But if the Fifth were prepared to behave themselves, it was more than the Fourth were. They had begun the day by growling at the weather. Since they had come down from the Sonnalpe, they had been kept indoors by the swirling snow-blizzards, and they hated it. . . Monday had found them restless and fretting to get out; Tuesday finished it. Even drill and gym during the day and country and morris dancing at night could not take the edge off their energy, and, as Miss Wilson said later on, they were like so many little engines, stoked up to top-notch, and on the verge of an explosion. It was bound to come, and it came.
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Exploits of the Chalet Girls, 1933, pp238-9)
As well as aiming to teach a
moral code to her readers, Brent-Dyer also portrays a variety of images
of adolescence and womanhood in the "Chalet School" series. One
reason she is able to display this variety is because former Chalet School
girls, particularly Joey and her friends, continue to re-appear throughout
the series. However, the physical aspects of adolescence and womanhood
- including the onset of menstruation, the development of breasts, pregnancy
and childbirth - are largely absent, which seems particularly striking
to an adult reader.
Frith has noted that in the first half of the 1980s the girls reading school
stories were aged between eight and twelve (Steedman, Urwin and Walkerdine,
1985, p115), and it is probable that there was little difference in the
average age of the first generation of readers of the series. It is also
probable that the age of the readers explains why the physical aspects
of adolescence and adult life are not discussed more openly in the books,
as traditionally these aspects are not explained fully to girls until they
Essentially, adolescence in the Chalet School is marked
by a girl becoming a "Middle". This means that she is midway
between being a Junior and a Senior pupil, and is also, although this is
not stated overtly, midway physically between being a child and a young
adult. The turbulence of adolescence is reflected in the Middles' behaviour,
which is always the worst in the school and a constant problem for the
prefects. For example, in The New House at the Chalet School (1935)
Mademoiselle tells Jo: "We all, I think, recognise that the Middles
are the girls who most need the prefects." (Brent-Dyer, 1935, p9).
In The New Chalet School (1938), a prefect reflects this when she
sighs: "I don't know how it is, . . . but the best Junior on earth
seems to become possessed of a spirit of mischief as soon as she becomes
a Middle." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p7 of Part Two).
The most overt connection Brent-Dyer makes between being a Middle and being an adolescent is when reference is made to age. For example, in The Chalet School Goes To It (1941) the prefects ask Jo for advice:
Jo uttered an exclamation of impatience.
"It always is the Fourth!
What can it be about a Fourth Form that makes the gentlest and quietest of them all behave like a young demon once she enters it?"
"It's not the form - it's the age, I guess," said Cornelia. "Think what we were like at fourteen, Joey - not to mention your noble self." (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p100)
It is also recognised that when girls grow older their behaviour and characters improve, that the period of being a "Middle" is a transitory one. In The New Chalet School Joey advises the prefects:
The only thing that seems to make any difference, so far as I can see, is becoming Seniors. Then they do seem to learn a little common sense. But I defy you to find anything that will be a permanent check on the ill-doings of the average Middle." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p35 of Part Two)
Brent-Dyer seldom refers to physical development in relation to this chronological development, but one interesting exception is her treatment of Elizabeth Arnett in The Chalet School Goes To It (1941). Initially Elizabeth is one of the worst of the Middles, who is first introduced in the series by another girl as "a kid with red hair and a pale face - looks too good to be true, but is a perfect little fiend on occasion. I'm surprised at any school taking her." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p181). Although she is one of the worst Middles at the beginning of the book, by the end Elizabeth has changed abruptly.
Elizabeth was developing quickly in these days, and, as Cornelia once remarked, you could almost see her changing before your very eyes. Her rather hard little face became softer, more gentle. Her manner lost its aggressiveness and abruptness, and her voice began to deepen in tone. Along with these physical changes came mental ones. She took a greater interest in her work; and, from being a thorn in the side of anyone who taught her, was becoming a more interesting pupil. She thought things out more and began to reason for herself. . . she showed signs of being on the science side, and her botany papers, from being the bane of Bill's existence, became objects of real pleasure. (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p157)
It is noticeable that Brent-Dyer gives at least equal
weight to the mental and intellectual changes that take place in Elizabeth
as she approaches adulthood, and it is these, not physical changes, which
lead to Elizabeth's appointment as Head Girl later in the series. Changes
in facial appearance, voice and manner are, however, the most explicit
physical descriptions of adolescence which Brent-Dyer makes in the series.
The onset of menstruation, the development of breasts and hips, and pubertal
probelms such as weight gain and skin problems are all entirely absent.
