24/01/2011

A Head Girl's Difficulties (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I first discovered Elinor M Brent-Dyer's books as a child, staying with my grandmother in the summer. Some of the original hardbacks graced the shelves in the room where I slept; we had no idea of their potential value! In addition to the well-known Chalet School series, there were one or two others in a shorter series called 'La Rochelle'. They had a few links with Chalet School characters, and I enjoyed them very much.

In my teens, I discovered all the Chalet School series in my school library, but nothing else by Brent-Dyer. And while I've now acquired the full set of Chalet School books myself, I had assumed that the 'La Rochelle' series was unavailable. It was, indeed, long out of print; so I was delighted to learn that the 'Girls Gone By' publishers are gradually re-printing them. In print currently is 'A Head Girl's Difficulties'. It's set in the 1920s, and is the second 'La Rochelle' book.

The story is about the decidedly difficult year faced by Rosamund Atherton, head girl of St Peter's school. Accidents, serious illness, and various other problems beset those around her, interspersed with exams, sports matches, and defiant juniors. She copes well, on the whole, and matures considerably over the year, which brings some joys as well as pains.

Naturally, the style and language are somewhat dated. What slightly surprised me was that some of the concepts also seem remarkably dated ninety years later; rather more overtly so than is the case in the 'Chalet School' series. I was particularly startled by the great contempt shown for any hint of 'sentimentality', although perhaps I should not have been surprised: a different author writing in the same period (some of whose books were also at my grandmother's house) were very vehemently against any form of what they called 'soppiness'.

An essay at the start of the Girls Gone By edition of 'A Head Girl's Difficulties' by a modern writer examines this phenomenon, along with an apparently callous attitude to child mortality. I didn't read the introduction until I'd finished the book, worried about spoilers; there weren't, in fact, too many, and I did agree about the sentence that was the most jarring in the entire book.

I don't recall ever having read this book before; if I did, it would have been at least thirty-five years ago. It probably wouldn't appeal to most of today's teenagers, but it's a nice piece of nostalgia for anyone who has enjoyed the lengthy 'Chalet School' series by the same author. There are even a few links between the two series, and a nice bonus was to find a rather moving short story at the back, by yet another author (although in similar style) which expands on something referred to briefly in the main book.

It's paperback, but nicely produced with some of the original illustrations shown at the beginning, The story stands alone, but is likely to appeal mainly to those who are already fans of Elinor M Brent-Dyer's writing. Unfortunately no longer in print, and second-hand editions, either of the re-printed paperback or the original hardback, tend to be very expensive.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 24th January 2011

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