The little steamer waited ten minutes, then her whistle blew, and off she went - first to Buchau at the opposite side of the lake, and then to Briesau, where they were welcomed by good Frau Pfeifen, who almost wept for joy at beholding Madge and Joey once more. From the landing-stage to the Chalet was a good ten minutes' walk, and then they saw the welcoming lights, and heard Mademoiselle's warm French greeting. They were at the Chalet School at last.
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet, 1925, p52)
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's "Chalet School" series
began in 1925 with the publication of The School at the Chalet and
ended in 1970 with the publication of Prefects of the Chalet School,
the series totalling 59 books in all. Among girls' school story authors
- and indeed among authors of other popular genres for girls such as authors
of pony stories - Brent-Dyer is unique in producing a series of such length:
Dorita Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" series numbers only nine books;
while Enid Blyton's "St Clare's" and "Malory Towers"
series number six each; and Angela Brazil seldom used the same characters
in more than one book and never wrote a series as such. Perhaps Brent-Dyer's
nearest equivalent today is the television writer and the nearest equivalent
of the "Chalet School" series is the television series; but the
narrative content of a television series is generally produced by a team
of writers, together with the assistance of script editors, directors and
producers, rather than by a single person - and of course these teams are
largely male. In addition the longest-running British television series,
Coronation Street, was first broadcast in 1960 and would therefore
have to run until the year 2005 to match the "Chalet School"
series in terms of the length of the historical period covered.
In order fully to understand the
significance of the constructions of femininity represented in the "Chalet
School" series which is the main subject of this lexia, it is necessary
to consider what influence the life of its author might have had on the
plot structure and characterisation. Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was born Gladys
Eleanor May Dyer in a terraced house in South Shields on 6 April 1894.
Initially she appears to have had difficulty in establishing her self-identity:
first known at home and at school as May, she began to use the name Eleanor
in her teens. At college she called herself Patricia Maraquita, for reasons
which are not known, then reverted to Eleanor which she shortened to Len
in the same way as her heroine Joey Bettany/Maynard would later shorten
her daughter Helena's name. In the mid-1920s, with the publication of the
first of the "Chalet School" series, Brent-Dyer began to use
the name Elinor, retaining May as a middle name and adopting and hyphenating
the name Brent from her father, whose full name was Charles Morris Brent
Dyer (McClelland, 1981, pp2, 21), and she retained this name for the rest
of her life. It is possible, then, that any confusion she may have felt
about her own identity during her early years came to an end when she began
to write the "Chalet School" series.
Brent-Dyer's father, a former naval officer from Portsmouth
who had come to South Shields to work as a surveyor in the shipyards, abandoned
the family when she was only three, and her mother lived as a widow (although
they were legally separated and he did not actually die until 1911) (McClelland,
1981, pp1-5). Brent-Dyer grew up with her mother, her grandmother, who
died in 1901, and her brother, Henzell Watson Dyer (b.1895), who died suddenly
of meningitis at the age of 17 in 1912 (McClelland, 1981, pp38-41). The
themes of poor health, death and absence of family, particularly fathers
and brothers, which are characteristic of the "Chalet School"
series, possibly originated with Brent-Dyer's early experiences, which
also included the death from tuberculosis in 1911 of her close friend and
neighbour, Elizabeth Jobling, at the age of 16 (McClelland, 1981, pp36-7).
It is certainly probable that as a result of her experiences Brent-Dyer
perceived poor health, death and absence of family as having greater significance
in the average girl's life than was in fact the case.
Brent-Dyer's mother was a woman of independent means,
thanks to the house the family lived in and a capital sum that were both
left to her by Brent-Dyer's maternal grandfather. Brent-Dyer was accordingly
sent to a small private school from the age of six where she remained throughout
her school-days (McClelland, 1981, pp15-44). (Brent-Dyer was later to equate
having an independent income with women's power.)
On her 18th birthday she became an "unqualified teacher", working
in the neighbourhood where she had grown up. Her mother remarried in 1913,
and in 1915 Brent-Dyer went to the City of Leeds Training College for teaching
training. In 1917, after qualifying, she returned to her mother's home
and teaching in South Shields, where she remained for the next six years
(McClelland, 1981, pp 49-61). It is probable that she drew heavily on her
teaching experience as well as her own experience of school life when writing
the "Chalet School" series.
(It is interesting to note that Brent-Dyer's early life
resembles that of her contemporary Enid Blyton's in two important aspects:
Blyton's father also abandoned her family, albeit when she was 13; and
she too trained as a teacher, from 1916-1918 [Stoney, 1986, pp19, 30-36].