This absence is explained at
least in part by the fact that there was almost no public discussion of
puberty until the 1960s, and at that point Brent-Dyer was herself an isolated
invalid. For example, J. Hemming in Problems of Adolescent Girls
(1960) examined letters sent to Girl magazine between April 1953
and March 1955, when Brent-Dyer had already been writing her series for
25 years. Although almost one in five letters stressed anxieties about
physical characteristics and deportment, topics such as menstruation and
the development of breasts were answered by personal letter and references
to these seldom appeared in the magazine. When menstruation was mentioned
publicly it was seen as a disability, "the curse". For example,
an advertisement in Woman's Own on 15 October 1932 for sanitary
towels refers to "Women's weakness", and to women being "handicapped
by Nature's disabilities" (p35). A similar advertisement in Peg's
Paper on 8 June 1940 for iron tablets refers to the onset of menstruation
as "those perilous years" (p26).
It is probable that readers, particularly pre-adolescents,
would not wish to read about these "disabilities", and that authors
of girls' stories would find this "weakness" hard to reconcile
with the portrayal of girls as fit, active, high achievers. And it is important
to remember that it was not until the 1980s that teenage magazines became
much more explicit about menstruation and sexuality and that advertisements
for sanitary wear were allowed on television, so Brent-Dyer was only avoiding
subjects that are often still considered publicly unmentionable today.
It is also important to remember that bodily functions were seldom discussed
in actual middle-class girls' schools during the time that Brent-Dyer was
writing the "Chalet School" series. Evans recalls that: "the school,
and adults who had any association with the body at the school, was dismissive
of the body as anything but a body" (Evans, 1991, p50). She also remembers
that "as we were growing up we were not expected to mention menstruation
even to our female teachers and discussions about sex and sexual morality
never formed part of the curriculum" (Evans, 1991, p63).
When Brent-Dyer describes the physical appearance of girls in the "Chalet School" series she concentrates on girls' hair, facial features and complexions, and never refers to features such as breasts and hips which are associated with adolescence and sexuality. Many of the girls are described as being extremely good-looking and traditionally feminine in appearance. For example:
Frieda Mensch was . . . typically German, with long flaxen plaits on her shoulders, blue eyes, and an apple-blossom skin. She was very pretty, though by no means as attractive looking as her elder sister, who followed a minute or two later with Joey. Bernhilda, with her corn-coloured hair in a coronal of plaits round her head, was charming enough to have stood for one of the princesses in Grimm's Tales.(Brent-Dyer, 1928, pp68-69)
Brent-Dyer continued to create these romanticised portraits throughout the series. In Gay From China at the Chalet School (1944), Jacynth:
had never seen a prettier girl [than Gay]. Eyes of periwinkle blue sparkled under long dark lashes; a generous mouth smiled, showing a dimple in one cheek; her brows, as dark as her lashes, were crooked with a fascinating effect of humour; her firm little chin was deeply cleft. (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p12)
Later in the series, in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953):
Bride . . . thought to herself that if Miss Golden Head in the Fifth could beat Rosalie, she must be something out of the common, for the latter, with her cloudy fair hair, perfectly featured face and deep blue eyes was a lovely creature. (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p68)
However, although there are many similar descriptions
in the "Chalet School" series, Brent-Dyer is careful never to
lay any emphasis on the importance of good looks. Significantly Joey herself,
who embodies all the best qualities of a "real Chalet School girl",
is never described as conventionally pretty, although she is attractive.
Even on the eve of Jo's engagement Brent-Dyer describes her as "tall
Jo, with her delicate, clear-cut face, straight black hair, and glowing
black eyes . . . Not pretty, there was something about her that made people
look at her twice" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p19).
Brent-Dyer also uses the series to show that character is more important than appearance, and that vanity about personal appearance is extremely undesirable. For example, in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) Joey discusses Joyce Linton with Madge, who describes Joyce as "exceedingly pretty". Jo replies: "And knows it! I should say myself that she's chockful of conceit! . . . I thought she was a loathsome little wretch" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p36). Later in the series Brent-Dyer is writing that: "Joyce Linton especially looked lovely, though no one informed her of the fact. Miss Joyce was not ignorant of her good looks, and no one wanted to make her conceited" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p87 of Part Two). Later in the series Brent-Dyer makes a more direct comparison between a girl with a good character and a girl with good looks, stressing that a good character is by far the most important attribute. Bride Bettany, later to become Head Girl, is "not at all pretty and . . . had, during the previous term, been condemned to wearing glasses". On the other hand her cousin Sybil:
was the most difficult of her [Madge's] three children . . . with chestnut curls, sapphire-blue eyes, rose-petal skin, and her mother's delicately-cut features, was a "picture" child, and all too well aware of it . . . she had plenty of shrewdness and a sharp little tongue of her own. She was a leader at school, and her mother realised that Sybil would need very careful guiding through her childhood and early girlhood if she were to make the woman God meant her to be. (Brent-Dyer, 1943, pp25-26)
In fact Sybil only reforms after her carelessness has
almost led to the death of her younger sister (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p72),
yet another example of Brent-Dyer's use of the "Illness/Injury"
While Brent-Dyer makes frequent references to girls' appearance, she makes little reference to their clothes unless it is in conjunction with descriptions of girls wearing the school uniform. For example, Daisy Venables, "in her brown tunic, with shantung top, and flame-coloured tie . . . looked very pretty" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p185). Later Brent-Dyer describes Katherine Gordon wearing the sports uniform.
