Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: The School at the Chalet – with Juliette Lawson

The seventh in my series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

cover of a modern edition of The School at the Chalet
I reread a modern edition of this story, nearly a century old now – original copies are now collectors’ items!

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.


 

headshot of Juliette Lawson
Meet Juliette Lawson, Historical Novelist, whose debut novel A Borrowed Past I very much enjoyed

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 Heidi by 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

cover of A Borrowed Past by Juliette Lawson
Highly recommended: Juliette Lawson’s debut novel about an aspiring young artist in the north-east of England

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.

Find out more about Juliette Lawson and her work at her website: www.juliettelawson.com

Follow Juliette Lawson on Facebook:   https://www.facebook.com/juliettelawsonauthor

Join her Reader Club for regular newsletters and insights into her writing life: www.subscribepage.com/a7f7t3

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story: Molesworth – with Linda Gillard

The sixth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

headshot of Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard is the author of nine literary novels, the latest of which is the intriguing “Hidden”, set in both 1917 and 2017

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog.

So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Helen Hollick on Ruby Fergusson’s Jill’s Riding School Stories, and Madeleine D’Este on The O’Sullivan Twins – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden, Scotland and England.

This month we’re staying in England for a series of school books that is quintessentially British, in the company of novelist Linda Gillard, author of nine novels, two of which became Kindle bestsellers. Linda will explain why she loves the Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, set in a classic boys’ private school, St Custard’s. (Searle also created the equivalent girls’ school, St Trinian’s.)

Molesworth & Me

I needed no introduction to Molesworth. When I was a child, we had a well-thumbed hardback omnibus edition that all the family enjoyed, including my mother, a teacher, and my brother and sister, who both trained as teachers when they grew up. (I was never a teacher, but I did work in a boarding school for 13 years.) None of us had boarding school educations, but we still appreciated the witty satire about private school life, and I especially loved the anarchic use of language, full of quaint schoolboy slang, complete with painfully bad spelling which is an intrinsic part of the humour.

Linda Gillard & Me

I first got to know Linda Gillard online about seven years ago and it was a couple of years before we were able to meet in person, because she lives hundreds of miles from the Cotswolds in Scotland. However we have managed to meet at two very appropriate places – Leakey’s wonderful secondhand bookshop in Inverness, and at Foyles’ flagship store in London.

cover of Emotional Geology
An engrossing novel set on Skye, now optioned for film

Although Linda is English, and went to university not far from me in Bristol, many of Linda’s books are set in Scotland, and I particularly enjoyed Emotional Geology, set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, where I’ve often been with my Scottish husband.

(Leakey’s Bookshop and Skye will feature in the eighth Sophie Sayers novel, which I’m looking forward to writing – but first I must finish the seventh, Murder Lost and Found!)

Now, let’s find out why Linda has chosen Molesworth as her favourite school story.


Linda, welcome to my blog. I’m thrilled that you chose what for those of a certain age is a timeless classic. To kick off, please tell us a little more about it. 

Thank you, Debbie for inviting me to talk about my favourite school book. It’s been delightful re-acquainting myself with the works of Nigel Molesworth, “the Curse of St Custard’s”.

The Compleet Molesworth, by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, comprises four short volumes of memoir crossed with self-help manual, written by the fictional Nigel Molesworth, a pupil at a second-rate English public school in the 1950s.

How old were you when you first read it, and how often and at what ages (approx) have you reread it?

I don’t remember exactly when I first read it, but I was a junior pupil at a strict, old-fashioned girls’ grammar school when I was lent a copy of How to be Topp by one of my posher friends who had a brother at public school. (State education was apparently good enough for girls in the 1960s.) I was probably about twelve or thirteen.

I’ve returned to Molesworth throughout my life, just to dip in and chuckle. I owned Puffin paperbacks of all four books (Down with Skool, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms and Back in the Jug Agane) and passed them grudgingly on to my children, then one day in a second-hand bookshop I came across a hardback omnibus edition. I pounced.

photo of Linda Gillard with The Compleet Molesworth
Linda Gillard with her prized copy of the omnibus of all four Molesworth books

I shelve that with children’s fiction, but like the William Brown books of Richmal Crompton, Molesworth’s oeuvre was in fact intended for adults. His diary first appeared in Punch and generated so much fan mail, four books appeared in the 1950s.

How has your perception of the books changed with later readings?

When I first read them, my response was (as it has been to a great deal of literature, including poetry and Shakespeare) a mixture of awe, delight and only partial comprehension.