It is therefore possible that some similar themes in the works of both
authors exist at least partly because of the authors' similar early life
experiences.) Brent-Dyer's first book, Gerry Goes to School, set
in a day school, was published in 1922 and was followed by two more books
in the same series, known as the "La Rochelle" series, in 1923
and 1924. From then until her death there were only two years when she
did not have a book published: 1939, when she had just opened her own school
and it would already have been obvious from events in Austria and Germany
that the "Chalet School" series would need repositioning from
its setting in Austria;
and 1968, when her health was already failing. For much of her life she
also continued to teach, moving to a school in Hampshire in 1923 (McClelland,
1981, p79). In 1927 she returned home, working as a supply teacher in South
Shields until 1933 (McClelland, 1981, p112). In that year she moved with
her mother and stepfather to Hereford, where she worked as a governess
until 1938 (McClelland, 1981, pp127-130). This area was later used as the
setting for six of the "Chalet School" books, published in the
1940s, the only time that she ever used a home setting for the series.
In 1937 Brent-Dyer's stepfather
died, leaving only a small estate, and in 1938 she decided to open a school
of her own, starting - like her character Madge Bettany, who began the
Chalet School - with two pupils, the girls she had previously been governess
to (McClelland, 1981, pp135-137). She also began to take in lodgers (McClelland,
1981, p139), suggesting that, although her books were extremely popular,
they still did not generate enough income for her to be able to support
herself and her mother. Her first two pupils were removed after their mother
discovered that Brent-Dyer's unqualified mother was teaching them while
Brent-Dyer was writing, but the influx of evacuees to the area meant that
the school survived until 1948 (McClelland, 1981, pp140-149). However,
while Brent-Dyer was competent as a teacher, the evidence suggests that
she was unable to cope with running a school (McClelland, 1981, pp145-149),
and it seems likely that, as with her character Madge Bettany (The School
at the Chalet, 1925), the need to earn a living was the principle motivation
behind the school's conception.
Brent-Dyer was to produce at least another 60 books in
the 21 years after her teaching career ended (her last book, Prefects
of the Chalet School, was published posthumously in 1970). Her mother,
with whom she had lived for all but six years of her life, eventually died
at the age of 88 in 1957, when she herself was 63 (McClelland, 1981, pp158-159).
Brent-Dyer continued to live at Lichfield House, the site of her ill-fated
school, until 1964, when friends persuaded her to move into a house in
Surrey with them, and produced "Chalet School" books until her
death in 1969 (McClelland, 1981, pp160-163). At the time of her death she
merited obituary notices in many of the national papers, including half
a column in The Times (McClelland, 1989, p9). While Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
is not the best-remembered of the authors of girls' school stories - thanks
in part to more recent parodies as well as to being known as one of the
originators of the genre, that honour belongs to Angela Brazil - she is
the author who remains most popular at the end of the twentieth century.
Brent-Dyer is believed
to have conceived the idea for the "Chalet School" series following
a visit to Austria with friends in the summer of 1924 (McClelland, 1981,
p87), as the first 13 books of the series are set in contemporary Tirol,
near the village of "Briesau" on lake "Tiern See" -
actually Pertisau and Achen See (McClelland, 1981, p91). In the first book,
The School at the Chalet, 24 year old Madge Bettany travels to Tirol
to open a school, partly for the sake of her 12 year old sister, Josephine
Mary (known as Jo or Joey), whose "health had been a constant worry
to those who had charge of her" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p9). Their parents
are both dead, and Madge's twin brother, Dick, is about to return to India
where they were all born. (Dick has only a minor role in the series, of
which the main part is to father daughters who later become pupils in the
school and for a time central characters in the series; eg Peggy of
the Chalet School , Bride Leads the Chalet School .)
Madge Bettany begins the school with two pupils: her sister
Joey and Grizel, the daughter of an English neighbour. In the first week
she enrols 15 more pupils, and the school continues to grow, reaching 33
in the second book, Jo of the Chalet School (1926). (By the ninth
book in the series, The Exploits of the Chalet Girls , the
school numbers 105, and by the 18th book, Gay from China at the Chalet
School  there are 250 pupils.) Madge's teaching career is short-lived,
however, as she becomes engaged at the end of the second book and marries
at the end of the third book, The Princess of the Chalet School
(1927), whereupon she retires from teaching. This was, of course, the norm
at the time, with all state-funded schools and many others operating a
marriage bar against women teachers (Beddoe, 1989, p82).
Madge's husband, Jem Russell, is a doctor who has come
to the Tirol to found a sanatorium for TB patients, and so at first they
remain close to the school, both geographically and emotionally. Later,
however, when Joey becomes an adult, Madge is mentioned far less, and in
the 21st book, The Chalet School and the Island (1950), she travels
to Canada with her family for an extended stay. By the 30th book, The
Chalet School and Barbara (1954), this separation has become permanent:
Jem remains with the sanatorium in Wales, where it has relocated during
the war years; while the school moves to Switzerland where a new branch
of the sanatorium is to be headed by Joey's husband. Madge appears periodically
as a visitor, but from the time she is married never enjoys the ongoing
relationship with the school that Joey does.