She wore the Chalet School tennis uniform of sleeveless blouse with pleated shorts. Her long hair was plaited in a pig-tail tied at the end with a flame-coloured ribbon. She was a pleasant-looking creature as she stood there, the sunlight bringing out golden glints in her wavy brown hair, while her tanned face made her eyes almost startlingly blue. (Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p105)
When the school moves to the Oberland the school colours are changed. Hilary Bennett exclaims:
"It's such a gorgeous deep, vivid blue."
"It's gentian blue," Mary-Lou told her with an air. . .
[Vi Lucy] looked down complacently at her well-cut tunic in the glorious blue, with its flared skirt and the matching blazer, with the school badge embroidered on the breast-pocket in silver and crimson. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p25)
The uniform, of course, functions to identify girls as
belonging to the Chalet School community, and actually obscures their individuality
rather than enhancing it.
Keeping clean and tidy, while portrayed as a necessary accomplishment, is also acknowledged as inconvenient on occasions. For example, in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927) Princess Elisaveta asks her father about the Chalet School uniform.
"What do we wear, daddy? Will it be gym tunics, like
the girls in the books you give me? I do hope so! It must be lovely to
wear frocks that don't really matter!"
"Don't you like pretty frocks?" asked her father curiously.
"Sometimes - when I come to a reception, or anything of that kind. But it's just hateful to have to be careful of all my frocks!" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, pp11-12)
Later in the series, in The New Chalet School (1938), Jo complains about the difficulties of looking after her hair.
Hair is a nuisance. If you have it short, half your allowance goes in getting it cut. If it's long, it never looks fit to be seen. I wish I could wear a wig! It would save me an awful lot of trouble!" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p199)
Brent-Dyer's lack of reference to clothes and fashions,
and the stress that she laid on the importance of character compared with
good looks, reflects the norms of real middle-class girls' schools during
the period in which Brent-Dyer was writing, although it is probable that
both the pupils and the first generation of her readers, like teenagers
today, placed much greater emphasis on clothes and on following fashions.
Evans recalls that "'good' girls were expected to have little interest
in clothes, no personal narcissism and no interest in self-expression in
dress . . . dress had been defined as the preoccupation of the vulgar lower
orders" (Evans, 1991, pp31-32). Later she adds that: "the wearing
of uniform was publicly and frequently defended and rationalised on the
grounds that this compulsory and universal regimentation in navy blue serge
would keep our minds off our appearance and our bodies" (Evans, 1991,
Although the Chalet School uniform was far more attractive than Evans recalls her own as being, on one occasion Brent-Dyer did agree that dress was "the preoccupation of the vulgar lower orders". In A Problem for the Chalet School (1956) Joan Baker follows her scholarship-winning friend Rosamund Lilley to the Chalet School after her father "had a big win on the Pools" (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, p38). (Doing "The Pools" was a mainly working-class occupation, based as it was on football scores.)
Joan's idea of a semi-evening frock was a bright scarlet jersey-cloth heavily braided in black and far too old-looking for a schoolgirl. Her hair had been artifically waved and crinkled over her head in stiff waves. She wore a large cameo brooch which swore at the red of her dress and a string of red beads. She was also powdered and lip-sticked in a way that had made Elinor nearly gasp aloud. The Seniors at the Chalet School might use a dust of powder and even a little pink lipstick on state occasions, but it had to be properly applied. . . Only girls of sixteen or over might use make-up at all and Elinor guessed that Joan Baker was nowhere near that yet. (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, p63)
Later Jack Maynard tells Mary-Lou:
You've got to remember one thing, my child, and that is that I rather think Joan belongs to people who finish school at fifteen. That means that they are much more grown-up about that sort of thing than most of you girls who expect to stay at school for at least another two years with two or three years of training to follow. In consequence, you give your minds to games, lessons, and things of that kind. You are much younger there, than girls like Joan. (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, pp115-116)
"People who finish school at fifteen" were,
of course, mainly working-class.
Evans recalls that her school also believed, like Jack, that middle-class girls remained much younger than working-class girls.
We were not told that we could not wear make-up or pierce our ears; it never occurred to anyone that we would do these things . . . Our childhood, as far as the school was concerned, was to be endlessly extended until we were adults. (Evans, 1991, p92)
Ann Shearer has a similar recollection of her own teenage years in the 1950s.
