Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1894-1969) has the highest aggregate sales of any children's writer except Enid Blyton - and the lowest profile. Today, in the age of Grange Hill and video games, sales of her 'Chalet School' titles still top 115,000 a year. And yet, despite their continuing availability in paperback, no children's books have been as fanatically collected over the past decade as the original hardback copes of Brent-Dyer's 59 'Chalet School' stories.
Certainly no other series has undergone such a dramatic rise in value. The last ten years have seen the asking price of one title rise from £10 to £200, and a first edition of The School at the Chalet (1925) on offer at Sothebys. Indeed, any complete copy of Brent-Dyer's The School by the River (1930) or The Little Marie-Jose (1932) - quoted ten years ago at £10-£15 (BMC 10) - would probably be sold at auction today.
She remains the most sought-after of all school-story writers. Angela Brazil's appeal seems now to be largely historical, and her collectability is declining. The brisker Dorita Fairlie Bruce, with her bright heroine Dimsie, continues to be strongly collected, as do the more saccharine fictions of Elsie J. Oxenham (their length and implicit snobbishness mean that they are unlikely ever to be reprinted). But, of the truly collectable trio - Brent-Dyer, Bruce and Oxenham - only Brent-Dyer now seems certain to move into the next century as a living writer.
This month, Friends of the Chalet School (UK) will gather in Hereford to celebrate the centenary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's birth and to place a plaque on the school she founded there. Exhibitions will follow in Hereford and Edinburgh, and a memorial plaque will be unveiled in Pertisau, the small village in the Austrian Tyrol which inspired the 'Chalet School' stories.
No one would have been more surprised at this than Miss Brent-Dyer. A modest, exuberant woman, blesses with great warmth, common sense and kidness, she started life in circumstances far removed from the large, happy families of her books. She was born Gladys Eleanor May Dyer on 6th April 1894 in a small terraced house in South shields with no bathroom, inside lavatory or hot water. Her father, who had been married previously, was 36, her mother 24.
Like other gifted women of her class and generation, she began her working life as an untrained teacher, taking her first position at the age of eighteen. During the First World War, she studied at the City of Leeds Training College, and for the next thirty years taught in a wide range of schools. In her limited spare time, she wrote.
At three, she had taught herself to read; at four she began to learn music and to tell stories to her little brother and their cat. At five, she won a prize in a competition with a highly moral story called 'Lotty's Fright', about a naughty girl who borrows her cousin's new bike without permission and is rewarded with a broken arm. In 1906, when she was twelve, she sent a short story, 'Jack's Revenge', to Sunday, a children's magazine, for which she was paid ten shillings (50p).
It's not clear whether or not this story was actually published in the periodical, but it certainly appeared under the name 'May Dyer' in a volume called Sunday and Everyday Reading for the Young (Wells, Gardner, Darton, 1914). This book seems to be an annual rather than a weekly publication because, although the pages are numbered, they are undated. The front board has a picture of a sailor boy holding a blue and white flag. The story itself, which is told in the first person, is just over a page long and concerns two children called Rose and Jack, ad their pets: a rabbit and fox terrier puppy.
Around 1922, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer took the name by which we now know her. Registered at birth as Gladys Eleanor May Dyer, she had attended school in South Shields as May Dyer, but was known as Patricia Maraquita by her friends at Leeds Training College. She subsequently dropped the name 'Gladys' entirely, changing the spelling of her second name and retaining her third - 'May' - for a short time. She then changed that to 'Mary', putting her father's middle name, 'Brent', before her surname.
This was the name she used from 1924 for all her writing, including her rather uninspired early short stories (some of which, it is almost certain, remain undiscovered). 'The Lady in the Yellow Gown', a limp shocker, appeared in The Big Book for Girls in 1925 under the name 'Elinor g. Brent-Dyer' (which, unless she was still dithering between 'Gladys' and 'Mary', is presumably a mistake), and was subsequently reprinted in The Golden Story Book for Girls (1931). All known copies of The Big Book for Girls state 'Reprinted 1925', but no earlier edition has yet been discovered.
