My Lockdown Books: Sixty Nine

You might think I’ve chosen another book by Elinor Brent-Dyer to include in this lockdown selection but I haven’t – although I understand why you might be fooled into thinking otherwise. I love Visitors for the Chalet School by Helen McClelland, the original (I think) fill-in to the series. It’s a great addition but it’s a good book in its own right too.

When I read Elinor Brent-Dyer’s books I don’t really feel a sense of period but Visitors makes me aware that I’m reading about a bygone age. This is a good thing!  For me, the historical detail adds so much to the book. It also gives a wonderful outsider’s view of the Chalet School and contextualises it well. And it gives more description of Tirol, a place I love regardless of the Chalet School.

And I remember Helen fondly too.  She took the trouble to keep in touch with a young teenage Chalet School enthusiast in the north east of Scotland and found me an Australian pen-pal, with whom I kept in touch for years.  In turn she put me in touch with a friend of hers and that was the beginning of my Chalet School networking.  Hello Michelle and Rosemary if you’re reading this!

My Lockdown Books: Seven

The first books I seriously set about collecting were the Chalet School books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  I acquired the first one (actually the seventeenth in a series of fifty eight) when I was eight.  It took me until I was twenty five to complete my collection.  In the early days, Mum found many of them for me and they became birthday and Christmas presents.  Although they hadn’t reached the ridiculous heights of their value in my early collecting days, they were still expensive enough for a family on a limited budget.

My best Chalet School collecting story comes from when I was around ten.  We were driving back to Lossiemouth, having (I think) visited my grandparents in Musselburgh.  We stopped en route in St Andrews and came across a secondhand bookshop near the golf course.  Naturally we went in and I discovered two Chalet books I didn’t have: Althea Joins the Chalet School and Prefects of the Chalet School, the final two in the series.  I still had holiday money left, just enough to cover the cost of both of them.  I swithered and swithered, doubtless driving everyone concerned crazy, and eventually decided to buy both.  I’m very glad I did as, only a few years later, I saw these books on sale at £350 each.  I had paid a total of 70p!

I have chosen Jo Returns to the Chalet School as today’s book.  It’s one of the early titles and is set in inter-war Austria in the fictionalised (and renamed) Pertisau-am-Achensee.  The first fourteen titles, set primarily in Pertisau, are my favourites, partly because of their setting and partly because I think they’re better books than most of the later ones.  I often cite Jo Returns as one of my favourite books in the series but sometimes I think it’s because of the wonderful dustwrapper and plates by the artist Nina K Brisley.

23rd December

My friends Anna and Suzanne, who lived across the road from me growing up, owned a copy of Elizabeth of the Garret Theatre and kindly lent it to me and my sister to read. It’s one of the few books that Ann and I both read as children that we both liked and still like. Mum also liked it and she went on to collect all of Gwendoline Courtney’s books. After she died and her collection came to me I read these other titles but for a long time it was just Elizabeth and her family that I knew. Its original title was Stepmother which gives a clue to its plot but only a partial one as it turns out. The four Verney sisters are all horrified when their father remarries but Nan, the stepmother of the title, turns out not to be wicked and is, in fact, responsible for changing all of their lives for the better. What I liked, and still like, was the depiction of family life: the squabbles, the fun, the inter-reliance. It’s one of my feel-good books now and I often read it in times of stress.

Okay, cards on the table: I chose to read Summers of the Wild Rose by Rosemary Harris because it is partially set in Innsbruck. A devotee of the Chalet School books from a young age, anything to do with Austria, and Tirol in particular, jumps out at me. This is not the Chalet School by any stretch of the imagination but a diligent reader of the early books in that series will recognise the setting in time as well as place. Part one of Summers of the Wild Rose is set in 1936 in the midst of rampant anti-Semitism. It’s told from the perspective of Nell Dobell an English girl who travels to the Austrian city with her choir to take part in a music festival. There she meets Franz and sees for the first time the corruptive nature of power. The second part of the novel is set well after the Second World War and we meet Nell as a mature woman, still involved in the musical world. And we also meet her niece through whom the past is resolved.

