I. Contemporary Fans


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.)
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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.
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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 girls, 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.
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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.
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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."
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Meanwhile Patricia T. Brodie, who was born in 1933, recalls of the 1940s and early 1950s that:

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.

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."
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Similarly, in the later 1950s, Colette Tunley:

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:

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By the 1960s, Blyton and Brent-Dyer had become the most commonly available authors in the genre. Lorna Rutter recalls that:

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In 1970, the year after Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's death, Polly Goerres recalls that:

Unlike many other fans, Goerres refused to bow to pressure to stop reading the books as she grew older.

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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.

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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:

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)
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Brent-Dyer herself wrote, in the first edition of the newsletter in May 1959, of receiving a letter from:

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).
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McClelland points out that Chambers had a very clear commercial reason for running the club.

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.
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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.

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").
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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 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:

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Despite the rise of the Beatles, Chalet School fandom continued undiminished. McClelland notes that:

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."
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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 own terms.
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Next: 9: II. 1990s Women Fans
Return to: 9. The Fans of Girls' School Stories Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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