Chalet's founder has her day

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan reports as a fictional school celebrates its author's centenary. The fictional Chalet School, which has received requests for prospectuses from real pupils, can now expect a deluge of CVs from real teachers.

A book published to mark the birth 100 years ago of the Chalet stories' creator, Elinor M Brent-Dyer, celebrates the school as a model independent institution: trilingual, ecumenical, with a sound curriculum and an Alpine setting as bracing as its emphasis on international friendship and community spirit. Mountain hikes offer an escape from competitive games and the food is excellent, with Kaffee und Kuechen served at break.

The Chalet School Revisited, a collection of papers launched this week at a University of Westminster conference, establishes the 59 books as the focus of serious criticism, read by as many adults as schoolgirls. Co-editor Juliet Gosling, a PhD student in image and communication studies at the University of Kent who is researching girls' school stories, is completing a centenary documentary about the Chalet School's adult fans and the books' enduring popularity.

The series began with The School at the Chalet in 1925 and only ended with Brent-Dyer's death in 1969. Prefects of the Chalet School was published posthumously in 1970. Some titles have never been out of print and sales still average more than 100,000 a year.

Ms Gosling points to the "combination of idealism and authenticity" in the books, informed by Brent-Dyer's own teaching life. She spent nearly 40 years in the classroom and was founder of the Margaret Roper School in Hereford and its head from 1938 to 1948. The management and resources crises she is known to have faced in real life - while seeing her school through a war, for example - are unheard of at the Chalet, where there is always money for a new science block.

Some commentators believe she used her fiction to create the thriving institution she would have liked to have run. She sees the Chalet School grow from a handful of pupils to more than 400, with a finishing school as a strangely unconvincing sideline.

The books are patchy in quality, with stylistic excesses and lapses in continuity, but fans are won over by Brent-Dyer's memorable characters and her soap-style running storylines. Jo Bettany and her extended family sustain interest throughout. The Chalet School's first pupil and prize role model, Jo graduates to marry a doctor from the handy sanatorium next door, write novels and have 11 children (Brent-Dyer had none herself).

The Chalet School ethos, under which firebrands are transformed into head girl material, misfits nurtured and persistent troublemakers neatly removed, is character-forming but not brutally so. Snobbery and xenophobia are outlawed and sense of community treasured. Illness, death and grief are sensitively handled.

Setting her school initially in the Austrian Tyrol - it later moved to Britain, then Switzerland - Brent-Dyer tackled the rise of the Nazis and the Second World War from a European rather than a British perspective. In The Chalet School in Exile (1940), the girls form a peace movement, try to save a Jewish shopkeeper from persecution and flee to Guernsey - not for long, as it was occupied by Germany between writing and publication.

Polly Goerres, another Revisited contributor, identifies the key quality of the books as wish-fulfillment - for readers as well as the author. The Chalet School, she says, represents "the school we would have liked to attend, the friends we'd have liked to have had."

The Chalet School Revisited is published by Bettany Press and is available at Pounds 9.99 including postage from 52 Warham Road, London N4 1AT.

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