A tall, white bookcase stood against one wall, crammed
with books of various kinds, and Miss Annersley called Jo with a mischievous
smile, and pointed out the four gaily jacketed books which bore, under
the titles, the name of Josephine Bettany.
"Here you are, Joey: here's another fan of yours."
Jo went very red. "Don't talk rot, Hilda! Here's a whole shelf of Elsie Oxenham, and another of Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Winifred Darch. If the kid is a fan of anything, it's of school stories."
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Chalet School Goes to It, Chambers, 1941, pp74-5)
Girls' school stories, of course, have always had their
fans: those who rush to buy new examples of the genre; who re-read the
books over and over again; who collect and display the books; and who have
a detailed knowledge of their content. And school stories have been the
most common reading experience for British girls throughout the twentieth
century, a choice which has been made despite the widespread criticism
and ridicule to which the genre has been subjected. As a "light"
form of reading, market forces would otherwise have ensured that the genre
had never have existed. (It should be stressed, though, that other British
girl readers throughout the century have rejected the genre wholesale;
love of the books has never been a universal habit.)
Few records remain of the early years of fandom. It is
known that Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton, at least, met their reading public
on a number of occasions and that fans wrote regularly to their favourite
authors, but few examples remain of their correspondence. Gillian Freeman
records that: "Day-girls and boarders wrote to Angela daily, sending
her their photographs, and she always replied personally, often sending
a photograph of herself in return",
while Monica Godfrey reports that Elsie J. Oxenham, whose books - particularly
those published during the First and Second World Wars - had smaller print
runs than the other main authors, eventually had to set up a postal library
to provide her fans with copies of her books which had gone out of print.
Some statistics are forthcoming about the period which
followed the height of the popularity of the genre, in the fifteen years
after the end of the First World War in 1918. In the late 1930s, the Jenkinson
survey of 3000 children aged from 12-15 years found that girls were still
interested in school stories; but Jenkinson was only interested in "quality
reading" and no details are available.
However, in 1938 a survey carried out by Sheffield City Libraries found
that school stories were the most popular genre among girls, with Angela
Brazil and Dorita Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" books being the favourites.
In 1945, Lorna Lewis found that school stories were still popular among
and in 1947 G.A. Carter found that Angela Brazil was named 29 times and
Elinor Brent-Dyer five times as a "favourite author", in a survey
of 109 children aged 12-14 years from two modern schools.
By 1950, Doris Dunlop found that girls' school stories was still the most
popular genre in Glasgow and the second most popular in Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
However, this popularity began to decline by the mid-1950s,
when a wider choice of reading was becoming available along with other
entertainments such as television, while school stories were generally
held in low regard by critics, teachers and librarians. But in 1956, E.L.
Black and A. Schofield found that Angela Brazil was still mentioned as
being a popular author by second year grammar school girls,
while in 1957 J.D. Carlsey found that school stories were the third most
popular form of reading with older primary school-age girls.
By 1962, however, school stories were only the fourth most popular genre
among girls of eleven and over who used West Riding County Library,
although in 1968. I.J. Leng found that school stories by Angela Brazil,
Margaret Biggs, Nancy Breary and particularly Enid Blyton were held in
"high esteem" by girls using a public library in North Wales.
Otherwise, little but memories remain. The excerpts which
follow are from letters which were sent to me as a result of a request
published in the Friend of the Chalet School newsletter and The
New Chalet Club Journal, when I asked readers, all self-identifed adult
fans, for recollections of their childhood reading of girls' school stories.
Of the 1930s and early 1940s, Cynthia Castellan writes that: "Although
I never really enjoyed Elsie J. Oxenham's books, I must have read school
stories by every other known author of the period. I led a roving life
as a child as my father was a serving officer in the British army. We were
always living in other people's houses and you could usually count on finding
Ethel Talbot, Winifred Darch, Christine Chaundler and Angela Brazil on
the sitting-room bookshelf."