A circus story, 'Carlotta to the Rescue', appeared in a magazine called Stories of the Circus, Book 4 in the early 1930s, together with one called 'The Lure of the Tan' by Geoffrey Prout. Both also appeared in The Children's Circus Book (Associated Newspapers, c.1934) with identical text and illustrations (by Eileen Mayo), although the order of the two stories was reversed. The colour cover features a jolly picture of a circus tent and clown.
When it was next reprinted, in Come to the Circus (P. R. Gawthorn, c.1938), 'Carlotta to the Rescue' had become the lead story and photographs had been added, as well as a colour dustjacket. There were further short stories across the years, but apparently only one written for magazine publication. This was a 'Girl Guide' story called 'The Robins Make Good' (Girls' Own Annual, Vol. 57).
From 1920 onwards, Brent-Dyer wrote historical and romantic stories, sentimental poetry and - not surprisingly, given her dramatic approach to life - plays. Her first know drama, My Lady Caprice (1921), was professionally staged in South shields, and was swiftly followed by Polly Danvers - Heiress. Then, suddenly, she took the advice she was later to give to her readers and started to write about what she knew: the world of school.
The result was the first book in what later became known as the 'La Rochelle' series: Gerry Goes to School (1922). It was accepted immediately by the leading publishers of girls' school stories, W. & R. Chambers of Edinburgh. Their confidence in this accomplished first book was underlined by their choice of cover artist: Mabel Lucie Attwell (Gordon Browne did the four internal illustrations). Copies of this work, in their pictorial blue cloth boards and pictorial dustajacket, fetch around £30 today.
Always more interested in dramatic impact than consistency or logic, Brent-Dyer would later weave her first heroine, Gerry, into the 'Chalet' series and, s its popularity overtook that of the 'La Rochelle' books, she switched the focus of the latter from school to family adventure. Finally, she 'recycled' the second generation of La Rochelle girls as pupilsof the Chalet School. An instant hit, Gerry Gos to School, became the first of almost 100 children's books, ranging from historical yarns to adventure stories. Strangely, it was the only Brent-Dyer title to be published in America, being issued by Lippincott of Philadelphia in 1923.
And then came The School at the Chalet. By this time, Brent-Dyer was still teaching, but she had acquired an agent, and her books were selling well enough to finance her first holiday abroad. She chose the autrian Tyrol. The beauty of the village of Pertisau on the fjord-like Achensee lake above Innsbruck had attracted the rich, talented and famous since Prince Ferdinand had travelled there in 1600 with 34 white horses to hunt, shoot and fish. Freud stayed there too, in 1900, at the hotel known in the 'Chalet' stories as the 'Kron Prinz Karl'. In 1924, the year of Brent-Dyer's visit, Margaret Kennedy published her twice-filmed bestseller, The Constant Nymph, which is also set in Pertisau.
In 1924, Pertisau wasa small but thriving mountain resort with eleven hotels and guest houses, including the now-derelict Hotel Alpenhof, then one of the leading hotels in Austria, with sixty beds. The site of this hotel closely resembles that of the fictional Chalet School, but it is unlikely that Brent-Dyer stayed there, since it then cost twice as much as any other hotel in the village.
Her eight-week holiday in Pertisau changed her life. The great warmth and simple faith of the people were instrumental in her conversion to Catholicism in 1930, and the extreme beauty of the village, lake and mountains inspired the creation of the most famous school in children's literature.
The School at the Chalet (1925) describes - with, for its time, impressive realism - 24-year-old Madge Bettany's successful attempt to start a multi-national school in the Austrian Tyrol. Built around the character of Madge's younger sister, Joey, the book created a romantic world which, unusually in children's fiction, was affected by historical events. The Times Literary Supplement immediately hailed it as "delightful", while the Times described it as "hopelessly addictive" when it was reissued in hardback by Chambers in 1988. This edition features a facsimile of the original jacket, new line drawings, and a peach of a portrait of Miss Brent-Dyer herself, all bushy eyebrows and looking like the cat who got the cream.
