Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Literary Tour: Day 9

Day 9: Hereford (Elinor M.Brent Dyer)

From Bath we move north-west to yet another ancient cathedral city: Hereford. The author I'm pursuing here is not one of the greats like Jane Austen, but the writer of one of the two series that were my favourites as a child ... The Chalet School books by Elinor M.Brent Dyer (if you are wondering, my other beloved series was - is! - C.S.Lewis's Narnia books). Boarding school stories are a peculiarly British genre, and the Chalet School books made a unique contribution to this branch of children's literature, both in size and in complexity. Between 1923 and 1969 Elinor Brent Dyer wrote around sixty Chalet School books, beginning with The School at the Chalet. You can find out more about the series here. I credit these books with being one of the first influences to push me in the direction of Catholicism. The author herself became a Catholic convert in 1930, and this is reflected in her books. Both pupils and staff of the Chalet School give religion a prominent place in their life. Faith and prayer helps them to deal with difficulties, and at least one leading character ultimately becomes a nun. Catholics and Protestants at the school worship seperately, but live together in harmony. Elinor Brent Dyer also loves large families! The most important character in the series ultimately becomes the mother of eleven (plus a few adoptees).

The location of the Chalet School moves several times during the series. Founded in Austria, it is driven out by Hitler first to Guernsey in the Channel Islands, then to "Armishire" (a pseudonym for Herefordshire), a fictional island off the Welsh coast, and ultimately to Switzerland. When the school reaches Herefordshire, Elinor Brent Dyer is writing from experience as she spent many years living in the city of Hereford. She founded her own school there, the Margaret Roper School, which she ran much along the lines of the Chalet School - though sadly, rather less successfully than her fictional creation. Our challenge is to find the site of Elinor's school - all I know is that admirers have placed a memorial plaque on the building. Could be tricky!

After tracking down Elinor Brent Dyer, we are going visit Hereford Cathedral to marvel at its two great literary treasures. The first is an extraordinary medieval map, the Mappa Mundi ("map of the world"). Made at the end of the thirteenth century it gives an extraordinary picture of the mapmaker's world. Unlike a modern map it makes no effort at showing accurate locations. Jerusalem is placed firmly in the middle, with the best known part of the world, Europe, to the South West. The author includes attractive little human details - Norway is given a man on skis, for example. The north and east of the map are the unknown regions where legend runs rampant - a monopod bouncing on his one leg (think of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), serpents, dragons, a one eyed man ... This is a map on a huge scale, over five feet tall and four feet wide.

The other cathedral treasure is an extraordinary chained library. Built in the seventeenth century the books are chained to the bookcases for security. No library tickets in those days! With a collection of over two hundred medieval manuscripts, the library did well to be careful.

Before leaving we should visit the restored shrine of the cathedral's own saint - St.Thomas Cantilupe, bishop of Hereford in the thirteenth century. The original was destroyed at the time of the Reformation. Yes, that darned Henry VIII again!