Meanwhile Patricia T. Brodie, who was born in 1933, recalls of the 1940s and early 1950s that:
I read school stories from the age of nine to the age
of seventeen. I loved reading them. I cannot remember all the authors whose
books I read, [but] I remember Angela Brazil, Elsie J. Oxenham, Enid Blyton,
May Wynne. I obtained their books from the Public Library. Money was somewhat
scarce in our family during the 1940s and so I was not bought many books.
When I was fourteen I read one of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's books for the
first time. It was Lavender Laughs at the Chalet School. Straightaway
I was hooked on to the book even before Jo appeared on the scene. . .
So I would say that at that time my favourite authors were Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Angela Brazil, Elsie J. Oxenham and possibly May Wynne. . .
Brodie also has clear memories of the authors within the genre which she did not like: she read these in the absence of anything else, but judged them to be inferior.
I seem to remember not being too keen on Ethel Talbot's
school stories. She seemed to have good ideas, but not always able to express
herself very well.
Also I was never very keen on school stories where the school was just used as a background for mysteries, detective work etc. I cannot remember which authors wrote these school stories . . . but I remember reading this type of school story. . . I have just remembered that another of my least favourie authors is Raymond Jacberns; who usually seems to write about very small schools that never seem to grow.
Brodie's fandom ceased when she left school, but through
a consciousness that she "should" stop rather than of her own
desire. "I stopped reading these type of books when I was seventeen
in 1950. . . I think I should have liked to have read a school story occasionally,
but it did not appear to be the done thing."
Similarly, in the later 1950s, Colette Tunley:
worked my way happily through every school story book [in Birkenhead Children's Library] until the day came when I was told I would have to join the adult section - a vast collection of books which quite baffled me. There were no teenage sections in those days; no safe transition into adult reading and definitely no school story section!
Gill Bilski has found that many adult collectors stopped reading the books for a time at the age of about fifteen, when they "were no longer allowed to borrow their favourites from the children's library". Tunley writes that she has since:
tried to analyse why I liked [the Chalet School series]
so much, and to some extent I think it's because they are so "safe".
They are very wholesome if that's the right word - you knew everything
would come out all right, and the atmosphere of the books was always positive,
and people were basically nice to each other. I suppose I liked the underlying
moral tone and Christian sentiment - without being particularly religious
myself. I am however a pretty average person - very conventional and a
conformist, not a radical in any way, and I think I liked, and still do,
the safety of the CS books. I went into social work, and now train social
work students, so I like caring relationships between people.
I did enjoy the CS settings, and yearned to visit Switzerland . . . I did skip the descriptions of the trips out from school but they didn't put me off the books in the way that Angela Brazil's travelogues did. I read many of her books but never enjoyed them as much as CS - partly because of the inbuilt geography lessons but also because the situations were less real and the characters less realistic and pleasant. . .
I suspect that much of my addiction to books stemmed from being an only child - although a happy one, with another "only" as a best friend who was and is as close as a sister . . . However, I was obviously the only child at home, with no TV until I was ten and a usual bedtime of 7pm until I was at secondary school in 1960. So I had lots of time to read, and a vivid imagination which meant that I lived out the current book in my mind and would be whichever the heroine of the week happened to be! With CS, this would usually be the scared new girl or the Len-type character - I was too quiet to be a Jo! I think I had great company in my escapist world. . .
I think I was fascinated by the group living involved in school stories. I imagined I was at boarding school although I'm sure I would have hated it really. . . I also now recall spending hours drawing school uniforms, school plans and designing the dining room etc for my dream school.
By the 1960s, Blyton and Brent-Dyer had become the most commonly available authors in the genre. Lorna Rutter recalls that:
I would think I read the "Malory Towers" and "St Clare's" between the ages of about 8-12. I was introduced to the Chalet School (birthday present) in 1967/8 when I was 13/14. I read and enjoyed The School at the Chalet and one other, and began to buy/borrow from the library those in print at the time. I probably owned about a dozen. Judging by the state of those I still have from that time, they were well-read many times.
In 1970, the year after Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's death, Polly Goerres recalls that:
As a supposedly advanced reader I first made the acquaintance
of school stories at the age of about seven . . .
