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.

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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…

Book of the day – The Rabbit Problem

The Rabbit Problem, by Emily Gravett book coverMy favourite book that I added/catalogued today was The Rabbit Problem, by Emily Gravett “(and a lot of rabbits!)”. It is a most unusual and marvellous book, and everyone, young and old, should read it. The book is in the form of a calendar, illustrating (literally), what happens over the course of a year after two rabbits start having baby rabbits. It’s a version of Fibonacci’s sequence (or series) . He discovered his famous number sequence after trying to work out how many pairs of rabbits there would be a year from now, if there are now two rabbits, one male and one female, who have just been born – this became known as Fibonacci’s Rabbit Problem.

The Rabbit Problem isn’t a maths book, as such,  although it could be used as the basis of a discussion or lesson about the Fibonacci sequence for younger children. It’s beautifully illustrated with lots of very cute pictured of rabbits, 3D features, like a rabbit’s ration book (when food goes short because there are too many rabbits), and a very cool pop-up bit at the end. Because the rabbits encounter problems as a result of their population explosion, the book could also be used with young children to talk about what happens when places become overpopulated. So, The Rabbit Problem is educational and it has cute bunnies in – what more could you ask for?