Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Chalet School in Exile (2)

I'm going to start with a brain teaser - see if you can work out, from what we are given in Chapter 1, how this happy family are related:

"Dr Jem Russell, head of the Sonnalpe Sanatorium in Tyrol, glanced at his young sister-in-law, Jo Bettany...Jo gave an impish grin, and turned and ran along the wide corridor to the bathroom, where she found her adopted sister, Marya Cecilia Humphries, commonly known as Robin...Robin stuck her fingers in her ears and raced on down the long corridor to the big room where the little Russells, together with their young cousins, the Bettanys, and Dr Russell's younger niece, Primula Mary Venables, were curled up round a big armchair...Robin ruffled the silvery fair curls that covered Peggy's small head...'All right, but not ve babies,' stipulated Rix, Peggy's twin...Jacky [was] the youngest member of the Bettany family present - though in India a little brother and sister known to the Sonnalpe people as 'second twins' were beginning to trot all over now...Sybil and Jacky crawled out of their corner...Sybil sometimes resented the mothering...She had been known to madden Rix by chanting, 'You're only a cousin! David an' me belong!'

Who the heck is David? I re-read the first chapter and drew a family tree, which took me most of the afternoon. This is not a book for those who are easily confused or who find it hard to remember who's who. Having not read any Chalet School books in probably 25 years or more, the names of the girls (oh, Chapter 1 is nothing compared to the lists of names and descriptions that come later - it's like The Iliad!) meant little to me, and I have to admit that after a while I gave up trying to remember who was involved in which adventure or prank and who was the same age as who else and who was best friends with whom, and just got on with reading the story.

I suppose what I most wanted to find out is, is The Chalet School in Exile just another twee early twentieth century girlschool novel, or, considering its subject matter, is it darker; is it, in fact, a War novel? It manages, I think, to span some sort of strange gap between the two. It is notably emotionless, imbued with a crazily stiff upper lip. Deaths, of Jews the girls witness being attacked, and of friends and relations, are covered in such a matter-of-fact way as to be off-hand. They are like newspaper obituaries written by a journalist who never met the deceased. I find this fascinating; today's children's literature treats emotion in almost the opposite way. Consider the works of Jacqueline Wilson, prolific writer of modern girls' books, and as such, a worthy comparison with Elinor M Brent-Dyer. Emotion, the description of it and the dealing with it, is at the core of what Wilson writes. Today's young female reader is shown that she should bare her feelings for all to see, that she should display her grief rather than lock it away. The Chalet School teaches a very different lesson, perhaps one that translated as the 'spirit of the Blitz', that oh-so-English manner of mildly shaking an angry fist at the Luftwaffe as they razed our cities to the ground.

There are little snatches of news thrown into the story that remind us with a shock that this was written in 1940, long before the worst atrocities of the Nazi regime had come to light. Concentration Camps are mentioned as places of torture, no more. A news broadcast from Germany "was vehemently insisting that a U-boat had sunk the Ark Royal", and the girls spend their evenings learning how to treat burns and put on gas masks. The most glaringly ironic aspect of the story comes, though, when the School must de-camp - and they choose to move to Guernsey! At the time of writing, Brent-Dyer had no way of knowing that the Channel Islands would be occupied.

The book is very much divided into two halves. The first is set in Austria and involves much fleeing from gestapo officers. A small group of girls and two male doctors, sent to protect them, (poor weak creatures that the girls, though some are in their twenties, are) escape over the Swiss border in a rather hurried description of a week in disguise as gypsies, tricking Nazis and hiding in barns, eating berries and suffering dreadfully from blisters. The tiny amount of time given to such a vast enterprise is incongruous, and made all the more so by a plan at one point to try to seek refuge in a fictional country, Belsornia, the Belsornian King's daughter being an ex-pupil of the Chalet School. To throw something so ludicrous into a tale of escape from Nazi occupation is on the one hand utterly trivialising, and yet on the other, works, by throwing into greater relief the trueness of what they are running from. It is a technique of which Brecht would have been proud!

Then suddenly, it is a year later, and the new school is about to open on Guernsey. At this point, the book reverts to type, and for a while nothing more interesting happens than that members of the Fourth hide the gardening tools, which go rusty. Things pick up again, however, when a new girl arrives at the school. She is German and haughty - she must be a Nazi! I'll not spoil the reveal.

The Chalet School in Exile is quite unlike anything I have read before, possibly due to the contrast between the usual subject matter of such books, and the individuality of this specific 'adventure'. The language is distancing - did anyone ever really talk like this? There are too many examples for me to isolate one, though the word "quoth" appears at least once, and 'wild' girls are described by one doctor at the San as "stormy petrels", which just seems inappropriate to any place or time as yet recorded! It is terribly elitist - how must the ordinary girls who comprised its main readership have felt at having their state schools described thus: "...the education was good enough of its kind, but the girls of a very different class, with an outlook on life of which her parents disapproved." Poor Guernsey-girl Beth, to have had to suffer such indignity before the Chalet School arrived on her shores!

Whilst not being, obviously, the huge fun that the majority of girlschool books are, this is an intriguing and historically fascinating work, and I am delighted that Girls Gone By have brought it into the public consciousness once more. It is compelling on many levels, and works very well as a companion piece to many of the Persephone titles. As the Headmistress so accurately comments towards the end of the book, "'Oh, drat Hitler and all his works.' With which reprehensible remark the Head picked up her essay books and departed to the study." Quite.


Hannah Stoneham said...

Wonderful post Lulu - thank you - you have got me rolling in the aisles here - I read and re read the quote and could not make head nor tail. It all sounds a bit encyclopedic if you know what I mean.

happy Thursday


Rachel said...

I wish I could help you with all the characters relationships, but have only read a few of the books myself. Great review!

Katherine Bruce said...

Just found this link and wondered if I could help. (If you already know all this, feel free to ignore it)

Jem Russell married Madge Bettany, sister of Jo Bettany. David is Jem and Madge's son. Jo and Madge have a brother, Dick. Peggie and Rix are Dick and his wife Mollie's children. Jacky is their third child. Marya Cecilia (Robin) was left to the care of Madge and Jem after her father died (her mother having died some years before). Jo and Robin have an adoptive relationship.