Thursday, May 14, 2009

The School at the Chalet by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

[Am posting this piece I wrote for The Statesman in August 2005 because I can't find it in their online archives.]

The second and concluding chapter on schoolgirl stories concentrates on Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. She was a later contemporary of Angela Brazil's, writing around the same time, but a slightly different kind of stories. She was born in 1894 and died in 1969. In between she published over a hundred books, which included stories for schoolgirls as well as a novel for adults (under a pseudonym) and some geography textbooks. She is remembered nowadays for the Chalet School stories, of which there are roughly 63 paperbacks and several short stories, in addition to a couple of annuals. An impressive amount of writing; what was it that made the Chalet School tales so popular?
For one thing, they were probably the truest to life among all the school stories written then. Brent-Dyer was first a teacher and then the headmistress of an all-girls' school so she did know what she was writing about. Thus her books tend to give a very balanced view of schoolgirl pranks. She wrote about girls getting up to every imaginable trick but she neither sympathised with the more outrageous ideas nor completely condemned them. Her girls were naughty and got punished accordingly. Her teachers were equally realistic, being neither severe dragons nor omniscient superwomen. Some of them made mistakes and some were more popular than others. The most interesting feature of the series is perhaps their length, because the 63 odd books cover a period of several decades, which is a long time to be following the fortunes of any one school. The original students grew up, some returned as teachers, some helped the school out during times of difficulties, yet others sent their daughters in turn to be future Chaletians.
The period covered is also one of great interest because the first book was written in 1925. Since the school was set in the Austrian Tirol region it had to be evacuated when the Second World War broke out, so the location of the school shifted at several points in the various stories. Along with a very vivid picture of the times, these books also capture the changes in attitude of schoolgirls, from the (relatively) more prim and ladylike girls of the 1920s to the more free-mannered and independent-minded students of the 1950s. The School at the Chalet was the book that started it all.
Brent-Dyer's death at the end of the '60s signalled the end of an era in a way. More stories have been written for schoolgirls than schoolboys in the last few decades yet neither genre has retained its old popularity. The Chalet School books themselves have become difficult to find now. The odd one may be found in second-hand bookshops or well-stocked school libraries. It is only in the last few years that J. K. Rowlings has rekindled the enthusiasm for school stories. Even there, those who have attempted to cash in on the popularity of wizarding school stories have found that it is not that easy to reproduce a Hogwarts or its atmosphere.