Elinor M Brent-Dyer: The New House at the Chalet School
Collins 1980 (1935)
Head Girl Jo Bettany returns to the Chalet School for the summer term, her last one, only to find she is based at a newly built annexe called St Clare’s. It will prove a momentous term for her, involving victimisation but also strengthened friendships, near death and hilarious goings-on, midnight escapades and chance encounters.
Boarding schools have long been a staple of children’s fiction, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the Harry Potter books, and enthralled authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton, to name writers from just the British canon. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s girls school was different: set up first in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1930s, it moved first to Guernsey and then to Herefordshire to escape the Nazis, next to Wales and then finally Switzerland in the 1950s.
Jo, the main focus of this particular title, happens to be the sister of the founder of this multinational establishment, but she will still have had to earn her place as Head Girl; no doubt this has been recounted in previous volumes, this being number 12 of some sixty volumes and published in 1935, three years before Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938. There is, however, no hint of such clouds on the horizon in these pages.
As a newcomer to the series, I was initially a tad confused in trying to immerse myself into this rarified world. First was the profusion of names, at least eighty (I wrote them all down), a large number of which get mentioned in the first three or four chapters. Teachers, matrons, parents, family members, Middle School girls, Senior Girls, prefects and sub-prefects, even the odd local — they all are there, with no real clue as to whether they will even make an appearance or take a significant part in the proceedings. But it was fun trying to picture them and work out their relationships.
Secondly, it wasn’t easy at first to orientate oneself as, apart from Innsbruck, pretty much all the locations — Tiernsee, Briesau and so on — are fictional. A little research however reveals that Tiernsee is based on Achensee and Briesau on Pertisau near Jenbach in the Tyrol. Of course it’s not essential to the enjoyment of the story to know these things but as the action does occasionally stray further afield it helps in establishing mental scenarios.
Jo is part of a quartet of friends who go back years: as Marie von Eschenau looks around at the others at the very end of the book she sees
Jo, tall and dark, and with that something about her that told of a great gift; Simone [Lecoutier], little, and dark, and keen; Frieda [Mensch], pretty as a picture in her white frock, with the coronal of plaits swung round her head. “Oh,” she said, her voice quivering with the intensity of her feelings, “we have had beautiful schooldays here, we four. And we have had a beautiful friendship. Let us try to keep it always like his, even though other things come to us!”
There’s then a valedictory note to this instalment in the series when the four aver that “Whatever comes to us, nothing can alter our friendship,” and that all their schooldays have been happy, with the girls being so much closer during the last term. But all this is but a rounding off, a confirmation of school supposedly being the best days of your life, after all the enmities, escapades and encounters that we’ve learnt about and that are to be expected in school stories.
What I found attractive was the sense of an international community, with boarders hailing from all over Europe (not just western Europe but also Hungary, for example) and North America. The Chalet School is also an ideal society: close but not closed off from the world, hierarchical yet governed by consent and common sense, liberal but never lax, and intent on preserving a balance between rights and responsibilities. And though many of the girls see their future roles solely as wives and mothers (maybe after a stint as teachers) these are young women brought up to think, to enquire, to innovate and to be good citizens.
Even after its slow start it’s testimony to how much I enjoyed this tale that I’d certainly contemplate reading at least another title in the series; and maybe even one or two more! I can see the attraction: there is a good-humoured quality to both students and teachers that not only makes the reader feel good but also suggests these are nice girls whom you’d be pleased to meet. As a retired teacher I’d have been delighted to have more of these types of students in my classes.
The New House at the Chalet School was my title for the Classics Spin. (Actually, it was The School in the Turrets but I have at the moment no idea where I got that title from, and it isn’t even on any of the shelves that I can see anywhere around the house. This book was, however, on the shelves dedicated to older grandkids, so I’ve gone for this.)
There is continuing interest in the Chalet School series and in other Brent-Dyer titles. Two websites that give one a flavour of the books are Tiernsee: an armchair guide to the real thing (apparently a WordPress blog that’s no longer updated) and Chalet School, run by FOCS or the Friends of the Chalet School, which is still active.
Then there’s Did You Ever Stop to Think and Forget to Start Again? A cumbersome title, sure, but the blogger L H ‘Daisy’ Johnson is delightful on many aspects of children’s and YA books. As her Twitter handle is @chaletfan you won’t be surprised to discover she’s very much into Brent-Dyer (her Chalet School posts are listed here).