When I was young, I was an ardent fan of the Elinor M. Brent-Dyer‘s Chalet School series of books. There are 62 books in the series, published between 1925 and 1969 if I remember rightly, and by the time I left school I’d read all but 12. I’ve never found the remaining 12 in any bookshops or libraries I’ve been to, but if I ever did I would read those too. The Chalet School series is quite a typical ‘Girl’s Own’ sort of series, with a few differences – the school is orginally set in Austria, then moves around a bit (due to the World War Two, among other things) and this not being in England sets the series apart from others of its kind by introducing lots of characters who aren’t British and lots of cultural references that you wouldn’t get in, say, Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series. Anyway, if you want to know about the Chalet School you can look it up.
This post is really my response to learning about the existence of The Chalet Girls Grow Up, written by Merryn Williams in 1998 (as far as I can ascertain). I only know found out about this book via @chaletfan‘s tweets, following which we had an interesting discussion about it! Chaletfan has also written a blog post on the subject, which I think is worth reading before you read the rest of this post. I want to respond to her post, but I don’t want to read the book, so my post here is about why I don’t want to read the book, and why, in some ways, I wish I hadn’t found out about its existence. (Take heed, Chalet School fans who haven’t read it!)
Basically, as far as I can tell from reviews of and writings about the book, Very Bad Things happen to the protagonists of The Chalet Girls Grow Up. The Chalet School (ex) pupils get dragged kicking and screaming into all the darkness of real life. As @chaletfan says in her post:
There’s life, really, real life, but that’s something the Chalet School never really let happen.
I just don’t understand why anyone would want to let it happen. Of course the Chalet School books are ‘unrealistic’ (although they do deal quite a lot of ‘real-world’ stuff (e.g. death, war, illness, disability, family problems)) considering the genre they belong to and the era during which they were written. But surely the whole point of such books is that they are ‘unrealistic’ in some way – they are, in the end, a form of escapism, where everything (mainly) turns out alright in the end; people are reconciled, learn their lessons, integrate, make friends, become better people. The world of the Chalet School is one of fairness and justice, with a clear a moral code that people (in the main) obey. And so it works and continues despite various adverse conditions and changing times.
Williams quite mercilessly pulls the series out of the rose-tinged bubble it can undoubtedly occupy at points (@chaletfan)
As child/young person, locking myself in the toilet with my fingers in my ears to block out my parents shouting, being bullied at school and dealing with unpleasant experiences involving hospitals, I needed this “rose-tinted bubble”, this escapism and clarity of vision (for want of a better phrase). I needed everything to turn out alright in the end. Some of the characters did annoy me slightly, because they were, perhaps, a bit too perfect, but actually EBD’s characters were more well-rounded than lots of others of their ilk. I needed people to get better, to obey rules and structures and most of all, to be happy, because I wasn’t. The Chalet School books were my escape from real life to a place where everything was better. I wanted it to be real, but as it was in fiction, not as it would have been in real life.
I feel that there is something cruel about Williams’ book – not only towards the Chalet School books themselves (and thank goodness EBD had passed away before it was published), but also to their readers. I think there is a place for darkness in children’s fiction – some of the best children’s fiction ever written is pretty dark (e.g. The Hobbit, the Northern Lights trilogy), but I need the Chalet School to remain a place of light and hope and ideals, because, for me, being so different to real life is what it’s for. By putting Chalet School characters in the ‘real world’ the Chalet School stories become infected by the badness and brokenness of real life, and Williams robs readers of their means of escape.
So, I won’t be reading The Chalet Girls Grow Up, and if I ever open my box of Chalet School books and start to read them again I’ll try and forget it ever existed – but I think the darkness has already started seeping in and this makes me sad.
P.S. Yes, I do take children’s fiction very seriously, and this series in particular because it got me through my childhood. Yes, perhaps I am being childish about all this, but that is sort of my point.