The School at the Chalet by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


Last year, I read a lot of Chalet School books. I read them in the bath, mostly. They’re small, slim little books meant for children – meant for children of my mother’s generation, maybe even earlier.

There are sixty-something in the series, depending on how you count them, starting in the 1920s and continuing until at least the 1960s but Brent-Dyer didn’t really keep up with the rest of the world and they never really move beyond their 1940s upper-middle-class sensibilities. It’s about a girls’ private boarding school, started in Austria before moving to Guernsey during the war, before discovering that wasn’t such a good idea and moving to Wales and finally back to the Alps in Switzerland.

Last week, I reread the first one. Madge and Dick Bettany, twins of twenty-four, suddenly need to find something to do to make some money and look after their twelve-year-old sister, who is delicate. Dick works for the Forestry Commission in India but it’s out of the question for the girls to go with him, so Madge decides, being as poor as they are, to buy a huge chalet in Austria, formerly a hotel, and open a school. It’s an idea destined for spectacular failure in the world I live in, and yet by the end of the first term, Madge has eighteen pupils and four more ready to start next term.

The Chalet School begins its tradition of mountain mishaps right from the beginning – a violent storm that comes out of absolutely nowhere and benights the entire school in a herdsman’s hut, and a fourteen-year-old taking on the most serious mountain in the region, which doesn’t seem to require anything more technical than ability to walk uphill for six hours and cross a very short section of path which is narrow and next to an abyss. It really doesn’t sound too terrible to me but Grizel and Joey come to grief on it and Joey nearly dies. Joey frequently nearly dies. I’m so glad her daughters turned out a bit hardier than her.

These books are ridiculous and they are definitely, unmistakably a product of their time. I don’t know that they’ve aged well. And yet there’s something in them that inspires so much fondness among so many people.