II. The Chalet School as an Educational Institution
Barbara looked out at the view of peaks rising over peaks, and gave a cry of rapture. "Oh, isn't it marvellous! Oh, I'm so glad I've come! This will be school with bells on"
Rosalie Dene chuckled. "It isn't term-time yet, but I'd better warn you that slang is not permitted. So if you've picked up a slang vocabulary at home, I advise you to forget it as quickly as you can. However, with four days a week of nothing but French and German, I fancy that won't be too difficult."
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Chalet School and Barbara, 1954, p28)
NB: An revised version of this lexia is available as "School with bells on!" in The Chalet School Revisited (Bettany Press, 1994)
In fictional terms, the Chalet
School began as a small privately-owned school of nine pupils in the mid-1920s
(Brent-Dyer, 1925, p29) and ended as a large boarding school of over 400
pupils with its own finishing branch and public examination centre, owned
by a company headed by Madge Bettany, its founder (Brent-Dyer, 1966, p17).
In this the school mirrored the development of actual educational establishments
for middle-class girls, for whom boarding schools were a typical experience
in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century,
and this perhaps helped to maintain the series' credibility.
It is important to remember that Brent-Dyer herself was
not a product of the type of school she was writing about. Instead she
was educated at a small private day school, established in the nineteenth
century and run by a pair of sisters who, like Brent-Dyer's Madge Bettany,
were unqualified to teach (McClelland, 1981, p33). Although she came from
a middle-class background,
this gave her little more than a limited private education and a respectable
home (McClelland, 1981, p52). Indeed, a key reason that Brent-Dyer wrote
the Chalet School series was to support herself and later her mother. Nor
do the books reflect Brent-Dyer's teaching experience: as a teacher her
most prestigious post was at the Boys' High School in South Shields during
1917 (McClelland, 1981, p61), and she spent much of her teaching career
at local authority schools (McClelland, 1989, p56). She did teach at girls'
schools, most notably at a day school, Western House in Hampshire (McClelland,
1981, p79), but the problems with her own school show her shortcomings
as a teacher and educationalist).
The Chalet School, then, was as much fantasy for its author as it was for
In fact the educational aspects of the Chalet School play
a very small role in the plots of the individual books. Lessons are used
instead as settings for tricks or amusing incidents
- for example, the cookery lesson described in Chapter Nine of The Chalet
School and the Lintons (1934) functions in the plot to allow Cornelia
Flower to flavour apple pies with garlic by mistake
- and for demonstrations of power by girls and teachers.
The boarding school setting essentially provides a realistic raison d'etre
for the autonomous all-female community that, as has already been stated,
is the true subject of the series. Nevertheless, academic achievement and
the curriculum in general do play a small but significant part in the series.
The school initially begins with
a curriculum consisting of "English subjects", French, German,
Sewing and Music (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p7). However, this curriculum soon
broadens out and for most of the series the standard curriculum includes
Latin (eg Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p25); Science (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950a, p69);
Mathematics (eg Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p99); Art (eg Brent-Dyer, 1955c, p129);
Domestic Science (eg Brent-Dyer, 1934, p50); Religious Studies (eg Brent-Dyer,
1955b, p74); English, History and Geography (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p48), as
well as sewing, music and foreign languages. Senior girls are entered for
"public examinations" (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953b, p190).
The curriculum of the school, in other words, was similar
to that in many real middle-class girls' schools. Penny Summerfield's study
of middle-class girls' schools in the first half of this century, "Cultural
Reproduction in the Education of Girls: a Study of Girls' Secondary Schooling
in Two Lancashire Towns, 1900-50" (Hunt, 1987, pp149-170) shows that
there was a great deal of emphasis placed on academic achievement, although
interestingly this was less pronounced in Catholic schools (Hunt, 1987,
pp152-169). As the Chalet School is multi-denominational
this may explain why academic achievement is important, but does not play
an overwhelmingly important role in the series. While in reality the academic
performance of girls declines as they reach adolescence (Sharpe, 1976,
pp134-5), this does not appear to happen in the Chalet School. This lack
of decline is probably linked to the absence of any overt references to
adolescence in the series.
Evans recalls that in her school: "Academic achievement
was never allowed to be everything (hence the universal dislike of the
swot and the equally universal award of the school prize to the good 'all
rounder')" (Evans, 1991, p22). This was duplicated in the Chalet School,
where Benson - later to become a Phd - is universally disliked to begin
Later in the series Joey, now married, presents a prize for "the girl
who does her best to help other people" (Brent-Dyer, 1955c, p224).
