Beautiful schooldays and friendships

Vintage postcard of Achensee, Tirol, Austria

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.

Women’s cricket 1935

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.)

An early tinted postcard photograph of Achensee

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).

In the Ultimate Reading Challenge this counts as a book set in a Country I’ve never been to.

Pertisau and the Achensee, Tirol, Austria
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54 thoughts on “Beautiful schooldays and friendships

    1. Thank you! It’s like a fly-on-the-wall piece of reportage, a documentary piece on one term at the school — presumably as are most of the other books in the series — so perhaps something to dip into and out of at any point in the series. I’m guessing, mind!

  1. I’m a bit fascinated by descriptions of foreign boarding schools, they seem always to be described as such charming places. The one boarding school book I can think of from Sweden is titled Ondskan (“The Evil”) and do not describe a charming place and none of the boarding schools we have in Sweden (three I think) seem to be the kind of place I’d like to send a child to.

    1. I think boarding schools (and I’ve only read about British ones) vary widely. Victorian ones (like the ones in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ and Dickens’ ‘David Copperfield’ were anything but charming (both were based on the authors’ own experiences), and in real life Prince Charles’ schooldays at Gordonstoun were reportedly horrendous, designed to ‘toughen him up’. They sound to have been the equivalent of Ondskan here.

      But no doubt there were and still are enlightened institutions. Idealised though the Chalet School was, it was evidently what Brent-Dyer hoped for the short-lived girls school she set up in Britain.

      1. Yeah, I get the impression that there is a greater variety of boarding schools in Britain. I do believe the remaining ones in Sweden have improved but with only three of them they remain an oddity.

        1. I find it an oddity that many of these boarding schools owe their origins to charitable organisations, taking in children from less advantageous backgrounds; landed gentry and other rich families could afford private tutors for their own children’s upbringing. Nowadays most are free-paying and dominated by those most able to pay the exorbitant fees demanded by the institutions.

    1. With more than sixty titles in the paperback series (some of the hardback issues were split into two) you’d have had your work cut out to be a completist with these, Nikki! (Maybe The Book People do a discounted bulk purchase?) I can imagine having a run of volumes to plough through would be a very satisfying experience, being an opportunity to live the lives of a group of students vicariously as they grow and mature in semi-idyllic surroundings.

  2. I love your attention to detail when reviewing – listing all 80 characters you came across! And I’m intrigued that you have a bookshelf for the older grandchildren. By implication, that means the younger grandchildren have one too. What other bookshelves do you have? (This might be in another post you wrote, so forgive me if it is.

    1. Four teenage grandkids and three younger ones, Lynden! Shelves for the older ones are adjacent to the guest bedroom — under shelves of my partner’s psychology textbooks and fiction — while all the picture books are in the living room/dining area with jigsaws, drawing paper and selected toys … and the piano. The majority of my books are in the guest room (https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/so-little-time/ gives an impression).

      I’ve probably bored people rigid with details of my bookshelves in the past (here’s another pic: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/about/) but I do have a few ideas for related topics — you’ve been warned!

  3. I read a few of these books as a child but was never really a fan of the series and much preferred Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. After reading your thoughts on this one, I’m wondering whether I might appreciate the Chalet School more as an adult – it certainly sounds as though you got a lot out of it.

    1. I’ve not tried the Blyton books, Helen, but they’ve been so characterised and parodied for their ‘what japes!’ / ‘jolly hockeysticks!’ language that I’ve not been tempted; perhaps though I do them a injustice.

      Chalet School slang seems less OTT, and is anyway generally disapproved of, even though everyone from students to teachers seems to use it at some time or another, if a bit self-consciously.

      I’d be interested in your thoughts if you do ever give them a go! (The books, not the slang, obvs!)

    1. Hadn’t heard of this Kiwi author before, so had to do some quick research. I see that Leith and Friends is actually about a day school but that similar themes (especially about a sense of belonging) apply. Also a little later than Brent-Dyer in that her books were all published in a flurry between 1947 and 1950. I shall certainly consider her! Interesting that your father enjoyed it, proving that a good story overcomes limitations of gender, ethnicity and so on.

