Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reading diary: ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER, RITA COATTS


ELINOR M. BRENT-DYER, The School at the Chalet (1925) & Jo of the Chalet School (1926)

In the past year and a half or so, I've read a handful of Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School books and have enjoyed them very much. But as some Chalet School fans have realized from my occasional passing mentions of the series here, I've been reading them in a rather haphazard order, starting with (naturally for me) The Chalet School in Exile, often considered the best of the series and the one that makes the most dramatic use of World War II. But I know a big part of the appeal of this series to its fans is tracing the characters' development and evolution over time, so I recently decided I would try to start at the beginning and gradually (very gradually, considering how many other authors and books I'm always trying to read at the same time) work my way forward in the series.

Now, this is a bit easier said than done, because although paperbacks of the series are generally pretty readily available, those editions have often been rigorously chopped up and abridged (you can learn a bit about this here—though many of you already know far more about it than I do). Girls Gone By has been reprinting unabridged editions, but understandably it takes a long time for a small publisher to work their way through more than 60 titles. (Less understandable, perhaps, is the bewildering order in which they've been reprinting them, which doesn't seem to prioritize either the series order or—as might also have made sense—the titles that were most abridged in paperback editions, or even for that matter the titles that seem to be the hardest to find. The logic escapes me, but perhaps there is one somewhere, and regardless I am grateful to them for reprinting them at all.)

Add to this, though, that GGB editions tend to go back out-of-print fairly quickly and become collectible and prohibitively expensive themselves, and I realized how much of a challenge I had set myself in trying to approach the books in series order. I quickly adjusted my goal to merely acquiring GGB editions of the books that were most seriously abridged in paperback, resigning myself to the earlier paperback versions of those titles that had only minor edits. And I may not even be able to accomplish that—we shall see.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

Naturally enough, the first volume of the series, The School at the Chalet, is one of the most in-demand of the titles, and sadly it was also badly abridged in paperback. The GGB print edition has already gone out of print and become about as costly as one might expect an original manuscript—written in EBD's hand and bearing evidence of her blood, sweat and tears—would be. Happily, GGB has released it (as well as Exile, which was also brutally cut in paperback, and two other Chalet School titles) as an ebook, but only for U.K. customers (as I learned after I eagerly tried to place an order without reading the fine print). But I viewed this setback as a challenge rather than a defeat, and enlisted the help of a kind friend in the U.K. who aided and abetted me in acquiring copies of both. My thanks to this aider-and-abetter shall remain anonymous, out of fear that GGB staff members or an international copyright militia might show up on the doorstep with flaming torches, but he/she knows who he/she is...

At any rate, I was very happy to be able to start back at the beginning of this most famous and probably most beloved school story series. I loved reading about the initial idea for the Chalet School, and the planning and setting up of it, not to mention its exponential growth (had it continued at such a rate of growth for long, the Chalet School would surely have been giving Oxford a run for its money by about Book Five!). It was also great to see the initial introductions of Grizel and Simone and many of the other characters who figure so prominently in later tales. And we see Joey's first exposure to a badly-written school story here (a tome by the name of Denise of the Fourth, by Muriel Bernardine Browne), which will have lasting aftereffects.

The first book is considerably longer than most of the other books in the series, and very focused on character development and making the best possible use of the Austrian countryside Brent-Dyer loved. And while it's not necessarily the most realistic presentation of the theme of a young woman finding a career, it nevertheless enjoyably partakes of that theme, which is one of my favorite sorts of tale. 

I can't resist also noting a scene during Madge and Joey's trip to Paris on their way to set up the school. The girls make a side trip to Versailles, and I have to wonder if Brent-Dyer was self-consciously evoking the "Moberley-Jourdain incident," which I've mentioned here before and which is endlessly fascinating to me:

From there, they went on to the Trianons, with their dainty artificiality, where poor Marie Antoinette and her court ladies had played at being milkmaids and shepherdesses clad in flowered silks, while, less than twenty miles away, the Paris mob was beginning to cry aloud for bread. The whole place was peopled with gay, exquisite ghosts for both Madge and Jo, and even Grizel became infected by them, and half expected to see some hooped and powdered lady, with raised fan and brilliant eyes, beckon to her from behind one of the statues.

Moberly and Jourdain's book, An Adventure, had certainly been popular enough following its publication in 1911, so one wonders if it had entered into the culture thoroughly enough for Brent-Dyer to play off of it and assume that her readers would recognize the reference?


After enjoying The School at the Chalet, I plunged straight ahead into Jo of the Chalet School, which I acquired in a cheapo paperback version reputed to have only minor edits from the original. Now, calling one of the Chalet School books my favorite, when I've only read five or six in all, might not make all that much of an impression—especially on those of you who have read the complete series and know them in depth—but for now, I think that Jo of the Chalet School is my favorite. Cheerful and fun, but relatively low-key (only two or three near-death experiences, and those kept fairly brief), and set—like so many of my favorite novels—amidst the gleam of snow and ice as the school weathers (literally and figuratively) its first Austrian winter, there's also the added excitement of a flood, not to mention, less climactically, Jo's first attempts at writing. I found it hugely enjoyable, and it's one I could see myself happily re-reading on a cold rainy day.

