Saturday, March 15, 2008

'tophole' is an underused word in our times

Thanks to the cleverness of A, we have found ourselves in possession of some of the books that formed one of our common childhood obsessions: Elinor M Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series. Those acquainted with the Chalet School books will know that they are the story of the brilliant and charming Bettany girls, who set up a school in Austria when they are orphaned [well, twenty-four year old Madge does; the twelve-year old Joey is the school's first pupil] and embark upon a course of education almost fantastically exotic to anyone whose only other acquaintance with school stories has been the garden variety English schoolgirl stuff.

I had little to no memory of the details of the series, apart from that it was a cultural hodgepodge, and that they spoke French, German and English on alternating days as a matter of principle, and that a pleasantly high number of handsome, charming English doctors [male] abide in the Tyrol, apparently for the sole purpose of sweeping the ladies Bettany off their feet in later volumes of the series. It's all coming back fast and in delightful fashion nonetheless. For someone who thrived on school stories I take it as a personal failing, looking back, that I failed to integrate the word 'topping' successfully into my vocabulary. I must have been a very slow child. By page 29 of the first book, The School at the Chalet (1925), Madge and Joey have already described things as "topping" about four hundred times.

The books are also moral lessons in the fashion of Enid Blyton, and infuse their multiculturalism with a healthy awareness of the English prescriptions of doing things. On the first day of school Jo and Grizel [Cochrane, the unhappy unwanted English girl who comes away with the Bettanys to the Tyrol] walk down to the Seespitz landing with their new Austrian friends. The conversation that takes place is as follows:

It was a delightful walk, and they found each other very friendly, although shy Frieda only smiled and scarcely spoke at all. Gisela, Bette, and Gertrud were anxious to find out all they could about English schools, and they asked many questions. The two English girls found that they had read quite a number of school-stories, and were very ready to take in all they could on the subject of Prefects, and Head Girls, and games.

‘Then I understand that though most of you are very honourable, it is not always so,’ said Gertrud finally.

‘What do you mean? English girls always play the game!' cried Jo sharply.

‘But some cheat, and look at examination papers beforehand, and take what is not their own,’ returned Gertrud.

‘Tosh! I’ve never met any!’ declared Jo.

‘But it says so in the books I have read,’ persisted the elder girl.

‘But that’s only to make the story,’ explained Jo. ‘We don’t really do such things —honest Injun, Gertrud!

‘I should hope not!’ came from Grizel, who was walking a little in front with Gisela and Bernhilda.

Gertrud’s face cleared. ‘Ah, I see. I am glad, for I should like to think that all English girls are honourable. We are grateful to you, you know, for my father says that it is the great loans England has made to Austria that are making it possible for us to become a nation once more.’

Jo and Grizel neither knew nor cared about the loans to Austria, but they realised that the others wanted to be friendly, and they were ready to meet them half-way. They chattered on about school topics till they reached the Seespitz Gasthaus, where Bernhilda and Frieda said ‘good-bye’ to them.

The best thing about this exchange is that it ends with Bernhilda asking the girls to come "eat an English tea" with her family at the weekend*. Alumni of convent schools will remember that the only really important things about childhood are food and morals. [The healthy dose of nationalism is inseparable from personal morality. I have a very distinct memory of Sister Marion condemning in the strongest words possible for a nun of her character and calibre, the perfidious work of some unknown dissenter who, after the Republic Day celebrations, wrote 'THIS COUNTRY IS GOING TO THE DOGS' on a paper flag of India and left it to wither in the sun outside the school office.]

I am looking forward with unmitigated glee to reacquainting myself with the books, which are, as the Tyrol to the invalid [but spirited] Joey, rather a breath of fresh air after the more stultified atmosphere of St Clare's and Malory Towers, where the girls, if equally plucky, are rather more suspicious of foreigners, geniuses and men. The famed English spirit of adventure is very much more disarmingly captured in this pioneering work of Madge and Joey's. Earlier in the book Madge says to their elder brother, Dick [who is 'away in India' - the family have East India stock at four per cent, and all three Bettany children were born there]:

But oh, Dick! Supposing it isn’t a success! Supposing I fail!’

And so:

‘Tosh!’ he said easily. ‘You won’t fail! You’ve too much grit for that. Other people might; but you’ll go on! Buck up, old thing!’

‘But I’m so young,’ she said— ‘only twenty-four, Dick!’

He gave her arm a reassuring squeeze.

‘You’ll pull through all right! Keep your hair on, old girl! We’d better be getting back now.'

This is superior stuff. At the cusp of attaining twenty-four I only hope that my life is a little more full of people who can tell me to keep my hair on and push me off the deep end if I ever decide to start a school for plucky young girls.

I should start a school for plucky young girls.

I hope that my memory has not failed me and that the series goes on as it has begun: if so I shall keep you all updated on the histories of the Chaletians. At the very least the amount of food they've been putting away deserves honest and incisive documentation. Girls! Eating! It's a wonder these books have been allowed to persist in the face of postmodernity.

‘Simone,’ she said aloud, ‘I’m awfully sorry Grizel and I have been such beasts. I quite see we have been beasts, even though we didn’t mean it! Now I want you to mop up—here’s a hankie!—and come back with me, and we’ll start again. I’m sure Grizel will see it, and we’ll all be pally together.’

But this was not what Simone wanted. Truth to tell, she had conceived a violent affection for Jo, and Grizel, with her vivid prettiness and more obvious qualities, repelled her. So she sobbed on, while Joey sat, nearly distracted, and not knowing what to do.

‘Simone, I do wish you’d stop!’ she said finally. ‘Do stop crying, old thing! I’ll do anything I can for you; honest, I will!’

Simone made a big effort. ‘Will you be— my friend?' she choked out.

‘Of course I will! I am! We both are!’

‘No; I mean—my amie intime! Oh, Jo, if you only would, I think I should be happier! Grizel makes friends with everyone. Gisela Marani loves her, and so does Bette Rincini! I don’t want her; I want only you! I love you so!’

Anyone less sentimental than Joey Bettany it would have been hard to find; and now she sat rigid with horror while Simone made this little speech. Her first impulse was to say, ‘Don’t be so idiotic!’ but you can’t do that when a person has lifted a pathetically tear-stained face to you, and is looking at you with eyes full of a doglike affection. At least you can’t if you are like soft-hearted Jo, who promptly hugged the younger girl, saying, ‘Righto! we’ll be pals. And now, do mop up, there’s a gem!’

Oh, those precious days of summer.

* - That English tea is one of the things that has to this day remained emblazoned in my memory as the very height of sophistication. Frau Mensch, mother of Bernhilda, asks Joey and Grizel if they will drink "Thee mit Citron oder mit Rhum," and Bernhilda has to step in and tell Mamma that the English girls will not take tea with lemon or rum, but "Thee mit Milch." Fantastic, fantastic.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I loved the Chalet School series too...completely devoured them. My school had the entire collection. Can you believe they aren't available though anymore? I went hunting in Crosswords and Landmark and placed an order about a year or so back. No call yet.