Prize-winners include Mary-Lou Trelawney, one of the role model characters
in the series,
who is told that the prize "is given to the girl who most fulfills
the ideal the pupils of the Chalet School always have held before them"
(Brent-Dyer, 1958a, p159). That ideal is service to others rather than
Evans also recalls that: "To be assured of high academic
honour within the school the subjects to excel at were English Literature
and History. Being good at science and mathematics had no great cachet
or appeal." (Evans, 1991, p13). This is not quite true of the Chalet
School, where girls go on to study science subjects in higher education,
but it is true that Joey's own subjects are History and English Literature,
while her "ideas of maths are wild and woolly in the extreme"
(Brent-Dyer, 1936, p48). Mary-Lou's chosen career is archaeology (Brent-Dyer,
1959b, p159), a specialism with strong links with both subjects.
Out of school activities include the Hobbies Club (see Brent-Dyer, 1926, pp86-90); the school magazine The Chaletian (see Brent-Dyer, 1926, p35); Brownies and Guides (see Brent-Dyer, 1926, pp148-149); and an annual fete (see Brent-Dyer, 1928, p218). These would have been familiar institutions to many readers, and Valerie Walkerdine, writing about growing up in the 1950s, explains that:
Proto-fascist organisations are embarrassing to those who stand outside the familiarity of one of the mainstays of suburban life. Yet, it was the church, the school, the Brownies, the Guides and the fetes and competitions which helped to provide the building blocks of my formation. (in Heron, 1985, p65)
Sewing, first mentioned as a subject when the school begins,
is still being referred to 26 years later in A Problem for the Chalet
School (1956). However, Evans has pointed out that sewing was a skill
still much in demand in the 1950s: "mass availability and mass consumption
had not yet given the physical object the kind of fleeting importance that
it was later to acquire . . . Perfectly respectable and comfortably-off
women still mended their stockings in those very recent days" (Evans,
1991, p86). That sewing is seen as useful rather than as an accomplishment
is also shown by Brent-Dyer's treatment of Sybil Russell, Madge's eldest
daughter, who wishes to study embroidery at "the South Kensington
School" and then sew "church embroideries, like altar frontals
and stoles and copes" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, pp69-70).
Other domestic subjects were introduced in the Chalet
School in 1934 in the tenth book of the series, when the then headmistress
tells the school: "While we wish you to become cultured women, we
also desire that you shall be home-makers" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p50).
However, it is doubtful that Brent-Dyer was sincere in her commitment to
this, as the lessons were always utilised as settings for the plot device
of "Tricks and Amusing Incidents".
In this the Chalet School appeared to reflect the divided messages which
real middle-class schoolgirls received.
Penny Summerfield has noted in her study of middle-class
girls' schools in the first half of the century, "Cultural Reproduction
in the Education of Girls: a Study of Girls' Secondary Schooling in Two
Lancashire Towns, 1900-50" (Hunt, 1987, pp149-170), that "the
schools themselves relegated them [domestic subjects] to a secondary position.
In so doing they conveyed a message to girls about the relatively unimportant
place which preparation for domesticity occupied in the schools' agenda"
(Hunt, 1987, p157). Evans recalls a different message, but points out that:
"The responsibilities of the housewife and the mother were given full
credit by the staff and 'making a home' was an ideal which was accorded
full status by a staff that was largely unmarried" (Evans, 1991, p29).
It is probable that both the fictional and non-fictional
dichotomies arose because both fictional and non-fictional headmistresses
were forced to reflect the educational emphasis on domestic subjects, while
not necessarily agreeing with it. Deidre Beddoe points out that educationalists
differentiated between the purpose of education for boys and girls for
much of this century, in reference to official education reports (Beddoe,
1983, pp59-62). Two years before the publication of the first of the "Chalet
School" series, the Hadow Committee, reporting in 1923 on The Differentiation
of the Curriculum for Boys and Girls Respectively in Secondary Schools,
stated that: "We do not think it desirable to attempt to divorce a
girl's education from her home duties and responsibilities" (p125).
By 1943, when the 17th book in the series was published,
the Norwood Report of that year still saw girls being educated as future
wives and mothers. This view of girls' education continued after the war,
and for the rest of the time that Brent-Dyer was writing, with the Crowther
Report of 1959 claiming that the incentive for girls to equip themselves
for marriage and home-making was genetic and the Newsom Report of 1963
stating that the main social function of girls was to make a suitable home
for their husbands and children and to be mothers. Hunt quotes The Journal
of Education, August 1932, which claimed that girls who did not become
mothers were failures as women, and which commented that women teachers
and office workers really needed "marriage, a home and a family"
(in Hunt, 1987, p3). Summerfield refers to John Newsom's book The Education
of Girls (1948), in which he concluded that: "the vital educational
objectives for women are to enable them to become accomplished homemakers,
informed citizens and to use their leisure intelligently" (in Hunt,
1987, p131). And as late as 1977, J. Gathorne-Hardy was describing a headmistress
as becoming masculinised in his book The Public School Phenomenon
(Gathorne-Hardy, 1977, p271).