The task then was to move from children's clothes to quasi-adult ones with minimum fuss, and certainly without too much of the extravagance of tears that accompanied my first suspender belt, my first lisle stockings (mandatory school issue), my first dread that growing up was going to be a wretched affair of knobby thighs and wrinkled ankles. Of the world - boarding school-educated as I was - I knew little. (Shearer, 1987, p14)
It is perhaps not surprising,
then, that Brent-Dyer makes no overt reference to sexuality in the "Chalet
School" series. And, unlike the much later "Trebizon" series
written by Anne Digby in the 1970s and 1980s, Chalet School girls do not
associate with boys at similar schools, nor do they see boys other than
their brothers in the school holidays. Even when girls have brothers, for
example the Russells, Bettanys and Maynards, these are very seldom mentioned,
and this absence includes many of those chapters set in a holiday period,
when one would expect boys to be part of the household. Together with the
absence of all physical descriptions of adolescence, this exclusion of
almost all mention of boys means that there is little or no overt expression
of heterosexuality among the pupils. Evans recollects a similar attitude
at her own middle-class girls' school in the 1950s: "What we had absorbed
was an attitude which stated that nice girls were heterosexual and yet
totally uninterested in men and sex" (Evans, 1991, p62).
However, there are incidents and passages in the books which seem to reflect girls' innate sexuality, as well as expressions of lesbian sexuality. First, girls - particularly the Middles, who are adolescents - are often affected by changes in the natural environment. For example:
But if the Fifth were prepared to behave themselves, it was more than the Fourth were. They had begun the day by growling at the weather. Since they had come down from the Sonnalpe, they had been kept indoors by the swirling snow-blizzards, and they hated it. Monday had found them restless and fretting to get out; Tuesday finished it. Even drill and gym during the day and country and morris dancing at night could not take the edge off their energy, and, as Miss Wilson said later on, they were like so many little engines, stoked up to top-notch, and on the verge of an explosion. It was bound to come, and it came. (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p124)
This description hints at repressed sexual energy. Similar descriptions occur frequently throughout the series. Another example is of Emerence the arsonist's first major act of disobedience at school.
It came three weeks after term began. On the Sunday it had started to rain in the afternoon, and rained thereafter almost without a break for the next three days, by which time tempers were growing frayed. The school was accustomed to any amount of fresh air and exercise and when the weather prevented this, the girls were apt to grow irritable. (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p63)
The message in both of these passages is that adolescent
girls are affected by the natural environment and need fresh air and exercise
to keep their sexual energy under control. Perhaps this is why the girls
are also required to take their morning bath either lukewarm or, preferably,
cold (eg Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p36).
The many references to food and eating might also be considered as expressive of sexuality. The constancy of these references has been noted by McClelland and others; McClelland quotes one 26 year old Australian fan who wrote "Why, oh why, are they always eating?" (McClelland, 1981, p174). These descriptions in the main fall into one of two categories: specifically 'foreign' food; and festive meals at school. 'Foreign' food is often eaten on excursions. For example, in the first of the Swiss books, The Chalet School and Barbara (1954), the girls have a "typically Bernese" lunch.
They began with a thick vegetable soup, and followed it up with Bernerplatte which turned out to be cabbage boiled together with thin strips of smoked ham, smoked sausages, potatoes and carrot. It was good, but so very filling that it was just as well that the sweet was of the lightest - meringues, blanketed in whipped cream and adorned with glace cherries. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p153)
Later "they went to a patisserie where they had the
sort of luscious tea with cakes of cream and nuts and honey and chocolate
that everyone enjoys once in a way" (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p154). A typical
description of a festive meal is as follows: "A gorgeous meal was
spread. Jellies, creams, fruit, sweets, chocolates, cakes and sandwiches
of all kinds covered the table; and there were [sic] frothing chocolate
with whipped cream, and iced lemonade to drink" (Brent-Dyer, 1934,
p98). It is noticeable that most of the food on offer at this latter meal
is sweet, and the only savoury items - sandwiches - are listed last although
sandwiches are normally eaten first. As the majority of Brent-Dyer's readers
were pre-adolescent, it is probable that many readers derived a sensual
pleasure from reading these descriptions of mainly very sweet foods, both
'foreign' and British. However, unlike many girls' school story authors
Brent-Dyer did not portray midnight feasts as desirable, and used the only
midnight feast mentioned in the series to illustrate the consequences of
Other authors such as Enid Blyton kept their descriptions of sweet food
for descriptions of midnight feasts, where its association with an enjoyable,
forbidden night-time activity made its erotic function more overt.
Although Brent-Dyer makes no overt references to sexual desire in the "Chalet School" series, she does make certain oblique references to lesbian sexuality in the guise of "crushes" and "sentimentality", both of which are shown to be undesirable in the texts. This theme is most prominent in the first books of the series, in the treatment of Jo's friendship with Simone, a relative of Mademoiselle (Madge's partner and later head mistress in her own right). Simone conceives "a violent affection for Jo", and asks her to be her "amie intime" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp38-39). This immediately begins to irk Jo: "Simone had remained glued to her side the whole afternoon, and it was beginning to dawn on Joey that she might have undertaken a friendship which was to prove rather tiresome on occasion" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p41). Very soon Jo is "getting thoroughly tired of Simone's jealousy and all-in-all friendship, and there had already been more than one scene, when Simone had accused Jo of hurting her on purpose, and not liking her any more" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p56). Simone, in a bid to attract Jo's attention, cuts off her hair, but this simply makes her look foolish and she soon regrets it.
