The Chalet School Books and Why I’m Obsessed with Them
Frühstück. Abendessen. The Speisesaal. Kafee und Kuchen.
If you’re familiar with these words, chances are it’s because you’re as obsessed with the ‘Chalet School’ books as I am (or maybe you just know German).
The ‘Chalet School’ is a series of books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer about a girls’ boarding school in Tirol, Wales, and Switzerland, published between the 1920s and 1970s. (It started in Tirol, moved to Wales during World War II, then went back to Switzerland, or the Oberland, after that.) There were so many books published that the series was able to follow characters from their childhood to teenage years, and up to two generations of students. I got into the books by accident when I was in grade school. My mom found a couple of books at a used bookstore and bought them for me. I loved them so much that we went back to the store and bought all we could find (they were only about 10 or 20 pesos each!), but even then I could only collect 10 of them. These books are so rare and hard to find now, and fetch a ridiculously high price on eBay. (If you know where I can find them, hook me up! I’m still looking.) You would think that, because they’re school stories, I would have stopped reading them a long time ago. But I still read them to this day, and still enjoy them. I think the main reason I do is because the stories are so simple – it’s just a bunch of schoolgirls having adventures at their boarding school. Cliques! Lessons! Feuds! Pranks! What fun!
These books were my introduction to the boarding school subculture. When I first came across the word prefect, I thought it was a typo and it drove me nuts. This is where I learned that students start out in the Kindergarten, then move on to the Second Form, Third Form and so on. The Fourth Formers are considered Middles, and students become Seniors when they reach the Fifth. The Sixth lord it over everyone, being the form where the prefects and all-important Head Girl come from. Students do their homework or preparation after classes and before Abendessen (that’s supper for us). It always bothered me how parents send their children away to school for three months at a time. It seems that when the children are home for their holidays (or hols, don’t you know), they’re just visiting their parents for a couple of weeks before they get back to school where they actually live. As one Margia Stevens says in “Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School” (from the name alone, you just know Eustacia is a piece of work):
Well, she’s here to be brought up, so I vote we do it!
Although to be fair, most of the girls sent to the Chalet School have relatives who are sick with tuberculosis and who have to be confined for months at a time at the big San (sanatorium), so the children really do need to be sent somewhere where adults can look after them and still be near enough their relatives.
Having read these books for years now, I’ve also come to notice a lot of the Chalet School’s idiosyncrasies. For one thing, the Chalet School is kind of full of itself. The school makes sure you never forget the Old Girls (what we’d call graduates) because in every book there’s a mention of a few older students and their previous adventures (which, if you’re lucky to have all the books, you’ll have read about in detail), or an update on what they’re doing now. And get this, practically every Chalet girl goes on to Oxford. Or a famous school of art needlework. I always thought this was a bit of a stretch, because is there even such a thing? But I’ve since learned from my recent binge-watching of ‘Call the Midwife’ that there are, indeed, schools for needlework. Who knew? Not only do most girls go to Oxford, but most of them become renowned scholars or experts in their field. Several of the Old Girls come back to teach, or if they marry (mostly they marry doctors because of the proximity of the San), they send their own children to the school.
There also seems to be an accident every term, like avalanches or floods. Major injuries as a result of a girl trying to run away are also fairly common. Probably the fact that most of these girls have no family is the only thing that keeps people from reporting the school for negligence!
But a special mention has to be made about the food they eat, which sounds absolutely sumptuous. Just look at this:
The soup was followed by pink boiled ham served with prunes. This course ended, there came plates of something that looked, and tasted, not unlike porridge, and with this they ate cherries steeped in spirits. The whole was topped by excellent coffee and rolls split and spread with jam of some kind.
…she came up to their table with plates of delicious iced soup…good it was, and so was the dish of cold stuffed veal accompanied by tiny potato-balls, crisp outside and hot and melting in, and a glorious golden color which went with it. Small dishes of cherries and raspberries were added, too, and a crisp chilled salad. This was followed by a creamy sweet, cold and luscious…
The books use the literary trope of “new girl undergoing a transformation to fit in.” In every book, there is always a problematic new girl – either undisciplined or just plain troublesome – who doesn’t have any family left, whose guardians ship her off to boarding school so the teachers (rather, mistresses) can worry about her instead. And of course by the end of the book, new girl is reformed because of the influence of the Chalet School.