The lack of commitment with which many middle-class girls' schools pursued domestic science subjects did not mean that they were offered an equivalent education to boys. Deidre Beddoe has pointed out that:
It is worth noting that the education offered in girls' "public day schools" (ie private secondary schools) was far more academic and less sex differentiated than that offered in State Schools. Domestic subjects were looked down upon but, on the other hand, science and mathematics were not given the provision which they had in boys' schools in the same sector. Consequently, when many middle-class girls went to university, they had already opted for arts subjects. (Beddoe, 1983, p59)
This was not strictly true of the
Chalet School. As early as 1927 Brent-Dyer writes that Juliet Carrick,
Madge's ward, leaves the school to read mathematics at London University
(Brent-Dyer, 1927, p148). By the 15th book, The Chalet School Goes to
It (1941), fifth formers' ambitions include being a surgeon, and later
in the series one of Jo's triplet daughters, Margot, wishes to go to medical
school (Brent-Dyer, 1963a, p11). Daisy Venables, Jem's niece, also becomes
a doctor (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, pp78-79).
Throughout the series many of the girls aim for higher education and professional careers. These include teaching, nursing and gardening (see Brent-Dyer, 1941, p77-79); librarianship (see Brent-Dyer, 1955a, pp78-79); farming (see Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p29); the law (see Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p58) and interior design (see Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p106). Summerfield has noted that in actual middle-class girls' schools:
Not surprisingly from the earliest point girls developed a strong impression that academic success and entry to higher education, especially university, but also teacher training college, were what these schools required of their pupils, and that any other objectives they might have were of little interest to the heads and their staffs. (Hunt, 1987, p158)
She adds that this is despite the fact that the actual
numbers going to university each year were small. In another study she
states that only 0.5 per cent of 18 year old girls entered higher education
during the 1920s (Braybon and Summerfield, 1987, p138). In fact Oxford
University did not open its degrees to women until 1920 and Cambridge University
Anne Nightingale, one of Radio One's first women disc jockeys, writes of her girls' public day school in the early 1960s:
I was not considered particularly academic and I think they rather disapproved of me. When I left and said that I wanted to be a journalist, it was not considered the right thing to do. If you weren't going to university you were supposed to go to secretarial college. (Bennett and Forgan, 1991, p132)
Evans agrees and notes that this emphasis on academic achievement did not reflect what was considered to be important in the outside world.
We lived in a semi-fictional world in which education, and educational success, mattered more than anything else. If we chose to believe in this fiction then we could be assured of adult success, and we could also be assured of the approval and support of the school. (Evans, 1991, pp39-40)
Evans believes that the main reason that academic success was emphasised for middle-class girls was to reinforce class structures in English society.
Our security depended on our parents' (particularly our fathers') ability to earn a living and to earn a living that would support the detached house and car. To do the same we would have to pass exams and learn skills that might command considerable financial rewards. (Evans, 1991, p37)
She adds that:
In one sense, of course, we were being encouraged in a lie. As middle class girls it was highly unlikely that we would spend our adult lives in employment . . . Such an attitude on the part of teaching staff is nowadays sometimes interpreted as a fervent feminism, a determination to ensure that girls can gain access to higher education. That determination was undoubtedly there, but so too was the determination . . . that middle-class girls should remain in a middle-class world. The surest way to do this was . . . to go to university or training college or medical school or some other enclave of middle-class expectations and aspirations. (Evans, 1991, p38)
However, four years before the "Chalet School"
series began, the census of 1921 showed that nearly one in three women
had to be self-supporting (Hunt, 1987, p18), while about 18 per cent of
women aged 20 to 45 never married during the inter-war period (Beddoe,
1987, p148). Tinkler quotes research carried out by Edith Mercer in 1940,
which found that all the girls interviewed from a girls' secondary school
wanted a profession, while the majority also wanted to marry (Hunt, 1987,
p67). And in 1951 more than one in five married women and half of all unmarried
women were in employment (Deem, 1980, p114). While many of the women in
work may have been working-class, there is nothing to suggest that Brent-Dyer's
readers reflected the social class and educational background of the Chalet
School pupils, and the need to work would probably have seemed quite natural
to them. Brent-Dyer herself needed to work throughout her life, suggesting
that her portrayal of a career as a serious option for most middle-class
girls was quite sincere.
