Illness and disability in Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School stories

The abstract for a paper I wrote for the International Centre for Victorian Women Writers: Fifth International Conference: 1920s and 1930s

As other scholars have noted, Brent-Dyer makes good use of the “illness/injury” plot device throughout her long series of Chalet School stories in order to symbolise a process of character change. Illness, disability or injury are used as catalysts to enable ‘difficult’ characters to reform. In addition, Brent-Dyer occasionally, particularly in the character of The Robin, employs the trope of the purity and innocence of sick children.

In this paper, I discuss Brent-Dyer’s use of these ideas in the pre-war Chalet School stories, including thoughts on how her own life story may have influenced this aspect of her writing. I examine the positive and negative implications of the ways in which Brent-Dyer employs ideas of illness and disability, and how this may have affected my own reading of her Chalet School books as a child and young adult living with chronic ill health.

In addition, I aim to explore the idea of books, and the Chalet School stories in particular, as sanctuary, and to briefly give some thought as to why Brent-Dyer’s attitudes to health and illness may have changed after the Second World War.

You can see the presentation and my (possibly incomprehensible) notes on the university’s repository.


The hearts of small children are delicate organs

“But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrink so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.”

― Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café and Other Stories

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: a haiku review

Time turns for PotterIMG_20160827_170558

Best left well alone I think

Why did Jo do it?


Reflections on content overload and self-filtering


This a response to Ernesto Priego’s post, which is one of the best and wisest things I’ve read for a while. Please read his post before you read mine, which is but a poor reflection, and a bit of a mind dump, so please excuse waffle and bad syntax but not foolishness.

Reading Ernesto’s post, I thought again about giving up this blog, but then I thought, no, it is my voice. It is where I share what (for good or ill) would not otherwise be shared. I’m thinking of @PatientAsPaper, #chronicLife, etc. Patients’ views need to be heard. I could share elsewhere, on Facebook we have the Somerville Foundation page where lots of CHD-related sharing goes on, but some sharing needs to go outside the “echo chamber” (as we used to say in Library Land). Sometimes, I need to write to at least attempt to be heard, because I can’t speak, or I don’t want to, or I think it’s good to let other people know I go through these things too – I like to feel like I’m doing my bit for patient solidarity and support because I don’t do much of that offline.

Of course, this is all my way of justifying the continuation of my online ramblings, most of which aren’t even about my experience as a patient! But I do try to filter. I’ve recently removed (literally) hundreds of posts from this blog because they were there like a millstone around my virtual neck – I actually felt them weighing me down – adding to the content overload which I, too, feel overwhelmed by even as I add to the problem, typing some more letters, words, paragraphs, waffle, to add to the overfed monster that is social media.

I returned to Facebook fairly recently, after a few years’ hiatus, and this hasn’t helped, but actually I find it easier to filter Facebook than Twitter, partly because of the changes to Twitter Ernesto talks about – it is a bit ‘all or nothing’, whereas Facebook, though clearly evil, has grades of filtration. And, yes, I think it [social media] is evil, or at least partly so – we are making ourselves both the marketeers and the marketed – the consumers and the commodities, even as we preach against such things. As Ernesto says, I think part of this is due to the fear of missing out, especially in a professional context:

Fear of missing out means many of us feel we need to keep an eye on social media to be mildly aware of what’s happening in our fields and in the world, but the illusion created by what looks like everyone actively broadcasting how hard they are at work (or having fun taking planes to exotic conference destinations) can also have a paralyzing effect.

This may particularly apply to librarians and other information professionals who may feel (or it may actually be) that part of their job is to engage with it, and yes, Ernesto is also right about the self-filtering/accompanying professional anxiety. I don’t know how we get round this, apart from to self-filter more, but even if you cut out all the dross [how?] the anxiety would still be there. And also, who decides what is dross? Is it ethical to cut out (‘harmless’) dross on a supposedly democratic platform? Who decides what is harmless? Etc. [One of] the problem[s] with social media is that it is both tremendously subjective and in everyone’s* faces [*yes, I am also aware of the digital divide, don’t worry]. People are consuming other people’s lives like never before – and we the marketeers/consumers want them to do it.