"I - I thought you would like it!" Simone choked
out. "You have often laughed at me because my hair was long, and I
thought if I cut it short you would love me, and not leave me when those
new English girls come next term!". . .
Simone deeply regretted the fact that she had ever touched her hair - the more so, since Joey Bettany, instead of being impressed by what she had done, characterised the whole thing as "idiotic nonsense!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp60-61)
Having short hair was possibly a reference to the hostile
images of the "New Woman" in circulation in the 1920s and 1930s,
associated with lesbianism (Beddoe, 1989, p10).
Simone continues to be jealous of Jo's other friends:
"Oh, Joey," said Simone pathetically, dropping into her own language in her agitation - "oh, Joey, don't have any more friends! Please, Joey, don't! You've got Grizel, and Gisela and Bette, and I've only got you! And now you want those two new girls that you don't know at all! Oh, Joey, don't be so selfish!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p73)
Jo makes it clear that she will not commit herself to
an exclusive friendship, but Simone does not give up hope. In the following
book Brent-Dyer describes her as: "intensely sentimental, and cherished
a tremendous admiration for unsentimental Jo, who was thoroughly bored
by it, but was too kind to say so" (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p28). After
the Christmas break there is an example of this when Simone is again upset
because: "'I came across to see you! - and y-you have not yet embraced
me.' 'Oh - bother! Get on with it, then!' And Joey presented her cheek
for Simone's kiss, since that young lady sounded tearful." (Brent-Dyer,
1926, p126). By the ninth book Brent-Dyer is still writing that Simone's
"chief weakness was a romantic affection for Jo, which had survived
nearly five years of teasing" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p5). However, by
the 12th book in the series Brent-Dyer writes that "the adoration
had become a true, healthy friendship" (Brent-Dyer, 1935, p15), with
the clear implication that Simone's previous feelings were "unhealthy".
But while Simone's feelings were always shown as undesirable, this passage
marks a transition in the series.
For more than ten years following, until after the war, Brent-Dyer makes no references at all to these type of feelings. Then, although the references become much less prominent and "sentimentality" is still seen as undesirable, Brent-Dyer once again acknowledges that these feelings exist. The most prominent post-war example is in Tom Tackles the Chalet School (1955), first published in 1947 in the Third Chalet Book for Girls. Tom Gay, who has been brought up more like a boy than a girl, comes to school thinking that "Girls are awfully sentimental usually". But she is soon told by her peers that "You won't find people being sentimental here, I can tell you! We haven't time, for one thing. For another, no one approves of such tosh" (Brent-Dyer, 1955, p18). Later Tom is more explicit in her complaints when she tells Matron that girls: "do silly things - like adoring someone, a senior or some mistress, and giving them flowers and things, and trying to meet them all the time, and wanting to do things for them" (Brent-Dyer, 1955, p43). Matron replies that:
Boys have their heroes, you know, just as girls have their heroines. They don't express what they feel in quite the same way, I grant you, but then, in any decent school, neither do girls - not nowadays. You won't find any of that nonsense here, for instance. We don't encourage it. And when I say 'we' I mean the girls themselves . . . We've never had it here, thank goodness! The outlook has always been too healthy and sane for such rubbish! . . . At any rate, you'll find nothing of the kind in Joey's books. (Brent-Dyer, 1955, pp43-44)
(Or, presumably, in Elinor's books. Perhaps significantly,
another overtly-erotic reference is to girls' school stories themselves,
where Polly Heriot is described as having "indulged in an orgy of
school-stories" in Jo Returns to the Chalet School [Brent-Dyer,
Despite Matron's assurances, in the following book Tom is proved right when new girl Rosalie Way develops a "crush" on her.
It was something she saw in Rosalie's face when she was told to partner Tom that helped Gay to understand what it was all about, and she pursed up her lips in a soundless whistle. . . "Oh lawks! Why, if the silly little ass must get up a crush on someone, couldn't she pitch on a girl who would treat it with a little kindness, anyhow? Tom Gay is the last person to have the smallest sympathy with such things!" (Brent-Dyer, 1951, pp30-31)
Tom is horrified, and Rosalie is unhappy until she becomes
integrated into the community and admits that "I've been simply silly"
(Brent-Dyer, 1951, p95).
Brent-Dyer never again overtly refers to "crushes", but she does include passages which refer to the effect that physical appearance has on individual girls, this time without authorial comment. For example:
Verity-Anne was clearly the same age as themselves, but
she was a tiny creature, with long fair curls tied back from a small face
whose miniature features were cut with the delicacy of a cameo. Emerence
had never seen anyone so dainty and fragile looking and when Verity-Anne
smiled at her out of gentian-blue eyes and, speaking in a tiny silvery
voice that just matched her appearance, said that she hoped Emerence would
like England and especially the Chalet School, Emerence went down before
her like a ninepin.