  4. I’ve never read these, and in fact I never read many ‘boarding school stories’ – maybe Americans don’t have as many. Your description of “the sense of an international community, with boarders hailing from all over…” reminds me, though, of when I did an exchange trip my junior year of high school. Our first week was a sort of orientation in a boarding school that was out for the summer. We were from so many places: Australia/NZ, the Americas, and Europe, but this was during the Cold War so nobody from Eastern Europe (it was in fact 1989 and a few months later I watched the Berlin Wall fall from practically next door). We became very close very quickly, and wrote each other or got together sometimes. We did get a week-long bus tour near the end of the year, too. I have great memories of those times and I can see where an entire boarding-school education would be a bit similar.

    1. Where was your exchange trip to, Jean, if I may ask? I find this account fascinating, and it makes me wonder whether more of these types of things would have helped discourage the isolationist and xenophobic attitudes that have been heartened by recent events.

      When I was a schoolboy in Bristol (the one in England, of course!) I went on three exchange trips with the same French correspondent, where we spent two to three weeks in each other’s environments. Not quite boarding school, but a great eye-opener and mind-expander. Bristol was also the first UK city to encourage links with a German city after the war, and I often wonder if its connection with Hanover is still going strong. I do hope so.

      1. You grew up in Bristol? How cool is that?! I would love to visit and see the bridge. And I’m sure you know that DWJ lived there for many years.

        I went to Denmark, and learned Danish! It was super-hard, and really great, and honestly changed my whole life (I got into a much better college than I deserved on the strength of it, where I got a better education, great friends, and a husband too). YES, I would absolutely say that more of these kinds of things would open people up and discourage xenophobia…because any time you meet real people who turn out to be nice human beings, that will happen. I also think that it’s harder to do that now than it used to be, at least if you’re an American kid who aims at a ‘good’ college; the requirements are so stringent now that kids get into a track where they work themselves to burnout and cannot deviate from the path, lest they lose their chance. I bet it costs a lot more now too. My parents had 5 kids and not a lot of money, but managed to send 4 of us on exchange trips; only my youngest brother did not choose to do it. He went to Korea for a couple of years when he was in college, though. (I was inspiring, I guess?)

        1. Bristol? Yes, I did, though it was only after I left Bristol in 2004 that I became acquainted with DWJ’s books: turned out she lived two doors down from a couple of people I knew from when I was performing in clubs with an electric folk band.

          The iconic Clifton Bridge, I never tire of seeing it. Ironic that two of Bristol’s heroes — Bridge designer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and ‘discoverer’ of Newfoundland John Cabot — were of foreign stock, Brunel from France and Giovanni Cabotto from Genoa. But then cities were ever more open to outside influences because of historic trade links.

          Denmark I’ve never visited, though my wife as it happened went on an school exchange visit there around 1960. It’s a country I’d love to visit though. Missed all the Scandi nor TV series though we did enjoy the political drama Borgen. What an experience you must have had, perhaps more of an adventure in those days for you than for us as island Europeans hopping over the Channel! Glad you were a trailblazer for your siblings. 😊

          1. Oh wow, such a near miss! Neat.

            It was indeed an experience, and a real adventure! Without the internet, we just wrote letters and had a couple of phone calls in a year. It was not considered a good idea to phone home all the time; you had to keep your mind on where you were, or you’d spend most of the year being homesick and not enjoying the experience you’d come for. The temptation would probably be harder to resist now; imagine having Facebook or whatever it is the kids have now…

            I have been unable to deal with Scandi noir; I wish I could, but it’s just too dark for me. I only just got around to watching Stranger Things and I lasted about 7 minutes before I wanted to quit. It’s right at the edge of what I can deal with.

