Wimpey was already in bed, propped up against her pillows,
reading Rivals of the Chalet School. At the moment when time stood
still, Wimpey was turning the page. . . Her black eyes were half-open
and her cheeks were scarlet. A tearing, rusty sound . . . Wimpey read
no further. The page remained unturned.
(Sylvia Waugh, Mennyms Under Siege, Julia Macrae, 1995, p181)
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.
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:
While the boys' boarding-school story is now an anachronism,
school stories for girls are both widely read and freely available. . .
Nor is the readership confined to the white middle classes; as a teacher in comprehensive schools, I found that many working-class girls, some of them Asian, read these stories.
("The Time of Your Life: The Meaning of the School Story", in Language, Gender and Childhood, Steedman, Carolyn, Urwin, Cathy and Walkerdine, Valerie (eds.), Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, p115)
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.
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:
I don't think my friends do read Chalet books, although I know that one of them read and enjoyed The Head Girl of the Chalet School. At the moment I'm planning a campaign to get two other friends hooked. They know I read them, though, because I was asked which ones I hadn't got and subsequently received two as a birthday present. My family look out for the books and are encouraging, but most people I know are indifferent towards my collection.
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.
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:
I first joined Friends of the Chalet School from a Chalet
book [ie via an advertisement in the back of one of the HarperCollins
Armada contemporary paperback editions] . . . I've been a member for
about two years. I joined the club because I was, and still am, crazy about
I was shy to come to the meetings but my family persuaded me into going to just one. I liked it. You were allowed to discuss, voice your opinion and view the books, I decided I'd come whenever I could.
Hannah writes that:
I joined the Friends of the Chalet School nearly a year ago. I joined because my mother read about it somewhere and told me to join. I came to the meetings as they were of the junior group and I also found them interesting. I enjoy the meetings a great deal and hope to carry on going to them. [But] As we live in Bucks my mother thinks the meetings are a long way away, she does not enjoy having nothing to do in London for four to five hours.
joined the Friends of the Chalet School a couple of years ago because, as I liked the Chalet books, I thought that I might as well join what I considered to be a fan club. I went to the meetings so I could meet other people around my age with a common interest. I enjoy the lightheartedness of the meetings and the amount of time given to "just talking".
Chloe had been introduced to the organisation by her grandmother, who had passed on her love of the books down the generations.
My grandmother told me that she had joined a club to do
with the Chalet School. So she had begun to collect the books and would
lend them to me in order that I could finish them. (Although I haven't
finished them all yet.)
[My grandmother and grandfather] then asked both my mum and I whether we would like to join the club. We both said yes and we became the first three-generation members of the club.
A Grandma, a
Daughter and a
Grand daughter. [sic]
. . . When I joined the Chalet School [sic] and got the newsletter I also got a letter from Ju about the London junior club meetings. As it was something to do on a Sunday, I decided to go along. We played lots of games, did lots of acting, talked about the books and even decided to have a magazine. It is really great fun.
Eleanor writes that:
I joined FOCS in August 1993 when I was eight, I'm mentioned
in no 23 as one of the two eight year olds, I'm the one that's "been
reading the Chalet books since she was six!"
The reason I joined was I was amazed at the fact I wasn't the only one that read them, when I got the newsletter I decided I liked reading the comments of other readers so I carried on.
Last year I got a letter from Ju saying would I like to come to the meetings of the younger London and South East group. I was thrilled, until I found out I was on holiday at the time. So I forgot about it.
Then in February this year I got another letter from Ju saying the same, and this time I could come. So I went, I went so I could meet other FOCS members and because I thought it might be fun, the same reason as I went to the Christmas party.
When I came back I was full of what we had done there and how much fun it was and how I'd loved it. Just like I love the Chalet School.
As with the women fans, meeting with others was associated
with creating an externally "real" world of Chalet School fandom.
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.
I read Jean Ure school stories and I find it less interesting than the Chalet School. Jean Ure has nicknames which nobody I know would want, for example Bozzy, Barge and Fij. They are always getting into trouble. Most books they get hundreds of order marks (bad marks for behaviour) and get told off by the prefects.
Eleanor simply seemed to prefer books in which boys were absent.
I used to read Sweet Valley High and they were awful compared to the Chalet School, they were awful compared to anything. There are two good school series on the market at the moment, Peter High by Jean Ure and Trebizon by Anne Digby, but I'm not sure if I like them as much as the Chalet School.
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:
I watch the television programme Grange Hill and I find it better than the Chalet School. It deals with relevant issues for example drugs and violence. It is more up to date so it can easily be related to my classroom sometimes, the Chalet School is fairly old-fashioned and hard to relate to my school.