"Oh, I - I'm sure I shall," she stammered. (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p58)
Another example is Mary Woodley, who causes trouble for Barbara Chester in her first term because Barbara becomes friends with Vi Lucy.
Ever since that young person [Mary Woodley] had come to the school, she had cherished a secret passion for Vi Lucy, who knew nothing about it and cared less. . . [Mary] was a rather heavy, dull girl with a trick of sulking when she was annoyed by anything. She was the oldest in the form, being already fifteen, but her work was so poor all round that it was only by grace of the Head that she was not in Lower 1V. Anyone less likely to appeal to quick-silvery Vi, it would have been hard to imagine. (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p104)
It is probable that Brent-Dyer's treatment of the theme
of "crushes" and "sentimentality" in the "Chalet School"
series reflects inter-war concerns about lesbian sexuality and the links
that were made between lesbian sexuality, single women, particularly school
teachers, and girls' schools (Beddoe, 1989, pp26-28, 42-43), rather than
any specific beliefs of Brent-Dyer's. These concerns continue after the
war, when growing tolerance towards male homosexuality was not reflected
in public attitudes towards lesbianism. Whatever Brent-Dyer's own views,
it is probable that she would have been constrained by commercial considerations.
This hypothesis can be confirmed by the way in which the theme is first
prominent, although condemned; then excluded completely during the 1930s
when public concern was at its height; then referred to again openly, although
once more with condemnation; while more unconscious episodes such as the
ones quoted above were not given any moral weighting at all.
Another very interesting example of an incident which can be seen as an unconscious example of lesbian sexuality is in The Chalet School and Jo (1931). Juliet Carrick, Madge's ward, returns to the Chalet School to teach. Together with Jo, she encounters a Kay Hillis and her brother Donal O'Hara, and it is obvious to Jo that Juliet knows them and there is tension between them. Jo asks Juliet about them and Juliet tells her that she met Kay at university.
"Kay seemed to take a fancy to me. She was wonderfully
sweet and kind. I - I liked her awfully. . . Kay was good to me. . . I'm
not of the worshipping kind, but I just worshipped Kay O' Hara." Juliet
paused, her face twisted with distress. Jo's fingers closed on hers, and
there was silence for the moment. Presently, Juliet released her hand,
and smiled at her friend. "Thanks, Joey. How you understand, kid!"
"I love you," said Jo softly. "Love brings understanding."
Juliet nodded. "Perhaps so. I don't know - I haven't found it always so. . . To shorten things a bit, I met Kay's brother, Donal. . . We liked each other. At first Kay seemed awfully pleased. . . Then, suddenly, her manner changed. . . At first I tried to think I didn't care, but I always knew I did. That was why I was so ill last summer." (Brent-Dyer, 1931, pp89-90)
Although, thanks to Jo's interference, Juliet and Donal
later become engaged, it is obvious from the vocabulary used in the passage
that it is Kay with whom Juliet is emotionally involved rather than with
her brother. Engagement to Donal is a socially acceptable way of forming
a legal relationship with Kay. And unusually in the "Chalet School" series,
Brent-Dyer describes Jo as loving Juliet rather than simply describing
her feelings as friendship, or qualifying her love in any way. It is probably
significant that it is Jo, Juliet's true love, who arranges her eventual
engagement, rather than Kay, her false love.
The links between lesbian sexuality
and girls' school stories have been well-documented by Rosemary Auchmuty
in her study "You're a Dyke, Angela! Elsie J. Oxenham and the rise
and fall of the schoolgirl story" (in Not A Passing Phase: Reclaiming
Lesbians in History 1840 - 1985 (1989)). In particular Auchmuty has
noted that these stories reveal: "a very conscious love for women
which in 1923 was fine and after 1928 became abnormal and unhealthy, representing
a level of intimacy which was too threatening to be allowed to continue"
(Lesbian History Group, 1989, p140). Auchmuty points out that following
the scandal which arose after the successful prosecution for obscenity
of Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), in Oxenham's
later books "heterosexual love was idealised beyond belief",
and later versions of Oxenham's early works were edited to remove "the
passionate and to post-Freudian eyes sexually suggestive scenes between
women" (Lesbian History Group, 1989, pp137, 140).
It is not surprising, then, that "sexually suggestive"
scenes are absent in Brent-Dyer's "Chalet School" books, all but four of
which were published after 1928. But the absence of boys and of references
to the physical signs of adolescence suggest at the very least that Brent-Dyer
did not perceive heterosexuality to be important to her readers. And, as
is discussed below, the emphasis she placed on the marriages and fertility
of many of the former Chalet School girls cannot detract from the fact
that their husbands are largely absent from the series. Nothing is documented
about Brent-Dyer's own sexuality, but she remained unmarried all her life,
and her one known heterosexual "love affair" appears to have
been largely fantasy (McClelland, 1981, p125). McClelland has also noted
that Brent-Dyer had close female friendships that later ended for no apparent
reason, including one with a woman whom she spent a holiday with in the
Tyrol and to whom she dedicated The School at the Chalet (McClelland,
1981, p95). This pattern seems more characteristic of passionate relationships
than of non-sexual friendships.