Jo/Joey is at the centre of the books. For the first 11 books she is a pupil at the school, becoming Head Girl in the seventh book, The Chalet School and Jo (1931). In the 12th book, Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), she returns temporarily to teach, and in the 14th book, The Chalet School in Exile (1940), she marries a colleague of Jem Russell's, Jack Maynard, who is also a brother of one of the mistresses. Because of the links between the school and the sanatorium, Jack never works far from the school, and so Jo is able to remain associated with it throughout the series.
"Jo's a married lady and a proud mamma of many, [eventually eleven, including triplets and two sets of twins!] and yet, in one sense, she's as much a part of the school as ever she was when she was Head Girl - or a sickening little nuisance of a Middle, for that matter. In my opinion, she'll still belong when she's a doddering old woman of ninety-odd, telling her great-great-grandchildren all about her evil doings at school!" (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p12)
It is interesting to consider the literary influences which are reflected in the characterisation in the "Chalet School" series. As a character Joey, at least in her early years, clearly owes something to Louisa M. Alcott's Jo March (as Alcott is obviously an influence on Brent-Dyer's early writing, it is possible that Brent-Dyer also used the initial "M" in imitation of her, particularly as both stand for "May"). Joey speaks slang:
" 'Gets her monkey up?' " repeated Gisela in
a puzzled frown. "I do not understand."
"Sorry! That's slang, I'm 'fraid," apologised Joey. "Loses her temper, you know." (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p151)
This is also a trait of Jo March's: "'Jo does use such slang words!' observed Amy, with a reproving look at the long figure stretched on the rug" (Alcott, 1868, p7). Joey has a an annoying habit of humming: ''Joey Bettany!' she cried. 'For goodness sake stop that wretched humming!'" Jo March whistles: "Don't, Jo; it's so boyish!" (Alcott, 1868, p7). Joey is editor of the school magazine: "'Then shall we appoint Joey as the editor?' enquired Gisela. 'Will you hold your hands up if you agree?' A forest of hands was promptly waved in the air, and the motion was carried." (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p43). Similarly, "Jo [March], who revelled in pens and ink, was the editor" of the March sisters' weekly newspaper, "The Pickwick Portfolio" (Alcott, 1868, p121). Joey initially hates growing up: "Jo had a horror of growing up, and she resented anything that reminded her of the fact that she could be a child no longer" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p12). So does Jo March:
"I'm not! [a young lady] and if turning up my hair makes me one, I'll wear it in two tails till I'm twenty . . . I hate to think I've got to grow up, and be Miss March, and wear long gowns, and look as prim as a China-aster!" (Alcott, 1868, p8)
In particular, Joey is convinced that she will not want to get married:
Joey shook her golliwog mop vigorously. "Not me!
I'm not going to get maried!"
"Nonsense!" replied Gisela calmly.
"Not nonsense at all!" protested Jo. "It's jolly good sense, I think! I'm going to have all the responsibility I care for - and more! - for the rest of my school life. I'm not taking on anything I haven't got to." (Brent-Dyer, 1931, pp10-11)
Jo March is also certain that she will not marry:
"I'm not one of the agreeable sort. Nobody will want me, and it's a mercy, for there should always be one old maid in a family . . . I don't like that sort of thing; I'm too busy to be worried with nonsense, and I think it's dreadful to break up families so! (Alcott, 1869, p18))
Both girls are also avid readers, love to write and eventually grow up to be writers. The links between Jo Bettany and Jo March are at their most marked in the text when Jo Bettany says that she will "Be like Jo March in Little Women, and 'wear my hair in two tails till I'm twenty!', sooner than do that!" [grow up] (Brent-Dyer, 1932, p90). (In fact, Joey is married by the time she is twenty [Brent-Dyer, 1940, p169], and Jo March too marries while still young.) Alison Lurie has commented that
Jo March of Little Women no longer seems so radical a tomboy: her untidiness, literary ambition, enthusiasm for "romps" and mild boyish slang ("Christopher Columbus!") appear tame. . . But for at least five generations of American girls, Jo was a rebel and an ideal.(Lurie, 1990, p13).
It is probable that Jo Bettany/Maynard, too, was perceived
as a far more radical character by her contemporary readers than she is
by schoolgirls at the end of the century.
There are other similarities to Louisa M. Alcott's "Little
Women" series in the early "Chalet School" books, although
they are more superficial. Joey's older sister is Madge, Jo March's eldest
sister is called Meg. Jo March has a younger sister called Beth who has
"a shy manner, a timid voice, and a peaceful expression, which was
seldom disturbed" (Alcott, 1868, p9) and who eventually dies of TB.