I had a sense of opening a window on to an absurd and hilarious world: not just the appalling prep school, St Custard’s, but a new world of anarchic language (Willans) and illustration (Searle).

The books have enriched my life, my children’s and my parents’. I can’t think of any other books that have been enjoyed by all three generations. My respect for Molesworth has grown over the decades. He still makes me laugh.

What did you particularly like about this book/series and about the author? Anything you disliked?

Every page is laugh-out-loud funny. You only have to mention The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-You Letter or The Molesworth Bogus Report to aficionados and they will start to smile. (Whenever I trimmed his hair, my father would quote a line from Matron’s Report: “We forgot to pack his combs. Simply couldn’t face it.”.)

The genius of the book is the perfect pairing of Geoffrey Willans’ economic text with Ronald Searle’s baroque illustrations. Searle is quite rightly credited as co-author, rather than  illustrator. The text would be nothing without the illustrations, but equally the deadpan text points up the grotesque humour of the illustrations. “Distance back to pavilion is now 120000 miles” is the caption underneath a picture of a seething, bowled-out Molesworth in the “Criket” section.

Which character did you identify with?

Nigel Molesworth, the rebellious anti-hero. I had a younger sister, two forms below me, so I understood the long-suffering tolerance of his annoying sibling, known as Molesworth 2. (“He do not share the charm and good looks of his elder bro, molesworth 1, hem hem. Strange that they could be related.”)

How did it affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?

I don’t think the books influenced me particularly, though they might have made me more tolerant of the Latin I had to study as far as O Level. Like Molesworth, I didn’t see any point in learning Latin. (I do now.) The books were just joyous entertainment, something I shared with my friends and family. I would feel an instant kinship now with anyone who said they’d read and loved them. They confer the camaraderie of the old school tie.

How did it affect your writing?

Nigel Molesworth’s total disregard for grammar, spelling and political correctness had no effect on my writing, fortunately.

What type of school(s) did you go to yourself?

I attended a girls’ grammar school in the 1960s. We weren’t allowed to talk to boys outside school, not even pupils at the Boys’ Grammar School across the road (of which Mick Jagger was a recent ex-pupil). We wore unflattering felt hats in winter and equally unflattering straw hats in summer, of a design that made even pretty girls look dowdy.  It was detention if you were caught turning your hat brim up.

The uniform was a horrible bottle green and we had to wear two pairs of knickers: white next to our skin and bottle green over the top of those. We were subjected to occasional spot checks to make sure we were wearing both pairs.

Were your friends also fans or did you feel that this was your own private world to escape into?

A friend introduced me to Molesworth. In turn I showed the books to my sister (Gillard 2) and eventually our parents, who probably recognised in Molesworth a natural successor to Spike Milligan and the Goons.

We all became fans and Molesworthian expressions crept into our everyday speech. As any fule kno, I have given it to the poor boys, Hullo clouds hullo sky and I diskard him were favourites. The fact that I was able to share the books in this way  with friends and family was half the joy. It gave us a common frame of reference, a shared, quirky language. Right up until their deaths, my parents would still quote Molesworth, smiling:

Would it still resonate with young readers today?

Searle’s illustrations are timeless and will be eternally hilarious, but Willans’ text is problematic. I doubt whether the books would appeal to young readers. Few children learn Latin now and there are a lot of jokes about the teaching of Latin. Most young people don’t regard correct spelling, grammar and punctuation as important, so I’m not sure they’d see the joke of Nigel’s cavalier literary style.

The books are also very much of their time. Corporal punishment is not a laughing matter now, nor are defective teaching or parenting. A public school education is no longer something to be envied or admired and the ridicule of wealthy, white, male privilege hardly seems subversive.

However, the popularity of the recent dramatisation of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books made me wonder whether Molesworth could still be enjoyed as a quirky period piece by teenagers. You certainly don’t have to attend public school to enjoy Molesworth, but I do wonder if Willans’ wit would travel down the decades for those who enjoy a modern and enlightened education. “Caesar had some jam for tea” depends on familiarity with “Caesar adsum iam forte”. The books might now be dismissed as élitist, as Blyton’s are. Ironically the intention was to ridicule an élite and celebrate the indomitable and ingenious spirit of the British underdog.

Enuff said.

