Jean of Storms
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
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Although Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's fans include thousands of adult women in countries as far apart as Australia and the USA, until recently it was thought that she had written only for younger readers and had never made use in fiction of her native South Tyneside background. But the chance discovery of Jean of Storms, originally serialised in the Shields Gazette in 1930, has revealed not only a full-length adult novel, but one set in the district around South Shields, where she herself grew up. As the first new Brent-Dyer novel to be published for 26 years, its appearance in book form has been eagerly awaited by fans since it was found in 1995 by a South Shields librarian, Doris Johnson.
Unlike Brent-Dyer's Chalet School stories, Jean of Storms is a domestic tale - although it does, inevitably, include one of the dramatic rescue scenes which characterise the Chalet School series. In many ways it is a poignant story, dealing as it does with the lives of three women during their brief period of independence between leaving school and getting married. Their bond of friendship is strong enough to enable Oona and Jean to bring up two orphaned sisters, - after fighting to protect the welfare of the older - for Molly to escape from a tyrannical landlady as well as earning a living teaching folk-dancing, and for Jean to resist the religious tyranny of her servant Morag.
However, Brent-Dyer clearly saw the ending, when the women's circle is broken, as inevitable and preferable to their lives together. Molly and Jean marry a curate and doctor respectively (all Chalet School heroines marry doctors) and raise children with their husbands, while the older Oona, whose chance of marriage vanished when her fiancé was killed in the First World War, has her independence and enjoyment of life permanently affected by a back injury.
"Jean of Storms is a romantic story, very much of its period. But the gifts as a story-teller that Elinor M. Brent-Dyer showed in her Chalet School books are evident here, too. In particular, her capacity to create characters, both sympathetic and otherwise, who immediately involve the reader and keep the pages turning to the end," says Helen McClelland, author of Behind the Chalet School, the revised edition of Brent-Dyer's biography which is published by Bettany Press. Little was known of Brent-Dyer's South Tyneside background during her lifetime, and it is only in recent years that a full picture has emerged. Unlike her heroines, Brent-Dyer grew up in a small terraced house in South Shields, with no bathroom or inside toilet. Her father left home when she was three years old, and her mother spent many years claiming to be a widow before - now genuinely widowed - remarrying when Brent-Dyer was 19. Like her mother, Brent-Dyer made every effort to hide her social origins, but since her Chalet School stories continually denounce snobbery, it is likely that this was from fear of the professional and personal consequences.
In many ways it must have been a relief to Brent-Dyer when the household - she lived with her mother until her mother's death in 1957 - moved to Hereford in 1933. But as a native daughter who spent the first 39 years of her life in South Shields, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer now deserves to take her rightful place as a local author alongside her long-held position as a writer who is known to millions of girls and women worldwide. As the story of Behind the Chalet School shows, the pattern for the rest of her life was set before she moved, including the creation of the Chalet School series in 1925 and her conversion to Catholicism in 1930, the same year that Jean of Storms was serialised. With Jean of Storms, fans and locals alike have finally gained a direct link between Brent-Dyer's literature and her life.
Photograph: Doris Johnson at the launch of Jean of Storms
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