From the second book onwards Joey has a small "adopted
sister" (this is never made formal), the Robin, who has "a remarkably
sweet nature" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p34) and spends her childhood threatened
with TB, although she survives to become a nun (Shocks for the Chalet
School, 1952). Jo March's youngest sister is a blue-eyed blonde called
Amy; there is a very similar Amy, Amy Stevens, among the first pupils at
the Chalet School. Later in life Jo March has a niece, Daisy; Jem Russell
also has a niece called Daisy who calls Joey "aunt" (The New
House at the Chalet School, 1935) and whom Joey later describes as
It is probable that some aspects of the character of Jo when she becomes an author are based on Brent-Dyer's personal experiences and opinions, and perhaps offer a clue to Brent-Dyer's feelings about the genre. In Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), Jo begins writing her first book, a school story, but tears it up (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p38) after Matron points out that her characters are either too good or are irredeemably bad. She then begins another, this time based on real-life incidents: "Warned by Matron's diatribe on the subject, she contrived to keep Cecily merely an ordinary schoolgirl, who led quite an ordinary life at school" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p39). Later in the same book, Jo is given a concrete example of the effects that irresponsible school story authors can have on their readers, when a new girl, Polly Heriot, rings the fire bell in imitation of the heroines of her favourite school stories, rousing the entire valley.
Jo . . . sat down that afternoon to review her own book,
and with a stern hand she remorselessly removed any pranks that might be
supposed to incite brainless Juniors to imitation.
"Matey was quite right," she thought, as she consigned the last sheet to the wastepaper-basket. "What a horrible responsibility it is to write for the young!" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p87)
It is quite probable that Brent-Dyer genuinely believed
that she had a responsibility towards her readers, and distinguished herself
in her own mind from those authors whom she considered to be less responsible.
The same book also offers some clues to Brent-Dyer's working methods:
Jo made the discovery that she had mixed up two of the
prefects, and, consequently, must either re-write one of the early chapters,
or the five succeeding ones.
"Oh, bother - bother - bother!" she groaned when she found this out. "That's what comes of being too lazy to make out lists. Well, I'd better do it now and save trouble for the future." (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p40)
Although there are inconsistencies in characters and particularly
in spellings in the "Chalet School" series (McClelland, 1989,
pp92-94), it is probable that Brent-Dyer, too, had found out the hard way
that she should "make out lists". Indeed, given the constant
references to incidents in previous books and the reintroduction of old
girls in cameo roles in later books, Brent-Dyer must have kept copious
Later in the series, in The Chalet School Does It Again (1955), it is possible that Brent-Dyer is answering her own critics when a new girl, Prunella Davies, complains of Joey that "I think it a pity that she puts in so much slang. English, especially for schoolgirls, should be pure and undefiled". Mary-Lou, one of the role model characters (see below and the next lexia), replies:
"No modern girl would read them if they weren't written in - in modern idiom. You couldn't expect it. . . Anyhow, the people in Aunt Joey's books are just like real people and there's precious few real people nowadays who go around talking as if they'd just had a session with Elizabeth Bennet or Evelina Belmont!" (Brent-Dyer, 1955b, p44)
Although the character of Jo/Joey is
central to the "Chalet School" series, she is not the protagonist
in the sense that the series revolves around her. Rather, she embodies
the spirit of the school ("Jo Maynard . . . now and always one of
its [the school's] moving spirits", The Wrong Chalet School,
1952), and the qualities which are held to be most desirable by both the
school and the series.
The real focus of the series is instead the Chalet School itself, or the
community it represents, to which Jo belongs: "Even
when I'm an old lady with white hair, telling all my great-great nieces
and nephews all about my wicked deeds, I'll never count myself as anything
but a Chalet School girl" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, pp17-18); "I'm still,
in part of me, what I shall always be - a Chalet School girl." (Brent-Dyer,
This is explicit in the titles of the books: the title
of the first book is The School at the Chalet; while from the second
book onwards the titles include the words "Chalet School" or
"Chalet Girls" (apart from two books which are about Jo rather
than the school, Jo to the Rescue and Joey Goes to the Oberland).
The time in which the narratives take place is defined by the School's
year, taking place with very few exceptions
within a school term or holiday. Generally the narrative structure is simple,
taking place in the present, with letters or personal accounts used rather
than flashbacks when exposition is needed relating to the past. Constant
references to incidents in previous books in the series provide the community
with its own history (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p221; Brent-Dyer, 1955c, pp8,9,
224) - as well as helping to persuade readers to buy more of the books!
The centrality of the school/community to the narratives can be seen in
the narrative and plot structure of individual books, and in particular
in Brent-Dyer's use of two common plot devices, which I will call as a
shorthand the "New Girl" and "Illness/Injury".
The "New Girl" plot device,
commonplace in the genre, has three functions. First, the setting and characters
of the series can be introduced to new readers through the new girl's own
introduction to them, thus dramatising much of the necessary exposition.
Second, her assimilation into the community provides a focus for part of
the plot. Third, the device enables a constant flow of new characters to
be introduced into the series, allowing the series to change and develop.
When a new girl or girls functions in this way, they are often the subject
of the title, eg The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934), Lavender
Laughs in the Chalet School (1943), The Chalet School and Barbara
(1954). The "Illness/Injury" plot
device functions as a warning to those who resist being assimilated into
the community, with illness or injury explicitly caused by this resistance,
either to the character in question or to another closely linked to them.
