27/08/2015

A Problem for the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

After reading several books that were new to me, I felt the need of a bit of comfort reading, so I pulled out the next volume in the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, which I read in my childhood and teens and have re-read from time to time since. I’m slowly working my way through the series again, in order; the last one I read was ‘Chalet School Fete’, a couple of months ago.

I hadn’t read ‘A Problem for the Chalet School’ for at least eighteen years, so had mostly forgotten what it was about. The early chapters introduce Rosamund Lilley, who has just been offered a scholarship to the Chalet School in Switzerland, but really isn’t very keen on the idea of going, particularly when she realises that she’ll have to become fluent in both French and German rather rapidly. However, her ambition is to be an air hostess, and she’s persuaded by her benefactress to take up the scholarship with a good grace.

Rosamund is befriended by some of the Chalet School girls, and as she’s a likeable girl at heart, she plunges into her new life, and makes an effort to learn the languages. She worries that people might drop her if they knew her origins - her father is a market gardener and her mother was a maid - but gradually realises that what matters is who she is, not what her origins were; and that, moreover, being a servant or gardener are professions to take pride in, not to feel shame.

The ‘problem’ of the title is in Joan Baker, a girl from Rosamund’s old school whose father has won some money, and decides his daughters should have a ‘posh’ education. But while Joan considers herself superior to Rosamund - and to most of the girls in the Chalet School - her ideas are tacky, her attitudes aggressive, and she thinks nothing of gossip, trying to make weaker girls admire her. Rosamund quickly realises that she no longer finds Joan amusing or clever, and Joan is in for some serious clashes with the authorities….

Some of the books in this series are samey, with too much detail about lessons, or walks, or end-of-term plays or fetes. But this one has a story that I found quite gripping; I didn’t remember what happened to Joan at all, and was full of admiration for the way that the author made it clear that Joan’s mindset was inferior without ever being condescending. It’s idealistic, of course; but then the Chalet School is a place where many and varied girls eventually knuckle down and become good citizens, hard workers and interesting people without losing their personalities or individuality.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. It’s not great literature, and of course there are phrases here and there that jarred; inevitably it’s a little dated, and some ideas about education and parenting have changed since the middle of the 20th century.

Nonetheless, Brent-Dyer created believable people and I found myself strongly drawn into this book; definitely recommended to fans of the series, or even as an introduction, although the sheer number of characters might be daunting to anyone who was not already familiar with the most significant ones.

Not currently in print, but the Armada version, abridged slightly from the original, is fairly widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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