The appeals of the 'Chalet School' books was instant. Dynamic dialogue, astonishing linguistic inventiveness, a remarkable lack of sentimentality and the breathless pace of an inspired soap provided a formula that has held thre generations of children spellbound.
Copies of the first edition of The School at the Chalet now fetch up to £100 in the Nina K. Brisley dustjacket, the front of which shows Madge and Joey reading a letter; the spine, a girl climbing a mountain. The cover illustration is repeated on the brown cloth front board.
Nina K. Brisley (1898-1978), like her sister Joyce Lankester Brisley, the creator of Milly Molly Mandy, had written and illustrated stories since early childhod. She came to the notice of the Press baron, Lord Northcliffe, at the age of only thirteen: "He was sitting at his desk, a fat cigar burning on the ashtray," Joyce Brisley records. "He seemed taken with Nina's wood-wiggers [creatures with tubby little bodies] and remarked: 'Yes, these are good.'"
But it is Nina's illustrations for more than two dozen 'Chalet School' stories that are her most lasting memorial. Working in pen and wash, she specialised in evocative, 'frozen' images - often relying on strong facial expressions - rather in the manner of the early silent films. Who can forget the remarkable plate which sums up Joey's sentimental French friend, Simone, as completely as her immortal words: "You laughed at me because my hair was long, so I though if I cut it short you would love me!" Brent-Dyer's publishers, Chambers, sold their holdings of original Brisley artwork about ten years ago, and these pieces are now much sought-after.
Brent-Dyer wrote anther dozen 'Chalet School' books between 1925 and the outbreak of war, of which The Exploits of the Chalet Girls (1933) is now the hardest to find in a dustjacket. Although all nominally 'school stories', they evoke a wide variety of settings and atmospheres, from the Socratic (Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School, 1930) to the Ruritanian (The Princess of the Chalet School, 1927), the pastoral (The Chalet Girls in Camp, 1932) to the grimly realistic (The Chalet School in Exile, 1940).
The latter takes the annexation of Austria by Germany as its theme and, uniquely among school stories, contains a harrowing scene of Nazi Jew-baiting. The original Nina K. Brisley dustjacket, showing Joey and her sisters being questioned by a German officer, was withdrawn immediately after publication following protests from parents. A copy in Very Good condition with a complete dustjacket was recently offered for £195. A similar copy in the easier-to-come-by replacement jacket (which was not by Brisley), showing the Chalet girls disguised as Tyrolean peasants, would fetch around £40-£50.
With the exception of The School at the Chalet, which has dark brown lettering, the original editions of the first thirteen 'Chalet School' titles invariably carry gold lettering on the spine and cover. The colour of the boards is not a reliable indicator as to whether or not a book is a first, since it often varied within a single edition. All the books up to the twelfth title, Jo Returns to the Chalet School (1936), have one frontispiece and three internal plates by Nina K. Brisley, and generally carry the words 'Original Edition' and the date of first publication on the back of the title page. An exception is The Chalet School and Jo (1931). Both British Library and Bodleing copies state "Latest reprinted August 1931", but no earlier copy has yet come to light.
On 12th December 1930, probably as a result of a visit to the Obverammergau Passion Play, Elinor Brent-Dyer converted to Catholicism, as does her heroine, Joey in a book which - to quote the Chalet Club Newsletter 9 - "has never seen the light of day". According to inspired research by Brent-Dyer's biographer, Helen McClelland, this lost work, Two Chalet Girls in India, was written in 1939, which would explain the suddenly Catholic Joey of The Chalet School in Exile (published in March, 1940).
