Review: Juniors of the Chalet School, by Katherine Bruce

70_juniors_of_the_chalet_school__42692-1480431225-1280-1280Rosalie held up a hand in protest. “I won’t hear it! This term will be such a peaceful one that it will be spoken of forever in the annals of the Chalet School’s long and glorious history! Future prefects will envy us for our weeks of inaction and the ability to get our work done in prep without disruption. We will have no illnesses or accidents or – or anything!”

Chalet School fill-ins are a mildly controversial topic, but I’ve always enjoyed fanfiction and I generally like seeing how other people view the characters and interpret situations both explicit and implicit. Juniors of the Chalet School by Katherine Bruce is one of the less usual ones, since it takes place during a published term, covered in The Princess of the Chalet School. As the author points out in her foreword, the juniors hardly appear in Princess, and I enjoyed the fact that she took the opportunity to tell the story from the point of view of the younger girls. It mostly revolves around the juniors’ conflicts with Matron and Grizel – they seem to have been a combative bunch that term! – with, of course, the traditional folk tales and natural (not to mention unnatural) disasters.

I must confess that I especially revelled in the fact that Matron Webb really was thoroughly evil. She bullies the girls. She tries to bully the staff. I forget whether or not the school had a cat at this point, but if it did she would certainly have kicked it. This, of course, makes the juniors’ treatment of her (we only see the older girls’ activites as they affect the little ones) entirely understandable and perfectly justified – and means that the reader can sit and enjoy Matron’s come-uppance with no regrets.

I’ve said this before, but for me one of the most important things in any novel is characterisation, and happily Katherine Bruce’s efforts in this direction are more than acceptable. The characters are all quite consistent with Elinor Brent-Dyer’s creations, and Robin (sorry, the Robin) is both consistent and quite bearable, which is an impressive achievement when you come to think about it!

Grizel, too, is more than bearable in Juniors of the Chalet School, which I’m glad about because she’s one of my favourite characters in the series. She’s complex and interesting and tries desperately hard and fails and tries again and is just very human and refreshing. Actually, in Juniors I felt rather sorry for her. At the start of term, Madge asks her to live with and supervise the juniors, giving her perhaps five minutes of guidance and then never bothering to check up on her for the rest of the time. Even the rest of the staff who live at Le Petit Chalet don’t seem interested in seeing how things are going or whether Grizel or the juniors are doing all right with the arrangement, until Grizel is driven by the juniors’ rebellion to beg for help from Juliet. Of course, such situations are only too common at the Chalet School – teenaged girls are regularly expected to have the wisdom of a sixty year old!

Altogether, I think Juniors at the Chalet School is a very worthy addition to the growing collection of fill-ins published by Girls Gone By Publishers. It’s very jolly and light-hearted, trots along at a decent pace, and has some good characterisation. I skimmed the description of the masque but that, of course, is a traditional Elinor Brent-Dyer experience! Definitely recommended for anyone who likes a fill-in that fits in well with the Chalet School canon.

(Image nicked from Girls Gone By Publishers)

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Review: The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme KerrIf we don’t get some results by the end of term we might decide you’re in the wrong job. I trust you’ve already pulled out of the play – the best servants remain invisible, and you weren’t sent to Knight’s Haddon to lark about onstage. I shall be telephoning your headmistress this week to keep myself informed.”

The Glass Bird Girl by Esme Kerr is a rather lovely book. It’s a contemporary school story with more than a hint of mystery, but it reads a bit like a story of an earlier period. This is partly the fault (or, some might say, the advantage) of the setting. The girls at Knight’s Haddon school are not permitted mobile phones, computers, tablets or any other device, and they wear a distinctly old-fashioned uniform. In addition, Edie has not been sent to the school for normal reasons, but to find out (as she puts it in her own mind) whether someone is stealing another girl’s pencils. One Prince Stolonov is afraid that his daughter Anastasia is being “horribly teased” and insists on importing a girl into the school to investigate the possibility. This, of course, leads Edie to discover the much deeper and darker mystery that is going on in the school.

Edie herself is a delightful character and it is undoubtedly she who makes this book. She’s not much good at standing up to people, never, one suspects, having had much chance to do so. Like Harry Potter, she is sent to school after having led a miserable life in her aunt’s house (the book opens with her cousins cooking and forcing her to eat her own pet fish). But shy and awkward as she may be, she has a strong streak of determination and courage which allows her to end the book with a triumphant flourish.

The other girls in the school are mostly a bit bland. Sally is pleasant, Phoebe unpleasant, and the rest somewhere in between. The only one who stands out is Anastasia, who is peculiar by any standards, though quite appealing. Interestingly for a book aimed at 9-12s, it’s the adults in the story who come across most clearly. First there is the ineffectual Aunt Sophia, then the slightly creepy Cousin Charles, who is both benefactor and boss, with the power to instantly withdraw the new, fragile security that school gives to Edie. There’s Miss Winifred, sweet but not altogether supportive, and Miss Mannering, who is rumoured to be going through the menopause. Finally and most importantly comes Miss Fotheringay, who fits the role of goddess very well. She is a little remote, has striking looks and seems to understand Edie in a way that no one else can. But even she is hiding her own secrets.

