10/02/2016

Trials for the Chalet School/Theodora and the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my sporadic re-reading of the lengthy Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I had reached the one numbered 41 in the original, or 45 in the abridged and somewhat re-arranged Armada paperback version. Looking on my shelves I realised that my edition is a ‘two-in-one school stories’ version published in 1994 by Parragon. Since the book contains two sequential Chalet School novels, I have never bothered to acquire them separately; not wanting to read just half a physical book I have read them both in the past few days.

The two books in question are ‘Trials for the Chalet School’ and ‘Theodora and the Chalet School’. I understand that in the Armada paperbacks both of these were quite significantly cut, but I have not been able to discover how significantly this edition was abridged. In a sense, it didn’t matter. It’s been a long time since I read either of them - perhaps twenty years or more - and I’d forgotten almost everything. Neither felt uncomfortably short, and I thought both were good stories, making a change from some of the more run-of-the-mill Chalet School books which appeared towards the middle and end of the series.

‘Trials for the Chalet School’ is mostly about Naomi Elton, a girl with some quite serious physical disabilities who feels embittered and angry, determined not to be friendly with anyone. The head girl, Mary-Lou, who hoped for an easy term, is asked to keep an eye out and befriend Naomi.

Unsurprisingly Naomi gradually thaws, particularly when danger strikes in various ways, but also when the school suffers various other ‘trials’ including a bout of serious illness, and a practical joke played on the sixth formers. The story-line is engaging, the problems a little different from those that appear time and again, and Naomi herself has the kind of disability which, as far as I recall, is not covered in any of the other books in the series.

Naturally there’s a lot that seems old-fashioned now; vague mentions of ‘operations’, lengthy isolation for infectious illnesses, and Matey’s infamous doses. But then the book was written in 1958, and for its time was quite radical as far as education went. But it’s a good story anyway, and I enjoyed reading it.
Some readers might have problems with the quite overt Christian themes that come through this book more than many others, since Naomi has no faith or belief at all when she joins the school.

‘Theodora and the Chalet School’ naturally pairs with ‘Trials’, featuring another girl starting the school rather older than is normal, and at an unusual time of the year. Theodora, who is quickly abbreviated to Ted, has a very bad record from her previous schools and an unsympathetic mother. But she’s given a chance to start afresh, and is quickly carried along with the friendliness and helpfulness of the Chalet School girls.

While this is a theme that appears in many of the books, one of the most interesting parts of this story concerns the triplets, Len, Con and Margot; Len is quite friendly to Ted, and then they’re thrown together unexpectedly (due to another quarantine problem) and Margot, despite having a close friend of her own, becomes jealous.

There’s a big blow-up, and while it’s eventually resolved, I thought it was handled well and sensitively. One of Brent-Dyer’s strongest points was her characterisation, particularly that of her ‘motherly’ types such as Jo Bettany (later Maynard), and Mary-Lou; perhaps it was deliberate that in Mary-Lou’s last term of school Jo’s oldest daughter Len begins to take on part of the mantle.

Overall I thought both of these books were interesting and also thought-provoking, handling tricky subjects that could still be relevant to some teenagers today.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

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