It’s like a new form of social evolution/survival of the fittest – there is a pressure to be [seen] as the best – who takes the best pictures [Instagram], who has the cutest kids/makes the best cakes/has the most friends [Facebook], who has the most readers [WordPress] – the rise of ‘click bait’, even on the BBC News website for pity’s sake, illustrates such things quite well. There isn’t necessarily a prize (except possibly for advertisers) if you win – but it’s the feeling we want – the high of a jump in stats or likes or admirers.

I want to get excited by new forms of social media, but now I just feel overwhelmed. Like Ernesto, I’ve been at this lark for a long time. I do feel old now (even though I’m not yet 40), and a bit behind and a bit lost these days; partly because I feel unable to filter as I used to (see Twitter changes, dumbing down of the BBC website, etc.). I feel bombarded and bored and the same time, but, conversely and paradoxically (and hypocritically), I want to enter into the mix and have people read my content. But why? Why do I want to be a commodity? Because I want to be be heard, I want to feel important and valued. I want to be a survivor in the mad world of the web. To take a more benign view, I want to continue creating: to create is to be human, it is said.

I’m not sure what the answer to Ernesto’s questions are. I think we do have a responsibility as users to filter and self-filter, and to try and take a step back from social media sometimes, to critically assess both it and how we use it. As users/creators/consumers of social we are ultimately responsible for its content – we are the transmitters and the receivers of the messages that are sent and our fate is in our own hands.


Positivity (or not)

As anyone who knows me in real life (or has been a reader of this blog for more than five minutes) will know, I have a very slight tendency towards negativity. I see problems everywhere, I have little confidence in my own abilities, I tend towards melancholy and I am a pessimist. Yes, one of those.

The problem for me, and others like me, is that in society in general, and the workplace in particular, it seems that it’s not acceptable to be negative, even when the negative thing is the true thing. For example, the other week, we were evaluating something at work. We’d had quite a few negative comments from staff, which we wanted to put into the report because we felt it was important people had the chance to have their say about the situation. But one person in our group said we should leave them out because they were too negative. But they were people’s opinions – why should they not be entitled to have their voices heard just because their feedback wasn’t positive? (We put it in the report in the end as the majority of us thought it should go in.)

Antidote book coverAnyhow, one of my (two) new year’s resolutions was to try and be more positive, so I have decided to actually do something about this. I usually enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman’s columns in The Guardian weekend magazine, so when I saw he’d written a book called The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, I decided I would read it. Happily, I was able to download it as an e-book from the public library. [I’m still slightly over-excited about the fact that one can borrow e-books from the public library – perhaps I should write a blog post about this and get it out of my system.] I enjoyed the book, and I think it’s worth reading, particularly if the usual run of self-help books just makes you feel worse than you felt to begin with. For starters, the book describes just what a waste of time positive thinking (aka pretending everything is alright when it’s not) can be. Hooray! I felt better already.

I was going to summarise the main points of the book here, but (a) it’s probably better if you read it for yourself, and (b) this post would be too long if I did, so instead I will share the quotations used at the head of each chapter, which are a sort of summary in themselves:

Try to post for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.

– Fyodor Dostoevsky – Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Pessimism, when you get used to it, is just as agreeable as optimism.

– Arnold Bennett, Things  That Have Interested Me

You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.

Marlo Stanfield in The Wire

Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends and true and our happiness is assured.

– Ambrose Pierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 per cent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.

Wei Wu Wei, Ask the Awakened

Security is a kind of death, I think.

– Tennessee Williams, ‘The Catastrophe of Success

You can’t turn a sow’s ear into a Veal Orloff. But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.

– Julia Child

If I had my life over I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practice, as it were, the remembrance of death…without an ever-present sense of death, life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.

– Inspector Mortimer in Muriel Spark‘s Momento Mori

One of the most helpful ideas I got from the book was the idea of, when worrying about something, to think about what the worst-case scenario could really be. In most situations the worse-case scenario is probably not really going to be as bad as we might think it is, and even if it is bad, it is unlikely to be something that we really can’t cope with in some way. Also, being a brilliant procrastinator, I found the idea of procrastination being a result of  feeling that we can’t do something rather than us really, literally, not being able to do it an interesting one that I hadn’t thought of before. E.g.,  I might feel that  I’m unable to do some Hebrew exercises, but really, I am literally (physically) able to do them, I just don’t feel like it. So, the answer to procrastination is to just get on and do things.