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."
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:
first read the Chalet School books when I was about seven.
I had found two books on the shelf both with Chalet in the title and with
beautiful illustrations on the cover. (My Mum's books from her childhood.)
I decided to read them; they were the first one The School at the Chalet and the second one Jo of the Chalet School. As I had enjoyed them so much I decided to try and collect them or get them out of the library. The library didn't have any Chalet books in so it was very difficult to find them.
Caroline discovered the series for herself.
I first started reading the Chalet School series when I was eight. It was the summer holidays and I was steadily reading my way through all the books in the library. I saw a Chalet book and, as I liked school stories, took it out of the library and read it. I've been hooked ever since!
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)."
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.
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.
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.
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:
I have one hardback that is a three-in-one book containing The School at the Chalet, Jo of the Chalet School and The Princess of the Chalet School, all the rest of my books are paperback. I buy the books from local bookshops, for example Dillons, The Book Shop and WH Smith. The variety in the shops are very small, they mostly have the same books, The School at the Chalet, The Chalet School Reunion and The Chalet Girls in Camp.
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".
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
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:
It is important that this [reading] is a matter of choice, sometimes in conscious opposition to the wishes of parents and teachers (although the books may also be "handed on" from mother to daughter). The books are borrowed from libraries, bought by the girls themselves, passed on from friend to friend. Few teachers will encourage girls to read boarding-school stories; many actively discourage them, and at best they are likely to take the liberal view that the addiction should be indulged, in the interests of developing a "reading habit" until the addict can be weaned off them and directed towards more sophisticated and realistic literature. (p115)
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:
One is Redheads at the Chalet School, another is Shocks for the Chalet School . . . I like Redheads because it has more mystery than most others. I like Shocks because a lot of tricks are played and I like the Exile because of the adventure in it.
Hannah writes that:
My favourite book is Summer Term at the Chalet School. I like it because it is amusing, when Gretchen falls into the Yellow Wash and covers herself in it. The main character, Erica Standish, is very well described and the adventures she has sound real, whereas in some of the books the adventures do not sound as though they could have happened.
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.
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:
The staff and the pupils treated the younger pupils like Amy Humphries [sic] and "the Robin" much too young. Surely an eight year old could bath herself. And even if a 10 year old is frail 7 o'clock is much too early. I know people used to go to bed earlier, but even then 7 o'clock should have been a suitable bedtime for a four year old.
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
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.
I go to an all-girls' school too, but the only likeness I see is the fact of the single sex part of it. The girls I know are so different that if you put them side by side it would look like they both came from a different planet! The characters are more mature and more my type of people. The girls I know act as if they were five instead of eleven.
Similarly Caroline writes that:
One of the things I like about the Chalet School is its
difference from my own school. To start off with, I go to a day school,
not a boarding school. My school has no prefect system; and when 6th formers
try to enforce a rule they are (horror of horrors) either cheeked or ignored.
We have all the modern equipment, of course (computers, a technology lab
etc) and lots of extra-curricular activities. There are similarities, though.
We do raise money for school or form charities (although there's no Sale
of Work for a nearby Sanatorium!). The 6th formers have extra privileges
and responsibilities and cross-year friendships do exist (like Len Maynard
and Jack Lambert), mainly with 6th formers. . .
The main difference between the Chalet girls and my friends is that we are always having arguments.
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.
At my school people do not play jokes on the teachers
so it is different in that respect. We do not have lessons missed if it
is nice weather in the winter, and the Sale at my school happens in the
autumn. There is nobody like Joey Maynard to talk to who understands and
The girls I know would probably not run away from school as they go mostly to day schools. They do not have such a friendly relationship with the teachers as in the Chalet School. They do not play tricks on teachers. They mostly do their homework during the break and not after school, like in the Chalet School.
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:
I think that my favourite characters are Evadne, Cornelia, Con, young Joey and Frieda. I like Evadne and Cornelia because they are constant pranksters but rather lovable, Joey because she also likes pranks but can't see people being sad without helping, Frieda because she's quite and thoughtful, and Con because she's a bit like me, except I'm not quiet!
Hannah writes that:
My favourite character is Joey Maynard as she is very fully described AND she is in every book. She also seems kind as she adopts children, for example, the three R's, Robin Humphries and the MacDonald twins. Joey never boasts about having eleven children (at the end). She also keeps calm when her children are ill. She is very kind and loving, if anyone needs to talk she talks and comforts them. She does not just dump her adoptees on the Chalet School, she keeps an eye on them.
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."
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."
(L to R) Alice, Chloe, Eleanor, Caroline, Katie, Hannah and Moira
Photo: Anne Thompson
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