21/11/2015

The Coming of Age of the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of the entire lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I’ve reached the one which was thirty-ninth in the original series, first published in 1958. I had an abridged Armada edition but was pleased to be able to find a ‘Girls Gone By’ version which reproduces the full original text, with an introduction and a couple of other additions too. I don’t think I had previously read the entire book; at least, not since my teenage years when I borrowed the hardbacks from my school library.

‘The Coming of Age of the Chalet School’ is a bit of an indulgent book, really. For some reason the author decided, in the voice of Joey Maynard, that the school needed to celebrate twenty-one years since it was founded. The previous book - Excitements at the Chalet School - is mostly about suggestions made to celebrate this milestone; in this one, the celebrations happen.

So there are quite a few ‘old’ characters who return, in particular Joey’s closest friends Simone, Freda and Marie. Probably the most interesting part of the book describes the weekend when this quartette and the sixteen prefects visit the original site of the Chalet School in Austria. Other classes have gone with their staff earlier in the term, but we only read about those in passing.

Ordinary school life continues, of course. The school is rather over-crowded since the St Mildred’s ‘finishing’ branch are also staying at the school while the visitors use their building, and there’s an influx of girls arriving from the Welsh branch. These include the twins Priscilla and Prudence who were quite badly behaved when younger; the way they start to grow up, and Prudence in particular fights against growing maturity, is quite nicely done.

On the other hand, I found parts of it rather overtly educational. I really wasn’t very interested in the hydro-electric company that had taken over some of the original Chalet School site, so skimmed that part.

I’m glad I read it as part of the series, but it’s not one of the best books. It feels a bit like a few scenes loosely tied together with conversation, some of it repetitive. There are a few almost irrelevant parts such as the return and ill health of Miss Bubb, who was a terrible temporary head many years earlier. And there’s the inevitable Sale, which is described in detail along with the names of all the prize-winners….

I don’t think this would be a good book for anyone new to the series. It has a huge cast, many of them only mentioned briefly. Even as a fan of the books for over forty years, I didn’t recall every person who was mentioned. Someone new to the series would find the sheer number of names overwhelming.

Still, I’m delighted to have the Girls Gone By edition, not just for the full text but for the introductory sections, about the Chalet School in general, and its locations, and timescale, and other interesting articles. At the end is a specially commissioned short story which outlines an event mentioned in the main text, but never actually described by Brent-Dyer herself.

Originally written as teenage fiction, this is far more likely to appeal to those of us who grew up around them (and similar style school stories) and who recall them with nostalgia. The GGB edition is no longer in print, and second-hand editions are very highly priced, but you might still find used Armada versions in charity shops.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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