The first school story per se I ever remember reading is Upper Fourth at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton. At once I was transfixed and a year or so later, when I was allowed pocket money and to take a bus ride into town, my pocket money went on the school stories of Enid Blyton. Malory Towers, St Clare's and Whyteleafe became my favourites. I knew that some of the terminology was old-fashioned; there was no longer any "school cert" in the 1970s, for instance. I didn't know anyone who actually went to a boarding school. I just assumed that, in the 1940s, when these Blyton tales had been written, more people went to boarding schools than did in the 1970s. I do remember consciously thinking that this was the case.
In 1973, when I was ten, my mother bought me a book with a continental setting to be appropriate reading matter for me on a plane trip to see my grandfather in Germany. We went to WH Smith's in Leamington Spa and while browsing through the children's section she hit upon "Chalet School: these look nice. Now, which one do you want?" She chose The Chalet School and Barbara (she must have liked the name, although the paperback illustration of an invalid girl being carried by a burly man fits in well with my mother's hobby - amateur medicine!).
Unlike many other fans, Goerres refused to bow to pressure to stop reading the books as she grew older.
I never stopped reading the Chalet School books during my teens, although I gather a lot of my present-day Chalet friends who are my age did. I wasn't a shrinking violet, ashamed of doing something childish, ashamed of the scorn that would be poured on me by more sophisticated schoolmates. As a fourteen year old when "Peggy" and "Problem" were newly out in paperback, on an expedition to town with a schoolfriend . . . I was mocked. "You don't still read those, do you?" she scoffed. I did, and I saw nothing wrong with it, just as I saw nothing wrong with my obsessions with football (odd for a girl, surely?) and early 1950s chart music. Mind you, I was the one who, in the sixth form, was the only one daring enough to go into a bookshop and buy a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover - even twenty years after the trial. . .
Margaret Burgess, who was born in 1970, still read school stories as a contemporary genre when she was a schoolgirl in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with Enid Blyton's books and the Chalet School series available in the shops as reprints, and Anne Digby's Trebizon books adding a new series to the genre.
I have always been a very keen reader and was always used
to a house full of books. I read anything and everything from a very early
age, started reading PG Wodehouse and the "Classics" such as
Jane Eyre, Villette and Pride and Prejudice at around
ten in conjunction with the usual Enid Blyton etc. . .
Anne Digby wasn't a favourite of mine as I got a little older. I found her style slightly simplified and the settings weren't "foreign" enough. Malory Towers didn't have the same cosmopolitan feel as the Chalet School! . . .
My first Chalet School book was Exile. I picked it up in our Primary 7 Class library to do a weekly book report on it and I was hooked. I was 11 at the time and continued reading and spending any money I had on the books up until I was about 15. Then, like many others before me, I stopped. I can't honestly say why, perhaps it was a feeling of being too old for school stories. So, I gave away the 24 books I had managed to purchase to a local jumble sale. . .
Four years ago, at the age of 22, I fell in love all over again.
Until the late 1950s, fandom remained an activity which was shared, if at all, only with mothers, sisters and friends. Then, alongside the growth of fan clubs for "pop stars", almost all of whom were male, Brent-Dyer's publishers launched The Chalet Club, perhaps inspired by the launch of Blyton's Famous Five Club in 1952. Brent-Dyer's biographer Helen McClelland writes that:
the club really owed not only its beginning but its entire
existence to Mrs Phyllis Kerr . . . and Mr Thomas Collocott, a director
of W. & R. Chambers, who was one of Elinor's principal editors for
many years. These two were long-standing Chalet fans and together they
worked out a scheme; at the beginning of 1959 this was put to Elinor, who
gave her enthusiastic approval, and also her agreement in principle to
write a couple of newsletters each year. (In practice it was often difficult
to get these out of her on time.) A badge and a membership card were designed;
and in May 1959 the club was launched.
