Religious dilemmas and Real Schoolgirls

(Disclaimer if needed: I’m an atheist and cannot remember ever being anything else)

Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & a Tea Cozy (inspired by Laurel Snyder’s essay on Jewish kidlit, Where the Wild Things Aren’t) asks about books that portray Catholic kids. I’ve read very few books that do, but she’s put up a pretty good list to get started with. Her post reminded me of a conversation I had last week with a (Catholic) friend about Antonia Forest.

I first read Forest in a coverless secondhand copy of End of Term that someone gave me, so that the name of the author and the book didn’t actually register for some time. I remembered Nicola, had vague recollections of the grandmother, and remembered that there was a joke about a lamb in a hymn in there somewhere. What I really remembered the book for was a feeling it gave me of unease that I didn’t understand at the time. It was years later in my teens when I first began to read Grown Up Books that I felt it again. It makes sense – in many ways Forest was writing children’s books for grown ups.

I did remember that discussions about religion played a major part in the story, and last week my friend said she’d been glad just to see Catholic characters. That Patrick is Catholic and that Miranda is Jewish are genuinely relevant to their lives. Religion actually matters in these books – not so much in terms of your personal relationship with Deity-of-choice, but how it functions socially. Miranda’s presence in the Christmas play (and later her part in composing an original hymn) are genuinely problematic, and she’s always a bit defensive (and she’s shown to have good reason) about her Jewishness. Patrick is actually engaging with Vatican II and what it means for him as a Catholic – religion is shown to be something you actually think about and can disagree about. He gets into trouble at his Catholic school for disagreeing with the changes in the Church.

When I compare this to the other girl’s school stories I read as a child the difference is startling. Enid Blyton never really mentions religion at all. Dorita Fairlie Bruce does, hilariously – I think there’s one book in which Dimsie saves a jaded war veteran from the terrors of atheism. Elinor M. Brent Dyer is more interesting. Her characters are religious in the most mawkish possible fashion. No one can stop to look at a mountain (and since the books are set in Austria and later in Switzerland, lots of people end up looking at mountains) without someone coming up behind them and quoting “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills” or reminding them to thank God for all the beauty in the world.

Within Christianity though, the Chalet school books are quite liberal. Some girls are Catholic, some are Protestant, at least one switches after she marries; some are allowed to go to both sets of services. Two separate chapels are built for the school and apart from the practical aspects (where each group should pray and in whose charge) no one really cares what denomination other people are. Which is a wholly admirable view to take, of course, except that what it does (for me, at least) is to make religion something you don’t think about or debate – if you belong to a particular group you just…do. And maybe that is how it is for most people, but I certainly prefer Forest’s characters who think to Brent Dyer’s who apparently don’t.

It’s when it comes to non-Christian characters that Brent Dyer’s universe finds it hard to cope. A Jewish character (I think he’s a jeweller) appears in The Chalet School in Exile where he is saved from a Nazi mob. There don’t seem to be any Jewish students at the school, though in Trials at the Chalet School Naomi’s name leads someone to speculate that she might be one. The truth is far more shocking – Naomi has been raised agnostic*! Trials contains one of my favourite lines in the series: “As for not being baptized, Mary-Lou had never met an unbaptized person before”.

I’d assume that Forest’s treatment of religion had something to do with the fact that as a woman of Jewish ancestry who was a Catholic she’d had reason to think about religion this way. But then Brent Dyer also converted to Catholicism in her thirties (and not to get married) so presumably she was examining her religion too. Just not putting it in her books.

Weird things happen in Antonia Forest books. In The Cricket Term Mrs. Marlow writes to her daughter Nicola and informs her that they can no longer afford to send all the Marlow girls to school so Nicola’s the one they’ve chosen to shaft. In The Thuggery Affair the dead (and presumably decaying, by the end of the book) body of a carrier pidgeon is carried around in order to foil the plans of a drug ring. **But the religion thing is a major part of what makes her stuff seem more real and more complex than anyone else in the (sort of) same genre.

*Mary-Lou cures her. It turns out her character has been twisted because she can’t walk***. Then she gets into a car crash, goes to hospital, and is pretty much written out of the series.

**You cannot imagine how much I recommend this book.

***Only physical disability or war-related trauma is an adequate excuse.

5 Comments to “Religious dilemmas and Real Schoolgirls”

  1. Just wondering if you’ve read Mary Gordon’s early novels? I particularly recommend: FINAL PAYMENTS, THE COMPANY OF WOMEN, MEN AND ANGELS, THE OTHER SIDE.

    All too fabulous for words! You would much enjoy…

  2. I haven’t! When were they written?

  3. Ah the Chalet school books. I seem to remember there being a reference to an African dance in one of them and getting deeply offended by it in my childhood. But I devoured all of the books I could find. Brent Dyer is really preoccupied with illness and breaking legs, and then a transformation of character comes on-after a spell in the san. There was also a chalet book with an Indian girl, which I never managed to read. Wonder what her religion was.

  4. Ra – This African dance?
    I read the book with the Indian girl in it years ago and never thought about her religion at the time. It’s only recently that it occurred to me to find out – turns out she’s Church of England. The book is Lavendar Laughs at the Chalet School.

    And yeah, Brent-Dyer seems to think an injury and some time in hospital is an appropriate cure/punishment for most things.

  5. Yes! That one! Just awful. I’m waiting for new shelves to be made, then I shall order Lavender Laughs.

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