III. Learning To Be a "Real Chalet School Girl"
Up rose a roar from Tom Gay of "Well bowled, Daisy! Oh, jolly well bowled! Yell up, you chaps!"
Upper Third, and, indeed, all the school, responded nobly to her appeal, and Rosalie, after looking doubtfully at them, tossed her own feelings to the winds and joined in the shouting for Daisy as wholeheartedly as any of them, a real Chalet School girl at last.
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Chalet School and Rosalie, 1951, pp95-6)
The importance of being a "real
Chalet School girl" - fitting into the community by following the
moral code of the school - is a recurring theme in the series. For example,
in Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), Jo tells her headmistress:
"I'll never be anything else, Mdlle. Even when I'm an old lady with
white hair, telling all my great-great nieces and nephews [at this point
she is still determined not to marry] all about my wicked deeds, I'll never
count myself as anything but a Chalet School girl." (Brent-Dyer, 1936,
pp17-18). Later in the series, when she is married and a mother, Jo repeats:
"I'm still, in part of me, what I shall always be - a Chalet School
girl" (Brent-Dyer, 1950a, p192). In Tom Tackles the Chalet School
(1955) (first published in 1947 in The First Chalet School Book for
Girls), Jem Russell's niece Daisy proclaims at the end of the book
that Tom Gay, who had originally been brought up as a boy, "is really
a Chalet School girl at last!" (Brent-Dyer, 1955a, p83).
To readers familiar with the series the characteristics of a "real Chalet School girl" would have been easily recognisable, as the moral and spiritual values the school espoused were made explicit in the texts. In this the series mirrored real schools for middle-class girls, about which Evans has written:
I remember laughing out loud at first discovering the term "hidden agenda" in the context of sociological discussions of schools. What I remember about school was the complete openness of the agenda . . . From table manners to the relative social standing of different British universities a moral and social world was laid out for our consumption and acceptance. (Evans, 1991, p22)
Although individual books do not encompass all Brent-Dyer's
moral teachings, a reading of the series as a whole identifies a number
of recurring themes. Perhaps the character trait held up by the books as
being the one most desirable is 'to think of others', although this trait
does not necessarily include self-sacrifice. Brent-Dyer introduces this
theme in the series in relation to pupils behaving charitably towards those
less fortunate than themselves, in particular towards the inhabitants of
the villages surrounding the school. This is first mentioned in the fourth
book of the series, The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928), when
the girls hold their first sale of work to sponsor a free bed at the sanatorium
for local children (Brent-Dyer, 1928, pp218-219). The Robin, then aged
six, sets an example by saving her pocket money to put towards the costs
of the bed. The theme continues in the following book, The Rivals of
the Chalet School (1929), when the girls discuss how hard the winter
is for many of the local people - "one of the aims of the Chalet School
was to teach them to think of others" (Brent-Dyer, 1929, p15).
Brent-Dyer treated the theme more prominently in the following
book, extending it to include a girl's family and friends as well as those
less fortunate than the pupils. Eustacia Benson is sent to school because
she has thought of no-one but herself, and thus "has upset the whole
(Brent-Dyer, 1930, p9). Later in the same book the headmistress tells her
that she is responsible for the other girls ignoring her because she has
not considered them (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p57). However, despite the fact
that Eustacia spends most of the book in conflict with the rest of the
school, Jo is reprimanded by both Madge and a mistress, Miss Stewart, for
not seeing Eustacia's point of view (Brent-Dyer, 1930, pp88, 147), underlining
the lesson that everyone both deserves consideration and in turn must be
considerate towards others.
Acting charitably towards local people continues to be
a theme throughout the Tirolean books (Books 1-13; 1925-1938). For example,
in The Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) the prefects discuss
the hardships that the peasants face in winter with deep concern (Brent-Dyer,
1933, p17). And in Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936) the girls
are asked by the headmistress to extend their charity to a poor parish
at Innsbruck, especially by making children's clothes to give away at Christmas.
When Jo later sells her first manuscript she sends the cheque to the parish
(Brent-Dyer, 1936, pp10, 152-154). At the very end of the book Jo tells
the priest, Vater Stefan, who is attending their Christmas play: "isn't
it fair that we should share all we can with those who have so little?
. . . we are taught to do so" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p162). Once the school
has relocated in the British Isles the girls continue to support the sanatorium,
but the beneficiaries of their charity are now British, and this remains
the case when the school returns to the Alps. "They were all very
anxious to do everything they could for the big Sanatorium; and whatever
they made went to supporting free beds for British children who need the
clean Alpine air and rich milk" (Brent-Dyer, 1955c, p117). There is
no obvious explanation for this change in focus, as Brent-Dyer remained
committed to internationalism throughout the series.