The plot is interesting and nicely managed, although it does rather jump from almost no action to very little else with only minimal build-up. But that’s quite typical of books aimed at this age group and is only to be expected from what is actually a shortish story. Most of the conflict for the reader comes not from the mystery surrounding what is happening to Anastasia’s belongings, but from the danger that Edie will be removed from Knight’s Haddon and not be able to solve the said mystery. Having said that, when the plot gets going it does so with a vengeance and no one could complain that the book is dull!

I’d thoroughly recommend The Glass Bird Girl for those who want a light, unchallenging read and who have enjoyed books such as the Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton or the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. I read it on the recommendation of Robin Stevens (author of Murder Most Unladylike) and have not been disappointed.

Review: Sara Gay – Model Girl

Sara Gay - Model GirlSara Gay – Model Girl was published, along with its three sequels, in 1961. In many ways it’s very different from most Girls’ Own fiction, though it also has its similarities. Of course, it was published towards the end of the Girls’ Own era and clearly takes into account the rapid changes in society at that time. In addition, the writer was a prolific romance writer (Janey Scott is a pseudonym for Roberta Leigh) who continues to produce books even today, and this has obviously influenced the writing of the Sara Gay stories. But the descriptions and dustjacket illustrations make it clear that Sara’s adventures are still aimed at a teenage audience and the purchaser can be sure that certain values will be a part of the story, just as they had been for decades previously.

The story of Sara Gay – Model Girl concerns the unfortunately named Sara Gay (surely no relation to Tom Gay of the Chalet School!), who has just won a beauty contest she entered as a joke and who is finally allowing herself to believe that she really could become a model, the career she has dreamed of for many years. There are, of course, many trials and tribulations along the way, but Sara remains cheerful throughout and the ending is almost pure Girls’ Own.

Sara Gay – Model Girl is, objectively speaking, fairly shallow and predictable, yet for me it holds an enormous charm. Of course, there’s the natural appeal of a young girl floating around in beautiful gowns, learning to make herself pretty and defeating her enemies in the process, but that isn’t the only reason I love the book.

Firstly, I actually enjoy the fact that appearance is all-important, that a love of clothes and an interest in make-up are unashamedly celebrated rather than condemned as shallow and vulgar:

“She wants me to wear pretty clothes and go to lots of parties with loads of men.”
“But that’s what everyone wants.”
“Well, I don’t. I hate parties and clothes bore me. I expect that sounds crazy to you, but I can’t help it. My idea of a wonderful time is to live on a farm and ride and fish and help look after the animals. What I’d really like to do is be a vet.”
Sara stared at Marion in astonishment. How could any girl not love beautiful clothes?

I must confess to being more on Marion’s side of the argument than Sara’s, but even so it’s pleasant to see such a different idea embraced. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the fact that bras and bikinis are not only freely mentioned but even worn (or not worn) by the glamorous but honourable heroine, thus placing them very firmly in the Approved camp. Even a question regarding a teacher’s boyfriend is quite clearly a slightly euphemistic way of calling him her lover.

Yet, despite all this, traditional values are still espoused and highly important. Nasty girl Nina gets her comeuppance, losing even the friendship of debutante Diana, who in fact turns out to be a thoroughly nice person. The secondary heroine, Marion, has a nice character arc during which we find out the reasons for her unpleasantness and see her coming to an understanding with her mother and a place of far greater peace.

Family values are a central motif of the story, with Sara’s lower-middle-class but wholesome family contrasted against the opulence and unpleasant, stifled atmosphere of Marion’s upbringing. Sara thoroughly disapproves of Marion’s dishonesty, although her moral dilemma surrounds Marion’s boyfriend rather than, for example, cheating in an exam or deceiving a mistress. Still, she says quite clearly and firmly – as would any Girls’ Own heroine – that it is not she, but Marion, who should be ashamed of her family.

Sara Gay – Model Girl isn’t the subtlest or most thought provoking of reads, but it is fun, light and wholesome, containing most of the traditional Girls’ Own values and many of its tropes while bringing a fresh and (for the time) modern feel to the story – there’s even the lightest hint of romance to come at the end, which although not unknown is rare enough to be fun. Sara herself is a charming character, never grumpy but somehow still real. I recommend it for a very enjoyable read.

 

For further reading on the Sara Gay books, there is a very interesting essay here which can be downloaded in pdf format. It focusses on the portrayal of a young girl growing up in the world of fashion.

The Sexiest Mistresses at the Chalet School

Today we have a post from a highly esteemed guest – those of you who like to read Girls’ Own fanfiction will surely be familiar with Finn’s Brothers in Arms and Tea and Militancy. She has also just started her own wonderful blog, Outskirts of the Twenties. Finn joins us today to guide us through the tricky process of selecting a mistress from those available at the Chalet School.