Aside from showing her readers
the range of options when they became women, Brent-Dyer offers both them
and the Chalet School pupils a wide range of role models. These models
consist of older girls, teachers, and former pupils who Brent-Dyer continues
to re-introduce as adult characters throughout the "Chalet School"
series. Pupils (and perhaps readers) are expected eventually to make the
transition to role model status, beginning when they become Seniors. For
example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931), Jo initially resists
accepting the position of head girl because she does not want to take the
responsibility. Gisela, the school's first head girl and now a wife and
mother, tells her that it would be "cowardly" to evade responsibility
and to refuse to grow up (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p12). However, Jo agrees and
later admits that "In one way, you know, I'm fearfully proud of being
head girl; and - I suppose - all that about being fed-up with it isn't
really true. I - I do like it, now I'm accustomed to it." (Brent-Dyer,
1931, p159). By the time that Jo has left school and returned temporarily
to teach, headmistress Mademoiselle says: "I only wish we might keep
her here always. Her influence is excellent" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p110).
Of course, Jo does remain with the school for "always", and continues
to be the school's most important role model.
In a later book, Tom Tackles the Chalet School (1955), Brent-Dyer is more explicit about the function of Senior girls as role models when she explains to Tom Gay:
"It's a good thing for younger girls to be able to look up to the Seniors; good for them, and good for the Seniors. If an elder girl finds that younger ones are influenced by what she says and does, if she has any decency in her, it makes her careful. As we all need some sort of ideal as soon as we can think for ourselves, it's right that girls should be able to find that ideal among themselves." (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p44)
Brent-Dyer illustrates this with the example of Daisy Venables as an ideal role model for Tom.
Daisy, with her fresh, pink and white face, well-groomed fair hair in its thick pigtail, and jolly grin, was just the kind of girl to appeal to any Junior's imagination. She had showed herself uniformly kind to all the new girls. Above all, there was about her an air of straight dealing and uprightness that Tom was quick to sense and appreciate. (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p36)
Detta O'Cathain, who attended a middle-class girls' school
in the early 1950s, recalls that she too regarded older girls as role models.
She writes that: "I remember when I was a youngster looking up to
these fifteen- or sixteen-year-olds and thinking they were gods - or goddesses.
They were role models" (Bennett and Forgan, 1991, p138).
Members of staff, who are often former pupils, are also role models for the girls. Because many of them, like Joey, are first described as teenagers, the distinction between staff and prefects is deliberately blurred. The very first role model teacher is Madge Bettany, and the first to treat her as such is Juliet Carrick, who becomes Madge's ward when her parents abandon her.
Juliet had not suddenly become an angel as a result of her present Head's treatment of her. She was a very human girl; but she was deeply grateful, and since she was thorough in whatever she did, she was making valiant efforts to become the same sporting type of girl as that to which her headmistress belonged. (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p159)
Later in the series Juliet tells Grizel that Madge is
"the sort of person people do come to. She's a dear, and I adore her!"
(Brent-Dyer, 1926, p17). By the time that Juliet returns to the Chalet
School to teach, however, it is she who has become the role model: "when
she came among them like one of themselves they all became her instant
slaves" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p84).
In reality pupils at middle-class girls' schools seem to have had a mixed response to the staff, or perhaps to have had different experiences depending on which school they attended. Evans, for example, recollects that "The very women who had battled for entry into this [patriarchal] world had made themselves unacceptable to us as role models because they seemed to have rejected men" (Evans, 1991, p60). However, Julia Pascal recalls that her school was "weighed down in petty details of school uniform and model behaviour, but a place where I saw that women could hold positions of power and authority" (Heron, 1985, p41). And Sheila Rowbotham remembers that:
Our teachers were the nearest guides because they had travelled these routes before us (though of course we wouldn't teach). Their attitudes to literature, art, fashion and politics were seized upon, devoured, turned over, re-sited. (Heron, 1985, p208)
Perhaps the most interesting way in which teachers function
as role models in the "Chalet School" series is in Brent-Dyer's
portrayal of their work and leisure time. Here teachers are seen as happy
and leading a full life, with no sense of lack because they are not married.
For example, in Carola Storms the Chalet School (1951), "the
Staff, having seen all but the prefects safely to bed, were relaxing in
the Staffroom, drinking coffee, eating chocolate biscuits, smoking, and
otherwise refreshing themselves" (Brent-Dyer, 1951, p106). Their working
environment is also shown to be attractive; for example, on one occasion
Miss Annersley is pictured "gazing absently out of the open window
at the flower garden, where roses still bloomed magnificently and the borders
were aglow with tall spikes of gladioli and great clumps of cactus dahlias"
(Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p7).
