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Chalet Girls

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In the summer of 1994 I took my family on a literary pilgrimage to the town of Pertisau am Achensee in the Austrian Tyrol. We were on our way to the wedding of family friends in Hungary, and the detour to Pertisau entailed hours of additional driving on the part of my father. Lesser parents might have refused to spend a day and a half of a packed holiday acceding to the whims of a 13-year-old. I, however, was the possessor of an endlessly kind and patient father, and a mother who was quietly almost as keen on visiting Pertisau as I was.

Pertisau doesn’t feature on most Tyrolean itineraries, but every year it nevertheless receives a trickle of English visitors. These visitors – mostly women – all head to the deserted Alpenhof Hotel, and it was there my parents took the photograph I’m looking at now, of me holding a copy of The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was a teacher from South Shields who visited Pertisau in the early 1920s. The first of her school stories set at the Alpenhof Hotel, which she transformed into the setting for her Chalet School, was published in 1925. Fifty-eight Chalet books followed, the last appearing posthumously in 1970. The books have been continuously in print ever since. Today you can become a Friend of the Chalet School or join the New Chalet Club; or, if you prefer your fandom in virtual form, you can join in lively and daily-updated debates about the books on the online Chalet School Bulletin Board. At the precise moment that I’m writing this, the Chalet School Bulletin Board tells me that it has 1,452 registered members, 21 of whom are online and in discussion about the series as I type.

In my teens I was a paid-up junior member of the Friends of the Chalet School, although my courage always failed me when it came to attending social Chalet School gatherings. Looking back I’m not sure I really wanted to meet other devotees, so vivid was my relationship with the books. The Chalet School was my solitary pleasure and its orderly systems offered a refuge from the emotional chaos of adolescence. I can’t quite remember what I thought as I stood outside the Alpenhof Hotel, and looking at photographs of it now I wonder whether I was disappointed in its dilapidated grandeur. This summer I’ve been rereading the Chalet School books to try to understand why I dragged my father and my cross 9-year-old sister to look at an empty building in a sleepy lakes

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In the summer of 1994 I took my family on a literary pilgrimage to the town of Pertisau am Achensee in the Austrian Tyrol. We were on our way to the wedding of family friends in Hungary, and the detour to Pertisau entailed hours of additional driving on the part of my father. Lesser parents might have refused to spend a day and a half of a packed holiday acceding to the whims of a 13-year-old. I, however, was the possessor of an endlessly kind and patient father, and a mother who was quietly almost as keen on visiting Pertisau as I was.