 

When Abi asked me to compile a list of the sexiest Chalet School mistresses, I thought, that should be easy. After all, Nell Wilson is one of the most attractive women in fiction, isn’t she? But then I got to thinking about it and realised that, while my own idea of sexy is someone with a wicked tongue (steady on at the back!) and a steely determination, that might not appeal to everyone. Therefore, dear reader, I have changed my brief (oh, do be quiet)! Instead of a top ten list, I have devised a pick-your-own set of sexy attributes, and have classified our mistresses accordingly. Without further ado, here are my suggestions!

Beauty

Beauty is a conventional, though highly subjective form of sexiness; it is also not a great deal of use in refining our search for sexy CS mistresses, since so very many of them are amazingly attractive, with elusive beauty and clear complexions, not to mention their terribly trig outfits.

But there are a few that stand out in their appearance. Con Stewart is a fiery-Beautytressed siren, and tall with it; Biddy O’Ryan with her tumbling black locks and petite Irish beauty, is another stunner; Grizel Cochrane, small, curly-haired and fair, is described as very good-looking, though I suspect some of her beauty is lost from her face, given how miserable she seems to be much of the time.

See also:

Kathie Ferrars – petite, fresh, young (see also Unavailability, below)

Hilda Annersley – check out those eyes! (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Gillian Linton – quietly pretty, prettily quiet (see also Wholesome Health, below)

Madge Bettany/Russell – elusive, elfin, climbs trees, what’s not to like? (see also CookeryThe Dominatrix Effect, below)

Everyone else, really, apart from Nell Wilson. And even she’s pretty damned hot (speaking entirely subjectively, of course).

Sarcasm

It may be the lowest form of wit, but sarcasm is a sign of a sense of humour, and a GSOH is one of the sexiest traits around (look in any Personals column and Sarcasmyou’ll see I’m right). Furthermore, it can be an immensely useful teaching aid (I am minded of a friend of mine who, in his first piano lesson with a very eminent teacher, played through his piece and, after he finished, had the following sympathetic remark: “Darling, I’m so sorry about your disability.” “What disability?” sez he. “Well,” sez, the Eminent Personage, “your left foot seems to be entirely useless!”). Anyway, there is very little as sexy as watching the person you fancy doing their job well, so here is my sarcastic selection.

Nell Wilson is the greatest proponent of the fine art of sarcasm in the Chalet School novels, but Grizel Cochrane comes a close second (though perhaps with rather less of  genuine sense of humour than Nell). Pam Slater is also known to be rather cutting, what with her references to back-street slums and being a tartar in lessons.

See also:

Mollie Maynard – known to be scathing about Joey’s bad mathematics (see also Wholesome Health, below)

Ivy Stephens – she may have taught juniors, but she still had a tongue on her. (Tongue! Filthy!)

Matron Lloyd – a sharp tongue and a starched uniform, nothing more need be said (see Starched Uniforms, below).

Frenchness

Because there’s nothing that says “sexy” like a real French accent, especially Frenchnessuttered with those low tones favoured by the Chalet School. And if Allo, Allo is anything to go by, you never know WHAT they might be wearing underneath those trig tweeds!

Jeanne de Lachennais is the first really sexy French CS mistress, but Julie Berné wins points for being a genuine Parisienne (we ALL know what they get up to in Paris! Phwoar!)

See also:

Simone Lecoutier – she had “gifted French fingers” – golly! (see also Cookery, below)

Thérèse Lepattre – she utters ejaculations in French. Filthy! (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Wholesome health

Wholesome healthNow, this might be an unusual selection, but there are some people that go for wholesome as a sexy characteristic in a woman. I don’t know whether it is the underlying suggestion of the domestic bliss to come, the rosy glow (not sweat, dear, never sweat!) that comes from a woman whose energies are focused entirely on healthy, strenuous exercise, or the delight that one gets from corrupting such innocent purity, but it seems to have done it for lots of the chaps in the series and, as such, deserves to be counted.

Hilary Burn merits a mention on this list, as there is nothing more robustly
healthy than a games mistress, and all that anatomical training she did will have been more concerned with muscle groups, digestion and the respiratory tract than with the reproductive system. Also in this group are Mollie Maynard, the English rose of the Tyrol days, who went home to look after her mother, and Ivy Norman, the Kindergarten sweetheart who didn’t like big girls.

See also:

Biddy O’Ryan – despite her Irish wildness, she panicked when her hat blew away (God forbid a man should see her hair!) (see alsoBeauty, above)

Gillian Linton – the artist chap she married wanted to paint her like one of his French girls (see also Frenchness, above.)

Unavailability

UnavailabilityAs we all know, nothing is as guaranteed to spark attraction than knowing someone is off limits. Nancy Wilmot and Kathie Ferrars are the obvious couple in this category; their predecessors in the Tyrol days, Nell Wilson and Con Stewart, are also valid entrants.

See also:

Hilda Annersley – any woman who gets herself the nickname “The Abbess” is flying high in the skies of unavailability (see also The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Any CS mistress who is married. By the end of the series, that’s quite a lot. Take your pick.

Cookery

A handy skill as regards domestic bliss – the way to a person’s heart, and all that – but this category has an extra sexy edge to it: food and sex go together like strawberries and cream, chocolates and champagne, chilli sauce and…no, wait, let’s leave chillis out of the bedroom.

DIGITAL CAMERAIn this category: Anna Mieders, a woman who can bring a banquet to bed, and whip up a mean breakfast the morning after. Also Matron Lloyd – there are more uses for jam than simply spreading it on toast.

See also:

Madge Bettany/Russell – a woman with a gift for sweets and desserts. (see also Beauty, above, The Dominatrix Effect, below)

Simone Lecoutier – she has her own cookbook – what couldn’t she knock up? (see also Frenchness, above)

Karen and Anna – not technically mistresses, but I’ll stretch a point if they’ll bring some of their famous featherbeds of whipped cream.

Starched Uniforms

UniformsOne for the connoisseur, but uniforms have been known to drive people wild with lust. Matron Lloyd is the obvious choice for this category, but special kudos must also go to Gertrude Rider for having such a filthy surname.

See also:

Margot Venables – mother of six, so she must have had something going for her.

Barbara Henschell – ooh, Matron!

Gwynneth Gowland – so good, they named her twice.

Special exclusions from this category:

Matron Webb, for having a voice like the whistle on a steam train.

Matron Besley – Nurse! The screens!

The Dominatrix Effect

Another category for the specialist. Teachers are attractive simply by their authoritative role, and headmistresses are mistresses with added authority, and canes. Steady on.

DominatrixThe obvious candidate is, naturally, Hilda Annersley, a woman able to reduce a child to tears with a mere glance of her grey eyes. EBD never tells us what went on in those “sessions with the headmistress”, but I’m fairly sure Colonel Black didn’t keep coming round just to advise her on blackout regulations.

See also:

Madge Bettany – something must have kept Tristan Denny coming round at all sorts of unearthly hours to “talk about the madrigal society” (see also BeautyCookery, above)

Thérèse Lepattre – thigh-high boots and a French accent – oh, wait, is that my imagination? (see also Frenchness, above)

Mabel Bubb – a “strict disciplinarian” who wanted to whitewash the windows. I think we all know why…

So there we have it – my listings for the sexiest mistresses in the Chalet School series. I hope that by narrowing down your favourite traits you can pick out your own sexy CS mistress. As for me, I’m off to the Auberge with Nell Wilson, but before I go, there’s just time for my:

Special Category

No list of sexy CS anything would be complete without a mention of Joey Maynard. It is suggested that pregnancy is a very attractive trait in a woman – something to do with the appeal of obvious fecundity – and Joey was certainly pregnant enough times to draw attention to herself, wanted or unwanted. And the number of pregnancies does suggest that she and Jack Maynard spent a fair old amount of time in the bedroom. Goodness knows how they fitted it into the day. Perhaps she had all the San doctors on a rota – actually, that might explain the very varied colouring of her offspring. Whatever her secret, it could well be that Joey Maynard was the Sexiest Chalet School Mistress of all!

 

Once again, don’t forget to take a trip over to Finn’s blog, Outskirts of the Twenties!

Who would you marry?

Lovers?Have you had a crush on one hero for years, or have you always wondered which Girls’ Own hero was The One for you? Take this quiz now to predict your wedded bliss!

 

 

1. We all know that looks aren’t important, but they still count for something… What does your ideal man look like?

a) Bearded with twinkling blue eyes.

b) You don’t care too much about looks.

c) Big and blonde.

d) Tall, broad and pleasant.

e) Slim and dark.

 

2. But he’s not the only one who’s important. What kind of person are you?

a) Fairly similar to him, though not in every particular.

b) Eager and lively, with appealing looks.

c) Intelligent, womanly and full of common sense.

d) A child at heart.

e) Passionate, loving and a bit of a dreamer.

 

3. What kind of job would he have?

a) Something solitary and outdoorsy, perhaps working with animals.

b) A doctor.

c) Very important in his own area of expertise.

d) Something interesting and adventurous

e) He’s an artist to his fingertips, utterly devoted to what he does best.

 

4. How many children would you like to have?

a) I haven’t even thought about it!

b) Just one or two, most likely – certainly not too many.

c) I like a large family but not too enormous.

d) The more the merrier!

e) One’s plenty for me, thanks.

 

5. And how much time would you spend with your husband?

a) I’d like to work with him.

b) What do you mean? The average amount, I should think!

c) I don’t mind him working long hours, though I’d rather he spent more time with me.

d) I’d really rather spend a lot of time with my friends.

e) I’ll see him any time I want to! Except when I’m working, of course.

 

6. What’s his personality like?Husband or brother?

a) Gentle and caring.

b) Very kind, but also heroic.

c) He’s a man and he knows what he wants!

d) Awfully jolly and a frightfully good sort.

e) Eccentric and a bit obsessive, but adores you.

 

7. Finally, what would you say should be his outstanding quality?

a) Intelligence.

b) Heroism.

c) Authority.

d) Goodness.

e) Passion.

 

How did you score?

Mostly As: Kester Bellever (Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School). Congratulations on your excellent taste! Kester is kind and considerate, and a highly intelligent man with whom you’ll never find yourself bored.