Perhaps it is not surprising, given Brent-Dyer's treatment of adolescent sexuality, that she makes only veiled references to the physical side of marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. The first heterosexual adult relationship that is referred to in the series is Madge Bettany's and Jem Russell's. Jem Russell, a doctor, has treated Joey in the past, and when the school is hit by flood waters Joey wishes aloud that he was with them.
"I wish Dr Jem were here!" sighed Jo. "I
can't think why he should be at Innsbruck just when we need him most!"
"Be quick, child," said her sister gently. . .
"But don't you wish he was here, Madge?" persisted Joey . . . Madge blushed and shook her head. (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p169)
While Madge's blushes would be significant to an adult reader, it is doubtful that a pre-adolescent reader would accord them much significance in the middle of an exciting flood scene. However, the setting for this incident may be significant. The school is hit by a:
torrent [which] had been choked somewhere up in the mountains [where Jem's sanatorium was]. . . Then the barrier, whatever it was, had given way, and the great mass of the water had been literally hurled down to the valley below. . . the wall broke around the Kronprinz Karl, which for a few moments was smothered in the foam" (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p168)
This might be read as a representation of the male orgasm.
At the end of the book Madge tells Joey that she is engaged, and Joey claims
that she has "wanted it for ages!" (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p192).
However, there has been no description of any contact between Jem and Madge
outside Jem's attending Jo during her illnesses to give weight to this,
and the reader can only assume that events have taken place during the
time of the story which are not described in the book. Brent-Dyer thus
portrays courtship and marriage as something which is personal and not
for public consumption, something that will always be mysterious to anyone
not directly involved.
In fact it is important to remember that Brent-Dyer appears to have had little personal experience of heterosexual relationships - she was brought up by her single mother and remained unmarried all her life - so she may have found it particularly problematic to describe them. Another, more explicit example of the secrecy with which heterosexual relationships are treated is Juliet's eventual engagement to Donal O'Hara. Jo arranges for the two of them to meet "accidentally".
What happened after that nobody ever knew, for neither of the principal actors would ever tell. But it is a fact that the Juliet who had gone out with tragedy in her dark eyes had vanished . . . and the old Juliet, dimpling and blushing, had come back . . . Joey, before she went to bed that night, was shown a ruby-and-diamond ring on her friend's left hand which made her exclaim with pleasure. (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p152)
Similarly Jo's own engagement and marriage is given little prominence in the book, although, like Madge's, it irrevocably changes her function in the book. (Madge ceases to be actively involved in running the school after she marries, Jo on the other hand cements her connection with the school with her marriage.) As discussed in 6: I., Brent-Dyer gives the first hint of Jo's coming relationship when she writes that Jack Maynard:
had known Jo since her stormy youth; had seen her grow up from a mischievous imp of thirteen to charming young womanhood of nearly twenty-one; and, for the last two years, had been quite decided about what she meant to him . . . But so far, Jo remained the complete schoolgirl for most purposes. (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp60-61)
Brent-Dyer makes no futher allusion to Jack's feelings until Jo discovers that the Robin, for whom they have been searching, has been found.
Madge would have tried to console her; but Jack Maynard
gave her a shock. Holding Joey very tightly to him, he said in tones there
was no mistaking, "Never mind, my darling. It's all over, and Robin
is safe. . ."
And before the stunned Madge could gasp out any ejaculation, Joey sobbed, "Oh, Jack - what a - solid lump - of comfort you - are!" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p99)
One paragraph later, Joey's engagement has been finalised
for nearly a month. Her marriage takes place during a break in the story,
and is only alluded to when Brent-Dyer writes of "Jo - no longer Jo
Bettany, but for the past ten months Jo Maynard" (Brent-Dyer, 1940,
Brent-Dyer is similarly
mysterious about pregnancy and childbirth in the "Chalet School" series.
For example, in The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928) the only
hint that Madge is pregnant is when a girl asks Jo: "if it is true
that Madame is not coming down to school at all this term?". Jo replies
that it is quite true. "Jem thinks the walk will be too much for her
in the hot weather, and she's not strong, you know" (Brent-Dyer, 1928,
pp248-249). Pregnancy is therefore equated with illness and physical weakness,
and this continues throughout the series. This is first made explicit when
Madge gives birth, and apparently comes close to death in the process.
Jack arrives at the school and summons Jo urgently. "'Mrs Russell
has a little son, born this morning, and she wants Jo,' he said brusquely."