The theme of thinking about the needs of friends and family
members recurs throughout the series, with varying focuses. In The Chalet
School and the Lintons (1934) Joyce Linton is shocked to discover how
ill her mother is because she has only thought of her own needs (Brent-Dyer,
1934, pp18, 24). As Joyce is very fond of her mother, this episode shows
that being selfish can blind someone to information which they would rather
have, possibly with serious consequences. In the same book Gillian Linton,
Joyce's elder sister, is told by Jo that she should not keep taking responsibility
for Joyce, partly because "it's not fair on you", and that she
has helped to spoil Joyce (Brent-Dyer, 1934, pp34, 110). This episode stresses
that there are limits to the extent to which it is desirable to put someone
else's needs first, for the sakes of both parties involved. A girl should
think of others as well as herself, not necessarily before herself.
However, the books also stress that some degree of self-sacrifice
is sometimes necessary for a Chalet School girl. In Jo Returns to the
Chalet School (1936), Jo is persuaded to join the staff until the end
of the term to allow a mistress, Miss Stewart, time to convalesce properly,
although she dislikes teaching (Brent-Dyer, 1936, pp108-109). This type
of behaviour is shown to be desirable later in the book, when she wins
a prize for being the "most helpful" at a half-term "sheets
and pillowcases" party (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p129). Perhaps not surprisingly,
self-sacrifice continues to be portrayed as desirable during the war years.
In Lavender Laughs at the Chalet School (1943) Bride Bettany agrees
to swap her cubicle with Lavender's so that Lavender can comfort Lilamani,
whose mother has died - Bride has a window cubicle, considered to be the
best in the dormitory (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p165). Later in the same book
Lavender cancels her preferred holiday to go away with Lilamani, both for
Lilamani's sake and for the sake of the seniors who have invited Lilamani
to stay (Brent-Dyer, 1943, pp168-170). These episodes portray quite ordinary
actions, well within the reach of both the fictional pupils and the series'
Significantly, the greatest degree of self-sacrifice is
needed when girls mature and become young women. For example, in The
Chalet School and the Island (1950) sixth-former Dickie Christy is
described as spending her weekends helping at home with younger members
of the family. Later, in Shocks for the Chalet School (1952), Elfie
Woodward gives up school to look after her family, following the death
of her step-mother. Bride Bettany, her best friend, "knew, almost
better than anyone else, just what a sacrifice the girl was making . .
. Bride realised dimly that Elfie, being what she was, could have done
nothing else" (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p24). By the beginning of Bride
Leads the Chalet School (1953) it is Bride's sister Peggy who is prepared
to give up her last two terms at the finishing branch to look after their
mother, who is recovering from a serious operation (Brent-Dyer, 1953a,
However, Peggy is saved from this because her aunt offers
to come to stay with Peggy's mother, and Elfie too returns to school when
a relative assumes responsibility for her family. Dickie's family recover
and her mother is then able to afford help in the house. There is no need
for the girls to continue to be self-sacrificing when circumstances change.
Self-sacrifice may on occasions be necessary, but it is never suggested
that girls should sacrifice themselves because their lives are not as important
as their male relatives, nor that they gain in strength of character as
a result. Instead, self-sacrifice results from the strength of character
that the girls already have. For example, the school secretary Rosalie
Dene, herself an old girl, tells Bride: "Elfie, being what she
is [my emphasis], would never have been happy if she had done as she
wants and come back" (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p27).
The emphasis that Brent-Dyer placed on thinking of others in the series is perhaps best illustrated by Jo's founding of the Margot Venables prize in Gay from China at the Chalet School (1944), "to go to the girl, who, in the estimation of the School, has done most to help other people" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p170). As has already been discussed, Jo is seen to embody all the most desirable qualities of a Chalet School girl, and her choice of criteria for the prizewinner would be seen to illustrate this. It is probable that thinking of others would have been a common theme in middle-class girls' schools at the time, and indeed Evans has memories of a similar prize to Joey's at her own school.
The Head Girl was not the Cleverest Girl but the Best Girl, and as such stood a good chance of winning the school's most important prize - the Service to the School prize. This prize was awarded each year to the most morally competent of the pupils. (Evans, 1991, p98)
A related character trait that Brent-Dyer emphasises as
desirable in the series is forgiveness. For example, in Bride Leads
the Chalet School (1953) Bride tells Miss Annersley that she will not
be happy unless she forgives Diana Skelton, who has wrecked Bride's study
out of spite. "The Head nodded. 'Of course you couldn't be happy!'
she said. 'Otherwise, Nancy, what becomes of "Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive them that trespass against us?'" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a,
p236). In the following book Miss Annersley tells Bride: "'Let him
that is without sin among you cast the first stone'. Have you forgotten
that? . . . Later, as you grow older, I hope you will learn that there
are generally extenuating circumstances if we try to look for them."