Last Term for Helen, by Margaret BiggsMostly Bs: Peter Gilmour (Dorita Fairlie-Bruce’s Dimsie). You’ll be very happy with Peter. He may not have the best looks in the world, but he more than makes up for that with his caring ways and heroic nature.

Mostly Cs: Jem Russell (Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School). You’re the kind of person who wants to be with a real man who knows his own mind and isn’t afraid to go his own way in life. He’ll be verysuccessful and an excellent husband.

Mostly Ds: Kenneth Marchwood (Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey Girls). You might not spend as much time with Ken as you’d like, but when you do he’s not only your husband but your best friend. You will have a long and very jolly life with him.

Mostly Es: Sebastian Scott (Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells). Life will never be dull with Sebastian! He’s eccentric and sometimes unforgiving, but he loves you with all of his passionate heart, and that will make you feel like the happiest woman alive.

 

Interview With a Heroine: Madge Bettany

This is the first in a new series of posts in which I’ll be interviewing Girls’ Own characters and finding out a little bit more about them. My first guest is a particularly exciting one – please welcome Lady Russell, better known as Madge Bettany, the founder of the famous Chalet School!

 

 

So, Madge, what made you decide to start a school, and in Austria, of all places?

After our Guardian died we hadn’t much money – not enough, really, to pay for school fees for Joey. I’d always been good at teaching but I knew that even if I got a post as a schoolmistress there still wouldn’t be enough money to pay for Joey’s education. And then there was the question of her health. England wasn’t good for her, and neither were a lot of places. So I considered all the possibilities, and at last I came up with what seemed the perfect solution.

And you went ahead and did it! Surely you must have been nervous?

Of course! I was terrified. It wasn’t so bad while we were making all the preparations and enjoying ourselves travelling over, but once Dick had left us and I realised what I’d done, I had a lot of sleepless nights. By that time, though, it was too late – I couldn’t funk it; I simply had to ride it out and try to make my mad idea a success.

Tell us about your greatest challenge?

Getting used to running a school – there were so many things I simply hadn’t thought about. Prayers, for example, for Protestants and Catholics. And I had to learn many of the local customs very quickly because so many of our first girls came from the Tyrol and Europe, and of course their parents expected certain things, such as chaperonage, which were less important to us in England.

We all know about your romance with Doctor Jem Russell. Tell us, did you feel any regrets about giving up your school to marry him? How did you feel about your future life?

Naturally I found giving up the Chalet School very difficult and painful. I’d invested a huge part of my life – and Joey’s – into starting it and making it a success, and then, just as it was becoming what I’d envisaged, I found myself having to make a choice. And it didn’t just mean giving up the school, but also seeing far less of Joey. We’d barely been separated before that. Oh, I was terrified!

Did you ever consider continuing as Head of the Chalet School after you were married?

Hardly. Of course if it happened these days I don’t suppose I would consider giving the school up, but things were very different then. Married women simply didn’t have jobs, and they certainly weren’t Headmistresses! I still kept in close contact with the school and was involved in all the important decision-making, but it wasn’t the same. No, I had to make a choice, and I still believe I made the right one.

Your husband has been very successful in his career – has life after the Chalet School matched your expectations?

I certainly never anticipated becoming Lady Russell! It was bad enough when the horrible children started addressing me as ‘Frau Doktor Russell’, but when it came to ‘Lady’ – well! Joey was a disgraceful tease about it. But I wouldn’t be without my family; they are my most precious possessions now. As I said, I have no regrets.

Sir James Russell has retired now and you emigrated to Australia some time ago. What is the best thing about your new life?

Oh, we’re thoroughly enjoying retired life! I’ve brushed up on my Guiding skills and started helping out with the local Guides, and I’m also doing a little teaching at one or two of the local schools. Jem, having complained about being too busy for his entire career, found that he was bored stiff as soon as he retired and has taken up farming instead, as a sort of hobby. He spends all his free time at a farm nearby and has taken to wearing one of those odd hats and talking in an Australian accent.

It sounds as though you’re both thoroughly enjoying life! Tell me, what’s your biggest goal at the moment?

I don’t really have any huge goals at the moment. Simply to live a life that is worth living.

Well, that’s something for us all to aspire to! Thank you for being with us today, Madge.

Thank you.

That’s all from Madge and me today. I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a little bit more about her as much as I have – and watch this space for the next in the ‘Interview With a Heroine’ series!

Find Your Inner Heroine!

You might be a Joey-hater and a Dimsie-lover; perhaps you find Darrell excruciating and Jen delightful, but have you ever wondered which of them you most resemble? Discover your inner heroine today by answering these simple questions!

 

 

 

1. We’re often told that appearance isn’t important, but it’s worth thinking about. Are you…

a) Blessed with big brown eyes?

b) Black-haired, and you look jolly nice in your new school uniform?

c) Pale, thin, and fragile looking?

d) Yellow-haired with very blue eyes?

