Redheads at the Chalet School (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

In my gradual re-reading of the entire Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, I’ve reached the one labelled 56 in the Armada editions (52 in the original hardbacks, and the more recently re-published ‘Girls Gone By versions).

I first read ‘Redheads at the Chalet School’ when I was about twelve, in series with the others, after finding them in my school library. I most recently re-read it in 2000; I have no idea how many times I read it in the intervening years. I suspect not many times as I had almost entirely forgotten the plot.

Unlike most of the Chalet School series, particularly the later ones, this is not so much a gentle school story as a thriller. This term’s new girl of note is red-headed Flavia Letton, whose stepfather is a policeman. We meet them in the train, where Flavia is to meet up with school staff; and a tense note is introduced in that Flavia isn’t supposed to speak to her stepfather or even wave him goodbye. She doesn’t know what’s going on…

She settles well into school, but an American woman is spotted wandering around the area, asking pointed questions. Flavia has taken on her birth surname of Ansell but for some reason has kept the same unusual first name. And it’s clear that someone is looking for Flavia. However, there are several red-headed girls in the school, and this leads to a case of mistaken identity…

It’s really quite an exciting book. One has to suspend reality somewhat; there are some extremely unpleasant people involved, yet even they apparently have some kind of moral code. There’s some realistic violence off-screen, but the inevitable show-down in the book is almost farcical in its timing and execution.

Yet the story is well-written, fast paced, and difficult to put down. I don’t know what made the author veer away from her usual cosy school stories; the school features, but not heavily in this book. Perhaps, given her tendency to insert moral notes, the author decided to include people whose upbringing led them into the worst kinds of evil. There’s certainly some discussion to that end. But it doesn’t come across as patronising or moralistic.

Brent-Dyer seems old-fashioned, even quaint nowadays. Yet her writing, featuring strong, independent women a and high quality girls’ school would have been quite revolutionary in its day. This one was first published in 1964, nearly forty years after the first book in the series, ‘The School at the Chalet’. Brent-Dyer herself was seventy in 1964 and in other books of this era she seems to be trying to wind the series down. But ‘Redheads’ is unique and I enjoyed reading it very much.

My edition is the Armada paperback version, but is apparently very little altered from the original.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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