There are three main characters throughout the series – Jo Bettany (who eventually becomes Mrs. Maynard), “the first student the school ever had” because it was her sister who put up the school in the first place; Mary-Lou Trelawney, who’s about 16 years younger than Jo, and Len Maynard, Jo’s eldest daughter. My books range from Jo’s time as a naughty schoolgirl until she herself has daughters in the school. But I don’t have the later books, so I don’t know about Len’s exploits as the main character. But I do know this: Jo and Mary-Lou are annoying! They’re Brent-Dyer’s clear favorites, because they are headstrong and “helpful” to others. But to me they are stubborn and interfering. Some personalities are just too much to handle and exhaust you from their very presence. Jo and Mary-Lou are exactly this type, but for some mysterious reason Brent-Dyer thinks this is a virtue. What makes them more annoying is the author’s habit of frequently shoving it in your face that Jo and Mary-Lou are “everything the Chalet School wants its girls to be”. They are never painted as goody-two-shoes, but the author makes it clear that this is what makes them, in fact, perfect! (Jo is also the perfect mother, because she has triplets and two sets of twins, and in total 11 children!)
In one book, “The New Mistress at the Chalet School” (because sometimes the new girl can also be a mistress), Kathie Ferrars is the newest member of Staff, who gets into a bit of a row (that’s quarrel for us non-Brits) with Mary-Lou. Kathy thinks Mary-Lou is too familiar with her (see, I told you normal people find Mary-Lou annoying). But of course, Mary-Lou is a Chalet girl, and for Kathie to be reformed, she too must fall in with their values and eventually love Mary-Lou as well.
However, there are other characters who are not irritating. Jo’s triplets – Len, Con, and Margot Maynard; Peggy Bettany (who becomes Head Girl), and Sybil Russell (the Maynards, Bettanys, and Russells are all cousins). In fact, Peggy is one of my favorite characters because she’s so normal. Even as a Head Girl she is still likable. A lot of Peggy’s contemporaries are actually the most engaging characters, but funnily enough they are almost always on the periphery of the story (well, based only on the paltry 10 books I have!). It seems the characters Brent-Dyer doesn’t care much for are the most appealing ones. My other favorite is Kathie Ferrars, partly because with a book told from her perspective she’s the only mistress we really get to know very well, and partly because she hates Mary-Lou in the beginning.
Listen to me talking about these characters as if they’re real people. In a sense, because the Chalet School creates its own history and keeps referring to it in the books, the world they inhabit becomes real. Try rereading books every year for about 20 years and see where it gets you.
Let’s compare the Chalet School with my other favorite boarding school, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry and gang sure have a lot of freedom! At the Chalet School, every activity from Monday to Friday is regulated, from rising bell to bedtime. Even on Saturdays, the girls have to wake up at 7 am (!) for mending, leftover prep, and home letters. On Sundays they also have to wake up early for service. Although to be fair, this was set almost a hundred years ago, so maybe things have changed since then.
Yet I still keep reading them! In fact, I’m in the middle of my 10 books now, which is why I wrote this post. I always need a book to read, and when I’m in a reading slump I reach for my Chalet School books. For one thing, they’re incredibly easy to read once you get past the archaic terms like chock-a-block, dekko, “what’s all this in aid of?” Also, does anyone still use the term “presently”?
The fact that they’re simply about school also serves as a comfort. Adulting is hard. So escaping to stories about schoolgirls and their mundane concerns lightens things up a bit. And in a way, I like to imagine how I’d do if I were in the Chalet School. They have some pretty posh sports there, like lacrosse and skiing, and they get to learn French and German. So it might be pretty nice. I would do well in prep because it’s just study hall. And for sure I would do well in what the Chalet School thinks is the height of analysis: reasoning from cause to effect and vice versa. In almost every book, a mistress uses this as the barometer for whether a student meets the standards of the school, that I sometimes feel sorry (in a self-righteous way) for Brent-Dyer if this is the most complicated thing she can think of.
Now you’ll have to excuse me. The bell for Kaffee und Kuchen will be ringing soon and the prefects will give me extra prep if I’m late!