Brent-Dyer uses classic narrative structure in her use of a constant, in
this case the community, whose calm is disrupted and then reinstated. The
""Illness/Injury" plot device essentially provides a vehicle
for a character to change from representing undesirable to desirable qualities
, thus enabling the reinstatement of the constant "community".
In addition Brent-Dyer also makes
frequent use of another plot device, which I will call "Tricks and
Amusing Incidents" as a shorthand. This device is used to alter the
mood of the narrative from a serious one to a lighthearted one and is unconnected
to the main plot or sub-plot, acting instead as an interlude. When the
narrative returns to the serious plot or sub-plot the dramatic tension
is heightened because the mood has altered again, this time from a lighthearted
one to a serious one. This device is common among other authors in the
genre (eg Blyton, First Term at Malory Towers, 1946, pp39-46). The
functions of all three aforementioned plot devices can be seen more clearly
in the summaries of the plots of Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School
(1930) and The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934).
Brent-Dyer's use of the "Illness/Injury"
plot device is reminiscent of the morality tales popular in the late 18th
and early 19th centuries, such as Sarah Fielding's The Governess
(1749) and Maria Edgeworth's Moral Tales (1801). Morality tales
formed the predominant genre in English children's books at the beginning
of the nineteenth century, with the majority of authors being women (Carpenter
and Prichard, 1984, p358). Interestingly, Carpenter and Prichard regard
morality tales as a major influence on the works of Louisa M. Alcott (Carpenter
and Prichard, 1984, p360). A similar plot device was also a convention
of nineteenth century fiction, where illness symbolised a process of character
change (eg Marianne in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, 1811).
With the exception of only two girls who are expelled in the course of the series, Thekla, who is seen to represent the spirit of "New Germany", and a girl who assists the Nazis when the school returns to England (see the next lexia for a more detailed discussion of the representation of Germany in the series), all the characters are seen as capable of reform within the community. (This is why the "Illness/Injury" plot device is essential to the series.) Even the two aforementioned girls are described as improving in character later in life as a result of the ultimate punishment of expulsion from the community. In this Brent-Dyer is writing in the tradition of classic children's fiction, of which Alison Lurie has written:
a pastoral convention is maintained. It is assumed that the world of childhood is simpler and more natural than that of adults, and that children, though they may have faults, are essentially good or at least capable of becoming so. (Lurie, 1990, pxiii)
It is possible that Brent-Dyer was
quite sincere in her use of this pastoral convention. There is some evidence
to support this in Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), when
Matron criticises the characters in Jo's first attempt at writing a school
story by saying that in real life no-one is all bad, as Jo's leading character
is, and it would be wrong to encourage readers "to think such girls
exist" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p25). (Matron is seen as one of the key
authority figures in the series, and is always right.)
As a result of her use of this convention, Brent-Dyer
includes detailed explanations for characters' bad behaviour within the
plot, often through the voices of the mistresses or Jo. For example, in
The Chalet School Does It Again (1955), Miss Annersley explains
to the staff that a new girl, Prunella, was left with her grandmother between
the ages of 10-14 while her parents went abroad. After the death of her
grandmother, her parents returned to find her spoilt and badly-behaved,
so sent her to the Chalet School (Brent-Dyer, 1955b, pp120-127). Later
Jo confronts Prunella and suggests, in much the same way as a child psychologist
might tackle a client, that Prunella felt that her grandmother, for whom
she is still grieving, was being criticised by her parents, and this made
her behaviour much worse. Her anger at her parents has led in turn to her
peculiar behaviour at school. Prunella, recognising the truth of this explanation,
breaks down in tears and is persuaded to behave properly (Brent-Dyer, 1955b,
pp161-168). (The lack of adequate parenting is by far the most common reason
for characters' undesirable qualities, and this is explored further in
and 6: V..)
The influence of the traditions of classic children's
fiction can also be seen in other elements of the "Chalet School"
series. The essential goodness and innocence of the character of the Robin,
for example, is more than once used to help an older character to throw
off undesirable qualities and reform. Alison Lurie similarly lists Little
Lord Fauntleroy and Silas Marner as examples of the same recurring
theme in classic children's fiction, "the regeneration of an older
person through the influence of an affectionate and attractive child, a
Wordsworthian natural innocent" (Lurie, 1990, p140). The Robin is
first introduced in the second book of the series, Jo of the Chalet
School (1926), the extremely delicate daughter of an English friend
of the Bettanys who becomes Jem Russell's secretary, and a Polish woman
who has recently died of TB. The Robin is described as an "angel-child"
(Brent-Dyer, 1926, p20) with "such a lovely baby-face!" (Brent-Dyer,
1926, p18), and the petting she receives "never seemed to affect her
in the least" (Brent-Dyer, 1928, p45). Although she is six years old
when she is first introduced, she is constantly referred to as a "baby",
even when she is at least twelve (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p191), and only develops
into a normal teenager when Austria is invaded by the Nazis.
