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

It’s an extremely long time since I last read through the ending few books in Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s lengthy Chalet School series. For years I had only a few of the books, and would dip into favourites when staying with my mother, who owned the complete set. Now I have her collection, and am slowly reading my way through, interspersed with many other books. A couple of days ago I picked up ‘Challenge for the Chalet School’, labelled 59 in the Armada series (55 in the original hardback order).

I understand from this useful page about the paperback cuts that the final nine books were not abridged at all in the Armada versions. So my paperback edition is a full version. I could recall nothing about this book, but was looking forward to it, having very much enjoyed ‘Summer Term at the Chalet School’ a few weeks ago.

The book opens with a slightly different plot device: Miss Annersley, the much-loved school Head, is taking a term away from the school to inspect other schools around Europe. This is quite an honour for her, and potentially useful too, as she learns about the pros and cons of other styles of teaching. We learn this as she is explaining to the Maynard triplets what she’s going to be doing, and that she trusts them to set a great example to the girls. Len is Head Girl, and has a strong, positive influence in the whole school.

Nancy Wilmot is given the position of acting head for three months, and there’s the potential for quite an interesting story here, but unfortunately, in my view, not enough of the book takes place in the staffroom. Instead, the first part of the book features Evelyn Ross, a girl of sixteen who joins the school reluctantly as her mother is very ill with TB and being treated at the nearby sanatorium. Evelyn is determined to hate the school, but gradually becomes drawn into the ethos and principles, and makes friends.

There are a few conflicts mentioned, but there’s a great deal of detail about exactly what Evelyn sees and does, going through her early days as a new girl. I can’t imagine anyone would pick this book up as an introduction to the Chalet School series - although all the books stand alone to some extent, they build on the characters introduced and developed in earlier books. But anyone familiar with the series would already know about how the dining room system works, and the giving out of books at the start of term, and of course the various walks and rambles.

I suspect that the author was getting a bit tired of the Chalet School by the time she wrote this one which was first published in 1966. It seems to have more than the usual number of unresolved hints: for instance, Jane Carew shows friendship to Evelyn due to sympathising with her mother’s illness, and the author hints of trouble to come when Evelyn assumes a greater level of friendship than is in Jane’s mind. But nothing comes of that. There’s also the potential for a nice side story when Evelyn realises that the friendly looking lady with black hair is not just the wife of her mother’s doctor, but mother of the triplets, and neighbour to the school. Yet that isn’t covered either.

There’s also a lack of continuity in that Evelyn’s story is pretty much dropped around half-way through, and instead the storyline picks up with Jocelyn, another new girl, who is extremely mischievous and likes to take risks, although she’s also absolutely truthful. Jocelyn feels like a repeat of some earlier characters in the series, and is (in my opinion) nowhere near as interesting as Evelyn, but perhaps the author felt that the book needed livening up a bit. And certainly there are some wilder anecdotes and subplots towards the end, which (as it’s the Christmas term) involves a blow-by-blow account of the Nativity play.

Brent-Dyer created a world which drew thousands in, and despite all the niggles mentioned above, her tremendous gift of characterisation keeps the Chalet School alive in the hearts of many. It’s over eight years since I started this read-through of the series… and I shall probably start over again in another year or two. The people stay in my thoughts, I chat about them with like-minded friends, and am on related Facebook groups. Although this book didn’t grab me, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone unfamiliar with the series, it’s another few scenes in the lives of folk who feel like absent friends.

'Challenge for the Chalet School' isn't currently in print, although it was re-published in recent years in a 'Girls Gone By' edition. Not too difficult to find second-hand in both this and the Armada version.  Suitable for fluent readers (mostly girls) aged about ten and older, who like school stories, as well as those of us who remember them with nostalgia from our childhood.

Review copyright 2018 Sue's Book Reviews

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