(Brent-Dyer, 1953b, pp32-33). This is also related to Brent-Dyer's use
of the pastoral convention common in classic children's fiction of viewing
all characters as essentially good or at least as capable of change.
The importance of being polite and having good manners is also emphasised in the series, and this seems to be related to the emphasis that is placed on the importance of thinking of others. For example:
Carola was to learn that at the Chalet School it was the tradition to see that new people were made to feel welcome until they had found their feet a little . . . Any girl given charge of a new girl was expected to look after her and tell her anything she ought to know. (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p43)
In a later book Miss Annersley talks about: "acts
of courtesy that here are considered necessities . . . politeness is the
rule" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp90-91). These include punctuality: "Punctuality
was a virtue on which much stress was laid at the Chalet School" (Brent-Dyer,
Good manners extend to eating habits too. For example, in The Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) Cornelia Flower and Evadne Lannis are punished for playing a kicking game under the dinner table. Miss Wilson tells them: "All bad manners are disgusting; but bad table manners are, perhaps, the worst". The girls accept this at face value and are "very subdued" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p122). Greed is also seen as very undesirable. For example, in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) Miss Annersley tells girls who have held a midnight feast which has resulted in two of the girls involved being ill that she was "bitterly ashamed to think that Chalet girls could be so greedy" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p83). Later, in The New Chalet School (1938) Jem Russell treats girls who have made themselves ill through eating fruit by concocting:
as evil-tasting draught as ever the quartette had swallowed . . . chuckling to himself over the expressions of his latest patients when they had gulped down his mixture. "And that will teach those four not to indulge in unripe gooseberries again in a hurry," he thought. (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p239)
It is possible that Brent-Dyer's treatment of greed is
related to twentieth-century constructs of femininity that portray thinness
as extremely desirable for girls and women. However, on many occasions
Brent-Dyer describes large meals composed largely of sweet food as very
desirable and good to eat,
so it is more likely that she associates this trait with self-control and
When girls are rude, it is treated very seriously. For
example, in The Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) Thekla loses
her temper, calls one of the prefects a "Schweinhund" and spits
at her, disgusting the prefects and staff (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p34). In a
later book, The Chalet School and the Island (1950), Annis Lovell
is rude to a member of staff and is kept in solitude and silence until
she agrees to apologise; her peers have no sympathy for her (Brent-Dyer,
However, Brent-Dyer makes some distinction in the books
between good manners, which are extremely desirable, and social graces
masquerading as good manners, which are not so important. For example,
in The Chalet School in Exile (1940) Janie Lucy, Jo's new neighbour,
intends to make a "proper twenty-minutes' call" to Jo, but stays
for much longer. She teases her that they must later make calls with cards,
but this is not treated as a serious possibility (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p192).
In a later book Bride Bettany, Jo's niece and a role model, criticises
Diana Skelton because she "goes in for 'elegant' manners. I've seen
her cocking her little finger in the air when she holds her cup myself!
She went on nibbling daintily and sipping at her tea like someone's maiden
great aunt" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp155-156). Perhaps it is significant
these references do not occur until after the outbreak of war, when British
society was undergoing one of its greatest upheavals.
Perhaps one of the reasons that thinking of others and forgiving the problems they may cause you is perceived as desirable in the series is the fact that, as has already been discussed, the series is about a community rather than an individual. In order to fit into this community new members must learn to put the community's needs before their own, and to be tolerant of others. 'Fitting in' is portrayed as essential in all the texts. For example, in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953) Jo advises Bride:
You say that this Diana-child refuses to fall into line with the rest of the community. That sort of thing is definitely anti-social behaviour. If she refuses to abide by the rules decided on by the majority, there's only one thing for it. Neither can she enjoy the privileges of the majority. (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p160)
Bride later explains to Diana:
You are living in a community . . . The way you treated
Primrose and Audrey is setting the juniors an awfully bad example. There
are always little idiots among them who may think it clever to do the same
sort of thing. Then they'll get into fearful rows and it'll be partly your
fault . . .
Diana stared at her, wide-eyed. It is safe to say that this point of view had never struck her before. (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p172)
In a later book, Ruey Richardson, Chaletian (1960),
Ruey, Jo's ward, begins her first term "wondering how she was really
going to like having her actions hedged in, as she quite saw they must
be, at a boarding school" (Brent-Dyer, 1960b, p8). But by the end
of the book Joey tells her: "You've become a real Chaletian - someone
who can face the hard things of life as well as accepting the pleasant
ones. Someone who's going to be some good to the world and her fellow human
beings" (Brent-Dyer, 1960b, p157). Part of the way Ruey has achieved
this is by learning to fit in and accept the rule of the majority.
The qualities that are portrayed
as most necessary for community integration are self-discipline and obedience.
It is the lack of these qualities which inevitably threatens the status
quo and hurts either the person without such qualities or someone close.