The Indian story's non-appearance may have been due to Brent-Dyer's insistence that her heroine should grown up and yet still remain a central character. It says much for her seriousness as a writer that she should have wished to tackle the subject of coversion in a children's book - and little for her Prebyterian publishers that they should have rejected it. (amazingly, however, they sanctioned Brent-Dyer's brave war-time pacifism - the Chalet School had an active Peace League - just as Latimer House later left her references to the atom bomb as legalised "mass-murder" in her 1950 story, Fardingales.) But perhaps it simply comes down to Chambers' reluctance to publish any 'Chalet School' book which was not specifically a 'school story', an unwillingness which was to continue across the years.
With The Chalet School in Exile (1940), Brent-Dyer successfully switched the focus of the stories from one character - Joey - to a group, introducing a succession of new settings: Guernsey (which she had visited in 1923), Hereford, a Welsh island, and finally Switzerland, which she had also visited (see Chalet Club Newsletter 18).
Brent-Dyer had actually moved from South Shields to the cathedral town of Hereford with her mother and stepfather in 1933. She tried governessing, sang regularly in the Festival choir and, after her stepfather's death, founded her own school, The Margaret Roper, named after Sir Thomas More's eldest daughter (she had completed an unpublished historical novel about More in the summer of 1938). And, of course, during spare moments snatched from teaching, she continued to work on the second longest juvenile series ever written (after W. E. Johns' 78 'Biggles' books).
By a remarkable balancing act, Brent-Dyer kept up her school, her Alsatian-breedings, her singing and her writing for a decade. But in 1948 she gave up the struggle and finally closed her real school to concentrate on her fictional one. Her next 'Chalet' book, Three go to the Chalet School (1949), sold an astonishing 10,000 copies witjhin a couple of months of publication.
As well as the 'Chalet School' books, Brent-Dyer continued to write an equal number of non-'Chalet' titles. Some - like the seven 'La Rochelle' novels (set mainly in Guernsey) and the 'Chudleigh Hold' books for boys - were 'mini-series'; others were one-offs or had only a single sequel. Between 1947 and 1949, she also pblished three now-scarce, annual-format Chalet Books for Girls, consisting of practical advice, short stories and an early version of what later became Tom Tackles the Chalet School ("Nonsense Mater! Vicarage kids don't have fleas!"). A Junior Chalet Book for Girls was announced in 1949 but neverpublished. A story from the annuals called 'The Chalet School Mystery' was later republished in My Treasure Hour Bumped Annual (1970). This, too, is now scarce.
By 1950, Brent-Dyer had become a bestselling author throughout the English-speaking world, and Chambers published four geography readers aimed at her strongest subsidiary markets: Kenya, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. These books - Verena Visits New Zealand, Bess on her Own in Canada, Quintette in Queensland and Sharlie's Kenya Diary - now fetch as much as £50 each. During the Fifties, she produced up to four 'Chalet School' titles a year, leaping the vast social gap between the 1940s and 1950s with ease, while her former competitors were struggling to get published, and achieving an unparalleled fan-following which her publishers were quick to capitalise on.
Enid Blyton's children's clubs were largely fund-raisers for her favourite charities (she relied on personal fan-mail for marketing purposes), but Brent-Dyer's 'Chalet Club' - launched in May 1959 - was altogether more sophisticated. Masterminded by Chambers, it used competitions, quizzes, prizes and direct questions from Brent-Dyer to discover just what her readers wanted next. It remains a unique example of market research in the field of children's fiction.
The twenty Chalet Club Newsletters now fetch high pirces. There were also several associated leaflets, membership certificates signed by Brent-Dyer, and a club badge: a single silver pin, surmounted by an edelweiss and the acronym, 'CC'. Because of its fragility, this is now the scarcest of all children's club badges.
The Chalet Club also confirmed what Chambers had long suspected: that there was no specific interest in the Tyrolean background to the 'Chalet' books (a projected trip to Pertisau was cancelled in 1963 due to a lack of takers) and even less in Brent-Dyer herself. What fascinated her fanatical fans was the fictional world of the Chalet School itself, where everything from Matron's dormitory inspection to Joey's untidy hair was always reassuringly the same.
