This post was originally written for my publisher Boldwood Books’ blog to mark the launch of Artful Antics at St Bride’s, my fourth Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery set at the eccentric St Bride’s School for Girls.
When I dreamed up St Bride’s School, the setting for my Gemma Lamb Cozy Mystery series, I was drawing not only on my experience of working at a girls’ boarding school, but also on my love of the various boarding school stories I read as a child.
I don’t usually speak from a script at lit fests, but as I had just had Covid when the HULF Festival of Words* came around, I didn’t want to rely on my slightly fuzzy memory. Having written the script for my affectionate talk about the use of slang in school stories, I hung on to it, so that I could share it with you today here on my blog.
*HULF is the Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival, which I founded in my home village in 2015, and which has been running public events in various venues about the parish ever since.
The seventh in my series of interviews with author friends who love school stories
When last year I launched my St Bride’s series of school stories for grown-ups, I discovered that many of my author friends had a secret passion for school stories of one kind or another – from children’s classics (such as Anne of Green Gables) through affectionate parodies (Molesworth) to adult novels set in schools (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).
I’m delighted that this month’s guest, Juliette Lawson, has chosen one of my favourite vintage children’s school series, Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books, which was launched in 1925 with The School at the Chalet.
Hello, Juliette, and welcome to my blog! To kick off, could you please tell us a little about The School at the Chalet for the sake of any readers who aren’t familiar with it?
This is the first book in the series. Madge Bettany sets up a school in Austria after her guardian dies; she believes the climate will help her younger sister Joey’s (Jo’s) fragile health. It attracts locals and boarders, girls of various nationalities. There are conflicts, disasters, and bad behaviour among the girls, but all ends well, with lessons learned and peace made.
I’ve chosen the first book in the series, but I read many of them while at school, all in hardback. I don’t think the library had all 64 of them though!
How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what age have you reread it?
I was probably around twelve, because I remember our classroom was next to the library in that year, and I was always finding an excuse to go in there. I think I was attracted to the story after going abroad for the first time when I was eleven, to Switzerland and France with Girl Guides. Another favourite book was Heidiby Johanna Spyri, so perhaps I had a thing about mountains! I didn’t re-read any of the Chalet School stories until recently, and I’m 60, so it’s been a very long gap.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
It is still very evocative of the Tyrol and has a charm that has lasted. With hindsight I can see why it appealed to me at the time; there’s a sense of freedom, exploration and constant adventures, none of which I ever had. I was drawn to foreign languages (I did French, Latin and German at school and I have a Classics degree), so the idea of a multi-lingual school was fascinating to me.
The characters are still larger than life, full of energy and enthusiasm, and they navigate their way through various problems and challenges with gusto. My original reading was so long ago that I can’t remember if I was aware of the naïveté or whether the old-fashioned language felt alien to me, being from quite a poor background. Now all the interjections of ‘spiffing!’, ‘splendiferous’, and ‘tophole’ are slightly irritating. As an author, I can also spot lots of telling and head-hopping too, which obviously I wouldn’t have known about at the time.
What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?
The action never stops – I was always gripped by the story and it kept me reading. I used to get in trouble for reading at the dinner table and not hearing my mother ask me a question (I have to confess it still happens with my husband; he despairs!) There was a core set of characters, but new girls were always coming and going, giving rise to different friendships and inevitable clashes. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have worked my way through so many of the series if I’d disliked anything at the time.
Which character did you identify with?
Joey – not in the sense that she was like me, but rather because I wished I could be as confident as her, full of ideas, likeable and very adaptable to whatever situation she ended up in.
How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
I didn’t have a very happy childhood, so reading this series was an escape for me. I could let my imagination run loose, picturing myself in the setting. Because the school library held such a lot of titles from the series, I became very used to borrowing books; it probably influenced my lifelong love of reading and appreciation of libraries more than any works of literature (I started university reading joint English Literature and Classics). It definitely opened my eyes to the wider world and showed me that you could make things happen if you worked hard enough – Madge’s confidence that she could set up the school and make it successful was inspiring. One of my greatest pleasures as an adult has been travelling, and I’m pretty sure it gave me that global interest.
How did it affect your writing?
I’m afraid there was too long a gap for me to take lessons from it; I didn’t start writing until I was in my fifties!
What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?
I attended the primary school across the road from my home, then passed the 11-plus and gained a place at the local high school for girls, the equivalent of a grammar school, which was run on a traditional basis; some of the older teachers wore university gowns and we all had to stand up when a teacher entered the class. After three years, it was merged with the grammar school for boys and a secondary modern to form a comprehensive school, which was a revelation. We were kept in our academic streams for O Levels, but it didn’t take long for the boys and girls to start mixing in the playground! The change coincided with me gaining more confidence, but I’m not sure whether there was a causal link.
