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.



Last Sunday, I made my first contribution to a zine. I went to a zine-making workshop; part of a series of events connected to the Sick! exhibition – an exhibition about living with invisible illness created by…artists living with invisible illness. It was really fun and very therapeutic, and that was just the chat! I am not really arty (as in, I can’t draw), but zines don’t have to be about drawing, writing is good, and collage, and all sorts as long as you can print it on paper/card. I enjoyed creating my page for the zine but the best bit was meeting other people living with a wide variety of invisible illness (although anxiety and depression seemed to be a common theme, alas) and sharing our experiences. I felt less like an alien when I went out than when I went in.

It is ridiculous, really, because I read stuff about chronic and/or invisible illness all the time, I know lots of people (at least online) with congenital heart defects and others with anxiety and depression (more of them in real life, some of them the same people) but I still find myself feeling like I’m the only person going through such things. I guess it’s those ‘dark night of the soul’ moments (if only they were just moments); it’s very easy to feel alone when you’re in the slough. Since I went to the zine-making workshop I’ve tried to think of the people there who were such excellent examples of how to live with chronic illness and take inspiration from them to get through some difficult moments. It has helped.

Anyway, here are some pictures of zines and zine-creation:

INTRA, where the action happens!
A selection of zines for inspiration
How to fold the paper to make a zine
Pages from the finished ‘test’ zine
My page for the zine

In a very small way, I did something I’ve been wanting to do for years – make some art out of my medical records (photocopy of an ECG as background). I hope the page is OK – I think I should have done the writing and the background as two separate pages and then the risograph is used to put the pages together (see picture with stick person in, above). But I expect Xtina can make it work, somehow, for she is a printing genius!

Thanks very much to Xtina, Zara and everyone at INTRA for a lovely, creative, and useful morning.

Art in unusual places

When I was in hospital, one of the things that made my days more cheerful and my walk around the wards more interesting was a lovely collection of pictures featuring whimsical, pretty, sweet and sometimes slightly odd scenes cut out of paper. I think they were made by Rob Ryan. If I’m wrong I apologise! You can read more about Mr Ryan in this article from the Independent Magazine. Among many other things, he did the cover illustration for The Book of Lost Things, which I read last year and liked a lot.

I wish I knew more about the circumstances of how the pictures came to be on the walls of the ward at the Brompton Hospital, but I think that they were (and hopefully still are) there as part of the rb&hArts initiative at the Royal Brompton and Harefield NHS Trust. rb&hArts is a charitable organisation that seeks to bring the arts into the hospital environment. During the rest of this year there are various events going on at the Royal Brompton and Harefield hospitals: poetry readings, an exhibition of art work by staff and patients, recitals by students from the Royal College of Music and music by the Kosmos Ensemble.  The organisation also commisions and installs art works around the hospitals, such as the pictures by Rob Ryan and a Poetry Wall that’s recently been unveiled in the bronchoscopy suite, and are working towards making singing part of the treatment programme for patients with respiritory conditions.

Having the opportunity to listen to live music or look at some art work is surely good for the soul, which in turn helps the physical healing process.  Art in any form, be it pictures or music or poetry, can be a doorway to another place. For someone in hospital it can be a reminder that there’s more to life than the daily routine of injections and medication and tests. When I looked at the art work in the ward and around the hospital I could see that some people somewhere had taken the time and trouble to think about and choose art works that were interesting and beautiful and thought-provoking. It (as well as the lovely hospital staff) made me feel valued as a person, rather than just as a patient.