 

2. You’ve just arrived at your new school, uniform crisp, nightcase neatly packed and tuck-box full. How are you feeling?

a) Is it going to be like the stories? Is it? Is it?

b) A little warm feeling comes into your heart and you are glad the school is going to be your home for the next few years.

c) You want to do everything and be friends with everyone!

d) You’re looking forward to everything most frightfully, though you have to be brave too, as it’s your first time away from home.

 

3. There’s never a huge amount of free time at school, but when it does come along, how do you like to spend it?

a) In launching crusades against whatever kind of silliness is currently rife in the school.

b) In playing tennis and lacrosse as frequently as you’re allowed, or in perpetrating silly pranks.

c) Oh, you’ll do anything really – read, write, sing, dance, play games, climb mountains, rescue people – so long as there are plenty of friends to enjoy it with you.

d) In learning folk dancing and playing cricket – if only you could decide which you prefer!

 

4. What is your attitude towards the crush, or Grande Passion?

a) Unhealthy nonsense! Launch a society against it immediately.

b) Actually, you don’t really understand the question…

c) You’re profoundly uncomfortable with any kind of sentimentality and think it’s all a lot of rot.

d) You haven’t really thought about it. The fact that you and your best friend refer to one another as husband and wife is irrelevant.

 

5. You find out that someone is planning to cheat in a school exam. What do you do?

a) Cheating of any kind is a terrible sin and a crusade must be launched against it immediately.

b) Catch the cheat in the act in the middle of the night and physically attack her.

c) What tosh! No decent schoolgirl would do something like that.

d) Exams? What do you mean, exams?

 

6. So what do you feel that the future holds for you?

a) Marriage, a herb garden and a rather restrained two children.

b) Going to university and then becoming a writer.

c) Eleven children (plus wards) and a string of best-selling books.

d) Marrying a Title and producing eight children.

 

7. Most real heroines marry eventually. What is your dream man like?

a) A sensitive, gentle, war-wounded doctor.

b) Man? Gosh!

c) A solid lump of comfort (and a doctor).

d) Jolly, semi-invisible and titled.

 

8. And how, briefly, would you describe your own character?

a) Apparently cheeky but actually simply endearing, with a habit of launching crusades.

b) A frightfully jolly schoolgirl with a talent for writing.

c) A sensitive, highly-strung dreamer, a natural leader and eternal schoolgirl.

d) Jolly, yet also a fount of wisdom and a strong motherly instinct.

 

Now, add up how many As, Bs, Cs and Ds you scored, and check the results below to discover your inner heroine…

 

Mostly As – Dimsie Maitland (Dorita Fairlie Bruce)

‘Well!’ exclaimed Erica in a shocked voice, ‘I’ve always known you had plenty of cool cheek, Dimsie Maitland, but I never thought the day would come when I’d see you advising Miss Yorke as to who should be moved up and who shouldn’t. You’ll certainly be expelled one of these days!’ (Dimsie Moves Up)

Your youthful charm and habit of addressing even the headmistress as though she is a contemporary and equal carries you through many sticky situations. You are prepared to indulge in mischief so long as it isn’t deceitful in any way, and you have a heroic streak which can lead you into some unfortunate and dangerous situations.

 

Mostly Bs – Darrell Rivers (Enid Blyton)

The girls stared at Darrell, who shook back her black curls and gazed with clear eyes at Katherine. Why, they hadn’t needed to have a meeting at all! They hadn’t needed to judge Darrell and set her to make amends. She had judged herself and made amends herself. The girls looked at her with admiration and Mary-Lou could hardly keep still. What a wonderful person Darrell was, she thought! (First Term at Malory Towers)

You are intelligent, courageous and honest, but you also have a hot temper which you struggle to control. You throw yourself into school activities with enthusiasm and, while you don’t always get everything right, you learn from your mistakes and are a popular member of your form.

 

Mostly Cs – Joey Bettany (Elinor Brent-Dyer)

To make matters worse, Miss Maynard, the mathematics mistress, had brought back for Joey a copy of The Appalachian Nursery Song-Book, and Joey had sung them in season and out of season, till even the donor of the gift was beginning to regret that she had ever brought it. (Jo of the Chalet School)

Delicate and highly-strung, your impulsive behaviour continually gets you into trouble. You are a natural leader and your friendliness and liveliness means that you are well-liked throughout your school career. With a highly-developed imagination and a habit of acting without thinking, you are inclined to end up in more scrapes than you need to.

 

Mostly Ds – Jen Robins (Elsie Oxenham)

“She’s the only girl in a family of brothers, and they call her Jen at home. She won’t be dancing; you need to learn the dances, and Jen is so very new. But I shouldn’t wonder if she becomes a dancer quite soon; she’s made for it, and she’s light on her feet. Perhaps cricket will claim her, however; it’s too soon to say.” (Schooldays at the Abbey)

You’re a tomboy with a love of mischief and adventure, but you also have a deep love of beauty and the quiet, contemplative atmosphere of the Abbey ruins draws you strongly. You love making new discoveries, and this can sometimes lead you into unfortunate situations, but you are able to learn and grow through all your difficulties.

In Defence of Elinor Brent-Dyer

“You know that you are all forbidden to read any of this author’s works while you are at school. There is a reason for that, Vera.” (The Rivals of the Chalet School)

 

She’s sexist.