            1. If you can find and watch even just the first series of Borgen I think you’d enjoy it: it’s portrayal of a fictional female prime minister of Denmark curiously anticipated that country’s first female leader. She was so believable and sympathetic character Danish viewers apparently would instinctively think “What would the fictional Birgitte Nyborg do in this real life political situation?” It was weird! How I miss her character and the cast of players in that programme.

              To be able to immerse yourself in a country and culture for that length of time is an experience I envy you for. It’s a privilege I wish more young people had access to to get a more balanced view of the world.

            2. Oh, well, I can probably handle a PM show that isn’t full of gory murders! That would be fun, if it’s all in Danish.

              It really was an amazing experience that I was very lucky to have. Funny, I only heard of it once, when I was 12 and a friend’s older sister did it for six months. She gave a talk, all dressed up in a dirndl, and I decided I wanted to do that too. It’s very odd to think that I owe my entire adult life to a 16yo girl’s talk.

  5. I am sure I have read some of these in my youth, in translation. I enjoyed your review, and your unusual reading choices. (I appreciate the spirit of rebellion in reading what we aren’t “supposed” to read, what’s not typical). I am glad you found worth in this title.

    1. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life, Silvia! It’s always essential to get out of one’s comfort zone, and particularly the older one gets. And I’m not getting any younger! 🙂

        1. I love that you are becoming ‘curioser’! Such a wonderful comparative form of ‘curious’ first made familiar by Lewis Carroll (as you know) but sadly never ousting the more boring (boringer?) form ‘more curious’! 🙂

          1. Huh, I didn’t know, and I should, -I am a big fan of Caroll. Thanks for sharing. (Do those appear in his books or poems, if you know, I would love to know where.) I can google it too, 🙂

            1. Alice famously says, near the beginning of her excursion into Wonderland, “Curioser and curioser!” — which sounds like Carroll poking gentle fun at a child’s attempt to speak in a grown-up fashion. Strictly speaking, of course, what she should’ve said was “More curious and yet more curious!” but that doesn’t have the same self-referential effect. Maybe this is was Alice Liddell used to say? 🙂

            2. There’s a blog I follow with that name. I love Alice in Wonderland, I have not read it in a while. I don’t know how that escaped me, but now I know it!

  6. Hello! I’ve recently discovered your blog and am enjoying it!

    I was a DEVOTED Chalet School fan as a child after one of my mother’s friends got me hooked on them, and I must have read well over half of them (in those days only some were in print and many of the others hard to find). You might be interested to know that there are several set during the war, the school has to make a dramatic escape after the Anschluss and ends up in Wales for a time. I have to say I always loathed Jo with her bell-like golden voice and her tendency to almost die rescuing other girls, but I loved many of the other characters, including the ‘bad’ girls (being myself about as unrebellious as it’s possible to be).

    1. That’s very kind of you to say so, Helen, thanks! Jo seemed quite a major character in this instalment and I wonder if there was not a bit of the author in her depiction — not necessarily looks but her basic kindheartedness combined with an impulsive foolhardiness. I won’t know until I’ve read some more titles though, will I!
      The stuff available online is fascinating, including the two sites I linked to. As you’ve read so many in the series is it possible that you’ve already written about them somewhere?

      1. Yes, Jo is the central character in the first ten or so books, then I think we switch to Mary-Lou Trelawney and thereafter to Jo’s billion offspring (I hope that’s not a spoiler!). I am sure you are right that there is something of the author in her and I think that I would like her more now that I am grown up (in fact, I enjoyed the books with her in them the most, so perhaps I didn’t really loathe her so much as I imagine in retrospect).

        I haven’t written about them anywhere, though it’s kind of you to ask; it was a very long time ago that I read them. I will definitely have a look at the links you’ve provided and bask in a little nostalgia.

    1. I’d only vaguely heard of this series before (and only in a slightly condescending way) but it being championed by a blogger who’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic about both classic and contemporary children’s literature persuaded me to give at least one of its instalments a try! And it is a classic, being more than 80 years old. 🙂

  7. elmediat

    Brexiters & Trumpers would not be the target audience for this series. More likely to go for the Mean Kamp adventure books -The New Train Stop at the Chalet, was book one.