In the fourth book of the series, The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928), the Robin brings about a change of heart in a senior girl, Deira, who has thrown a stone at the Head Girl, Grizel, knocking her out (note how "Illness/Injury" is once more the plot device which is used to enable a character to change).
Deira had heard the others say more than once that the
Robin was the best comforter to have when you were in trouble, but she
had never felt it before. Now, as the baby's arm encircled her neck, and
the warm, soft weight tumbled into her lap, she felt the truth of it.
"The stone - was - a mistake, Robin," she said unevenly. "I - I didn't know what it was I was throwing." . . . Deira had begun to cry, softly and bitterly, but in a very different way from what she had wished an hour ago. (Brent-Dyer, 1928, p150).
The Robin, who is described as looking "almost angelic" even during her teens (eg Brent-Dyer, 1940, p16; Brent-Dyer, 1941, p18) and who eventually becomes a nun (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, pp17-19), is so good that she is able on one occasion to intervene to bring Joey back from near-certain death after Joey has contracted "pleuro-pneumonia" while rescuing another girl, Maureen, from an ice-covered lake. Note how once again illness is used as a plot device. In this case Maureen's lack of self-discipline brings down illness on both herself and Joey.
Robin's eyes wandered past to the bed and its occupant.
Joey lay propped up with pillows to relieve the breathing. Her black eyes
were half-open, and her cheeks were scarlet. A tearing rusty sound came
through her parted lips, and she was muttering to herself in low tones.
The Robin ran forward and climbed up on to the bed. She possessed herself
of the other hot hand, and leaned over.
"Joey, I am going to sing you to sleep with Mamma's song. You must close your eyes and go to sleep."
The black eyes opened a little wider, and the grown-up people in the room held their breath. Could it be possible that the Robin's baby voice was going to break the delirium where all else had failed? It looked like it. There was something in the black eyes that had not been there for five long days. (Brent-Dyer, 1929, pp97-98)
The Robin's pureness and innocence is associated with her delicacy - she is always decribed as being at risk of developing TB like her mother - and this is also a convention of classic fiction, in particular nineteenth century romantic fiction. In Illness as Metaphor Susan Sontag points out that in nineteenth century literature "The dying tubercular is pictured as made more beautiful and more soulful" (Sontag, 1991, p17).) The Robin provides the fullest example of links between the "Chalet School" series and romantic fiction, but there are others. For example:
Joey, sitting up in bed gazing out of the window, gave a cry of ecstasy as she saw the beauty before her. Mountains, path, and level grass were thickly covered with a white mantle against which the lake lay, still and black beneath its veiling of thin ice. (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p70)
Being "sensible" to the beauty of nature was,
of course, central to the code of the Romantic poets. (The links with romanticism
are greatly lessened with the series' repositioning following the outbreak
There are also recurring links between the series and
adventure fiction. It is interesing to note that when the series borrows
from other types of book, it is often from other genres, such as morality
tales and adventure stories. In the third book of the series, The Princess
of the Chalet School (1927), Princess Elisaveta, whose father is heir
to the crown of "Belsornia", a fictitious central European country,
comes to the Chalet School. During the passage of the book she is kidnapped
by her wicked cousin, but is rescued by Joey, who is later decorated by
the King. The following book, The Head Girl of the Chalet School
(1928), features a sub-plot in which first the Robin and then Cornelia,
an older pupil, are kidnapped by a madman and carried off to long-forgotten
salt caves under the lake. These caves are linked to myths about the origin
of the lake, which was believed to be the site of a city which had become
overwhelmed by water because it had lost its religion.
In the seventh book of the series, The Chalet School
and Jo (1931), a sub-plot revolves around the adoption - first unofficially
by some of the pupils and then officially by the school - of a small Irish
girl, Biddy O'Ryan, who has been orphaned and is wandering alone on the
alp. In the following book, The Chalet Girls in Camp (1932), Joey
goes fishing in the early morning with her friends and discovers what they
believe to be a body. Although this later turns out to be an artists' dummy,
the girls are very shocked and ill and there is an atmosphere of horror
while the lake is being dragged. Later in the same book Joey and her friend
Simone find a packet of love letters and mementoes left by a dying soldier
who had been fighting against Napoleon and whose sweetheart, according
to the last of the letters, was already dead. These are later given to
one of his ancestors.
In the 11th book of the series, The New House at the
Chalet School (1935), Joey discovers a delicate woman in mourning in
the streets of Innsbruck who turns out to be Jem Russell's long-lost sister,
Margot Venables. Having previously eloped against her family's wishes,
her husband turned out to be thoughtless and idle. Her three sons have
all died in Australia, and her husband has been killed by a snake bite.
