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.

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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!