Staff are often, though by no means always, portrayed as physically attractive. They are not teaching because they cannot attract a partner but teaching as an alternative or as a prelude to a relationship. For example:
Hilary Burn, ex-pupil and former head-girl of the school when it was in Tirol, was a great favourite with everyone, perhaps because she so frequently forgot that she was grown-up. She was a very pretty person, with a "Bubbles" crop of golden-brown curls, wide blue eyes, and a rose- petal skin. (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p107)
Hilary later becomes Hilary Graves, one of the many former
pupils who marries a sanatorium doctor. She thus continues to be associated
with the school after marriage despite Brent-Dyer's acceptance of the contemporary
dictum that married women did not teach.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Brent-Dyer also positions married women with children as role models alongside single women. Many women did not want to have to choose between marriage and a career - although they commonly wanted to stay at home when their children were young. Wilson, writing about the post-war period to 1968, when Brent-Dyer was producing the final "Chalet School" books, quotes a letter from Margaret Stacey who wrote that "women older than me chose either a career or marriage . . . we said, I and my friends, we would be mothers and women in our own right" (Wilson, 1980, p47). In reality, Stacey's generation, Brent-Dyer's readers, had far more opportunity to do this than Brent-Dyer - who 'chose' a career - and the first Chalet School pupils, who inevitably gave up their career on marriage. Beddoe writes that:
In the inter-war years only one desirable image was hold up to women by all the mainstream media agencies - that of the housewife and mother. This single role model was presented to women to follow and all other alternative roles were presented as wholly undesirable. Realising this central fact is the key to understanding every other aspect of women's lives in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. (Beddoe, 1989, p8)
This image enjoyed a resurgence after the war (Wilson,
1980, p22), continuing the pressure on Brent-Dyer to produce images of
contented domesticity alongside positive images of independence. However,
it is obviously significant that Joey, who embodies all the most desirable
qualities of a Chalet School girl,
has a successful career as well as an extremely large family (eleven altogether,
including one set of triplets and two sets of twins). No-one could accuse
Jo of curbing her fertility for "selfish" reasons, as the 1950s
media did to women with small families,
nor could she be accused of neglecting her children as she worked from
Wilson points out that part-time work was seen as the
ideal solution for married women in the 1950s as there was, as today, an
underlying assumption that young children needed the constant presence
of their mother (Wilson, 1980, p59). Jo is thus able to have it all - a
large family, a husband and a career - without any contentious constructs
of femininity. So it is perhaps not surprising that Joey remains such a
popular role model with readers today. McClelland has pointed out that
Brent-Dyer appeared to identify closely with Joey (McClelland, 1989, p49),
and so it is possible that Joey's domestic situation also represented Brent-Dyer's
Brent-Dyer's dual professional
status - as a teacher and an author - is evident in a few places where
she uses the series to air what were almost certainly her own beliefs about
educational theory and practice. As a teacher it is probable that she would
have been aware of educational developments during the time she was writing
the "Chalet School" series, both in state and private education,
and would be able to compare and contrast them with her own experience.
And despite Brent-Dyer's own forthcomings as a teacher, McClelland points
out that at least one lesson described in the books - Joey teaching new
girl Polly Heriot (Brent-Dyer, 1936, pp52-57) - has been validated by an
experienced teacher as "a model in miniature of how it should be done"
(McClelland, 1981, p132).
McClelland suggests that Brent-Dyer was dissatisfied with
her own educational background, and that this is reflected in the series
when old-fashioned teaching methods are criticised (McClelland, 1981, pp16-18).
For example, in Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), new girl
Polly Heriot's work is described by the staff as being "at least fifty
years behind the times!" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p46). The staff go on
to explain in detail exactly why this is the case: "she doesn't even
know how to do arithmetic. Her science is conspicuous by its absence; botany,
mid-Victorian; geography, the limit . . ." (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p46).
