I. The Chalet School series: An overview


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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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(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.
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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.
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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.
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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 [1950], Bride Leads the Chalet School [1953].)
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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 [1933], the school numbers 105, and by the 18th book, Gay from China at the Chalet School [1944] 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).
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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.
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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.

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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:

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:

In particular, Joey is convinced that she will not want to get married:

Jo March is also certain that she will not marry:

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

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.
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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 her "niece".
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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.

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.
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The same book also offers some clues to Brent-Dyer's working methods:

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 notes.
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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:

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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, 1950a, p192).
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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".
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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".
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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).
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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).
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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:

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.)
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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 6: IV. and 6: V..)
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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.
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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).

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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.

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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:

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 of war.)
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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 daughters.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.)
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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.)
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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.
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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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Next: 6: II. The Chalet School as an Educational Institution
Return to: 6. The World of the Chalet School Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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