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!