Thank you, Linda, it has been a joy to hear about your passion for the immortal Molesworth.


cover of Hidden by Linda Gillard
Linda Gillard’s latest novel, her ninth, Hidden, is available in paperback and ebook

Here’s an introduction to Linda Gillard’s highly acclaimed latest novel, Hidden:

A birth. A death. Hidden for a hundred years.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

In 1917 a sense of duty and a desire for a child lead celebrated artist Esme Howard to share her life and home – 16th-century Myddleton Mote – with Captain Guy Carlyle, an officer whose face and body have been ravaged by war. But Esme knows nothing of the ugliness that lurks within Guy’s tortured mind, as he re-lives the horrors of the trenches. As a child grows within her, Esme fears Guy’s wrath will be turned on them both. A prisoner in her own home, she paints like one possessed, trusting that one day someone will hear her silent cries for help.

A century later, Miranda Norton inherits Myddleton Mote and its art collection from a father she never knew and decides to move on after the end of an unhappy marriage. Inviting her extended family to join her, Miranda sets about restoring the house and turning it into a thriving business. When someone from Miranda’s past returns to torment her, an appalling act of vandalism reveals the Mote’s dark secrets, hidden for a hundred years.

For more information about Linda Gillard, her books and her writing life, visit her website at www.lindagillard.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Reading, Writing

My Favourite School Story – Helen Hollick on Ruby Ferguson’s Jill Series

The fourth in my occasional series of interviews with author friends who love school stories

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

When I launched my St Bride’s series set in a British girls’ boarding school, I asked some author friends which school stories they’d most enjoyed when they were growing up and invited them to share their enthusiasm on my blog. So far I’ve run posts by Jean Gill talking about Anne of Green Gables, Helena Halme on Pippi Longstocking, and Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – all very different books set in different countries: Canada, Sweden and Scotland.

Now at last it’s time for my home country to get a look in, as historical novelist Helen Hollick explains her passion for a classic English series: the Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson.

Helen Hollick writes:

First in my own series of school stories for grown-ups

From an early age (about four years) I always had my nose buried in a book. My favourites, back then in the late 1950s, were Alison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit series. Not exactly school stories – although I do vividly remember one of them being about Fuzzypeg the hedgehog going to school and learning to read.

(Debbie: I love Little Grey Rabbit too, and recently bought a vintage copy of Fuzzypeg Goes to School!)

I do, vaguely, remember reading one school story. It might have been Malory Towers, but to be honest I didn’t like this genre. You see, I hated school. For my first year at  school I couldn’t see much because I was short-sighted and needed glasses, but it never occurred to Mum that this was the reason I was always bumping into or falling over things. And why I couldn’t see the blackboard.

I hated (even with glasses) always having to sit at the front. Hated being told off for bad handwriting. Hated being moaned at in sewing because I couldn’t see to thread a needle..  So there wasn’t much incentive to spend my own time at school. Even fictional ones.

School Stories with a Difference

Jill’s Gymkhana got Helen Hollick hooked on Ruby Ferguson’s classic series

Those school stories always seemed to have popular, clever, girls with friends. Lots of them. I didn’t have friends. I wasn’t popular or clever. I was shy, scared and unhappy. My friends were the characters I met in books. I met a special fictional friend when I was given a book for my ninth birthday. Jill Crewe in the book Jill’s Gymkhana.

You see, I was pony mad. Jill and her pony Blackboy introduced me to pony stories. From that day onward through my school days I read, lived, breathed – wrote – pony stories. Fiction made up for the pain of being so lonely and desperately wanting a pony of my own. (I had to wait until I was sixteen. Now at sixty-seven I have three ponies, three horses  and two donkeys in our fields here in Devon. Dreams do come true!)

The Jill books brought out the passion for ponies in a simple, funny, quirky and educational way. The first story follows Jill learning to ride and care for her pony, and I learnt with her. Then the second book brought in Mrs Darcy and the local riding school. That was it, I wanted to work there too. Funnily enough, when I did, eventually, get my own horse the owner of the riding school where I kept him reminded me of Mrs Darcy.

Classic 1950s Stories

There was a whole series of Jill stories to enjoy

The stories are very dated now – they are set in post-war England in the early 1950s. That in itself makes them interesting, for the historical detail of life back then. At the very least it wouldn’t be allowed in the 21st century for a girl of thirteen or fourteen to run a riding school! But this is exactly what happens in the second book in the series Jill Has Two Ponies.  Mrs Darcy has to go away so Jill and some friends offer to run the riding school in her absence. All well and good, but Mrs D’s valuable horse, Blue Smoke falls ill. Jill has to summon the vet:

“You girls clear out,” said the vet, cheerfully, “and let me have a look. Go and make me a cup of tea. I’ve been sitting up with a cow for hours.”

