III. 1990s Girl Fans


Although the majority of the members of the organised fan networks are women, in the 1980s and early 1990s the Chalet School series still sold an average of 100,000 copies a year in the Armada paperback editions, with the entire series being republished between 1980 and 1995 in a total of 62 different books (some originals being divided into two). In 1997, Chalet School paperbacks were still readily available in bookshops and stationers; as were Enid Blyton's school stories, which have remained constantly in print since the 1940s. Secondhand copies were also available of some of Angela Brazil's books, republished in Armada paperback by Collins in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Dimsie books, republished in modern hardback editions by John Goodchild in the early 1980s. New series, too, had been added to the genre since the 1970s, most notably Anne Digby's Trebizon series and Jean Ure's Peter High books, which both remained in print in the 1990s.
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Contrary to the predictions of the critics (see 7. The Critics of Girls' School Stories, 1949-1995), then, the genre still retained a readership amongst British girls at the end of the twentieth century. In the early 1980s, Gill Frith found that:

This phenomenon continued into the 1990s, with the Chalet School series and the modern school stories gaining in profile amongst the readership (the girls in Frith's study mainly read Enid Blyton). In 1995, I asked girls attending the Chalet School Girls' Group (see Researching and Creating Virtual Worlds of Girls, Developing the Research and The Chalet School Revisited, 4. Production for details) to write me an essay about their fandom. The following comments are taken from these unless otherwise stated.
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As members of the fan organisation Friends of the Chalet School (FOCS), the girls were not, of course, typical of 1990s girl readers, and they themselves were aware that their hobby was regarded strangely by others. Hannah states that "None of my friends read the Chalet School books;" while Eleanor writes that "no-one else I know reads them (except the people in FOCS and my best friend, Lauren)"; and Katie states that: "No-one else I know reads these books except my Mum. Mum thinks it's great that I collect these books because she loves them too." Eleanor's main motivation for joining FOCS was because "I was amazed at the fact I wasn't the only one that read them . . . my family . . . think I'm a bit strange collecting old school stories, but really it's no stranger than reading Sweet Valley High which I think is strange." Caroline receives some encouragement from her friends and family, but:

Although no reliable figures were available, it seems likely that the books were less popular by the 1990s than Frith had found in the 1980s. However, the themes in the girls' essays echo Frith's research, and assumptions cannot be made about the extent to which British girls themselves were rejecting the books by the end of the century.
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Since the girls portrayed here had not been able to share their fandom, a key reason for joining FOCS had been to communicate with other fans. All had found the experience rewarding enough to wish it to continue, and their membership was clearly important to them. They particularly enjoyed the opportunity to meet with fans of their own age. Katie writes that:

Hannah writes that:

Caroline:

Chloe had been introduced to the organisation by her grandmother, who had passed on her love of the books down the generations.

Eleanor writes that:

As with the women fans, meeting with others was associated with creating an externally "real" world of Chalet School fandom.
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In addition to the Chalet School series, the girls did read other and later examples of the genre, as well as other types of books. For example, Alice writes that: "I read modern school stories and other modern stories and I also watch lots of school stories on TV." However, the girls preferred the Chalet School books to later girls' school stories. Caroline writes that: "I don't read many modern school stories. In those that I do read, the girls seem to have much more freedom than the Chalet girls and there doesn't seem to be quite so much 'school spirit'." But while Caroline appears to identify reactionary elements as her reasons for preferring the older examples of the genre, Hannah seems to perceive the newer books as themselves portraying a more oppressive regime.

Eleanor simply seemed to prefer books in which boys were absent.

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Despite this, the girls found the later stories to be more "relevant" to their lives, and therefore to be "better", clearly internalising this as a critical standard. Caroline's comment above could be related to her awareness that the books were perceived by others as being politically undesirable, while Alice writes that: "Today people are given more freedom and there is more fairness between the sexes and races." Similarly Hannah writes that:

However, the girls did not perceive the lack of "relevance" to be a reason for ending their fandom. Caroline states that: "I like [modern stories] because I can relate to them but the Chalet books provide a form of escapism for me." Similarly Alice writes that: "I'm totally against most things about the Chalet School and would hate to go there myself but I love reading the books."
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All of the girls had begun to read the books while at primary school. Frith, analysing a survey distributed by three teachers, similarly found that: "The readership for these stories falls approximately between the ages of 8 and 12, with some overspill at each end." (p115) Most of the girls had been introduced to the series by their mothers, and several had already been fans of school stories at this time. In general, the girls had enjoyed the books straight away, and all had clear memories of their first encounter with the series. Katie "first started reading the Chalet School books when I was six," - the same age as Eleanor, who remembers that: "My Mum had bought me The School at the Chalet and Jo of the Chalet School at my local supermarket, after I read them I was hooked." Meanwhile Chloe:

Caroline discovered the series for herself.

