The events in the book in the middle happened 80 years ago this year. The Chalet School In Exile is one of the most extraordinary children’s books I’ve ever read and I still get more and more from it during every reread. It’s written contemporaneously, which gives it a unique perspective, and from the point of view of being generously sympathetic to the German population. I’ve often had the thought “When would I leave” on reading it.
Do you leave when you’re getting uncomfortable with the political unrest alluded to in an earlier book in the series? What about when you see the Nazi party consolidating power? Do you start thinking about packing up your life when you see the local young fellas with nothing better to do chasing the Jewish goldsmith through the village? There’s no spoiler alert required; the school quite clearly does leave and goes into exile (spoiler alert: the initial exile is short lived) and lives are upended by doing so. The school’s history is forever altered, given that the author felt she couldn’t move the school back again once peace was restored to Europe.
I haven’t read the other two books as much as Exile, as its popularly known in the Facebook group where these books have gained a new lease of life, but they have sparked similar musings. When should Offred (TV or book Offred) have left? When the creeping march of control over her reproductive rights meant her husband had to sign the form to get the pill? When she was fired from work under the watchful gaze of “some other” army? What about when the initial terrorist attack took place? Packing up your life is a hard thing to do, when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it going to get worse? Is this temporary? What do you leave behind? These aren’t rational decisions, no matter how they might appear with the benefit of hindsight.
When Ireland gained independence women lost a lot. Things changed, such as the introduction of the marriage bar for women working in the civil service. Once you got married, you had to leave. This rule wended its way into other parts of the workforce over time. We had never been great at looking after women and children, but the new state didn’t think to address this. Instead, decisions were made to pay religious orders to provide “care” for women, including those who weren’t married but were pregnant. We know how this ended and we have never properly dealt with this legacy. Women were constitutionally categorised as belonging in the home, something which needs to go but is usually dismissed as an anachronism with no real meaning. I don’t agree; it is a horrible thing to read about yourself in your country’s constitution.
Would you leave, knowing the kind of things your new country is doing and saying about women? Would you stay, hoping that the birth of a nation meant some unpleasantness but an eventual working out of the things that a republic is supposed to be? We’ve long had a history of emigration, so packing up and leaving is part of almost every family’s story, mine included. People left, and returned, and made things better. We can change our constitution, and we do, frequently. We have moved forward since independence and this 1937 document. The one pictured above is one of several little blue books I own; this one is from 2018. Before we repealed the eighth. I’m keeping it, because I know how things can change and sometimes its good to have a reminder of what can happen and how it can happen and how hard you have to work to correct the trajectory of a nation.