I was also interested to learn that the expression “X  [person] is a failure” and the idea of people being “failures” only came into being during the growth of capitalism in the late 1800s when people started to get credit ratings, and bad credit ratings came to determine a person’s “moral worth” as well as their financial status.  Also, there is a particularly intriguing chapter on the evils of goal setting that should be read by all managers, IMHO.

In general, Burkeman advises embracing such ‘negative’ things as failure and uncertainty, because seeking after success and security are likely to make us more unhappy. None of this is news, but, when you look around at society and at the workplace in particular you would be forgiven for thinking that it was. I suspect that most people secretly (or not so secretly) know that trying to be perfect is going to do us harm, that setting goals is not the way to get the best out of people, that it’s OK to fail, and that we need to think about death a bit more (in a good way), but ‘society’ and the way we’ve been taught to live tell us the opposite. We spend a lot of time deluding ourselves, in various ways, about a myriad of things, when, actually, if we could just see and accept reality we might just be a bit happier. 

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower

When I was young, one of my favourite books was Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, by Rumer Godden (first published in 1961). The book is about Nona, who is sent away from her home in India, to live with family in England. She is lonely and homesick, as one might expect, and her cousin Belinda is cruel to her. One day Nona receives a parcel containing two Japanese dolls, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. She realises that the dolls, too, are far from their home, and decides to make them a Japanese dolls’ house –  in proper Japanese style, and takes great care to get everything right. As she creates and prepares the house, she grows in confidence and enlists the help of  friends and family, eventually feeling more at home and less lonely in her new surroundings and making peace with Belinda (once Belinda does something particularly bad and then realises the error of her ways).

At the back of the book are very detailed instructions for making your own Japanese  dolls’ house, which, as the kind of child who liked to make things, I thought was very cool, and I still do. I don’t know what happened to my copy of the book, if indeed I ever actually owned one – I think it might have been borrowed from the library. I was pleased to find a copy in the Shiny New Learning Centre – a hardback (‘mine’ was paperback), and a work of art in itself, I think. The illustrations, by Jean Primrose, are lovely.

After reading this book, I went through a phase of being interested in Japanese things. I got a book about doll-making from the library, and made a Japanese doll, using an old kitchen roll tube, among other things. I think my mum must have sewn the kimono, because I’m sure my sewing skills wouldn’t have been up to it. I remember having a cup and saucer set with a Japanese-type design on it – goodness knows where that came from or where it went.

Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is a good book for several reasons (or at least, I think so). Firstly, because it is concerned with empathy. In the book Nona has empathy for the dolls because of her own situation. I remember my mum saying to me that Rumer Godden knew what it was like to be homesick, because she also was sent far away from her home as a child, and that taught me something about empathy, and what makes writers write the things they do. I think Miss Happiness and Miss Flower is also about learning from people who might be different to you, and the importance of caring for those who are displaced or lonely. It’s a gentle tale, which would probably seem old fashioned to a lot of people, but it deals with some important subjects.

The book is still in print, but the newer illustrations aren’t anywhere near as nice, in my view (sorry Mr Blythe), although it would be interesting to see if the new edition still includes the instructions for making the house.

Jim: A Cautionary Tale

Jim book coverMy favourite book so far this week (I know it’s only Tuesday) has been Jim: A Cautionary Tale, by Hilaire Belloc, illustrated by Mini Grey. It is a rather jolly tale of a small boy who escapes his nurse and well, you will see (if you don’t already know). The poem is one of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, first published in 1907. You can read all of them if you like, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

Anyway, the modern book of Jim reprints the poem as originally written, but adds new illustrations and some cool pop-up bits. I particularly like the fold out map of the  zoo, which has some amusing signs and disgruntled looking animals on it, and the inside front and back covers. I think most young children would like this book, as long as they’re not afraid of lions…