20th Century Children's Writers - D. L. Kirkpatrick (ed.)

Brent-Dyer, Elinor M. British. Born in South Shields, County Durham, in 1895. Educated privately in Leeds: Leeds University. Teacher: Headmistress, Margaret Roper School, Hereford. Died in September 1969.

From the early 1920's until her death in 1969 Elinor Brent-Dyer wrote almost 100 books for girls. These included historical and adventure stories but it is for her 58 Chalet School books that this author is remembered. The School at the Chalet was published in 1925 and Elinor Brent-Dyer's international tri-lingual, non-denominational school in the "Austrian Tirol" soon caught the imagination of readers. It became so popular that a Chalet School Club was formed, attracting a large membership from many parts of the world.

The school, an intriguing amalgam of foreign glamour and British "grit", is founded by Madge Bettany, a young Englishwoman. Although inexperienced, Madge becomes the Chalet School's first headmistress, taking administrative, racial and language complications in her stride: she is an unconventional principal, sometimes addressing one or other of her pupils as "honey" or "darling".

The school's family atmosphere is accentuated by the presence of Madge's sister, Joey, originally a junior pupil and later Head Girl. In adult life Joey becomes prolific as a writer of girls' stories and as a breeder (she has eleven children). Despite the variety of pupils who come and go the vitality of the series rests largely on the character of Joey. As this lively and intrepid heroine grows older it is more difficult for the author to make her integral to the stories. However, even the the last books of the series - no. 58, published posthumously in 1970 - Joey is still insisting that "if she lived to be a great-grandmother, she world be a Chalet girl to the end."

Initially the Chalet School's appeal owed a great deal to its location. Elinor Brent-dyer ably conveys the charm of the school beside mist-swathed mountains and a lake "alive with dancing shadows". The books are sometimes over-lush. Gentians, marguerites and alpen roses have a technicolour quality: floweriness spills over into descriptions of the girls in their flame-coloured ties, brown tunics and shantung blouses. But this is counterbalanced by plenty of action. For instance The Princess of the Chalet School includes - as well as a flower-strewn masque, a garden party and a wedding - two kidnapping attempts and an outsize thunderstorm which breaks every window in the valley and sets the school's playing fields on fire. The school buildings are saved from total destruction only be an equally violent hailstorm which opportunely covers everything with five inches of hail in as many minutes. Girls fall into icebound rivers or are standed on exposed mountain sides: in the first five books alone Joey manages to save the lives of six girls and one dog.

The Chalet School survives after evacuation from the Nazis. It moves first to the Channel Islands, then to Wales and later to the Oberland. Elinor Brent-Dyer exploited several of the stock ingredients of girls' fiction including animals, babies, guiding and country dance. A headmistress for many years, she understood the tastes of girls growing up between the wars although by the late 1950's her books had become anachronistic.

- Mary Cadogan