Brent-Dyer had always resisted calls to return the series to its original Austrian setting but, in The Coming of Age of the Chalet School (1958), she brough Joey briefly back to the Tyrolean summer ("Wow! Here comes the rain!") to beat a girl half her age at swimmig ("Gosh Jo! You can swim!"). Joey and Co. in the Tirol (1960), the first non-school title for six years, and among the scarcest, transports Joey to the new Austria of autobahns, hydro-electricity and bursting appendixes ("The sooner it's yanked out, the better!").
Just two years later, in A Future Chalet School Girl, we are back in the Tyrol with Joey and her eleven natural and three adopted children. Among the trials they have to content with is an earth-shattering explosion ("Pop!") of blackcurrant wine ("Oh! your underclothes!"). The book fetches around £50-£60 today in its full-colour dustjacket.
In 1964, Brent-Dyer moved from Hereford to Redhill in Surrey where she bought a house with her old friend, Phyllis Matthewman, the children's writer, and her husband (who was also Brent-Dyer's agent). Here she continued to write, although two heart attacks had slowed her pace. During the final, painful months of herlife, she was not well enough to type, and her last book, Prefects of the Chalet School (1970), was dictated to Mrs. Matthewman. She died peacefully on 20th September 1969.
"The world of juvenile literature is made poorer by her death," said the Times, instancing her "huge readership from all over the world - not only of children but adults", her realism, her "taut style and breathless speed", and her invention of the Sixties 'buzz-word', 'fabulous'. Subsequent critics have been less judicious, although in a series of New Statesmen essays starting in the Thirties (collected in Girls will be Girls, 1974), Arthur Marshall praised the pace and surreality of her writing.
Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craigh patronised Brent-Dyer in their survey of girls' fiction, You're A Brick, Angela! (1976), as did educational psychologist, Nicholas Tucker, in an article in the Times Educational Supplement (3rd July 1970). Much more sympathetic is Helen McClelland's pioneering biography, Behind the Chalet School, which is jam-packd with fascinating information. This book was originally published by New Horizon in 1981 and reissued by anchor in 1986. Copies of the first edition fetch around £15-£20 today. More recently, Rosemary Auchmuty's stimulating A World of Girls (1922) celebrated the Chalet School as an ideal, all-female community.
Elinor Brent-Dyer was interviewed by Brian Redhead on the BBC TV programme, Tonight, in 1964, and often voiced her hope that the 'Chalet School' stories would be televised. However, their brisk moral tone makes this increasingly unlikely.
One thing is certain, however: a complete set of 'Chalet School' first editions in dustjackets - worth around £400 ten years ago - might now fetch as much as ten times that figure. Values peacked in the late 1980s, when prices of £75 and upwards were not uncommon for first editions (in dustjackets) of even the easier titles. Since then, they have stabilised at around £15-£30 from general dealers, and between £30-£50 from specialist ones. And, as is so often the case with children's books, it is the final - as well as the earliest - titles which, because of their smaller print-runs, secure the highest price today.
Of the earlier 'Chalet School' titles, the hardest to find in dustjackets are still The School at the Chalet and The Exploits of the Chalet Girls. Of the mid-period books, Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953) is perhaps the scarcest, still fetching over £75 in Very Good condition with dustjacket. During the Brent-Dyer boom of the late 1980s, even a copy bound upside down was snapped up at £75! There is also a premium on any copy of Mary-Lou of the Chalet School (1956) which retains the dizzy Dorothy Brooks jacket. It's scarce.
The only 'Chalet School' titles to be first published in paperback was The Chalet School and Rosalie (1951). This 94-page book - originally priced at 2/6 (12p) - features a three-colou cover showing two girls in uniform, one holding a small garden fork in her right hand. Because of its small print-run and ephemeral format, it is now the most sought-after of all the books in the series. A copy recently sold immediately for £85.