I was very musical and from the time we went comprehensive I threw myself into more activities and clubs. School became my oasis, and I was always attending orchestra, choirs, or rehearsals for Gilbert and Sullivan productions. We also had an Archaeology Society and used to go to historic sites on a weekend in the school minibus, driven by our Latin teacher. It would never pass health and safety rules today: there were two benches in the back facing each other, and when we went round a corner, we’d often slide off into each other’s laps, which was great for a group of hormone-ridden mixed-sex teenagers!
Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?
In the earlier years of my secondary school, I found it difficult to make friends, so it was very much my own private world, where I could imagine being happy. I never felt lonely when I had my nose in a book.
Would it still resonate with young readers today?
I very much doubt it – they would probably be in stitches at the language and the old-fashioned tone of it!
Thank you, Juliette, it’s been great fun to share your delight in the Chalet School books.
About Juliette Lawson
Juliette Lawson writes heart-warming historical sagas, bringing the past to life through vivid characters in strong settings inspired by her seaside location in NE England.
Well, what’s not to love about novels set in boarding schools? Most of us grew up enjoying the likes of Malory Towers and The Chalet School, even if we never set foot in a boarding school ourselves.
What’s in it for Readers?
For readers, there’s something compelling about the world of the boarding school, with its unique rules and vocabulary that wouldn’t make sense beyond its boundaries. Readers enjoy joining that fantasy world and feeling a part of it – hence the huge merchandise sales for the Harry Potter franchise.
The setting naturally throws together disparate characters with interesting and varied backgrounds, all great ingredients for a story.
The tropes of boarding school life will be familiar to adults who grew up reading Chalet School et al, which means there is plenty of scope for gentle humour built on their fondess for these vintage classics.
What’s in it for Writers?
For the novelist, the boarding school offers a contained community in which characters are thrown together with no escape. They must face challenges and overcome them together, and their characters grow in the process.
Toa writer of mystery stories, the boarding school, usually segregated from the outside world by a clear physical boundary, presents a neat device to isolate victim, suspects and onlookers while the crime is solved.
In the Footsteps of Agatha Christie (but with more laughs…)
St Bride’s isn’t quite as isolated as Agatha Christie‘s famous stranded train in Murder on the Orient Express (it’s just a bike ride away from Wendlebury Barrow, the village in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries, and there is some cross-over between the two series) – but you get the idea.
(Incidentally, my current work-in-progress,Murder Your Darlings, the sixth Sophie Sayers mystery, is set on an island beset by a storm, from which none can escape, and which the police can’t access – as in Christie’s And Then There Were None, although my body count will be much lighter.)
There’s another reason I chose to write about a boarding school. It’s a world I know well, having worked in one for thirteen years, as a member of the office team rather than as a teacher. I loved the sense of community, just as I love the community spirit of the Cotswold village in which I’ve lived for nearly thirty years, so this is in part a celebration of community. The world of St Bride’s is completely fictitious, with all the characters and situations completely invented, but the school I worked at was the springboard for my imagination, just as living in Hawkesbury Upton inspired me to invent the world of Wendlebury Barrow in the Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries.
What’s Different about St Bride’s?
While I have fun with school routines and customs such as the prefect system and school dinners, the focus of the St Bride’s series will be the behaviour of the staff. I remember as a schoolgirl being fascinated by the secret world of the staffroom, and the formal relationship fostered between staff and pupils.
For example, at the girls’ grammar school I attended between the ages of 11 and 14, pupils were not allowed to know the first names of staff. In Secrets at St Bride’s, the girls are running a book on the teachers’ names. One of the younger pupils speculates that Miss Bliss’s initial O in stands for “Obergine” – because she’s heard the Geography teacher, Miss Brook, complain over her moussaka at lunch that she hates aubergine.
However, at St Bride’s, the secrecy goes one step further: the staff keep secrets not only from the girls, but from each other, with potentially deadly results. With the story told by new arrival Miss Lamb (but you can call her Gemma!), you, the reader, will become slowly acclimatised to school life as she does. Together you unravel the surprising secrets that are putting the community at risk.
What I Don’t Write About in this Series
What I’ve steadfastly avoidedin this series is the kind of boarding school scandal that pops up now and again in the media or in memoirs. You won’t find any corporal punishment or abuse at St Bride’s – it’s a gentle, caring environment, but not without perils of a different kind. What are those perils? You’ll have to read the books to find out!
How to Order Your Copy of Secrets at St Bride’s
The first St Bride’s novel, Secrets at St Bride’s, is now available to order online and will soon be available to order from high street bookshops too.