For example, in The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928) Grizel,
the new Head Girl, runs off to see the Schauffhausen Falls on the way back
to school, despite the fact that she has been forbidden to do so. As a
result she is threatened with the loss of her position (Brent-Dyer, 1928,
pp72-76). Later, in Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School (1930), Eustacia's
lack of self-discipline leads to a mistress hurting her foot and the school
party spending a night on a mountain as a result, which also indirectly
causes the Robin to become ill. Another mistress tells Eustacia: "If
only you had learned self-control, all this need never have happened"
(Brent-Dyer, 1930, p121).
Perhaps the most extreme example which Brent-Dyer gives
of the dangers of lack of self-discipline and obedience is in The New
Chalet School (1938), where two children who are not pupils of the
school, the Balbini twins, run wild and refuse to obey orders while their
mother is in the sanatorium. As a result they miss their mother's last
call for them, and she dies without saying goodbye. Jem Russell tells them
that: "Your foolish behaviour has brought its own punishment. Your
mother asked for you repeatedly before she died, and she had to go with
her last wish for you ungratified" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p284). As the
death of a parent is a deeply traumatic occurence in reality and one which
threatens fundamentally a child's security, it is probable that Brent-Dyer
chose this example because she believed strongly that self-discipline and
obedience were very important. However, Brent-Dyer also stresses the positive
advantages of obedience. For example, in The Chalet Girls in Camp
(1932), the girls escape from a swarm of hornets by being "promptly
obedient" (Brent-Dyer, 1932, p92).
Another quality that is advocated in the series is patience,
seen to be closely related to self-discipline. For example, in Peggy
of the Chalet School (1950) Jo says: "I've learnt to wait for
my good things. It's a hard lesson, but if we learn it properly, it does
help to make life easier for us" (Brent-Dyer, 1950b, p87). Later,
in Carola Storms the Chalet School (1951), Jo tells Grizel: "when
things go wrong, it's just as well to learn to hold your horses a little"
(Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p158). In the latter example Grizel's impatience has
led to an accident in which Carola and Jo's eldest triplet Len have been
burnt, an extreme example of the consequences of lacking self-discipline
Perhaps not surprisingly, a character trait that is portrayed
as antagonistic to community life and therefore undesirable is the desire
for privacy. In Three Go To The Chalet School (1949) Mary-Lou resists
becoming a boarder because she will not have any privacy, and this is dismissed
by both her grandmother and Jo (Brent-Dyer, 1949, pp358, 363). Later, in
The Chalet School Does It Again (1955), the girls laugh over a new
girl who has said "'that one so frequently wants a little privacy'.
. . 'Cripes!' gasped Emerence. 'She must be crackers!' They all agreed
with this. Whoever had heard of a girl of fourteen demanding privacy!"
(Brent-Dyer, 1955b, p10).
Physical violence is another trait that is portrayed as undesirable, although interestingly this is never described as an unfeminine characteristic. Rather physical violence is seen as childish, and resulting from a lack of self-discipline. For example, in Lavender Laughs at the Chalet School (1943) Lavender hits a girl who has insulted her aunt.
Smack! Joy's outburst was brought to a sudden stop by a slap across her face given with all Lavender's force. . . "Oh Lavender!" cried Peggy, while the rest stood aghast, free fights not being usual at the Chalet School. "You shouldn't have done that!" . . . No-one wanted either staff or prefects to come in on such a scene. . . This was an isolated affair, and they were determined not to have their fun spoilt because Joy Bird had got up in a bad temper, and Lavender Leigh was a young wild-cat when she lost hers. (Brent-Dyer, 1943, pp100-101)
In a later book, The Chalet School and the Island
(1950), a fight breaks out in the Lower Third: "The entire form was
embroiled in a free-for-all" (Brent-Dyer, 1950a, p59). Their punishment
includes a dictat that "for the rest of the term they were to be treated
like the Kindergarten" (Brent-Dyer, 1950a, p63).
However, Brent-Dyer also stresses the positive aspects of belonging to a community, particularly in her treatment of friendship between girls. This is portrayed as of such value that girls should risk their lives if necessary to protect a friend. For example, in Three Go To The Chalet School (1949), Mary-Lou's mother tells her that dying to save a friend "is the sort of thing real friendship means" (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p413). In fact it is Mary-Lou's father who has done this, but there is no suggestion that this is a quality confined to men. Later in the same book Jo talks to Mary-Lou about friendship, stressing the need for tolerance of other people's habits - another quality necessary for community integration.