Perhaps it is not surprising, given that Brent-Dyer was educated and trained at the beginning of the century, that modern teaching methods also come in for criticism later in the series. In the first Swiss book, The Chalet School in the Oberland (1952c), staff are concerned about a girl who has come from a school where:
apparently two new governors were appointed who believed that emulation is all wrong for children and there should be neither prizes nor marks nor form positions in school. . . The girls raged about it and a good many of them either did no work at all or else worked so badly that they might just as well have left it alone. (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p70)
One of the other staff members comments:
what a pity it is when cranks get the upper hand anywhere - especially where youngsters are concerned. I do feel that elder girls ought to manage without any incentive, though, human nature being what it is, I know the majority of them do work much better if they're going to gain something tangible in the end. Where younger girls come in, I agree with prizes every time! (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p70)
Another device that Brent-Dyer uses to illustrate her opinions about modern teaching methods is the invention of another Chalet School, run on very different lines. It makes its first appearance in The Wrong Chalet School (1952), when a pupil tells a new girl:
last year they had a new Head and she has the maddest ideas. She believes in you learning what you like and when you like. It sounds very nice, but I think it must be an awfully untidy way of doing things. I'd a lot rather do as we do and have time-tables. (Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p11)
In a later book, Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953), the two schools merge and the results of these teaching methods are demonstrated for the readers.
it was found that, with very few exceptions, the girls from the Tanswick school were a good year behind their contemporaries on the Island. Free discipline does not make for hard work unless the pupils are born students and the general tone of the Tanswick school had not made for that. (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p82)
Given her attacks on both old-fashioned and modern teaching
methods, it is likely that Brent-Dyer agreed with headmistress Miss Annersley
when Miss Wilson claimed that "There's quite a lot to be said for
some of the old-fashioned methods of teaching, you know." Miss Annersley
replies: "I believe in mingling the old and the new - making the best
of both, in fact." (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p386).
Throughout the series,
there are three characteristics of the Chalet School which distinguish
it from other schools, both fictional and non-fictional. These are its
commitment to internationalism; the fact that it takes both Catholic and
Protestant pupils in roughly equal proportions; and its avowed function
to protect the health of its pupils. Madge Bettany founds the Chalet School
on "English lines" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p11), but of the first
pupils at the school, only one third are English or American and the rest
are French, German and Austrian (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p35). With the exception
of the years immediately following the war when the school was set in England,
the school continues to take pupils of differing nationalities, the bulk
of the pupils being European with others coming from America or the Commonwealth
(eg A Chalet Girl From Kenya, 1955). While most pupils are white,
at least one Asian pupil is mentioned (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p135). Although
it was not uncommon for real English schools to be based in the Alps, anecdotal
evidence suggests that this mix of nationalities would be highly unusual
in reality, with the majority of pupils normally drawn from the UK.
When the series begins lessons
are given in English, apart from French and German (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p31).
But within a fictional four and a half years Brent-Dyer is writing that
the girls "naturally had to be tri-lingual, learning French, German
and English" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p11). By the 13th Chalet School book,
The New Chalet School (1938), the school speaks and writes a different
language each day, alternating between French, German and English (Brent-Dyer,
1938, p181). This policy is abandoned during the war years, perhaps because
Brent-Dyer felt that this might cause offence at a time when Germany was
the enemy and France was occupied, but is reintroduced in the first of
the post-war books (Brent-Dyer, 1949, pp340-342). The school's trilingualism
is often highlighted in the books by the horrified reaction of new girls,
who are reassured that "when you hear nothing but French round you
for two days every week and nothing but German on two others, you'll soon
pick up words and phrases and begin to use them naturally." (Brent-Dyer,
These new girls were likely to be in the same position
as Mary Evans and her school friends in the UK in the 1950s: "Confronted
by real-life French or Germans or Spanish we were collectively confounded
by the ability of these people to speak in tongues that we had only read
about" (Evans, 1991, p17). While most of the reported conversation
in the series is nevertheless in English, French and German phrases are
not uncommon (eg Brent-Dyer, 1954b, pp98-101). McClelland has noted that
the trilingual policy of the Chalet School encouraged readers to emulate
the pupils, although in fact Brent-Dyer's own knowledge of languages was
limited which led her to make "glaring errors" in the texts (McClelland,
The school also adopts some of the customs of its host
countries (Austria then Switzerland) when abroad, most notably with regard
to meals and telling the time. The dining room is the Speisesaal (eg Brent-Dyer,
1925, p24). Breakfast - "Fruhstuck" - consists of "coffee,
hot rolls, butter and jam" (eg Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p58). Tea is replaced
by "Kaffee und Kuchen" - coffee and cakes - supper is "Abendessen"
(eg Brent-Dyer, 1954b, pp50,52). Time is told in central-European style
(eg "Lessons begin in the afternoon at fourteen-fifteen, and finish
at sixteen-fifteen", Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p58), which only became common
in the UK in the 1970s. Headmistress Miss Annersley explains to pupils
that "we are in Central Europe and naturally we must use Central Europe
times" (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p58).