Pertisau doesn’t feature on most Tyrolean itineraries, but every year it nevertheless receives a trickle of English visitors. These visitors – mostly women – all head to the deserted Alpenhof Hotel, and it was there my parents took the photograph I’m looking at now, of me holding a copy of The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was a teacher from South Shields who visited Pertisau in the early 1920s. The first of her school stories set at the Alpenhof Hotel, which she transformed into the setting for her Chalet School, was published in 1925. Fifty-eight Chalet books followed, the last appearing posthumously in 1970. The books have been continuously in print ever since. Today you can become a Friend of the Chalet School or join the New Chalet Club; or, if you prefer your fandom in virtual form, you can join in lively and daily-updated debates about the books on the online Chalet School Bulletin Board. At the precise moment that I’m writing this, the Chalet School Bulletin Board tells me that it has 1,452 registered members, 21 of whom are online and in discussion about the series as I type. In my teens I was a paid-up junior member of the Friends of the Chalet School, although my courage always failed me when it came to attending social Chalet School gatherings. Looking back I’m not sure I really wanted to meet other devotees, so vivid was my relationship with the books. The Chalet School was my solitary pleasure and its orderly systems offered a refuge from the emotional chaos of adolescence. I can’t quite remember what I thought as I stood outside the Alpenhof Hotel, and looking at photographs of it now I wonder whether I was disappointed in its dilapidated grandeur. This summer I’ve been rereading the Chalet School books to try to understand why I dragged my father and my cross 9-year-old sister to look at an empty building in a sleepy lakeside town, and why my mother connived with me in the dragging. I haven’t reread all fifty-nine books, but I have dipped in and out in roughly chronological order, alighting on old favourites as well as those titles of which I have no memory. I’ve had, I will freely admit, the most glorious time in the process. The Chalet School story, in very brief form, goes like this. In the first book Madge Bettany opens a school in the Tyrol, in conjunction with her French business partner, Mademoiselle LePattre. They have three pupils to begin with: Madge’s much younger sister Joey, Mademoiselle LePattre’s young cousin Simone, and Grizel Cochrane, a friend of Joey’s. From these beginnings the school grows in size and strength until it is forced by the Anschluss to close. It reopens again first on Guernsey, then in Herefordshire, then on a small island off the Welsh coast, before finally settling in Switzerland, where the final third of the books are set. As the school matures, so do its founding members. Madge Bettany marries a doctor early in the series and retires from active running of the school, although Brent-Dyer is at pains to remind readers that Madge remains chair of its board throughout its existence. Marriage to doctors is a recurring theme, courtesy of Madge’s husband Jem establishing a sanatorium near the school and thus ensuring graduating girls a ready supply of eligible medics. Madge’s younger sister Joey, meanwhile, becomes the beating heart of the series, present in virtually every book. Joey starts life as an imaginative and naughty schoolgirl, a vividly realized creation who is always in the thick of things. After she leaves school she marries a doctor of her own, becomes a bestselling author and defies the laws of gynaecology to produce triplets, two sets of twins and assorted other singly born children. At the end of the series her offspring number eleven and she is to be found threatening to inflict quads on her long-suffering husband and elder daughters. Other girls, meanwhile, fill her place as leaders in the school. Notable among the second and third generations of Chalet girls are Mary-Lou Trelawney (who begins school life as a fairly normal human being and ends it as a paragon of monstrous competence) and Joey’s eldest daughter Len, a much put-upon creature who has all of her mother’s sense of responsibility and none of her redeeming qualities. As this summary perhaps indicates, there is much about the Chalet School which is deeply weird. This is particularly true of the later books, which lose the carefree happiness of the stories set in the Tyrol. The girls in the Swiss books march everywhere in lines; every minute of their days is filled with ruthless efficiency. Packs of prefects stride up and down the main stairs like anxious dictators, stamping out spontaneity wherever it threatens. Hapless temporary members of staff who don’t conform to the school’s values are promptly sacked: in one case a promising career is almost derailed because an inexperienced new teacher fails to appreciate the marvels of Mary-Lou. Oddest of all perhaps is the treatment of the ‘Middles’, girls in their early to mid teens who are consistently characterized as delinquents in terms more suited to the inhabitants of a zoo than a school. The school is also a thoroughly dangerous place to be. Not a term passes without someone almost falling off a mountain precipice or into a lake, or becoming dangerously ill. Towards the end of the series, when Brent-Dyer herself was ill and some of the writing was done by others, the litany of near tragedies becomes parodic. You can’t help feeling that any sensible parent would have removed their daughter from such a perilous institution within a term. And yet. It is easy to be rude about the Chalet School: the very repetitiveness of the series makes it endlessly mockable. But the oddness alone, entertaining though it is, doesn’t explain the books’ enduring appeal. Its magic is elusive but it is there, apparent even on an adult rereading. Part of it lies in Brent-Dyer’s attention to detail: interiors and food are lovingly and realistically evoked. Her world runs with the precision of a Swiss clock, and it becomes entirely possible to sink unquestioningly into its exotic foreignness. I know the German names for meals and how to work the 24-hour clock thanks to the Chalet School girls’ baffling insistence on having their kaffee und kuchen at sixteen o’clock. I also never doubted the pedagogical logic of speaking a different language every day, or paused to wonder how the school’s proud trilingualism worked in practice. More seriously though, Brent-Dyer doesn’t shy away from dealing with difficult subjects. The girls of whom she approves are for the most part fairly appalling individuals, but those whom she writes as difficult are much more interesting. Grizel Cochrane is one, the victim of a neglected childhood who is made bitter by a lonely middle age. Grizel eventually finds happiness (with a doctor, of course), but only after her deep depression has been thoughtfully drawn. Joey’s ‘bad’ daughter Margot is equally intriguing: dismissed as hot-tempered and unmanageable throughout her childhood (and in a manner at odds with Brent-Dyer’s insistence on the perfection of Joey’s parenting), Margot grows up into an independent-minded person who turns her back on her family at the end of the series in rather spectacular fashion. Brent-Dyer is particularly interested in girls who are parentless or alone, and she is unsparing in her depiction of the sometimes downright abusive upbringings that throw them on the mercy of others. Such girls become completely enveloped in the embrace of the school, which is notable at all stages for its capacious and generous understanding of family. There are moments of real grief in the series but the books are rarely sentimental. The death of Jacynth Hardy’s aunt in Gay Lambert at the Chalet School made me cry when I first read it, and it made me cry again this summer. The series also contains one truly great book. The Chalet School in Exile tells the story of the school’s forced closure in 1938. Published in 1940, it relates how Joey and a group of pupils and staff are forced to flee Austria on foot after they defend an elderly Jew from the violence of the mob. In a chapter called ‘A Nazi Sport’ Brent-Dyer reveals the faces of the crowd, young Austrian men infected with the ideals of their invaders. Throughout she emphasizes the distinction between Nazis and civilians, and her wartime school story presents Austrian and German citizens with great humanity. The priest who helps the girls to escape and is murdered as a result; the schoolgirl called home to work in a Nazi munitions factory; idealistic young men forced to fly planes for a regime they hate: these characters and others lift The Chalet School in Exile far above the realms of an ordin-ary school story and they do so in a book published less than a year after the start of the war. Most striking of all is the tale of Herr Marini, who refuses to remove his daughter Maria from the school and who vanishes into a concentration camp as a result of his disobedience. Brent-Dyer reserves the merciful news of Herr Marini’s death until the end of the book, carefully tracking his daughter’s progression from carefree schoolgirl to haunted young woman in and out of the depiction of larger political dramas. There is no falsely happy ending here. The only hope offered at the end of Exile is that the values inculcated by the Chalet School will ultimately prevail in a war-torn world. During my summer of rereading, it has been those values that have struck me most deeply. I’m not talking here about the jolly-hockey-sticks stuff on fair play and joining in, or about the religiosity displayed by Brent-Dyer’s favourite characters. Much more interesting, in these turbulent times, is that the school is a model of European integration, and it stays true to the importance of being part of a community of nations even when that community is ripped apart by war. Brent-Dyer may have taken my family to Pertisau in 1994 but she also left a longer-lasting impression, making me, aged 13, an ardent believer in the European project. For that, and for much else besides, I will always remain a Chalet School fan.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 56 © Daisy Hay 2017


About the contributor

Daisy Hay is the author of Young Romantics and Mr and Mrs Disraeli. She still goes on literary pilgrimages but sadly these no longer involve school stories.

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