You must be a good friend, for he [Mary-Lou's father] was one. He gave his life to help his friends. Friendship means all that. And it means being kind, and trying not to hurt other people's feelings, even when they make you feel angry or impatient with them. Lots of people would be horrified if they knew how much they hurt others by unkind words or actions. Lots of times others' funny little ways and words may irritate you almost beyond bearing. But for goodness' sake try to hold your horses, and keep your tongue quiet. You've probably just as many trying habits. Learn to make allowances for others. (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p415)
Brent-Dyer also emphasises the symbiotic nature of friendship. One example of this is the character of Mary Woodley in The Chalet School and Barbara (1954):
There she was, alone and without a chum while even that wretched Barbara Chester had a pal! She forgot that to have a friend you must be a friend, and she had been ready to blame everyone else but herself. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p147)
Once established, however, friendship is seen as enduring, rather than ephemeral, and something that should be taken on trust. For example, in Changes for the Chalet School (1953), Jo tells a group of girls who are being split up by the school's move to Switzerland:
If your friendship is really what it ought to be, you'll find it'll stand the strain. You all know that my three friends and I are chums still, even though it's four years since I saw Marie and quite two since I saw either of the other two. We haven't so much time for writing, either, and anyhow, Simone always was one of the world's worst correspondents. (Brent-Dyer, 1953b, p143)
(McClelland points out that in contrast Brent-Dyer herself
frequently lost interest "in friendships that had apparently been
close" [McClelland, 1981, p95].)
While Brent-Dyer places great
emphasis in the series on the duties and advantages of belonging to a community,
she is also careful to stress the need for self-reliance within it. As
well as thinking of others, it is important to think for oneself. For example,
in Carola Storms the Chalet School (1951), Carola is told by headmistress
Miss Annersley: "If you stay here, you must learn to think" (Carola
has run away from her cousin without realising that she would be very worried)
(Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p56). Carola's lack of forethought is a recurring theme
in the book, which ends with the line: "Carola made her usual excuse.
'I - I didn't think!'" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p159). In this instance
she has been badly burned as a result of beating out a fire with her bare
hands instead of using a nearby table cloth, so the message is a serious
one: lack of forethought can harm oneself as well as others.
In another example Brent-Dyer shows that individuals can
protect themselves by being self-reliant, and indeed have a duty to do
so. In The Wrong Chalet School Blossom Willoughby is tricked into
going to an artroom before an important tennis match, and is consequently
locked in and prevented from playing. However, if she had thought before
she acted she would have seen through the trick and would never have gone
to the artroom in the first place. Although the girl responsible is caught
and punished, Blossom "had not been spared in the study, for it had
been pointed out to her very plainly that her own lack of thought had been
largely to blame for her unpleasant experience" (Brent-Dyer, 1952a,
p130). Although people's feelings are always treated seriously in the series,
Brent-Dyer always insists that emotion must be tempered by thought, and
that thought and self-discipline must ultimately govern emotion, to portray
her ideal of rational womanhood.
Self-reliance is also shown to be important in relationships. For example, in The Chalet School in the Oberland (1952) a rift opens between two girls after one had allowed the other to dominate her.
Too much had happened for their friendship ever to have all its old intimacy again. Pamela would never again be so utterly under Elma's dominance, nor would Elma ever try to exert such influence over her, but their friendship was renewed on much healthier and saner lines. Pamela learned to think for herself instead of depending on Elma as she had done in the past. (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p184)
Evans, writing about her own experience of a middle-class girls' school in the 1950s, has noted that:
The values of bourgeois culture have, since the sixteenth century, emphasised the importance of responsible individualism. To this end the novels of Austen, Eliot, Dickens et al. provide endless grist to the mill of a certain moral understanding of the world. We had all been taught, since we were children in primary school, that we had to care for others but also learn to look after ourselves and to do our best. (Evans, 1991, p15)
The emphasis that real middle-class girls' schools placed on communal values has also been noted by Evans, who has concluded that at her middle-class girls' school:
The wearing of a uniform, the making of rules, the development of rivalries within the school in addition to those with other schools were all designed to foster a sense of identity and a sense of comunity that is singularly appropriate to the workplace or community association. (Evans, 1991, p10)
Thinking of others; tolerating their idiosyncracies and
forgiving them when necessary; fitting into a community; being obedient,
patient, well-mannered and self-disciplined; abiding by the wishes of the
majority; setting a good example to younger children; and giving up the
right to privacy; are of course also lessons which encourage girls to fit
into traditional family roles, although this is never portrayed explicitly
in the texts.
However, the emphasis which Brent-Dyer placed on the importance of women's friendships and communal life would have been more controversial. Following the publication of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness in 1928 women's relationships with other women came under suspicion and attack, and Vera Brittain was just one feminist writer who felt the need to defend such relationships, albeit by pointing out that relationships need not intefere with a women's role as lover, wife and mother.
From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted . . . loyalty and affection between women is a noble relationship which, far from impoverishing, actually enhances the love of a girl for her lover, of a wife for her husband, of a mother for her children. (Brittain, 1941, p2)
In addition to communal
values, the series emphasises other qualities that are found in a 'real
Chalet School girl', as well as some which are not. One of the most important
of the former is a 'sense of honour', which includes being honest and trustworthy.