Premium prices are fetched by all 'Chalet School' books describing Joey's out-of-school adventures. These begin with Jo to the Rescue (1954), in which the attempted theft of a violin on the Yorkshire Moores is spun out over 245 pages, althugh the wartime format - 18cm x 12cm - is admittedly small (it was one of only three 'Chalet School' books to use it). The main event is the splendidly-named Zephyr Burthill's attempt to dope Joey's St. Bernard, who had already survived the Nazis.
Also much sought-after is the non-school title in which Joey Goes to the Oberland (1954), despite falling into a packing case. For a moment, things look black ("I'm going to have a stroke!") but, with swift action ("Hot up some coffee, open the windows and get a glass of water!") and appropriate medication ("Here's a tablet to calm her nerves"), she gets there eventually. W. Spence did the 'gee-whiz' jacket in which every mouth hangs open, goldfish-like. Chambers were understandably reluctant to take these out-of-school adventures, and there was a six year gap until the next one.
Of all the non-school titles, the fiftieth books in the series, The Chalet School Reunion (1963) - with its Mills & Boon-style wrap-around jacketand a love-story to match ("I want the right to take care of you, beloved!") - is the most sought-after. A bizarre still-life by Dorothy Brook of old girls and Joey's St. Bernard mainlining Kaffee und Kuchen adorns the dustjacket.
The first - and only - edition is bound in blue cloth with a white spine, and contais a full-colour frontispiece and four illustrations. Brent-Dyer's signature is embossed in gilt on the front cover. The dustjacket is not particularly scarce, but the accompanying key to the characters shown on it and the yellow 'Jubilee' band which originally encircled the book most certainly are. Even ex-library copies in jackets have been known to change hands for up to £50, and Mint copies - complete with jacket, key and band - now fetch up to £80. Dorothy Brook's original cover painting was presented to Brent-Dyer by her publishers. Copies were made available to Chalet Club members, and these are now rare.
Serious collectors will also want The Chalet Girls' Cook Book (1953), which includes recipies from the three 'Chalet School' annuals as well as several new ones. Oblong in format, this book was issued in a rather primitive-looking colour dustjacket by the artist, Balmer. This is now exceptionally scarce, and more than double the value of a copy from around £30 to £75+.
And it isn't just the 'Chalet' books themselves that attract collectors: associated titles are also popular. for instance, a copy of Kipling's Thy Servant a Dog, signed by Brent-Dyer and carrying the Margaret Roper School bookplate, was recently on offer at £80. There is also strong interest in any books mentioned in the 'Chalet School' stories, including the 'Elsie' series by American authoress, Martha Finlay, and Austin Clare's The Carved Cartoon, a novel based on the life of Grinling Gibbons. Like her creator, Joey Bettany was a passionate collector. ("What about going into that second-hand bookshop in Marmion Road? I'd like more 'Elsie' books.")
More shocks than the Chalet girls ever encountered face anyone making
the pilgrimage to Pertisau this year to celebrate the seventieth
anniversary of Brent-Dyer's visit. Paragliders plummet into the lake
where Joey once rescued a rival from certain death by drowning; weekenders
from Munich hurtle don the motorway on the opposite shore, and a village
chapel has been demolished to make way for a coach park. But the old
steam railway which the Chalet girls knew is still the same, and nothing
will ever change the lake where it all began: six icy miles of turquoise,
alive with dancing shadows.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------- The research carried out by Rosemary Auchmuty, Gill Bilski, Clarissa Cridland, Susan Hodgson, Helen McClelland and Sue Sims is gratefully acknowledged.
The School at the Chalet, The Mystery at the Chalet School, Jo to the Rescue, Joey and Co. in Tirol, The Chalet School Reunion and Prefects of the Chalet School will be reissued on 12th May in Armada paperbacks (3.99). Cassettes of Jo of the Chalet School and Princess of the Chalet School will also be available (4.99)