    1. I believe the last few books in the Mean Kamp series were ghostwritten and quite apocalyptic: Shall We Go for a Reich?, Take a Reich, and Armageddon Outa Here (though I think this last title had been plagiarised from the Q author’s lost final work).

  8. I have Chalet Fan’s tweet linking to your blog to thank for arriving here. I am an EBD Chalet School completist. I was introduced to the series by my Godmother who was actually a pupil at Brent Dyer’s own day school in Hereford in the war years. And I am lucky enough to have visited the real life Austrian setting for the early books. I think they are STREETS ahead of Blyton for their depth whilst at the same time being utterly of their period. Best written of the series are the pre-1950 titles. After 40 years, I have a full set, and many other EBD titles not set in the Chalet School.

    I really enjoyed this post, and others.

    1. What a lovely connection to know your godmother was at EBD’s school in Hereford. I go to Hereford fairly frequently and it’ll be extra special to visit knowing that association exists.

      And how lucky you are to have visited the Achensee area and to be able to conjure up the scenes that much more vividly! Did the old postcards reflect your memories of visiting?

      Thanks for visiting here, at any rate, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. Good for Chalet Fan! 🙂

      1. The little mountain train, the lake, the steamers, the chalets and mountains are almost unchanged. It is still as it was in Jo’s day (and very beautiful in its own right).
        Your postcards are marvellous: where did you find those images?

        1. The postcard photos were easy enough to find online by judicious use of search terms (Achensee, vintage, postcard etc), and I chose what seemed to fit with EBD’s descriptions of what could be seen from the New House. One day we may have a chance to visit the Tirol — at least we can live in hope! So many wonderful places to choose from… 😁

  9. Christine Kendell

    I read several of the books when younger, and it’s a fact that I learned my first German from them! Which is quite a recommendation.

    There was something very intriguing and different about them in the setting and the various nationalities of the girls. Even their names were interesting; no one I knew was called Margot, for instance. (One of Joey’s triplets, as far as I remember). And fancy having a day when everyone spoke only German, or only French.

    1. Isn’t it wonderful to be educated whilst being thoroughly entertained? Books can be marvellous for that!

      Are you moved to read them again now, Christine? Or do you think you’d rather stay with your memories of how they were?

      1. Christine Kendell

        That’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure of the answer. I sometimes read the forum on one of the CS websites, and find it extremely interesting.

        Now I wonder about practical issues, such as how the school obtained its pupils. Word of mouth, presumably, as surely it wouldn’t advertise. And did Madge have any training, and what became of the girls’ brother, who I think was working somewhere abroad, planting tea? (Vague memories, and no doubt these questions are answered somewhere!)

        By the way, my husband was born in Bristol in sight of the suspension bridge.

        1. It would be interesting to know how EBD got her own short-lived school off the ground; I suspect the Chalet School would have been an idealised version of what she would have liked for her own enterprise.

          Your husband must be a true Bristolian then, the equivalent of a Cockney born within the sound of Bow bells! Though I suppose strictly speaking he’d be a Cliftonian, as inhabitants there regard it as an urban village separate from their big neighbour… 😁

  10. 80 names in ONE book? I don’t think even a Harry Potter book contained that big a cast in any given volume, though I could be wrong. How did you know which names to pay attention to? Here I’ve been worried about having over a cast of twenty in one book….yowza!
    Oh, and lovely review and imagery. 🙂 xxxxxxx

    1. Thanks! And ha! Yeah, it’s quite a roll call.

      To be fair, I expect she anticipated most readers to be fans and keen to know what was happening to characters they’d met in previous books of the series. For a newbie like me I had to take notes and fill up a few pages with Venn diagrams and sociograms just to get a handle on them all.

      But then, that may just be me!

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