A friend who sheltered her temporarily has since died of pneumonia, and
of her two surviving daughters, one is very weak. Joey is responsible for
reconciling her with Jem, and the family come to live with the Russells.
These sub-plots are more reminiscent of the male-produced girls' comic
books of the 1920s and 1930s, which Cadogan and Craig describe as encompassing
"'tales of bygone days', ghost stories, mystery and detection"
(Cadogan and Craig, 1986, p233) and it is probable that Brent-Dyer used
these for reference in the early years of the series.
Although these elements largely ceased to exist after
the mid-1930s, there are two instances when they recur. In The Highland
Twins at the Chalet School (1942), the second book with a Herefordshire
setting, twins Flora and Fiona McDonald from the Isle of Erisay are put
into Joey's care after their home is requisitioned by the navy. Fiona,
who has the "second sight", sees first her brother's death, then
Jack Maynard's escape from a shipwreck when everyone fears he is dead.
The twins have in their possession a map showing a secret underground entrance
to their home, and have to use their courage and imagination when a spy
attempts to steal it from them. The second instance is when the series
is in its Island setting, when there is a recurring
sub-plot revolving around the ancestors of the Christy family, who own
the house where the school is based. This eventually results in hidden
treasure being discovered, which restores the family's fortunes and allows
them to move back into the house when the school leaves for Switzerland.
With 59 novels and an unknown number
of "Chalet School" stories in Christmas annuals etc, the series
is remarkably long (Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" series numbers only
nine books, and Blyton's "St Clare's" and "Malory Towers"
series six each). Indeed, there is evidence to show that Brent-Dyer's publishers,
W & R Chambers, originally wished to discontinue the series after Jo
Returns to the Chalet School (1936), both on financial grounds and
because "there are now 12 [of the books] and that is enough"
(McClelland, 1981, p141). This was perhaps not surprising, given that the
character of Joey had been at the centre of the series since its inception,
and she had returned to the school in the 12th book, after leaving officially,
due to illness among her family and the staff; an artificial device that
could not be continued if the series was to retain credibility.
The concept of the series remains in vogue today in children's
fiction, probably because of its similiarities with genre fiction, which
is also still popular. In genre fiction readers desire the elements that
are shared between books in the same genre, and these similarities are
valued more highly than the differences between the books. In a series
there are more shared elements between the books than there are between
books in a genre, as the same characters and setting are commonly carried
over from one book to the next. Therefore series which are set within a
genre can be seen as microcosms of that genre, but can also be seen as
sub-genres in their own right, and because of its length, this is particularly
true of the "Chalet School" series.
One reason that Brent-Dyer continued to write the "Chalet
School" series for the rest of her life was probably her ability to
develop the series and reposition it when necessary. Following her publisher's
warnings, Brent-Dyer made some major changes to the series in her 13th
book, The New Chalet School (1938). The headmistress, Mdlle Lepattre,
a shadowy figure who was Madge's partner in the school and who took over
after Madge's marriage, becomes ill and is replaced with Miss Annersley,
a far more convincing figure who remains headmistress for the rest of the
series. The Robin's father, who was always an anachronism as his daughter
was brought up by the Russells from the moment of her arrival, is killed
in an accident. New staff and girls are introduced by merging the Chalet
School with a neighbouring school, and Joey's future position as an authoress
and help-meet to the school is established.
By the time Brent-Dyer wrote the next
book, The Chalet School in Exile (1940), events in Europe had forced
her to change the series again, beginning with the annexation of Austria
by the Nazis in 1938. In the course of the book the
school is relocated from Austria to Guernsey, and this is dramatised around
Joey and Robin's flight from the Nazis, bringing in adventure elements
that would be topical at the time and remain exciting today. Joey becomes
engaged while in Austria, and after a ten-month gap in proceedings in the
middle of the book (the only occasion when a single book does not follow
a continuous time period) she is married, and later gives birth to triplet
Jack Maynard, Joey's husband, had been
a minor character in the series since the sanatorium opened, but had never
been suggested as a suitor for Joey before this book. However, because
men play only a minor role in the series anyway (see 6: IV.
and 6: V.for
further details), Brent-Dyer is able to write quite convincingly that "for
the past two years [he] had been quite decided about what she meant to
him" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p60), and as men were expected to take the
active role in relationships, perhaps the engagement is not unexpected
after this. Robin, a romanticised character who has remained a "small
girl" since she was introduced to the series
and who would have looked increasingly out of place in the late 1930s,
is also transformed into a normal teenager. War thus provided a reason
for Joey and Robin to grow up, (in Joey's case signified by the trappings
of marriage and children, in Robin's by the loss of the prefix "the"
from her name and by improvements in her health), which was essential for
the series to retain its credibility.
However, the Channel Islands which Brent-Dyer had chosen
for her new setting came under attack by Germany in the early days of the
war, and by the 15th book, The Chalet School Goes To It, the school
has moved again, to the Welsh border in Herefordshire, Brent-Dyer's home
at the time. Once again Brent-Dyer capitalised
on the opportunities this offered the plot and dramatised the move with
a U-boat attack on the boat carrying Joey and her triplets to the mainland.
