As a teenager I found Elinor Brent-Dyer’s La Rochelle series quite difficult to get into. They seemed to me to be much more dense than the Chalet School books. However, the Guernsey setting of many of them appealed to me immediately. That may be part of the reason for my persevering with the books. I love the sea and islands and small communities, so these books ticked a lot of boxes for me.
The La Rochelle series is actually a loose grouping of seven books that share some characters. The first two, Gerry Goes to School and A Head Girl’s Difficulties, never make it to the Channel Islands. Seven Scamps and Heather Leaves School (books four and five) are partially set in Guernsey and feature many characters from the first three books. But it’s the other three that I want to consider: The Maids of La Rochelle, Janie of La Rochelle and Janie Steps In.
These books feature Janie Temple/Lucy and, to a lesser extent, her sisters Elizabeth and Anne, and the families of all three. Readers of the Chalet School will recognise these families, as they meet up with the school during its short sojourn in Guernsey. Peronelle Jane and Giovanna Anne might not be instantly recognisable but Nella and Vanna Ozanne and their cousins, Julie, Betsy and Vi Lucy, and Beth, Nancy, Barbara and Janice Chester are familiar to aficionados of the Chalet School.
We meet the Temple girls – Elizabeth and Anne and their younger half-sister Janie – in The Maids of La Rochelle in the aftermath of their father’s death. By their standards they are left poorly off and so decide to move to Guernsey where life will be cheaper. They go to stay in a glorified fisherman’s cottage at Rocquaine Bay and settle into genteel poverty! To be honest, I can still take or leave the story. It’s full of folk tales and white witches and melodrama. But the descriptions of the scenery and St Peterport and the views of the sea have a strong pull on me.
I went to Guernsey for the first time in the late nineties. I was on my own and it was wonderful! I followed in the footsteps of the Temples in town and country. One short passage that stayed with me is in chapter 14. I don’t think it’s meant to be significant (there are other, more dramatic, events) but I always remember the description of Elizabeth going to the Guille-Alles Library and then lunching ‘in one of the numerous shops in the Arcade’. And I did that too! Later on, in chapter 19, there’s a proper description of the High Street and the harbour and I can still see that in my mind’s eye.
The book continues on its way with love affairs and scarlet fever and cliff fires. The Athertons from A Head Girl’s Difficulties arrive on the island for the summer and make friends with the Temples. There are many excursions to various bays for swimming and picnics. And of course all the loose ends are tied up. Elizabeth marries Paul Ozanne, a lawyer, and Anne Dr Peter Chester, while Julian Lucy hovers in the background waiting for Janie and another book.
That other book is Janie of La Rochelle which opens with her marriage to Julian. They buy La Rochelle which Julian has enlarged and the one-time potato field landscaped. Again the story itself is negligible but the descriptions of Guernsey make up for that as far as I am concerned. I enjoyed the book when I first read it as it ties up lots of relationships. The Athertons, Willoughbys and Raphaels all reappear from other books and everyone gets engaged and/or married. It’s a very useful book if you want to create family trees!
As well as some lovely descriptions of Guernsey, Elinor also offers a small glimpse of Sark where Janie and Julian go for their honeymoon. It sounded idyllic (the island, not the honeymoon!) and I was delighted that I could go there whilst on my second, and so far last, visit to Guernsey. I went there on a beautiful early summer day and fell in love immediately. Unlike Janie and Julian, I didn’t walk up from the harbour and I did do the tourist thing and travel by horse and cart but I also wandered a bit on foot. It was one of the hazy days where you can almost see the heat shimmering and it felt dreamlike. The entire cast of the La Rochelle books could have wandered by and I’d merely have smiled lazily at them!
Maids was published in 1924 and Janie in 1932. There was then a gap of twenty one years before the final book in the series was published. Janie Steps In has a new main character, Nan Blakeney, a cousin of Rosamund Willoughby. After the death of her mother, Nan goes to Guernsey to stay with the Lucys and Janie and Julian are able to help her recover from her loss. In book time only a few years have passed and we meet the young Lucy children as well as their Ozanne and Chester cousins. There’s a bit more plot in this book and we see some interaction between the Temple girls as well as their children.
But it’s the house in this book that interested me – Janie and Julian’s house on the edge of St Peterport. I loved the description of it and when I heard that it might have been based on Sausmarez Manor I determined to visit that house. For clarity, the location is not based on the manor house; just the building itself. It’s a beautiful, graceful building and I loved it. It brought to life Janie’s house and I was better able to appreciate some of the action.
So there you are: Guernsey. I’m so glad that I discovered it through these books. And whilst I don’t think they’re the best of Elinor Brent-Dyer’s work, she did for me in them the same as she did in the early Chalet School books – introduced me to a new place so evocatively that I felt I had to see it for myself.