We Three at School, Kathlyn Rhodes
Elinor M Brent-Dyer
The Maids of La Rochelle
Janie of La Rochelle
The Chalet School in Exile
We Three at School
The three of the title are sisters Cherry, Rosemary and Miranda Lucas, daughters of a famous novelist and his rather fragile wife. They’ve been well educated, but at home, until their forceful aunt insists that they go to school, to have the corners knocked off them and learn to be like other girls. Out of school ‘adventures’ (near drownings, kidnapping, broken legs in the snow) take up as much of the book as lessons and games do. Much of the plot is taken up by our heroines being persecuted by some spiteful, jealous girls (accusations of theft and cheating, what else?) apart from which the Lucas sisters have a jolly good time at school. The illustrations by E E Brier are very charming and the book is well written.
Although I’ve read all the Chalet School books (many of which will never get a re-read), I’ve missed La Rochelle completely. Most of my Chalet books I’ve found very cheaply but I’ve never seen a La Rochelle at a boot sale or even in a SHBS. Maids is the third book in the series, published in1924, the year before The School at the Chalet. What a book! Four deaths in the first chapter to explain how the three Temple girls come to be alone in the world and almost penniless. Some ‘girls’. The youngest, Janie, is fifteen, her sister Anne is twenty and Elizabeth twenty four, yet they seem to think of themselves as children still, without ‘Daddy’ to look after them. They move to an old house, La Rochelle, on Guernsey, in order to live cheaply.
Maids does have a plot of sorts; it tells a story about three sisters and their start in life as they grow up. In contrast, Janie is nothing but a chronicle of births, marriages and deaths. The book starts with Janie’s lovely wedding. She and Julian behave more naturally and realistically with each other than her sisters did with their fiancés. Julian buys La Rochelle so Janie returns to her former home. There follows a confusing account of various Willoughbys, Athertons and Raphaels (all large families), their links with the former Temple girls and with each other. The best you can say for this is that it’s essential reading if you hope to understand the introduction of some of the characters into the Chalet books later on. After reading these two I just had to re-read The Chalet School in Exile, which many people think the best book in the whole series. The school is driven out of Austria by the Nazis and re-establishes itself on Guernsey. How I made any sense of all the Ozannes, Lucys and Chesters before reading at least some La Rochelle, I’ve no idea.
Anyone who has lived in France will speak a mixture of English, French and franglais. They will be good at sewing and have a knack of making their clothes look more elegant than other people’s.
As soon as a young doctor arrives on the scene, you know that one of the female characters will marry him. To marry a doctor is the ultimate achievement in EBD’s world.
People never speak ‘French’ but always ‘rapid French’.
Peasant children are not suitable companions for gently reared girls. This applies in Maids to Janie and the De Garis child and years later to Joey not wanting her children to go to a village school.
Any exposure to cold and/or wet leads inevitably to at best a severe head cold, at worst to pneumonia or rheumatic fever.
Women are the weaker sex and should be sedated and put to bed after the least shock or excitement. Men soldier on. There’s a good example in Janie where her husband Julian nearly gets blown up in a gas explosion at his office. He takes this calmly, whereas if it had happened to Janie, the doctor would have been called and a week in bed prescribed.
Loyal retainers are essential for survival and are physically tougher than ladies. In Maids, Javotte, the girls’ former French nurse, comes over from France because she had a vision of Elizabeth needing her. She then devotes herself 24/7 to nursing and before returning home, spring cleans the house from top to bottom. She’s seventy! In Janie, about eight years later, she’s back again, looking after Elizabeth’s children and any others who may be about.
The importance of discipline. The consequences of disobedience are always dire. Boys should be punished by a good hiding. I can’t think of an example of a girl receiving corporal punishment but there may be one.
Housekeeping. Furniture is old but good. China is ‘pretty’, pottery bright. There are always ‘low bookcases’. Walls are often painted a cheerful yellow. Maids keep everything clean. When the Temple girls first arrive on Guernsey they do their own housekeeping but as soon as they marry they require an army of servants, in case they should get tired.
Inconsistencies, or EBD-isms as they are known. In Maids, the double wedding at the end of the book is to take place at ten o’clock. Two pages later, it’s ten and people are still getting ready. Janie is so ill on her first journey to Guernsey that Elizabeth thinks she’ll die. She’s supposed to have inherited this tendency to sea sickness from her mother. Later, she makes several sea voyages with no problem. In Maids, after she’s had scarlet fever, she grows a lot and says to the doctor that she doesn’t want to be the short one of the family. He assures her she won’t be. At the time of her marriage, she’s 5’2.
The influence of Elsie J Oxenham. In Maids, Pauline is given ‘one of Miss Oxenham’s entrancing school stories’. There is folk dancing in Janie. EBD so admired EJO that she even borrowed the names of some of her characters; Rosamund and Maidie, for example.
You may well wonder why I bother reading books I seem to enjoy mocking. Rather surprisingly for books which contain so many accounts of illnesses and death, they are a comfort read. In Chalet-land, whatever happens there is always someone to look after you. It’s a wonderful community, which doesn’t allow anyone to suffer alone and so gives a great sense of security. Elinor Brent-Dyer came from a humble and troubled background and she created a world she would have liked to inhabit. No wonder girls have been reading the Chalet School books since the 1920s.