Perhaps this would not have appeared so "natural" to real English schools based abroad. Evans has written that the pupils attending her middle-class girls' school in the UK in the 1950s were "children of a culture which had already inculcated belief in the superiority of the British and the benefits of British influence." (Evans, 1991, p15). However, Evans goes on to write that:
Access to "abroad" was a mark of real status: anything French had the immediate effect of sending us into the kind of haze of veneration that some of our parents obviously shared . . . our definition of what was worth travelling to (France, Italy, Spain and India) corresponded exactly to the limits of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Grand Tour and the most obviously civilised of the ex-colonies." (Evans, 1991, p33).
It is probable that readers interpreted the inclusion
of such details as references to 'abroad', increasing the appeal of the
series for them, rather than believing that a real English school would
adopt "foreign" customs.
However, that the series is genuinely committed to internationalism is proven by the books written in the war years. When the German and Austrian pupils are forced to leave the school by the Nazis in 1938, the girls "had solemnly formed a peace league among themselves, and vowed themselves to a union of nations, whether they should ever meet again or not" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p55). The founding document, signed by "every girl there", pledges:
We swear faithfully to do all we can to promote peace between all our countries . . . we will try to get others to work for peace as we do . . . we will always remember that though we belong to different lands, we are members of the Chalet School League of Peace. (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp56-57)
The founding of this league is one of the causes of Joey's and Robin's flight from the Nazis. Later, when the school is in Guernsey, Miss Annersley tells the girls:
If war should come, remember that to many of us whom we must call the enemy it is as hateful as it is to us. In our League there are girls of German and Austrian nationality, as well as those of British, French and Polish birth. They are our members, and we must never forget them. (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p202).
The Peace League plays a small but significant part in
the series until the war is ended. For example, a member helps the brothers
of two Austrian girls to escape from a concentration camp (Brent-Dyer,
1940, p332), and the German brother of two other former pupils drops a
message of support for the Peace League from his aircraft and later deliberately
crashes to avoid taking any further part in the war (Brent-Dyer, 1941,
pp131-143). Later Joey and Robin explain to new girls that one of the aims
of the League is "to remember that whatever our nationality may be,
we are all Chalet Girls" (Brent-Dyer, 1942, pp65-66) - the implication
being that the membership of this all-female community is more fundamental
than nationality. Brent-Dyer is also careful to distinguish between Germans
and Nazis: "'It isn't the Germans who are doing it,' said Robin. 'It's
the Nazis.'" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p228).
Given the school's commitment
to internationalism, it is probably not surprising that from the beginning
pupils and teachers from both main Christian denominations are seen to
be members. In addition, when the school changes to having two head mistresses
following an accident to Miss Annersley, one is a Catholic, Miss Wilson
(Brent-Dyer, 1949, p328), showing that the books really did treat the two
denominations as being of equal status. This would be unusual in real English
schools for middle-class girls, of which Evans has written: "what
did constitute social deviance and marginality in those far-off days was
largely constituted by two factors - having a mother with a job, and belonging
to a religion other than Church of England" (Evans, 1991, p28).
In the Chalet School Catholicism is seen as quite natural, and in the Austrian books Catholics outnumber Protestants (eg Brent-Dyer, 1938, p217). Religious services are taken separately, but on some occasions Protestant girls attend Catholic services. In an early book Eustacia Benson, shown by her actions and authorial comment to be an undesirable character, questions this and is told by Joey, the series' ultimate role model:
it's only one of the roads to God. If you think that way, then it's best for you. If you think another way, then that's best. But they all go to the same end. (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p97)
Jo later grows up to marry a Catholic, Jack Maynard, brother
of one of the Catholic mistresses, and her children are brought up in the
Catholic Church (The Chalet School in Exile, 1940). Although the
books are never explicit about Joey's religion in later life, there is
no mention of her adopting a different religion to the rest of her family,
so presumably she is supposed to have converted to Catholicism. Brent-Dyer
herself was formally received into the Catholic Church in December 1930,
having previously been a practising member of the Church of England (McClelland,
1981, p117). Thus it is probable that she had already taken her decision
in principle at the time of writing Jo's speech to Eustacia. Nevertheless
Brent-Dyer continues to promote the idea that both denominations are equal,
and while the school is set in Herefordshire stresses that the school's
two chaplains "were great friends" (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p55).