For example, in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) Jo tells
girls who are disobeying the rules by passing notes in class: "Here,
we have always considered it utterly dishonourable" (Brent-Dyer, 1934,
p64). In the following book, The New House at the Chalet School
(1935), Miss Wilson assures Matron that the perpetrators of a joke will
own up if asked because none of them are "cowardly or dishonourable"
(Brent-Dyer, 1935, p82). Later, in Tom Tackles the Chalet School
(1955): "There was no talking. They knew Clare had put them on their
honour, and the Chalet School was strict about honour" (Brent-Dyer,
1955a, p88). Significantly, only two girls are expelled during the series,
Thekla, who has "no sense of honour" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p65),
and Betty, who had previously been caught eavesdropping - "something
thoroughly dishonourable" (Brent-Dyer, 1942, p84).
Another quality shown to be important is belief in the Christian god. Brent-Dyer was known to be a practising Christian for most of her life, initially within the Anglican church and later within the Catholic, and her beliefs are prominent within the books. For example, in The Chalet School in Exile (1940) the girls lament that there is nothing that they can do to help Maria Marani's father, who is being held by the Nazis. The Robin says:
"The Abbess [Miss Annersley] told us to pray, and we can do that." The girls said nothing. They were shy of such talk, but each one vowed in her own heart that if prayer would do anything for Herr Marani, whom they had all known and liked, it would not be neglected. (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p210)
On another occasion Julie Lucy, a prefect, is dangerously
ill with peritonitis. Miss Annersley tells her sister Betsy: "The
biggest thing you can do for Julie at the moment is to pray for her"
(Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p132). Faith in the Christian god's powers is as important
as prayer itself. For example, in The Wrong Chalet School (1952)
Katherine Gordon has faith that her parents, who are being held by the
Chinese government, will be released unharmed (Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p8).
When this happens she says: "I knew God would look after them and
He did - He did!" Miss Annersley replies: "He always does if
we could only learn to trust Him" (Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p79).
However, being religious in the series consists of more than simply praying and having faith; it is seen as an integral part of the characters of girls held up as role models. For example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931) Jo becomes so absorbed in the Oberammergau Passion Play that "her eyes were glowing with a deep, inward glow as of one who sees a vision" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p108). (It is believed that Brent-Dyer wrote this book after paying her own visit to Oberammergau in 1930 [McClelland, 1981, p123].) Much later in the series Peggy Bettany, Jo's eldest niece, talks to the other girls about her favourite saints (as has previously been discussed, Brent-Dyer converted to Catholicism, and seems to have forgotten that it would have been very unusual for Peggy, a Protestant, to display an interest that would have been considered heretical by her own church).
It is safe to say that such ideas had never dawned before on Elma. Saints - the Apostles, anyhow, were a part of Scripture; a lesson to be learned if you wanted your marks. That any of them could be vivid and alive to people of her own generation was something that had never occurred to her before - nor to Pamela and quite half of the other girls. (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p158)
Significantly, Mary-Lou, another role model, is also religious:
Mary-Lou startled them all by quoting in a deeply reverent
"'I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help'. I always feel like that when I see mountains," she added. "Somehow, they make you see how awfully big God is. And yet he can be so near to you when you get stuck as well."
No-one commented on this remark. A good many of them felt the same. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, pp127-128)
Wilson has noted that the post-war period was characterised
by a revival in religious belief and a movement away from science (Wilson,
1980, pp128-129), and it is possible that these later examples reflected
that. Traditional constructions of femininity which have portrayed men
as rational and scientific and women as emotional and instinctive also
seem relevant to Brent-Dyer's portrayal of religious belief, based as it
is on faith and emotional response rather than on proven scientific fact.
Another quality which is valued
in the series is courage, both mental and physical, and it is perhaps not
surprising that this quality is most frequently referred to during the
books written and published in wartime. Mental courage is first mentioned
in Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), when Matron decrees that
the older girls must be told that Mademoiselle, their headmistress, is
dangerously ill. "I don't believe in trying to shield girls from all
sorrow and trouble. We want to make strong, helpful women of them - not
spineless jellyfish!" (Brent-Dyer, 1936, p139). Later a former pupil,
Bette Rincini, who is now a refugee in Canada is held up as an example
of this ideal by Joey: "She's plucky, Corney. First she lost Giovanni
[her husband]; then she lost her home; and now she's lost every penny of
her money, and has to start work" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p288).
