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Realism and Romance: my favourite fictional school

A benign community of women and girls, which has existed peacefully for some years, is threatened when the country is annexed by a neighbouring fascist state. The girls incur the authorities’ wrath and have to flee for their lives. Their community is destroyed but rises again, smaller but undaunted, in another country, and they pledge themselves to peace and internationalism, though their individual countries are now at war. And nobody knows yet that the safe island they have chosen for sanctuary is about to be invaded…

When the story is published, the book’s cover is so controversial that it is withdrawn and a new, less offensive version substituted.

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the controversial original cover …

Sounds like a modern YA dystopia?

In fact, this is the plot of The Chalet School In Exile (1940), the fourteenth of 59 Chalet School books published between 1925 and 1970. Not all the books are so dramatic; not all keep such faith with the harsh realities of the real world in which they were written, but the series as a whole is a remarkable achievement. It’s not a packaged series, such as Nancy Drew – all the books are the work of one author, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.

The Chalet School is my favourite fictional school. They aren’t my favourite school stories – those would be Antonia Forest’s Kingscote books, but the imaginative space of the Chalet School occupies a huge place in my reading life. The locations – Austria, Guernsey, the English/Welsh borders, a Welsh island and eventually Switzerland – are lush, and the characters, girls and teachers, are allowed to develop in a way that a shorter series can’t allow for. The books are romantic, but have their own realism too – a girl can be picking Edelweiss and ragging her chums in one book, and grieving for her father, killed in a Nazi concentration camp, in the next.

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… and what it was changed to 

In the 1980s, when I discovered them, the series was still in print in paperback, though the whole series was never available at one time. I read what I could find in the library and local bookshops, ridiculously out of sequence, so that in one book the character Jo is a twelve year old schoolgirl, in the next she is the mother of eleven children, in the next she is back at school and Head Girl. Confusing for ten-year-old me, but also very exciting, because, unlike the Malory Towers or St Clare’s books, which each contained six books and followed one or two main characters, the Chalet School is itself the central character of this saga. I had the vague sense – especially when I found some old 1920s hardbacks – that this was a big, big world, and that there was much more to discover.

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                     More covers for The Chalet School In Exile — 1960s, 80s and 90s

And I kept on discovering. Unlike many readers, I never felt embarrassed by the fact that I was still reading school stories in my teens. I remember, at university in Durham, finding two early hardbacks in a charity shop and happily buying them despite my boyfriend’s incredulity. (The books lasted longer than the boyfriend.) When I did a PhD on girls’ schools and colleges in modern fiction, I had the perfect excuse to keep on reading them and call it research.

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The book based on my PhD

As you would expect in any series lasting for 45 years and 59 books, the quality is patchy, and some of the later books are formulaic and repetitive. And yet, when I reread, as I do about once every decade, I don’t skip. It’s often a comfort to retreat into a world dominated by decency, where evil exists but isn’t allowed to flourish.

The books are old-fashioned now, and yet at their heart is a celebration of friendship, female space, and tolerance which doesn’t grow old.

 

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About sheenawriter68

I write books, drink tea, and sing.

One comment on “Realism and Romance: my favourite fictional school

  1. Mrs L
    September 5, 2016

    I skip the plays and tennis matches when I re-read! But otherwise, my sentiments exactly (including what you say about AF). Nicely put; thank you.

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This entry was posted on September 5, 2016 by and tagged , , .

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