn’t the most convincing of storylines!   Mignon found Marjorie’s lost pin and hid it, along with her own bracelet, in the hope of framing Constance – OK, that I could believe, but the rest of it was pushing it!

At the May Day picnic, the last of the many parties/outings, Marcia falls out of a canoe (it sounds like a very eventful picnic!) and is heroically rescued by Marjorie. Marcia and Muriel both acknowledge that they were wrong about both Marjorie and Constance, and everyone (except Mignon) vows to be bosom buddies for ever.  It’s quite strange that the main baddie isn’t actually redeemed, but probably realistic.  In my experience, school bullies do not suddenly turn over a new leaf and become best mates with their erstwhile victims, whatever might happen in some books.

Sorry if I’m sounding sarcastic – I do really love school stories, and it annoys me when people who don’t like them poke fun at them. But I love them, so I’m allowed to point out their foibles 🙂 . The storyline with the two near-identical pins was a bit silly, but the general themes of feuds within a form and, something both Elsie J Oxenham and Angela Brazil are also keen on, the effects of snobbery within a form and the need to try to overcome that, are good ones.  I’ve got an enormous pile of books to read, so I won’t be rushing to read the others in this series; but, should I ever get time (hah!), I certainly wouldn’t mind giving them a go.