I love to read. I am never knowingly book and/or a Kindle. I will choose to read over pretty much any activity in the world. I spent an awful lot of my childhood being told to “stop reading and pay attention” by teachers and relatives. I spent most of my teenage years in libraries.
Many of the people I know think I have too many books (like there could be such a thing, there are just too small houses!) and I think that used to be true before I got a Kindle and after a couple of book purges. Now the books at home, the ones that take up room in my physical space, they’re the books I couldn’t bear to live without. So inspired by Verity at Verity Reads Books, I thought that as well as charting what I read each month, I’d take some time to write about those books.
First up is the Chalet School collection.I read my way through Enid Blyton‘s Malory Towers and St Clare’s when I was a child but the boarding school stories I loved best were by Elinor M. Brent Dyer. I really wanted to be a Chalet School girl with all the enthusiasm my 10 year old heart could muster. Like a lot of my book loves, this one was inherited from my mother and I got my first Chalet School book as a Christmas present from her.The series of 60-ish books (published between 1925 and 1970) starts with The School at the Chalet. In which, Madge Bettany, responsible for her invalid sister, Joey decides that starting a school would be a good way of providing some income when her twin brother, Dick, goes off to India to work for the Forestry Commission.
The stories centre mainly on the school, which moves from Austria, to Guernsey, Wales and eventually settles in Switzerland, all the girls eventually turn out to be good at heart. Chalet girls grow up speaking English, German and French because they are taught in those languages on alternate days. The food is always good, the adventures thrilling.Joey is centre to the books at the beginning and even when she grows up and marries Jack Maynard, a doctor at the sanatorium that’s connected to the school, she’s featured. Brent-Dyer perhaps because she never experienced it herself and converted to Catholicism (a conversion that Joey has too but because she marries a Catholic), really likes big families, Joey ends up with 11 children, Madge with six, and many old girls end up married to doctors with families of at least 4 children. I really like the books about Joey’s family that take place outside of the school, in part because everything is so easy and happens like magic, the only time the difficulties of a large family show up is in the issue of the boys school fees.
Many of the stories are about the perils of spoiling children and dangers of not letting them be children. Joey has a ‘horror of sophisticated children’ and keeps them to the nursery for quite a while and many of the school stories are about girls who have had irregular lives and/or selfish parents and centre on how difficult it is to live in community. Naturally, the Chalet School straightens them out, although in two notable exceptions, girls are expelled, even then Brent-Dyer doesn’t give up and they go on to change and become nicer people, in part because of their experiences at the school. Within the books, there is a strong theme of getting along, Catholics and Protestants are separated for prayers but sectarianism is discouraged, the books set during WWII are clear that there are good German (and Austrian) people and that the issue is the government. For their time they are quite forward thinking, bearing in mind that Brent-Dyer was born in 1894, they are quite feminist, it’s important for girls to be educated. The last book ends with Len (Jo’s eldest daughter) getting engaged at 18, but not before she has a degree because its a useful thing to have.
However, most of the attitudes are old fashioned. One of the books, starts with Jo having a fainting fit, caused by one of her sons deciding to climb down a cliff (I know) and when her sister tells her that said son is having a hard time of it because no-one will talk to him, she can’t understand why someone “didn’t give him a good whipping” because she “loathes punishments that go on and on”. Married ladies are wives and mothers first, although Joey is a prolific writer of children’s books. The later books are interesting because you can see Brent-Dyer struggling to come to terms with a changing world. One of the triplets, trying out a ‘pony-tail’ which Jo objects to as it will result in tangled hair but allows her to try. Jo wanting maybe one more daughter and being asked if she’s a feminist, but clarifying that she’d like to use up all the triplets frocks (like she couldn’t donate them to the San!).
The Chalet School series are my comfort reading and I think I read through all of them about once a year, as evidenced by the state of the books!