Physical courage is first mentioned in the same book, The Chalet School in Exile (1940) when Madge Russell tells the school:
I look to you - we all look to you - in the days to come, to show that the Chalet School has taught you this at least: Be upright; be honest; be brave. Courage is a great thing, and we do not know how soon we may need it, nor how far we may have to strain it in the days ahead. So take this for your motto for the rest of the year: "Be Brave!" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp48-49)
Later in the same book Cornelia, the recipient of both
Madge's speech and of Jo's, rescues two Germans from a burning plane, getting
badly burned in the process. "For a moment Cornelia drew back, and
no-one can blame her. Then she set her teeth. The Chalet School mustn't
have a coward in it . . . With an inarticulate prayer for courage, Cornelia
leapt" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp296-297). (It is typical of Brent-Dyer's
belief in internationalism and peace that Cornelia rescues two Germans
rather than two Allied servicemen, as one might expect to be the case in
a popular children's story during wartime.) Examples of physical courage
still occur, though more rarely, after the war years. For example, in Tom
Tackles the Chalet School (1955) Daisy Venables, Jem's niece, carries
a friend through a snowstorm to safety despite hurting her shoulder badly
(Brent-Dyer, 1955a, pp66-73).
It is interesting that death or its possibility is constantly
present in the series, most often portrayed in connection with the sanatorium
but also in connection with the need for physical and mental courage. It
is possible that this reflected Brent-Dyer's religious beliefs, as well
as her childhood experiences of bereavement.
This is also endorsed by the differing memories of Mary Evans, who attended
a girls' school where the pupils were almost exclusively Anglican, and
Sarah Hogg, who was head girl in her final year at her girls' boarding
school run by nuns. Evans remembers death being treated by her school as
"the kind of raw emotion that had been ruled out of order since our
childhoods" (Evans, 1991, p46). In contrast Hogg remembers her school
as "a community that had the whole of life right through, including
death, to deal with" (Bennett and Forgan, 1991, p113).
Unsurprisingly, given the stress the series lays on 'being brave', 'real Chalet School girls' are not expected to be easily scared, and if they are scared, they are not expected to show it. For example, in The School at the Chalet (1925) Amy Stevens, one of the youngest pupils, crys when she sees a snake when the school is out for a ramble. Madge, the headmistress, tells her: "There's nothing to cry about, Amy . . . If you scream when you only see a snake, you aren't a very plucky person, are you? Now dry your eyes and stop crying." (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p114). Later in the same book Simone is the victim of Madge's disapproval when she becomes hysterical after the school is caught in a storm.
"Simone," she said sternly, "you must stop
crying at once - at once! Do you hear?"
"I - I have such fear!" sobbed Simone . . .
"So have the others," replied her headmistress, "but you are the only one who is behaving like a baby. Come! You must stop at once or I shall slap you!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p121)
In a later book, The New House at the Chalet School
(1935) Matron Besly, a very unpopular character, becomes hysterical during
a storm, and Miss Wilson, later to be one of the headmistresses, is "disgusted"
(Brent-Dyer, 1935, p117). Girls are also not expected to complain. In Three
Go To The Chalet School (1949) Jo tells Mary-Lou: "You've got
to take the rough with the smooth like everyone else, and whining won't
get you anywhere" (Brent-Dyer, 1949, pp360-361). And in a later book
"Matron noted thankfully that there seemed to be only one whiner in
the school, at any rate" (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p145).
Another characteristic that is shown to be undesirable is pride, which is shown to be most harmful to the girl exhibiting it. For example, in Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (1930):
Eustacia knew now that she had only to whisper 'Mademoiselle!' and Mademoiselle would be with her, and would listen patiently to anything she might have to say. If only she could overcome the dumb devil of pride that was having its own way with her just now . . . Eustacia knew that much of her trouble would be at an end. (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p128)
Instead Eustacia runs away and as a result is badly injured. This theme is repeated in The Chalet School and the Island (1950), when Annis Lovell would like to change her mind about running away. "But if she did that, then she must make up her mind to remain a kind of pensioner on Aunt Margaret's grudging bounty, and that was more than her pride would allow" (Brent-Dyer, 1950a, p156). As a result she narrowly escapes death by drowning. Not all examples are so extreme, although all show that pride is harmful. In Three Go To The Chalet School (1949):
Verity-Ann's head was high, but tears were not far away . . . having once made her stand, she was far too proud to own herself in the wrong and give in. "I suppose Mary-Lou will never be chums with me now," she thought desolately." (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p429)
A related quality, vanity, can also lead to harm. In The Chalet School in the Oberland (1952) Elma is disgraced because she has been corresponding with a man her parents had forbidden her to contact. She tells Peggy Bettany that she was not in love with him after all.
"Oh, I suppose I was a fool! I liked being singled out by him and I liked the fun of breaking out unknown to my people and getting letters from him. I suppose you might say a lot of it was pure vanity." (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, p128)
This man continues to cause Elma problems until Miss Wilson
deals with him (Brent-Dyer, 1952c, pp172-173).
