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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“…a vital expression of the organism…”

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The above is printed in the front of Migraine, by Oliver Sacks. I’m reading this book for the second time. The first time I read it I was in my late? teenage years (a long time ago), and I remember that I actually started having a migraine while I was reading it. The irony (or something). It is a most fascinating tome, mainly because migraines are fascinating things but also because Sacks writes well and accessibly. But I’m not really planning to write about migraines or even Migraine today. This is really just a little note about the above quotation. I had two thoughts about it when I read it the other day:

1.

Whoever…sees in illness a vital expression of the organism will no longer see it as an enemy…

Both thoughts have to do with my acceptance (or not) of my heart condition. I have seen my heart condition as my enemy, to be fought against. I have not seen it as a “vital expression of [my] organism. But…

2.

…the disease is the creation of the patient…

I don’t think Groddeck means that the patient is inventing the illness; I’m taking this to mean that the illness is ‘just’ a part of the person, in the same way that the person’s walk, speech, facial expressions, etc., are a part of her/him. My heart condition is  a part of me, so (a) in fighting against it I’ve been fighting against myself (very tiring) and (b) I think I have been seeing it as something separate from myself, like an external enemy that might go away if I try hard enough. But it’s not going to go away. [In this week’s counselling session I realised that I’ve been holding on to a fantasy that one day my heart defect would just go away! This probably sounds ridiculous but when I said it I realised it was true, and might go some way to explain the non-acceptance of it.] I need to accept my “creation” as me. I’m not sure I need to like it, but I need to find a way of seeing it in the same way that I see my [trying to think of something I like] handwriting; not as something external to me, but just part of my whole self/person.

Is this making any sense?

 

January with a vengeance

I can’t really remember what we did in the first three weeks of January…tried to get back into our routines after the Christmas break I suppose. It was actually quite nice to go back to the playgroups and see everyone again. We met up with some friends one Sunday afternoon, which was really good. I went to the doctors a few times to try and sort out my medication (Ramipril). We are still trying to increase the dose, so I’m now taking 5mg per day with no side effects as yet, although I am a bit worried that my blood pressure is going to get too low as it was already quite low last time I had it taken when I was only taking 2.5mg/day. We shall see, I have to go back and have a blood test (to make sure kidney/liver function is OK) and a blood pressure test in 2 weeks. Also, I forgot to say before, I had a bit of a mental bad patch in so I’m now taken double the dose of anti-depressants as well, and things have been better since then apart from the odd blip last week, which was probably due to…

NOROVIRUS WEEK OF DOOM!

We think Babymouse got the virus from somewhere. She was the first to be ill, followed by me, then Mr C. My lovely mum came to help out as we were all ill, and then she got sick as well! Poor mum! Fortunately, the virus seemed to weaken each time it attacked one of us, so my mum was less sick than everyone else, but poor Babymouse was the most badly affected. She actually got over the virus fairly quickly, but it has left her with a (hopefully temporary) intolerance to lactose, so she can’t take her usual milk and has been prescribed some lactose free ‘milk’ by the GP. Hopefully this will help her bowel to recover and we can gradually re-introduce her usual milk in the next few days. Poor B was very unlike herself last week – she is normally quite active and chirpy, but she was very lethargic and unhappy – basically she was either sleeping, eating or crying. I suppose it’s not really surprising because she was obviously not well and hadn’t been able to eat properly and she’s also teething again (it seems almost continuous) with her molars, which apparently are some of the worst teeth to have to deal with, teething wise. It was quite horrible to see her so unhappy and not know what to do. We do have the luxury of having relations who are doctors, so we did call them, as well as the health visitors, and both were very helpful. I just hope we can reintroduce her milk without any further problems. At least she is eating a lot more ‘proper’ food now and isn’t entirely dependent on milk for sustenance, but it is still the major part of her diet.

This week is my last full week of maternity leave – back to work next Thursday! It’s come round very quickly since we passed the Christmas barrier. I found out last week that they are not replacing the other half of my post, at least in the short term (which I fear means never), so that will be interesting…