Priyadarshini Narendra, Two Chalet Girls in India

And we’re back to this whole idea of sequels by other authors as criticism. I’ve had a post on the Pamela Cox books in drafts for months; perhaps this will convince me to force myself to finish it. For now, here’s a slightly longer version of last week’s column.

 

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Literary ownership is a strange and complex thing. An author who writes a substandard sequel to her own work will be criticised, but there is still a sense in which most audiences will accept that the story and characters are hers to do as she pleases. This isn’t necessarily the most sophisticated response to a book, of course; once the text is out in the world, the writer’s reading of it is no more valid than any other. I suspect, however, that we tend to be harsher on those who write sequels to other people’s work and get it wrong. Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, would not magically become a good book if its cover pronounced it the work of Margaret Mitchell instead of Alexandra Ripley, but I suspect it would have been less universally condemned.

Yet surely part of the joy of the sequel written by someone else is that we’re watching them read and interpret a book we already know? Perhaps it’s the lack of the air of authority that the original author gave it – if it’s not “canon”, it’s almost like discussing a well-loved book with a friend.

Recently I read my way through Pamela Cox’s sequels and fillers (books that take place in the gaps left in the original series) to Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s series of school stories. In trying to imitate Blyton’s writing Cox’s books explore various facets of it in ways that are intriguing. Far more interesting to me, though, are the novels based on another set of books – Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series. Brent-Dyer’s stories of a boarding school set in Austria (and then the Channel Isles, England, Wales, and Switzerland) and spanning over a quarter of a century formed a huge portion of my childhood reading.

Various authors have tried to write books set in Brent-Dyer’s universe. Perhaps the best known of these is Merryn Williams’ The Chalet Girls Grow Up; Williams brings into the world of the books all manner of unpleasant realities that Brent-Dyer carefully left out. The result is a bit mean-spirited and uncharitable, but oddly cathartic.

The example of these ‘new’ Chalet School books to intrigue me the most, however, is Priyadarshini Narendra’s Two Chalet Girls in India. The original series has two characters travel to India for some months, and there’s evidence that Brent-Dyer herself wrote a book about that journey, but it appears to have been lost.

In choosing this particular interlude for her subject, Narendra lets herself in for a difficult task. Brent-Dyer was quite cosmopolitan for her time, but her time is not ours. Should a writer in Narendra’s position attempt to imitate her style and her politics, or update them to something more in keeping with our own historical moment? It’s a problem that the book never quite manages to solve. And so her heroines (being Good characters) are made to look with disapproval upon the racism of other British characters, yet they cannot be allowed to think too deeply about the colonial enterprise.

There’s also the language problem. Brent-Dyer may have had very little knowledge about Indian languages. For one thing, she had her characters return from India speaking fluent “Hindoostani” despite spending all of their time in Coorg. Narendra does well to retcon a plausible reason for this. Unfortunately, having explained to the reader that most people in that part of country did not speak this language, most of the non-English dialogue to come after is, mysteriously, in Hindi. In addition she uses the time-honoured model of translating dialogue by having the characters speak a line in an Indian language* and repeat it immediately in English (“Ayah, baccho ko le aao, bring the kiddies here”), which gives one a very strange idea of how they must talk among themselves.

Despite this, there’s a lot to like about Two Chalet Girls in India. Narendra manages to develop a few of the plotlines from the original series, making them seem a lot less abrupt than they do in the Brent-Dyer canon. And there’s an affectionate dig at the author’s habit in her later books of having every new character discover that they are secretly related to another member of the school – one character not only finds that she has a cousin, but that said cousin is Kashmiri royalty.

Whether slavishly devoted or harshly critical, sequels and fillers can shed an interesting light upon the works from which they’re derived. Narendra’s book sits somewhat uncomfortably between those two poles, and it provides a fascinating angle from which to read Brent-Dyer’s series.

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*Hindi, with a couple of instances of what might be Kannada or Coorgi/Kodava – I’m unfamiliar with both languages, so can only say my scrappy knowledge of Tamil made whatever this was seem familiar.

2 Comments to “Priyadarshini Narendra, Two Chalet Girls in India

  1. Hi,

    It was interesting to read your take on the book. One of the things that I missed after writing this book is a discussion or criticism/ praise direct from the readers since most of them are so far flung.

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