She’s classist.

She’s religious.

She’s unrealistic.

She’s too realistic.

 

 

Well, yes. She was a writer. She was a human being. She was also born in 1894; what do you expect? There are some attitudes that always will and always should be unacceptable, but I think it’s a mistake to criticise authors too heavily for being products of their time. And while she wasn’t by any means a revolutionary, Elinor Brent-Dyer was fairly forward-thinking. There were few children’s writers during the Second World War who would have dared to write:

There are many in Germany, more in Austria, who hate [Nazism] as we do. Theirs may be a martyrdom which, in God’s great mercy, we may be spared… And remember: this is the least we owe to those German and Austrian members who are ‘carrying on’ amid such terrible doings as we read of, and we must pay our debt faithfully. Let us pray.” (The Chalet School Goes to It)

Of course, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s attitudes were often typical of her era. Countless Chalet School girls and mistresses give up the careers they have or aspire to in favour of marriage, motherhood and home-making. The School’s founder, Madge Bettany, retires from her position when she marries. Neither Frieda Mensch nor Marie von Eschenau express a desire to do anything but marry after they leave school. And, notoriously, Daisy Venables gives up her highly successful career as a doctor – ‘“The one who’s won all the medals and things?”’ – at the end of Carola Storms the Chalet School in order to marry, a ‘sacrifice’ which rarely fails to raise an outcry among fans. It’s sad indeed, yet we should remember that Elinor Brent-Dyer is still highly unusual among Girls’ Own authors for allowing Daisy to become a doctor at all, let alone the sort of doctor who wins medals.

Even the uncontested heroine of the series, Joey Bettany/Maynard, is not only a wife and mother but also the author of a string of best-selling books. Her successor, Mary-Lou Trelawney, never marries at all but enters a career in archaeology. Even Len Maynard, becoming engaged at the end of the series, insists that she’s going to go to university and get her degree before getting married. And that’s not to mention the numerous Chalet School mistresses who remain at the School, happy and fulfilled, for many years. Hilda Annersley, Nell Wilson and Matron Lloyd join the School in the Tyrol years, and are at the centre of the School’s existence; the power and authority rest completely with them. To me the Chalet School is a symbol of quiet, consistent female power, and the fact that Elinor Brent-Dyer advocates not solely the path of marriage or that of a career, but both, depending on the choice of the individual, is empowering even today and would have been vastly more so for girls reading the books as they were published.

Class is another issue that’s hotly debated by Chalet School fans. How did Elinor Brent-Dyer really feel about it? Certainly the message that is most often and directly repeated is that ‘when you come to the root of matters, it’s you – you – YOU that matters all the time – what you are!’ (A Problem for the Chalet School). The books feature a variety of working class people, from the simple, traditional peasants of the Tyrol to no-nonsense Granny Learoyd and strong, silent handyman Gaudenz of the Swiss years.

Most interesting to Chalet School fans are the opposing heroines of A Problem for the Chalet School, Rosamund Lilley and Joan Baker. There’s a huge split in opinion on the subject – is Elinor Brent-Dyer highlighting the difference in personality between the girls so as to make a point about character rather than background being the important thing, or is she distinguishing between a deserving and an undeserving type of working-class, essentially saying that the working classes are acceptable so long as they know their place? My own opinion is more the former than the latter. In the genteel world of the Chalet School, Joan is far more handicapped by her attitudes than Rosamund, who is able to fit in quite easily. I find Joan’s subsequent development fascinating. She doesn’t simply conform to Chalet School mores but, while still changing and maturing, remains her own person. Some readers feel that Joan never achieves authorial approval, but I’d disagree with that. Richenda Fry rather turns up her nose at Joan, but that seems to reflect as much on Richenda as it does on Joan, and although she’s clearly tactless towards Naomi in Trials for the Chalet School, this is a one-off and she isn’t the only offender. I think Elinor Brent-Dyer’s portrayal of Joan is an ongoing and sympathetic representation of a person who is unable to become simply another genteel, middle-class young lady, but who is accepted in the community despite her differences to it.

I’m not sure, frankly, that I even need to make a case against Elinor Brent-Dyer being too religious. Some people don’t like it; that’s their tough shit. Skip those bits or don’t read the books. Having a Christian faith was a lot more acceptable then, and she deals with it sensitively and sometimes uniquely. I’m thinking of The Highland Twins at the Chalet School, when Miss Annersley and Miss Wilson have a big disagreement over whether it’s appropriate to allow Fiona Macdonald to use her second sight in an attempt to ‘see’ Jack Maynard, who has been lost at sea. Interestingly, it isn’t Catholic Miss Wilson who wins the argument (although Elinor Brent-Dyer had by this time converted to Catholicism), but Miss Annersley, who decides that Joey’s need is great enough to override her own concerns about the experiment. There are many times in the series when girls and mistresses feel the need to turn to God, and while some readers may be uncomfortable with this, it comes across as very authentic. So long as the author is truthful to herself, I don’t feel that I can take issue with the way she presents Christianity.