     We thought it very heartless of the vet to want tea, but we went into the house and made him a cup. We didn’t make any for ourselves, it would have choked us. Every time I caught Wendy’s eye she gave a gulp, and every time Wendy caught my eye I gave a gulp. We did nothing but gulp at each other. I set off down the yard with the vet’s cup of tea and slopped it all over into the saucer. Then suddenly I saw the vet before me. The heartless man was grinning all over his face.

“She’s just been playing you up,” he said. “A touch of a toothache, that’s all, but you know what these thoroughbreds are like, the least touch of pain and they act as if they were dying.”

(As a horse owner . . .  oh don’t they just!)

I still have that original birthday present hardback edition of Jill’s Gymkhana, and paperbacks of the others in the series – all somewhat battered because I read and re-read them as a teenager (along with many other pony stories). I re-read the first one not long ago and still thoroughly enjoyed it. Alas, I can’t read the others as I am now visually impaired and the paperback print is far too small and faded. A great shame that they are not on Kindle.

Modern Meddling

Jill was a victim of political correctness in later years and appeared in republished (awful) editions. The name ‘Blackboy’ was banned, (why, he was a black pony for goodness sake!). These re-writes completely spoil the feel of the stories – if you want to read them, get the originals!

(Debbie: It irks me too when publishers try to put a modern spin on timeless classics – such as reissuing Just William stories featuring William Brown sans school blazer and cap but with t-shirt and trainers instead. What nonsense!)

Inspiration for a Budding Novelist

The main thing Jill, her ponies, her friends and the Riding School did for me was to teach me to write.

Throughout those years I was either reading or writing. I had my own fictional pony: Tara, a palomino. (I must have heard of Gone With The Wind somewhere around then). I even wrote a story set in a riding school during a GCE exam. I’d finished the questions and had about an hour to kill. So I started writing a story about someone stealing a horse from the local riding school. I filled one A4 sheet of paper. Asked for another. And another.  I had quite a pile on my desk.

What I didn’t realise, the other girls in the class (Chingford’s, Wellington Avenue Secondary School for Girls) assumed I was answering exam questions. Like me they had only filled one A4 sheet and had no idea what else to put. But there was I, scribbling furiously…

They didn’t speak to me again for ages. I didn’t care, that meant they left me alone to escape into the world of ponies and riding schools.

© Helen Hollick


More About Helen Hollick

Thank you, Helen, that’s a fascinating insight both into Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books and into your own evolution as a writer.

I must admit that in my own childhood these stories passed me by, possibly because I’ve never been interested in horses, although my older sister remembers enjoying them. But given Helen’s persuasive tribute, I’m now keen to try one. As they’re all out of print now and have become collectors’ items, I’m going to have to keep an eye open in secondhand bookshops – a favourite haunt of mine, especially on holiday – until I can find one.

Debbie Young with Helen Holllick
Me with Helen Hollick, a great friend and mentor to authors all over the world

Meanwhile Helen grew up to write award-winning historical novels, fantasy and historical non-fiction. I’ve especially enjoyed her pirate fantasy series, which is a must for anyone who is a fan of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series, and her straight historical novels with Arthurian and Saxon themes are among my mum’s favourites!

She’s also become a firm friend and mentor to many, many aspiring novelists worldwide, well known for her generous spirit and kind heart. I’m thrilled therefore to have her as my guest on my blog today.

Find out all about Helen Hollick and her many books via her one of her links below:

Newsletter Subscription: http://tinyletter.com/HelenHollick
Amazon Author Page (Universal Link) http://viewauthor.at/HelenHollick
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Discovering Diamonds Historical Fiction Review Blog (submissions welcome): https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.co.uk/

Meanwhile at St Bride’s…

In the meantime, my own school stories are coming along nicely:

  • Book 2 in my St Bride’s School series will be published on 1st July 2020

    The first in the series, Secrets at St Bride’s, was a finalist in The Selfies Awards 2020, given to the best independently published fiction in the UK. With the paperback and ebook selling well, I’m planning to produce an audio version this autumn, narrated by Siobhan Waring, the voice artist responsible for the audiobook of Best Murder in Show, the first in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries. You can order the paperback here and buy the ebook here.

  • The second in the series, Stranger at St Bride’s, will be published on 1st July in ebook and paperback. You can already preorder the ebook here.