Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jean of Storms

So, Jean of Storms (the subject of last weekend’s column) is really weird.

I’ve been skim-reading a couple of the Chalet School books this last few days, as you do when you have deadlines to meet, and before I’d always laughed a bit at how many near-death experiences the characters seem to have. But after Chalet School Reunion in particular, I’m now completely sold on the idea of these books as a form of horror narrative in which the landscape itself is hostile to the characters. As they’re being shown the local sights, one of the guests at the reunion laughingly asks why all the stories associated with these spots are near death experiences. Shortly afterwards, they all nearly die when the bit of land they’re standing on falls into a glacier moments after they have left it. In a couple of chapters, a cliff will crumble while a character is on it. Naturally there’s a nature-related near-death experience in Jean of Storms as well, but more important is the way in which this revelation makes the insertion of stock horror characters into the lives of healthy-minded schoolgirls make perfect sense. Nature herself is trying to kill these people; it’s only sensible to read their stories as horror.

 

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As a child I was expected to prepare for family holidays by doing research into the history (and culture, and art, and literature) of every new destination. As I grew older that research morphed into reading fiction around a place. I’m less diligent about it than I was at the age of eight, but it still gives me a thrill.

If I think of reading fiction about a place as the same sort of thing as reading fact, it’s because it’s not so much that a sense of the territory makes a book more real as it is the other way around. Fiction can be a lens through which to read a place, and when there’s a vast body of work set in a particular place those stories can layer themselves one atop the other. But we all know those places—the Londons and New Yorks of the world are so deeply embedded in literature, and literature is so deeply embedded in them, that switching between the ‘real’ and fictional city is easy and natural.

It’s the less used settings that interest me more, particularly when there are only a few competing narratives to clash with one another. One of my favourite examples of weird, almost diametrically opposite books coming out of the same place is Arundel Castle in England; it inspired the home of the sunny, folk-dancing-obsessed Earl and Countess of Kentisbury in Elsie Oxenham’s Abbey books for girls, and the heavy, gothic, over the top setting of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast.

Recently I discovered that I now live near the home of another major author of books for girls; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, best known as the author of the Chalet School series, a staple of my childhood. Brent-Dyer spent most of her life in the North of England but never wrote about it—or so it was thought until 1995, when a fan discovered Jean of Storms, a serialised novel for adults set outside Newcastle and published in the Shields Gazette in 1930.

A romance for adults, Jean of Storms contains within it a weird clash of genres that is particularly fascinating to a reader familiar with her larger body of work. The title character is a young woman of twenty-three who becomes the guardian of her niece from India when her sister-in-law dies. This is all very Secret Garden-ish; the child spoilt but goodhearted, the Indian ayah who cannot stop fussing about her “Missy-baba”. There are elements, also, of the school stories for which Brent-Dyer was already gaining a reputation when this serial was published—the dramatic sequence in a cave on the cliffs, the relationships with doctors and curates for which Jean and her friend Mollie are thoroughly unprepared (“as fresh-minded on such subjects as they had been as school girls of fourteen”, Brent-Dyer informs us, as if emotional immaturity were a desirable thing), the strong community of women.

But underneath all of this is something more sinister, that belongs to a different genre altogether, and that manifests itself in the form of Morag, Jean’s terrifying Calvinist cook-housekeeper, and in Mollie’s obsessive, malevolent housekeeper. These characters seem to have wandered in from a gothic novel; as has the landscape, all treacherous rocks and dramatic waves crashing against cliffs. The book’s cover, in its Bettany Press edition, reflects this weird mix of genres—it bears a photograph of country-dancers, but of the old, black-and-white sort, where everyone looks wary of the camera.

Above, I spoke of having multiple, conflicting literary lenses through which to view a place. Jean of Storms contains those conflicting lenses within it; school story, imperial children’s tale, gothic romance. It makes for an uncomfortable and genuinely weird read, but perhaps more importantly, it has made the nice seaside town I’m familiar with into something more akin to Wuthering Heights.

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