Its avowed object was 'to form a closer link between Chalet enthusiasts the world over'. And the huge quantity of fan mail, that arrived from quite literally 'the world over', proves beyond doubt that the club was successful in doing this. There were times, in fact, when the correspondence threatened to get out of hand, for Elinor was not always very good about answering letters. And it is easy to understand something the former Miss Peattie wrote in a letter to another publisher who was considering whether to set up a similar club: 'For your sake I can only hope that all your authors do not have such a prolific fan mail as Miss Brent-Dyer!' (Behind the Chalet School, Bettany Press, London, 1996, p261)
Whatever the reason, the Club remained the only fan organisation
for readers of girls' school stories, but continued to prove enormously
popular. McClelland notes that: "The club moreover enjoyed an astonishing
growth rate, not unlike that of the Chalet School itself: in five years
the numbers rose from an initial thirty-three to just under 4,000; and
the members came from an impressive number of different countries. They
were not all schoolgirls, either." (p260)
Brent-Dyer herself wrote, in the first edition of the newsletter in May 1959, of receiving a letter from:
an elderly solicitor who informed me that he had begun
to read the books when he was staying with a married daughter and his schoolgirl
grand-daughter brought him one to entertain him when he was in bed with
'flu! He had enjoyed it and read the rest. I really did feel that was a
triumph for the books.
Other letters have come from mothers who enjoyed the books in their own girlhood and have now passed them on to their daughters whom they are continuing to supply as the new ones appear. Some come from mistresses in various schools who seem to enjoy not only the stories, but, in particular, the chatter in the Staffroom.
More fans mentioned in the newsletter include a "Library
Assistant in the North of England" (Chalet Club News Letter
No. 5, June 1961) and "a lady in New Zealand who is eighty-one!"
(Chalet Club News Letter No. 7, July 162).
McClelland points out that Chambers had a very clear commercial reason for running the club.
Perhaps it may never have struck the members, but, as
Mr Collocott was quite frank in stating, their Chalet Club gave splendid
publicity to both Elinor and her publishers. It also provided a handy way
of testing what might be called audience reaction. Here, the fan mail was
obviously helpful as it gave direct information about readers' likes and
dislikes. And the competitions (there were two every year, one in each
newsletter) were often ingeniously slanted. Perhaps the readers might be
asked to state which character they considered should take a leading role
in the next story, giving their reasons. Or sometimes there would be a
list of ten or more Chalet titles which had to be placed in order of preference.
The latter type of competition proved doubly rewarding: the winner - that
being the entrant whose list most nearly matched Miss Brent-Dyer's own
- naturally got a prize; and Messrs Chambers got valuable material to help
them in planning which Chalet book to reprint next.
The newsletters usually gave a list of all the Chalet titles that were currently available. And they always contained a snippet or two of information about the story that was to be published next - just enough to whet the appetite. (Behind the Chalet School, Bettany Press, London, 1996, pp261-2)
Quite possibly the existence of the Club was a key reason
why the decision was taken by the publishing firm William Collins in 1967
to purchase the rights to publish paperback editions of the series, and
therefore is one reason why the series survives today.
It is interesting to speculate on what motivated readers to join the Club. McClelland points out that there were a number of recurring themes in the fan correspondence published in the newsletter.
Certain questions were asked again and again. Was the
Chalet School a real school? Some people simply took for granted that it
was and wrote to ask for prospectuses . . . Were all, or any of the places
described in the stories real? Were the characters modelled on real people?
- and especially was Jo - or sometimes Madge - modelled on Elinor herself?
. . . Then there would be people who needed help to disentangle the complications of the Bettany or Maynard or Russell families. (From time to time these seemed to puzzle even Elinor herself.) And there were endless queries about what certain characters were doing now - the word 'now' being used apparently in the sense of 'right here and now in the present'. In fact the manner in which the questions were asked often suggested that the enquirer had real people in mind; and the answers would be given in the same spirit . . .