Later Jo "had very little to say, but she assured them that the baby
was a darling, and Madge was all right - now." (Brent-Dyer, 1928,
When Madge has her next child, Brent-Dyer makes it obvious
that Joey has not even realised that she was pregnant. At half term Joey
is going to stay with her sister at their home near the sanatorium. Madge
has not let her invite any visitors: "She said she wanted to be quiet
for once. Can't think what's happening to her - it's not like her to be
stodgy." (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p118 of Part One). As she arrives she
finds that Madge has a daughter, born seven weeks prematurely. Jo has last
seen Madge a month beforehand, when Madge was six months pregnant, but
has noticed nothing. Madge later tells Jo: "I did try to hint the
last time I saw you . . . but you were most unaccountably thick, Joey!"
(Brent-Dyer, 1934, p130 of Part One). It is perhaps credible that Joey
would not understand hints about pregnancy, but the fact that she did not
notice the physical signs of pregnancy is not. However, in keeping with
Brent-Dyer's exclusion of all things physical Madge's appearance is not
described as changed.
Shortly after her own marriage Jo becomes pregnant, and
Brent-Dyer makes her hints slightly more explicit, perhaps reflecting the
greater openness about sexuality that arrived with the war years. Once
more pregnancy is associated with ill-health. First, Robin tells Polly
that "'Jem says Jo isn't well just now and isn't to be excited or
worried.' Polly's eyes widened, and she rounded her lips to a soundless
whistle." (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p241). Later Brent-Dyer writes that Jo
"was unable to take long walks at present" and "was having
breakfast in bed at present" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp250,252). Jo duly
gives birth to triplet daughters.
In the following book, after she has had to flee to England from the Nazi
invasion of the Channel Islands, Jo is ordered "to stop feeding her
babies herself at once" (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p33). This is Brent-Dyer's
most explicit reference to the physical aspects of motherhood, but in fact
there has never been a description of or reference to Jo breast-feeding.
Jo's second pregnancy follows a similar course. Robin
tells the others that "she's got to keep quiet for the next few weeks
or so. We shan't see much of her this term, if anything." (Brent-Dyer,
1943, p58). Before the end of term "the Head came to Prayers . . .
with a beaming face. After Prayers, she announced to the school that Joey
Maynard had had a son at six o'clock that morning - a fine, big baby, who
was to be baptized Stephen" (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p130). In later books
characters are more explicit about the fact that a baby is expected, although
there is still no reference to the physical side of pregnancy. Imminent
childbirth is usually described as "an extension to the family"
(eg Brent-Dyer, 1944, p27), an image of growth which refers to the increase
in the size of the family rather than the increase in the size of the expectant
However, Brent-Dyer's reluctance to describe the physical
side of pregnancy and childbirth and the fact that men are largely absent
from the books did not prevent her from giving many of her characters extremely
large families. Madge has six children including one pair of twins; her
own twin Dick Bettany has seven children, including two sets of twins;
and Jo has eleven children including one set of
triplets and two sets of twins. Multiple births do run in families, so
perhaps the Bettany family's fertility is (barely) credible, but the size
of their families would have been very unusual in the post-war period.
While a typical Victorian family had between seven and nine children, more
than two-thirds of marriages taking place in 1925 had two children or less,
and the birth rate continued to decline until the war (Beddoe, 1989, p104).
Following the war there was a certain amount of concern about the birth
rate, associated with racist fears that the white race was declining, and
pressure was put on women to stop being "selfish" (Wilson, 1980,
Perhaps not surprisingly, the birth rate did rise again
after the war, but the majority of families had less than three children
and the small family became the 'norm' (Wilson, 1980, p99). By the late
1940s contraception became widely available and was recognised as part
of the welfare state, and there was a major expansion of family planning
clinics. Almost three-quarters of couples married in the 1950s used contraception
to control the size of their families (Wilson, 1980, pp95-96). Wilson points
out that by the 1950s large families were in fact seen as problem families
"almost by virtue of their size alone" (Wilson, 1980, p99). It
seems unlikely that Brent-Dyer supported post-war calls for the increased
domestication of women, given the careers her pupils aspire to and the
positive role models of single women that she portrays in the series.
And while Jo has a large family, all her children are sent to boarding
school at an early age while she continues with her writing career. It
is probable that Brent-Dyer's Catholicism led her to reject the concept
of birth control, particularly as she herself was not affected by the practical
considerations of limiting family size, but this is only really credible
in the case of Jo, a Catholic by marriage.
It is also possible that Brent-Dyer's status as a single
woman and the fact that she lost her only brother during childhood led
her to idealise large families. The physical practicalities of bringing
up children, such as nappy-changing, the effect which repeated pregnancies
have on a woman's body, and the possibility of giving birth to children
with a disability are never mentioned in the series, while the families
also have some paid assistance and send their children to boarding school
as soon as possible (the three eldest of Dick's children in fact live with
Madge from infancy while he is working in India). All in all, the representation
of motherhood in the series is more reminiscent of a girl reader's fantasy
than of the reality known to many of Brent-Dyer's adult readers throughout
the twentieth century.
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