"Vulgarity" is another characteristic that is frowned upon in the series (The Concise Oxford Dictionary  defines "vulgar" as "Of or characteristic of the common people, plebeian, coarse in manners, low"). For example, in The Chalet Girls in Camp (1932) Jo suggests to Juliet Carrick, an old girl, that she has forgotten to bring the cocoa to camp because she was so busy thinking about her fiance. "Juliet turned on her coldly. 'That is not funny, Jo. It is even verging on the vulgar. If you must be funny, at least try to avoid vulgarity, please!' Jo flushed." (Brent-Dyer, 1932, p48). In The New Chalet School (1938) Madge's husband Jem Russell tells Maria Balbini, whose mother is dying in the sanatorium: "there's not need to be ill-bred, no matter how angry you are. Vulgarity won't help you, you know." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p243). Vulgarity is also mentioned during the war years, when the Middles get into trouble for wearing "Weezes" on their heads during a gardening lesson. A prefect later reports that:
Evvy simply gave them all one look . . . and then said, "You vulgar little sights! Go and take off those disgusting things at once, and don't dare to come to me looking like that again!" (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p102)
However, despite the above examples, snobbery is also frowned upon in the series. This is first made explicit in the first book of the series, The School at the Chalet (1925), when it seems likely that there will be two new girls coming to the school.
"It would be splendid for the school if they did
come," said Anita Rincini. "I have heard Papa talk of Herr Von
Eschenau. They are very well born."
"What a silly reason!" said Grizel, crushingly. "The real question is, Will they be all right in school?" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p74)
The Von Eschenaus do attend the school, and later their
cousin Thekla is astonished to find that they "consort with daughters
of shopkeepers". Jo's friend Frieda Von Ahlen replies: "What
difference can it make if we ourselves are good and kind and gentle?"
(Brent-Dyer, 1933, p27). Later Frieda expands on this: "We never trouble
about what our fathers are. The thing we think of is what we ourselves
are . . . Drop all these foolish ideas, and become one of us" (Brent-Dyer,
1933, p42). Belonging to the community and being a 'real Chalet School
girl' is what is important, not family background.
The belief that snobbery is an unacceptable trait continues to be repeated throughout the series (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp77-78,101,145). One book in particular, A Problem for the Chalet School (1956) places the theme that it "is what we ourselves are" that matters at the centre of the plot. Rosamund Lilley, who has a scholarship, is concerned that "they'll all be looking down their noses at me because we live in a little house and Dad's a market gardener and Mum was a housemaid" (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, p5). This continues to concern her until Joey, whose eldest triplet Len is Rosamund's friend, reassures her:
"My dear girl, when you've been at the Chalet School a little longer, you won't worry in the least about it. The school has always been taught that what matters is the girl herself - is she decent and sporting? Does she pull her weight? That's what matters here. And so far as that goes, my lamb, we all of us are the descendants of a gardener. Have you forgotten that when God created Adam, He put him into Eden with orders to look after it? And who do you imagine did the housework but Eve? . . . And another thing, Rosamund. When God chose a Mother for His Son, he didn't choose a queen or even a great lady, but a village girl who was engaged to the village carpenter. And our Blessed Lord's friends were all working men . . . After all that, how could any human being put on airs and be unkind to other people because they came from working-class families. (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, p87)
Given Brent-Dyer's strong religious beliefs and the fact that she herself came from a modest family background and needed to work to support herself throughout her adult life, it is probable that these passages are close to her own feelings. However, pupils attending real middle-class girls' schools during the time in which Brent-Dyer was writing remember very different experiences. For example, journalist and novelist Frances Donnelly remembers that at her Ursuline convent in the 1950s and 1960s:
There was a tremendous amount of snobbery. Women were preoccupied with not being "common". People lost sleep over "being common" . . . The nuns were very clear early on about separating the girls who they thought were a bit "common" from the rest of us. (Bennett and Forgan, 1991, p73)
Liz Heron recalls that at her Catholic girls' school in the late 1950s:
The friendships, rivalries and enmities that were the daily humours of this densely female world were often underlaid by class differences, snobberies about who had what and who lived where - between the daughters of the traditional convent-school middle class and the rest of us. (Heron, 1985, p167)
Ursula Huws, who like Rosamund was sent to boarding school at someone else's expense, had a very different experience to Rosamund's fictional one.
[In 1959] I was despatched to a boarding school on the coast, full of the daughters of minor diplomats posted overseas and Lancashire businessmen too snobbish to send their eleven-plus failures to a secondary modern. There, I was made aware yet again of how my family deviated from the bourgeois norm. . . I was left, as a result of these experiences, with a strong sense of apartness and exclusion. There seemed to be no group I really belonged to, or understood the rules of. (Heron, 1985, pp180-181)
The implications of the largely middle-class background
of the Chalet School pupils is discussed further in 6: V.
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