Others among the multitude of correspondents wrote with enthusiasm about their holidays abroad, especially when they had visited Switzerland or the Tyrol. Even more fans expressed a desire for foreign travel. A grown-up reader, typical of the first group, wrote (issue no. 18, July 1968): 'It is now 12 years since I first visited Austria as the direct result of reading the Chalet books, and since then I have been six times. Strange to think that but for the books I might have missed these wonderful holidays'. And a fifteen-year-old from Newcastle upon Tyne probably spoke for many other schoolgirls, besides the two she mentions, when she wrote: 'Because of reading the Chalet books I have gained a longing to visit Austria, Switzerland and Oberammagau. I find you have also created such an idea in two of my friends'. (pp263-4)
Brent-Dyer's detailed world of the Chalet School had clearly
taken on an imaginative, virtual reality in the minds of its fans, which
for some had crossed into trans-realism, where they found it difficult
to separate their imaginative life from the one which they were experiencing
externally. The other constant in the newsletters was Brent-Dyer's advice
to young writers, in response to a large and continuing number of letters
on this subject. Clearly many of the fans had the desire to create similar
worlds of their own, in addition to extending the world of the Chalet School
in their own imagination (what was happening "now").
In 1963 the first organised fan celebration of girls' school stories took place, to celebrate the Chalet School's "Golden Jubilee". McClelland notes that:
the most important event was undoubtedly the party at the National Book League in London, which was held in November 1963. Here Elinor met a large number of her fans (one came all the way from Denmark) and was given a presentation: 'A lovely bouquet and, more valuable because more lasting, the original of the jacket for The Chalet School Reunion . . . beautifully mounted and in a white frame' (July 1964). (The latter was presented to Elinor on behalf of the club by W.& R. Chambers.) (p266)
The party appears to have been the only time that Brent-Dyer met Club members en masse, but undoubtedly members were amongst the many fans who met her at the Children's Book Exhibition at Olympia on 3 January 1964, which she visited following an appearance on the "Tonight" programme at the invitiation of W.H. Smith. McClelland points out that:
This, not being a new experience, 'wasn't quite such an
excitement as the Television'. Nevertheless, 'everyone was delightfully
kind', and Elinor wrote that she had 'thoroughly enjoyed it'. No doubt,
too, her TV appearance the previous night had given an extra boost to the
Chalet School, for, as she herself puts it: 'Honestly, I signed autographs
until my hand was aching!'
And throughout 1964 the Chalet School boom was to continue. That June Elinor 'paid a surprise visit to the magnificent World Book Fair at Earls Court [where] an . . . announcement over the loudspeaker brought dozens of . . . young readers', all clamouring for autographs. (pp267-8)
Despite the rise of the Beatles, Chalet School fandom continued undiminished. McClelland notes that:
Numbers kept up well and there were several new club activities, including: a penfriends' service, with sections for French and Swedish correspondents; a scheme whereby readers could buy sixpenny (2 1/2p) savings stamps and put them towards the eventual purchase of a Chalet book; and even some 'Chalet Club groups' in various parts of Britain which met 'in one another's houses about once a month' to discuss 'Chalet and other matters'. One newsletter contains an advertisement asking for club members in India to form a group of this kind, although it seems that at the time this particular venture did not succeed. (p268)
McClelland records that, in 1968, a schoolgirl wrote to
Brent-Dyer, proclaiming: "The Chalet School books are not just school
stories, they are an entire way of life."
By the later 1960s, however, Brent-Dyer's health was declining
and there were no more officially organised Club activities where fans
could meet (although, as the above extract shows, fans were networking
amongst themselves under the auspices of the Club). Then, shortly after
Brent-Dyer's death in 1969, the Club was closed by the publishers. There
were probably two reasons for this. First, the newsletter was dominated
by Brent-Dyer's personality, and the content would have needed completely
rethinking in her absence. Second, and probably more importantly, with
Brent-Dyer's death, Chambers had only one more new Chalet School hardback
left to publish, Prefects of the Chalet School (1970), and another
publishers, William Collins, was publishing the paperback editions of the
series. As with the founding of the Club, then, it is likely that market
forces were the key reason for its closure. Chalet fandom was to continue,
though, and later fans were to organise together again; this time, on their
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