Next up in the series is The Princess of the Chalet School, which is happily already resting on my TBR shelves. So far, so good!




RITA COATTS, School on an Island (1938)


After the two Chalet School books had got me thoroughly back in a girls' school frame of mind, I couldn't resist picking up this book, which I mentioned here a whileago when Karen of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings very kindly gifted it to me after finding it in a thrift shop. (Thanks again, Karen!)

I had already had enough trouble resisting the book because of its adorable dustjacket and the fact that it's one of the oldest school stories in my collection. And for the most part, the seductiveness of the cover paid off. The story—involving two girls' schools (one noble and cheerful and fun-loving and moral, the other standoffish and joyless and distinctly chilly) which go on a round-the-world cruise (sure, why not?!) and get shipwrecked on the proverbial desert island—is thoroughly ridiculous and implausible in every way, and the characters—except for the very noble, brave, charismatic lead—are barely developed at all—but the story is also completely enjoyable and fun, with cheerful high spirits and well-plotted (if unfathomably unlikely) adventures throughout. I had a great time with it and am so happy to have it in my collection.

My only proviso here is that, perhaps not entirely unexpectedly for a novel written in the 1930s, the tale is weakened a bit by somewhat racist portrayals of a black character and a Chinese one. I should add that these are not hateful portrayals—in fact both characters play important roles in the survival of the girls and their teachers—but they are about as stereotypical in speech and character traits as they could be, and they do appear fairly regularly throughout the novel. This didn't seriously hinder my enjoyment of the novel, but it might for some readers.

Now, the question is, what shall my next school story be???

15 comments:

  1. I had no idea that my paperback of The School at the Chalet was heavily abridged! And I was so delighted when I found it, too. I saw the ebooks but I ran into the same problem with the fine print -- a pity. But it is pleasant (if tantalising) to read someone appreciating them.

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    1. Sorry to have tantalized you! It's such a popular series, and has been so influential, you would think that GGB, or another publisher, would want to have all of them in print so that new readers could discover them and older readers could collect them again. But alas! I'm happy that GGB is at least putting a few more copies of them out there.

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  2. I'm so glad the Coatts turned out to be worthwhile! And I too have struggled with the Chalet School books - I read them when I was young and this was the heavily edited versions. I really would like to have a complete, uncut set - but I think that's really somewhat unlikely unless I win a fortune!

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    1. It was great fun to read, Karen. And the cover is so adorable, I love having it on my shelves. It's sad that owning a full set of unabridged Chalet School books requires a lottery winning!

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  3. I've loved these books for more than 50 years. After many years I managed to get them all in hardback editions but have still been buying the GGBP ones for the introductions and extra short stories that are often included.

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    1. Oh, Ann, I (and probably the other commenters on this post) am green with envy that you have the complete set! It must have taken a lot of time and determination to acquire them all, but how lovely they must look on your bookshelves!

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  4. I fear that I read almost all abridged ones as a child, so would love to revisit them someday in their original form (esp. my/everyone's favourite, 'Exile'). I send up a prayer to the book gods that their circulation will increase!

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    1. For what it's worth, Vicki, I've heard that some people who grew up with the abridged versions find the unabridged ones a bit foreign, like having new scenes tacked in to the classic stories they're used to. So perhaps we can cling to that for comfort! (But I'm skeptical.)

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    2. I grew up with the abridged versions but have to admit that I much prefer the GGB ones. I notice that they are reprinting some of the ones they have already reprinted (if that makes sense) so there are sometimes second chances to get them at more reasonable prices.
      Have you read Antonia Forest? She had a long publishing career but began in 1948 with a school story. Her main series looks at the Marlow family (both at home and at school) and I love it. I am not the only one, and Sims and Clare praise her highly. Excellent writing and characterisation.

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    3. P.S. Meant to sign the previous comments about Antonia Forest etc - Frances

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    4. It's odd, Frances, I read an Antonia Forest quite a while back, but it was before I was really properly interested in school stories--I don't know what inspired me and I wasn't that excited about it. But I imagine now that I have an interest in the genre I would feel differently. I've always heard enthusiastic recommendations of her work, so will have to add her back to my TBR list!

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    5. I read one Antonia Forest (Autumn Term) when it was reissued in paperback a few years ago - eh..............
      Probably just as well that they didn't bring out more at the time or I might have bought a few more that I wasn't enthused about - I know I didn't keep the book. BUT, Scott, don't let that keep you from adding to the TBR list (oh, as if!) Tom

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  5. Despite my devotion to EBD - many of whose later books I am old enough to have been given as Christmas presents as they were published - I think that Antonia Forest is the very best writer of this genre.

    She may not have written very many books but those that she did are pitch perfect, especially the school based ones. And The Ready-Made Family....

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  6. I have only just come across your blog and was reading the piece about Rita Coatts. No one seems to have pointed out that Rita Coatts was the pseudonym of a well known male writer: Eric Leyland. He also wrote girls' stories as Sylvia Little.

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    1. I think you might be mixing her up with Nesta Grant or Elizabeth Tarrant, which are both Leyland pseudonyms, along with Sylvia Little. Rita Coatts has been thoroughly identified, there are surviving photos of her, and I even had an email from her granddaughter a while back. So hard to keep all of these authors and their pseudonyms straight!

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