Many fans seem to struggle with a feeling that Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing has a tendency to be unrealistic, and it’s true that she does have her unfortunate moments (yes, I will name my daughter after someone I met years ago for a few weeks…). My feeling is, however, that this is at least partly a result of the fact that the world is a very different place from the one she was writing in, and it can be challenging for modern readers to believe that life could genuinely have been like that (cold baths in the mornings? Yes, really!). But at her best, she creates characters and situations with a depth and complexity rarely equalled in the Girls’ Own world. I’m just going to pick out a few examples.

The obvious one is The Chalet School in Exile. There are few readers who would deny that this is a truly exceptional book. The description of the attack on Herr Goldmann is brief but pulls no punches: ‘Down the side street there came an old man with a long, grey beard, plainly running for his life. A shower of stones, rotten fruit and other missiles followed him. Stark terror was in his face, and already he was failing to outdistance his pursuers.’ It’s quiet, gentle Robin who races out of the Gasthaus to defend him, but her friends follow and moments later the schoolgirls and Miss Wilson, the mistress in charge, are the focus of the hostility of the attackers. Even more chillingly, it’s not faceless Nazis who have perpetrated the attack, but people the girls have known and been friendly with throughout their schooldays. And, despite their courage, the girls can’t prevail against the mood of the mob – they are rescued from the immediate danger by the parish priest, but they never go home, instead escaping across the mountains into Switzerland. As though to reiterate the horror of the situation, we later learn that Herr Goldmann, his wife and the priest who helped the girls to safety have all been killed by the mob, making their actions ultimately pointless. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing for a children’s book of that era, and should not be underestimated.

There are many other instances of strikingly realistic writing from Elinor Brent-Dyer. There’s Simone’s jealousy of Joey and her other friendships, Grizel’s painful reaction to her unhappy childhood, the singing in the cellars during the air-raid, Jacynth’s grief for her Auntie, Kathie’s struggles in her first time as a school-mistress, Grizel’s depression after the failure of her venture in New Zealand, and the ongoing bullying Jane Carew suffers at the hands of Jack Lambert.

In fact, some Chalet School readers complain that Elinor Brent-Dyer is too realistic, that she can’t have meant the bullying in The Chalet School and Jane to have been so real and that the School should have detected it sooner, dealt with it better. Yet as it stands it’s a grim storyline that rings a lot truer than, say, the change of heart that Naomi undergoes in Trials for the Chalet School. It also makes the gradual maturing of Jack in the later books a little more interesting and realistic – far more so than that of her mentor, Len, who barely needs to grow up at all. The argument of people who dislike such realism is that storylines like this are so strongly in opposition to the whole ethos of the Chalet School that they can’t accept them as being consistent with the rest of the series. My own feeling is that such flashes of stark honesty bring depth and truth to the books. I know I wouldn’t enjoy Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing so much if they didn’t exist.

Each of these topics has been the subject of endless discussion among fans – I’m just contributing my own penn’orth here, so please feel free to comment and tell me whether you agree, disagree or have no idea what I’m even talking about!

Girls’ Own: the obsession begins

My name is Abi, and I read children’s books.

I started off with Postman Pat, moved on to Ragdolly Anna, and continued with A Little Princess, What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables. My first serious collection was Arthur Ransome, beginning with Winter Holiday and ending, regretfully, with Coots in the North. From there I moved on to Just William – a more satisfying collection to build, since it contains thirty-eight books as opposed to the thirteen in the Swallows and Amazons series.

When I was nine years old I found The Chalet School at War in the school library, but since it begins with the staff discussing events that happened not only in the previous book, but during the Second World War (which I had not yet studied), it left me cold. A couple of years later my Mum completed my Just William collection with William and the Pop Stars and suggested that I borrow Mary-Lou of the Chalet School from the town library. I suspect that she now regrets this, seeing where it led, but I did as she proposed, and thus was an obsession born. I began collecting the Chalet School towards the end of the time Armada were reprinting the books, so among my first were Reunion, Future, Adrienne, Two Sams and Prefects, as well, of course, as most of the earlier books, and I do retain a soft spot for some of these later ones.

I was sixteen when I started my first job, in a second-hand bookshop. I got books for half-price, and guess where most of my wages went? After extensive, if furtive, searching on the internet, I found that Elsie Oxenham was a promising candidate for lovers of the Chalet School. The bookshop had two Oxenhams – Robins in the Abbey, a Seagull hardback, and The Abbey Girls at Home, one of the notorious Children’s Press reprints. The latter being a quarter of the price of the former, I bought it, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

That was just the pointy end of the proverbial wedge. I began to collect feverishly. At first it was just the famous names – Elsie Oxenham, Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie-Bruce and Enid Blyton. Then I found The Schoolgirl Refugee by Olive C. Dougan, still one of my favourites, A Rebel Schoolgirl by Frances Carpenter, Terry’s Best Term by Evelyn Smith and many, many others. Now I have more than eight hundred Girls’ Own books and my collection is constantly growing. And at last I have succumbed to the self-indulgent temptation to talk continually about them on the internet.