Hannah had been the oldest member of the group when she first encountered the series, but was already a fan of girls' school stories when she did so. She recalls that: "I started reading the Chalet School books when I was about ten. I started reading them because my mother thought I was getting too old for Enid Blyton books, so bought me a different school story (the Chalet School)."
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Frith links the younger readership of the genre at the end of the twentieth century with the lower age at which girls now reach puberty and are regarded as becoming young women. Since any explicit representation of puberty is absent from the genre: "When breasts develop, menstruation arrives, and bodies become a source of secrecy and difficulty, the schoolgirl reader can no longer place herself within the school story." (p126) But since several of the girls writing had already reached puberty, and given the average age of the organised fan movement, it now seems likely that the absence of puberty is a factor in the popularity of the genre rather than providing a reason to stop reading it.
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However, the fact that the girls in the group represented a younger readership than contemporary sources reveal perhaps explains why they were all able readers. The subject matter of the genre was now regarded by their parents as being suitable mainly for primary-aged children, but while the reading age of the Blyton books is younger than most other examples of the genre, the Chalet School series is characterised by its relatively sophisticated use of language, including the use of French and German words and phrases. This, presumably, was why Hannah's mother wanted to introduce her to the Chalet School.
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This is not, though, to claim that the Chalet School required its original readership of older girls to be particularly able readers. Earlier in my research I encountered a young woman with learning difficulties who had first read the Chalet School books aged twelve; in fact her mother, who also read and enjoyed the books, claimed that this was the process by which she had developed literacy. Leaving aside the popular perception of people with learning disabilities as being childish, it is likely that older girls who are less able readers would enjoy the series if they were not aware that the books were "too young" for them.
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As with the adult fans, the girls in the group now owned extensive collections of the books, and actively sought out new examples of the series. Eleanor owned "forty two paperbacks/cardboardbacks and two hardbacks"; Caroline owned "45 Chalet books at the moment, but a few of them are duplicates"; and Katie had managed to collect "59 books excluding Visitors, Companion, The Chalet School Revisited and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School". In contrast to the adults, though, the majority of the girls' books were modern paperback editions, generally purchased new from local bookshops and stationers. Katie writes that: "All of them are paperbacks. I get them from any bookshop that sells the ones I need." Likewise Caroline writes that her books are: "all paperbacks, some older than others." Hannah writes that:

The girls did have some awareness, though, of the secondhand market. Caroline writes that: "I occasionally find them at fairs but less have turned up in the last couple of years than when I started collecting them." Meanwhile Eleanor records that two of her paperbacks, "the cardboardback one and my hardbacks are from various bookshops in Hay on Wye, secondhand bookshop town of Britain".
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As with the women fans, the girls collected the books in order to read them and re-read them regularly: Katie writes that "I read about two of them every day". During the making of The Chalet SchoolRevisitedin October 1994, Alice told me that: "I read them almost every day, but sometimes I get bored with reading a book too often, so I leave it and then go back to it a few months later." In general, the girls would read the books which they owned in the order in which they occurred in the series. In 1994, Chloe said that: "I've got the first ten so far, and I've got some more in the other series, so I read the first ten, and then I go back and read number one again." Likewise Katie Page stated that: "I usually go through the books which I have got, and then go back to the beginning, if I've got time, and start re-reading them over and over again." And Caroline remembered that, before she built up her collection: "I'd get, say, three Chalet books out of the library and read them through, and then straight after that, because I hadn't got any more books to read, I'd just start re-reading them from the beginning, again." Frith found that: "a significant number of girls go through a lengthy period of addiction, in which they not only read nothing but school stories, but return to the same books over and over again." (p115) (By 1995, though, Caroline writes that: "I don't read the books much at the moment, but I often flick through them to just read a favourite scene or chapter.")
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Generally, the girls distinguished the books as being those which they read out of choice, in their "own" time. Hannah makes this explicit when she writes that: "I read the books when I go on holiday at Easter, Summer and Autumn. At those times I read all my Chalet books that I have about twice. The rest of the year I do not read many." Likewise Frith found that:

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The humour in the books, and the adventures which the characters were portrayed as having, were seen by the girls as being key to their enjoyment of and their wish to read and to collect the series. It is interesting to note that, of the four "favourite books" noted here, three were published after 1950, whereas the women fans generally regarded the later books as being of inferior quality. Girl and women fans either read the texts in different ways, and/or relate differently to examples of the genre from different historical periods according to the time in which they themselves were born. However, one of Katie's favourite books, The Chalet School in Exile (1940), is generally named by women fans as being a favourite too. Katie writes of her other favourites that:

Hannah writes that:

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It is important to note here that the "reality" judgement which Hannah is making here is pertinent only to the reality of her imaginative world. In the course of Summer Term at the Chalet School Erica Standish arrives from India, only to meet her unaware but intended guardian, Joey, by chance in Oxford Street. On the way to the Chalet School they are involved in a train accident, as a result of which Joey adopts a baby girl to add to her family of eleven children. Many women fans have found this to be one of the least satisfactory books in the series, mainly due to its lack of "reality" for them - since they can perceive, and disapprove of, the deus ex machina on which the plot depends. For the women, the reality of their imaginative world is punctured if its rules are not similar to those which govern the world which they experience externally.
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For Hannah, though, it is the way in which the world of the story is described that makes it "sound real". She does not expect her imaginative world to behave in the same way in which she experiences the world externally. Hannah finds that plot inconsistencies, rather than the use of devices such as deus ex machina, flaw her imaginative world. Later she writes that: "The only weakness I can think of about the books is that some of the adventures are a bit unrealistic, for example when Rosalie (The Chalet School and Rosalie) is described as timid and shy, but she answers her teachers and fellow classmates back near the beginning." Similarly Katie writes that: "Some weaknesses are when the characters talk slang and play tricks but are 'such good girls', or when Elinor states how much Joey hates prettiness of any kind but then she gets into her 'pretty' dress." The perceived inconsistency which the girls found most disturbing was Brent-Dyer's treatment of characters close in age to themselves, whom they viewed as being portrayed as "too young". Alice writes that:

And Chloe states that: "The weakness in the books is definitely not in the setting but in the characters; for example the Robin goes on being treated like a baby until she is about 14." Accepting that there were plot inconsistencies, though, did not mean that the girls considered the books to be fundamentally flawed. Eleanor states that: "There may be certain weaknesses in the books, like EBD's forgetfulness [which resulted in inconsistencies in names and ages], but I still think they're really good."
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It was clear that the girls did not consider the world of the Chalet School to be "realistic", either in terms of the type of school which was portrayed or when compared to their own experiences. Alice states that: "I go to a comprehensive secondary and I know that the Chalet is totally different from any schools or community I know today." Similarly Chloe writes that: "The Chalet School is very different from my school: for example it isn't a boarding school and we have one thousand five hundred pupils in our school along with eighty-four teachers; and my school is mixed." Katie makes it clear that this difference is one of the attractions of the Chalet School world for her.

Similarly Caroline writes that:

Caroline also writes that: "I feel that, if the Chalet School existed today, as a day school in Surrey, it wouldn't be all that different from my school." Since she is clear that the world of the Chalet School does not represent her own school experiences, does she mean that the structure, organisation and curriculum of the Chalet School would have become similar to that of her own school if the Chalet School existed in reality? Or that the less argumentative atmosphere of the Chalet School could never survive in the world which she experiences externally? Hannah clearly prefers the world portrayed in the Chalet School series, both in terms of organisation and of relationships.

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Humour and kindness were the traits which the girls valued most highly in favourite characters, with Joey in particular seeming to represent an idealised sister, friend or mother. Chloe writes that: "I would say my favourite character is probably Madge Russell [the founder of the school] in the first books because she is always on the ball, but in the later books it is Joey because she always appears at the right time and is kind to everyone." Katie writes that: "My favourite characters are Joey, Mary-Lou and Len. I like Joey because I imagine she is fun to be with, I like Mary-Lou for more or less the same reason but I like Len because she is intelligent, observant and she sounds friendly." For Eleanor:

Hannah writes that:

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Eleanor is clear that the world which she experiences externally can never be reconciled with the world of the Chalet School. "It used to be a dream of mine to go to the Chalet School, until I thought about it and realised I'd stick out like a sore thumb. But it hasn't stopped me liking and reading the books. In fact I think it's made me read them more." Similarly, Frith found that: "Almost without exception, the girls in my survey said that they did not believe real boarding-schools would be like the schools in the stories, and that they had no desire to go to such a school themselves." (p117) As with Hannah, the world of the Chalet School offered Eleanor something which she could not find in the world which she experienced externally. "I think that's one of the reasons they are so popular, because they are so different from the world we live in."
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Hannah, who had only attended the junior group meetings and knew no other readers, was clear, however, that she would "outgrow" the books at some point in the near future, but this seemed to be largely in order to please her mother. "My mother (who started me reading the books) now thinks they are too young and wants me to stop reading them . . . I think I will carry on collecting the books until I am about sixteen and then I will stop as they will become too young for me." Caroline, meanwhile, who has little contact with other collectors, is unsure. "I think that I may stop collecting the books when I get older, but I don't really know. After all, no-one can predict the future." But Katie, who had met with adult fans and whose mother enjoys the books - so is aware that not everybody regards the books as being "too young" - states firmly that: "I love the Chalet books and will not stop reading and enjoying them." Similarly Chloe, whose mother and grandmother are also members of FOCS, writes: "I think that as I enjoy the books and as there is so much to do connected with the books that I will go on collecting them until I am a lot older." Eleanor, meanwhile, declares that: "I don't think I'll ever stop reading the books," and adds, deliberately adopting Brent-Dyer's ethos and style: "As Joey says, The Chalet School MUST go on."
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(L to R) Alice, Chloe, Eleanor, Caroline, Katie, Hannah and Moira
Photo: Anne Thompson


Next: 10. The Significance of Girls' School Stories
Return to: 9. The Fans of Girls' School Stories Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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