4th December

It was always going to be incredibly difficult to choose only one book by Elinor Brent-Dyer for this list. I almost chose The Chalet School in Exile in an effort to have both Austria and Guernsey, two of my favourite places in real life, but in the end I chose The School at the Chalet because it’s where it all begins.  And, although it isn’t my favourite story (I like Rivals of the Chalet School and Jo Returns to the Chalet School as well as Exile), I think it has the best descriptions and brings Pertisau and its environs back to me whenever I read it.  I like it, too, because Madge Bettany, the school’s founder, is such a believable character to whom one can still relate in it.  And it’s one of the few Chalet books that makes me think I’d like to be there.  It has such a strong and real sense of community.

Think of resistance fighters of the Second World War and you will almost certainly have France in mind. Mal Peet’s novel of that time, however, focuses on the intertwined and inter-dependant lives of one cell of the Dutch resistance during the cold, hungry winter of 1944. Tamar tells two stories: that of the eponymous present-day heroine alongside her SOE agent grandfather’s.  The shift between the two is skilful and unobtrusive, the one often coming as a relief from the other.  For this book is not an easy or undemanding read.  It is powerful and shocking but it is also memorable and compelling.  I guarantee that, as Tamar uncovers her grandfather’s tragic and terrible story, you will be as surprised and horrified as she is.

The Blog’s Name

I expect that some of you recognise the allusion in the title of my blog.  It’s to Lewis Carroll, of course, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

       ‘and what is the use of a book’, thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’

I’ve always liked this quote and I do agree with Alice.  I think she’s right both literally and metaphorically.

Judging for the Kate Greenaway Medal opened a whole new world of books for me.  Up until then I hadn’t paid all that much attention to picture books.  I’d bought them for the library and occasionally for the children of friends but I hadn’t really studied them.  Some of my fellow judges were real experts on the subject and I learnt so much from them about how illustration (not just in picture books but in any book) enhances the reading experience.  I love the way the words and pictures in a book can tell different stories as in Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner by John Kelly and Cathy Tincknell.  And I am enchanted by the 1920s’ style used by Shirley Hughes in Ella’s Big Chance.

My enjoyment of a novel is definitely affected by the dialogue.  I don’t necessarily like a novel because it has lots of conversations but I do struggle if there are few.  I think that the reader learns so much about characters from the conversations they have and is more easily drawn into their world.  The opening lines of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women is a classic case in point.

But the ‘pictures and conversations’ thing is true too metaphorically.  Good books paint pictures in the mind.  As a child, I was steeped in the Chalet School books of Elinor Brent-Dyer, especially those set in Austria.  I was in my late twenties before I ever went to the Achensee, the real-life setting of the early books in the series, but I had a remarkably accurate idea of what the lake and its surrounding villages looked like.  Equally, I have never visited Vienna but, having read The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson, I feel as though I have!  I can see, too, Anne Shirley cracking her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head in the Avonlea school (and I could before ever I saw either the BBC’s excellent adaptation of LM Montgomery’s book or Kevin Sullivan’s equally brilliant offering).

And a book with any lasting impact will always engage me in a debate – often with myself but sometimes with others!  It might be about the plot or characters or it could cause me to ponder the themes and issues raised.  One such book was The Garbage King by Elizabeth Laird which had a huge impact on me when I first read it.  Set in modern Ethiopia, it contrasts (but, oh, so subtly) the lives of two boys from opposite ends of the social scale.  It stayed in my head for ages afterwards.  I’ve even been known to debate books with their authors.  As a teenager, I wrote to Joan Lingard (and received a reply) to remonstrate with her about the way she ended her Maggie quartet.  And whenever I see Linda Newbery I try, with no real hope of success, to persuade her to write a sequel to the excellent Sisterland  because I so much want to know what happens to all the characters.

So, yes, for me there is no use of a book without pictures and conversations.