After the war ended in 1945, there was a four year gap in the series when
it was possible that the publishers again wished to finish it, but in 1949
Brent-Dyer published the 20th book in the series, Three Go to the Chalet
School. This book contained three new characters - Mary-Lou
Trelawney, who was later to take over many of Joey's characteristics, Verity-Ann
Carey, who later became Mary-Lou's "sister-by-marriage", and
Clem Barras, who later becomes the ward of Mary-Lou's mother - as well
as introducing Joey's triplets as schoolgirls for the first time.
Three Go to the Chalet School was acknowledged
to take place some years after the last book, Jo to the Rescue (1945),
whereas the majority of the books take place during the term following
the last book, some after a gap of a term or two and rarely after a gap
of a year. This time lapse allowed many of the old characters to be dispensed
with, including Robin who is now at Oxford and Madge, who is barely mentioned,
and certain others to alter subtly in relative age to suit the demands
of the plot. It also allowed new characters to be introduced into the series
without using the plot device of the "New Girl",
together with suitable 'back-stories' which helped to drive the plot of
this and successive books. Examples of these new back-stories helping to
drive the plot of successive books include the delicacy of Joey's "youngest"
triplet Margot, who had previously been healthy, following an illness,
causing Madge and Jem to take her with them to Canada (The Chalet School
and the Island, 1950); and the appointment of Peggy Bettany - Dick's
eldest girl - as head girl because a member of "Special Sixth"
had previously made a poor job of the post, causing a member of the current
Special Sixth, a new character Eilunedd, to bear a grudge, as she had a
"history" of doing (Peggy of the Chalet School, 1950).
One noticeable difference in the new characters is their
nationality: whereas the school had been an international one "run
on English lines" in the Tirol and had taken many of its foreign pupils
with it to Guernsey and then Herefordshire; now the vast majority of the
pupils are British. This possibly owed something to contemporary feelings
of animosity against Central Europe following the war, but was probably
at least partly due to the fact that Brent-Dyer could produce no credible
reason for introducing new foreign pupils while the school was in the UK.
(In fact, even in the Tirol, the proportion of British girls and their
profile in the series had grown alongside the size of the school.)
Although many of the new characters seemed to be successful
- the six main new characters introduced, the "three" of the
title and the triplets, were to be central to many of the successive books
- the following book, The Chalet School and the Island (1950), relocated
the series again, this time to a small island, "St Briavels",
off the coast of south Wales. This setting allowed a variety of incidents
to take place, among them boating, swimming and water pageants, a shipwreck
and a near-drowning, as well, perhaps, as making the books more credible
given the changes that were taking place in the education system on the
mainland. During the course of the book, Madge and Jem travel to Canada,
taking Margot with them for the sake of her health, and this marks the
end of Madge's active involvement with the school. Prudently, Brent-Dyer
invented a reason for the school's relocation - bad drains in the old building
- that would allow her to move it back to Herefordshire if necessary. But
by the following book, Peggy of the Chalet School (1950), the school
had become established on the island and, due to subsidence in her own
house, Joey moves to the mainland close to the island. (The island setting
is the only one where the sanatorium is no longer close to the school geographically,
as it went with the school to Guernsey and then Wales.)
In her 24th book, The Wrong Chalet School (1952),
Brent-Dyer began to set the scene for the school's final relocation to
Switzerland, with references to the establishment of a Swiss finishing
branch. By the next book in the series, Shocks for the Chalet School
(1952), the branch is in operation, and is the subject of the following
book, The Chalet School in the Oberland (1952). Shocks for the
Chalet School also introduces foreign pupils again, some related to
old girls (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p44). The 27th book in the series, Bride
Leads the Chalet School (1953), is again set on the island, but the
school has once more merged, this time with another "Chalet School"
founded on very different principles, providing a fresh supply of characters.
By the 28th book, Changes for the Chalet School
(1953), it has been decided to move the bulk of the school to the Swiss
Oberland, and by the 30th, The Chalet School and Barbara (1954),
this has become a reality. Prudently Brent-Dyer leaves part of the school
behind as an "English branch" on the mainland near the island,
which could have functioned as yet another setting for the series, although
in fact she never used it. Jo and Jack also move to the Oberland: Jack
to be head of a branch of the sanatorium which opens near the school; Jo
to continue to write and give birth in a house which is only divided from
the school by a hedge with a gate cut in it. Brent-Dyer did in fact experiment
with removing Joey from the series, sending her to Canada for a year with
the entire family in The Wrong Chalet School (1952), but after the
move to the Oberland Joey remained next door until the end of the series.
The link with the sanatorium, broken in the move to the island,
also became a permanent feature of the series, which was to continue in
its Oberland setting for another 16 years and 27 books.
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