Perhaps it is understandable, given Evans' recollections,
that Brent-Dyer never extended the school's concept of religious tolerance
to include Jewish girls, although girls from other Christian groups such
as Quakers are occasionally mentioned (eg Brent-Dyer, 1958b, p36). However,
Brent-Dyer does make plain her opposition to anti-semitism. Another incident
which precipitates Joey's flight from the Nazis is her defence of an old
Jewish jeweller who is being tormented by a mob (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp119-123)
- he is later murdered.Later Joey deplores a state where there are "such
horrors as concentration camps and protective detention, and beating up
of helpless people just because they are Jews" (Brent-Dyer, 1940,
The third distinguishing characteristic of the Chalet School is its avowed aim to protect the health of its pupils. One of Madge Bettany's main reasons for starting the Chalet School is Joey's poor health, which makes it desirable that she moves to a drier climate (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p7). One of Madge's first pupils, Amy Stevens, is sent there for the same reason (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p35). Later, when the sanatorium is founded nearby and Madge marries its head, Jem Russell, the school's function to protect its pupils' health becomes more explicit, with particular concentration on combatting TB.
So many of the girls had one or both parents at the sanatorium undergoing treatment, and the doctors were all of the opinion that prevention was infinitely better than cure. "Catch the children early, give them a good foundation, and we may save them," Dr Jem had said on one occasion. So plenty of milk, sleep, fresh air, and exercise were enforced at the school, and the girls throve on the treatment. (Brent-Dyer, 1931, pp36-37)
This continues when the school moves to England: "ever
since the establishment of the two [school and sanatorium], great stress
had been laid on the care of the girls' health. The school was planned
with an eye to this, and the staff knew it" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p49).
"The prospectus laid emphasis on the fact that health was particularly
guarded here" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p73). In reality it is probable
that there were English schools in the Alps where the children of sanatoria
patients studied. Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, has noted
that "travel to a better climate was invented as a treatment for TB
in the early nineteenth century", and that TB continued to have a high mortality
rate in Western Europe until the 1950s (Sontag, 1991, pp74, 35), with around
40,000 Britons contracting it every year. Elsie Oxenham, author of the
'Abbey Girls' series, describes a similar sanatorium in the Alps in one
of her books and talks about "the big English schools, St. Mary's
and St. John's, where children can be sent while their parents are under
treatment" (The Abbey Girls at Home, 1928, p206).
It is also true that health was a consideration for some
parents when deciding to send their daughters to boarding school. Sheila
Rowbotham has written that "at eleven off I went . . . to a Methodist
boarding school in East Yorkshire, close to the sea. 'Healthy air,' my
father said. 'Good for the chest, bracing.'" (Heron, 1985, p197).
Perhaps it is not surprising given Brent-Dyer's early experiences that
she should be preoccupied with ill-health, particularly lung diseases.
But the combination of Brent-Dyer's continual use of the 'Illness/Injury'
plot device and the references to the school's function to protect its
pupils' health portray a picture of fragile femininity.
However, it is important to remember that the supposed
fragility of girls' health had been of concern to educationalists during
the late 19th and the first quarter of the twentieth century, with fears
that giving girls an equivalent education to boys' would affect their general
health and particularly their fertility (see Hunt, 1987, pp9-11). Hunt
points out that one of the main ways that headmistresses combatted these
concerns and preserved a full academic curriculum for girls was the fact
that "All of them concentrated heavily on health and medical care
and this included rules about dress, holding medical inspections and encouraging
gymnastics and games" (Hunt, 1987, p9). It is possible then to interpret
the stress that Brent-Dyer places on the school's function to protect its
pupils' health as a means of extending the choices available to the girls
rather than limiting them, and it is probable that she genuinely believed
that girls' health needed protecting.
And in fact one aspect of the school's policy to protect the health of its pupils is currently being advocated by doctors anxious to prevent adolescents from becoming disabled from curvature of the spine (scoliosis/kypho-scoliosis), which is the cause of my own impairment. This is a condition, more common in girls, which can develop or worsen rapidly with adolescence, but which can be combatted with exercise, bracing or traction. According to the New Statesman and Society of 15 November 1991, American schools regularly screen their pupils for scoliosis and there is widespread public awareness in the USA that prompt recognition and treatment can control the condition, but this is not the case in Britain. In the Chalet School, in contrast, girls who appear to be developing scoliosis are given remedial treatment. For example, in Ruey Richardson, Chaletian (1960), Margot:
was still not reconciled to the fact that she was growing so quickly that there seemed some risk of her out-growing her strength and, which was as bad, developing a slight curvature of the spine. Dr Graves had ordered remedial exercises for her and, knowing careless Margot, Peggy Burnett [the games mistress] insisted that she come every day to do those exercises under proper supervision. (Brent-Dyer, 1960b, p123)
It is probable that the doctors referred to in New
Statesman and Society would regard this incident as a model of health
promotion within schools.
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