16/05/2019

The Maids of La Rochelle (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)


Having finally finished my gradual read-through of Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s ‘Chalet School’ series last year, I’m now reading her ‘La Rochelle’ books. There are only seven books in this series, and it’s only in the past year that I’ve acquired the last few.

I’ve just finished the third in the series, ‘The Maids of La Rochelle’. This is a book I recall with great fondness from my teenage years. There was an old hardback edition on my grandmother’s shelves, and at fourteen or fifteen I thought it a very romantic story. I was able to buy a new ‘Girls Gone By’ paperback edition in 2011, and re-read it for the first time in many years.

The introduction to the book explains the publishing history, and gives a great deal of information about Guernsey and the culture and attitudes of the time. I didn’t read all of it; some of it read a bit like a travel guide. But I skimmed parts, and found some of it very interesting.

I had almost entirely forgotten the various subplots of the story when I re-read it again in the last couple of days. I had also been wondering how the earlier books were considered part of the ‘La Rochelle’ series. The first, ‘Gerry Goes to School’ was set in mainland UK, as was the second, ‘A Head Girl’s Difficulties’. I enjoyed both books as 1920s school stories; they were apparently the first two works Brent-Dyer had published. But I knew ‘La Rochelle’ was somewhere in Guernsey.

‘The Maids of La Rochelle’ introduces the sisters Elizabeth and Anne Temple, who are in their twenties, and their teenage half-sister Janie. They and their families appear later in some books of the Chalet School series, so I vaguely remembered them. The first chapter gives a potted history of their upbringing, farmed out in various different places, including living for some years in France. Now their father has died, and although they seem barely to have seen him when growing up, they’re all grieving. They’re also rather worried about money, but circumstances work in their favour, and they move to a cottage in Guernsey.

The book is about their attempts to make friends, their clashes with the ‘white witch’ who was still an important personage on the island in the 1920s, and the very low key romances that develop when two young men come into Elizabeth and Anne’s lives. It’s inevitably dated - attitudes are still rather snobbish, though as ‘educated’ women the Temples are all experts in household chores, including exquisite needlework and darning (learned in their French years). They are fluent in French too - Janie has rather a strange pattern of speaking in English at first - and drop into the language when they want to express anything emotional.

I liked the three girls, and appreciated their different personalities. Brent-Dyer was good at building up believable people, and I grew quite fond of all the sisters, as well as young Pauline Ozanne, who comes into their lives in a rather dramatic way. I did find it a tad odd that the older girls still call Janie ‘baby’ at times - she’s fifteen! - and see her as very immature; but at the same time she has a lot of freedom to go out and explore.

In the last chapters I discovered the link with the earlier books; the Atherton family, who were minor characters in both the other books, have a holiday home and become friendly with the Temple trio.

All in all, I enjoyed re-reading this book and am looking forward to reading or re-reading the rest of the series over the next few months.

Review copyright 2019 Sue's Book Reviews

No comments: