Published in New Comparison: A Journal of Comparative and General Literary Studies, Number 20, Autumn 1995, pp.118-130.
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's series of Chalet School books occupied a place of considerable popularity during the early part of the twentieth century, and have continued to go through persiods of revival since Brent-Dyer began the series in the 1920s. Although not as popular in her own time as the doyenne of schoolgirl writers, Angela Brazil, Brent-Dyer's books have enjoyed more enduring success, yielding fan clubs and magazines, and retain a nostalgic following amongst a generation of female readers raised on these stories of schoolgirl heroism, honour and piety. This article aims first to explore some of the ways in which the Chalet School series constructs its ideal of girlhood and womanhood, but how Brent-Dyer sometimes displays a secretive, implicit ambivalence towards this ideal, and secondly to suggest how such a different kind of establishment retains an appeal for contemporary readers, in spite of - or perhaps because of - its difference from their own experience.
The central character of the Chalet School series is, of course, Joey Bettany Maynard. Clearly Brent-Dyer's favourite character (the later books begin to develop some successors, such as Mary-Lou Trelawney, or Joey's own daughter, Len Maynard), Joey remains the centre of the Chalet School long after her own schooldays are over. Joey embodies all the values which Brent-Dyer celebrates throughout the entire series of 62 books: unshakeable honesty and integrity, sensitivity, fun, madcap pranks, eternal youthfulness, remarkable fecundity, morality, bravery, unsentimentality and a clearly-defined-even rigid-religious faith. Jo (as both schoolgirl and adult) rescues, counsels, advises, saves, scolds (htough only when well-deserved), and is a perfect wife and mother, while retaining a position in the school as a kind of surrogate head girl or mistress.
The books reiterate her status as a "Chalet School girl" throughout her adulthood and the birth of her long family (eleven children in total, including one set of triplets, and two sets of twins). Joey is the agency through whom Brent-Dyer disseminates many of her beliefs about girlhood and womanhood, and many recalcitrant or resistent girls are reformed by meeting with Joey's occassionally magical-seeming powers: for example, in Peggy Of The Chalet School (1950), Eilunedd Vaughn, who has had a grudge against Peggy Bettany, Jo's niece, rethinks her behaviour after a few well-chosen words from Peggy's aunt. Eilunedd had been invited to tea at the Maynards, and has been helping Jo to pluck chickens, during which the feathers have escaped and flown everywhere:
'You know,' she said conversationally, as she helped herself from the
muffin dish, 'I often think words are like feathers.'|
Eilunedd looked at her. 'How? I don't think I understand.'
'Finish your scone and have another while they're hot. It's this way. You saw how the feathers flew every which way, and though I'm sure you worked hard, you couldn't get anything like even half of them back? Well, it's the same sort of thing with the things we say. Sometimes we say pleasant things - things that are helpful and kind, and those are the sort of words that we don't want to recall. But sometimes we are angry, and we say unknind, bitter things. Later on, we may be sorry, and would give anything to unsay them; but that's something no-one can do. And you never know just how much harm a thing like that may do someone else. It mayn't even be the person you meant it for. It may be someone quite different. Perhaps it's someone younger than yourself who gets wrong ideas from the things you've said. Perhaps you give hints of wrong ideas to those people, and they go and make huge things of them, and it causes awful trouble for everyone concerned.' Jo paused to hold out her hand for Eilunedd's cup, but it wasn't given. The girl sat there, looking at her, a queer mixture of feelings struggling within her. She knew now that the invitation, the work on the birds and the feathers, had all been meant. She guessed that Jo knew a good deal more than she was saying, and she went hot as she suddenly thought of all she had done to make things uncomfortable for Peggy Bettany.
Jo saw it all. She reached forward and took the cup. 'Was your tea as you liked it, Eilunedd? Enough cream in it?' Eilunedd raised her shamed eyes, and saw that the subject was ended. Nothing more would be said here. But she also knew that Jo had said enough. Somehow she must try to undo the wrong she had done Peggy and help to bring the younger girls back to common sense. (Peggy of the Chalet School, pp. 188-189).
Jo is frequently described as a "champion butter-in", a slang phrase that would surely have been frowned upon by the school in another of its roles, as guide and reformed of schoolgirl language. During her schoolgirl days, Jo's form of "butting-in" mainly consists of literal acts of rescue, involving friends, children or dogs caught up in a variety of catastrophes: in Eustacia goes to the Chalet School (1929), she rescues Eustacia when she is trapped by a flood, she saves Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia when she is menaced by a madman (The Princess of the Chalet School, 1927), she saves a girl from a rival school from drowning in the Tiernsee and nearly dies as a result (The Rivals of the Chalet School, 1929); in Jo Of The Chalet School (1926), she saves the infant Robin Humphries, and a St. Bernard puppy, from drowning. These are just a few of the rescues Jo performs, and her role as actual rescuer is mirrored in her role as moral rescuer, as demonstrated in the passage above. Indeed, Joey is the entire series's "rescuer": in practical, physical terms while she is at school, in more dignified and mature spiritual terms when she s a wife and mother. In addition, her role as "a very naughty Middle" who grows into "one of the best Head Girls the school has ever had" is emphasised as a major source of her wisdom and insight. Brent-Dyer does not construct her favourite, and most interesting, characters as angels, though they tend to have an extraordinary amount of good qualities: what contributes to making Jo such an excellent Head Girl, and wise counsellor and friend, is her naughtiness and pranks in adolescence. Brent-Dyer seems to believe that a healthy naughtiness in childhood is normal, even desirable; although pranks are firmly disciplined in the Chalet School, there are many instances when staff or prefects, having severely rebuked some wrongdoing, laugh or joke about it when they are in the privacy of the staffroom or common-room. Brent-Dyer's construction of girlhood therefore allows a measure of innocent naughtiness or fun.
That is, however, one of the key words in her subtext: innocence. The notion that teenage girls could be interested in boys, or could be developing any form of sexuality, is treated with little short of horror:
'The fact of the matter, Uncle Jack, is that Joan isn't - well - what
Gran would have called 'a lady'. I don't mean she eats with her knife
or anything like that, though her language could do with improvement.
It's more in her mind. She has cheap ideas.'|
'In what way?'
'Well - she talks - about - boys!' Mary-Lou was very red as she got this out.
'Ye-es. Well, I suppose she's that age.'
'Oh, I know. But we don't, you know. We do have boy-friends, but it's not the same thing as Joan means.'
'How d'you know she does?' he asked, giving her a curious glance. He couldn't imagine anyone talking to Mary-Lou in that strain - or not for long.
'Hilary heard her talking a whole lot of rot to those young asses, Ursula Vidler and Sarah Hewitson. They're gigglers at the best of times and Hilary said she felt like shaking thelot of them, she was so mad! You know, Uncle Jack, we've never gone in for sentimental bosh.' (A Problem For The Chalet School, p. 114).
Joan's apparant awareness of her sexuality is clearly seen as a negative quality, if not actually "unnatural": Mary-Lou later quotes Joan as saying that "any natural girl liked to" talk abut boys, yet Mary-Lou's conversation with Jack Maynard is yet another example that, in the Chalet School, such talk is that of an "unnatural" girl, and therefore Joan is not a "lady". This notion of "lady-likeness" is a significant element in the construction of womanhood, and is emphasised throughout the series: an earlier example can be found in The Princess Of The Chalet School, when one of the new matrons is dismissed, firstly because she speaks badly, and the girls, with whom she is unpopular, imitate her, and also because she virtually assaults Robin Humphries, a model of behaviour clearly unsuitable in any school and particularly so in an establishment with such a stress of "lady-like" methods of discipline and conduct, such as being "fined" for slang, being sent to bed and forfeiting privileges. Similarly, the way in which Brent-Dyer constructs Joan Baker's "unladylike" character is also shown through her speech: in her first appearances, Joan uses words like "ain't" and "larks", yet once she is a "proper" Chalet School girl, her speech gentrifies.
The "sentimental bosh" which Mary-Lou refers to in the passage above is the usual terminology for all kinds of emotional relationships in the ChaletSchool, and is a further element in the construction of feminity: although marriage and children as woman's true destiny are glorified, there are very few "love-scenes", even between happily married couples such as the Maynards (The Chalet School In Exile, 1940, is an exception). Pregnancy and childbirth are taboo as far as direct references go: babies just appear, or are coyly hinted at when a character is described as knitting baby-clothes, or through oblique references that someone is going to be "busy", and won't have any "spare time", as the following example shows:
|While she had been thinking, Joey had reached for her knitting and was now clicking away at a tiny vest. Mary-Lou's eyes widened. She dropped down on the floor at her hostess's feet with small regard for her eyes and the proximity of the needle and said incoherently. 'O.K.; I'll take it on. But I shan't do any good. Only - if that's one of the things you're going to be busy with - and you're doing an anthology as well - oh, all right!' (Mary-Lou Of The Chalet School, 1956, p. 37.)|
This is the only suggestion in the book that Joey might be pregnant. Similarly, Joey's first pregnancy is announced in another oblique way: "'Jem says Jo isn't well just now and isn't to be excited or worried'" (The Chalet School In Exile, p. 127).
Joey's first experience of childbirth is also typical of Brent-Dyer's aversion to anything which Mary-Lou might have termed "sentimental bosh". No connection is explicitly made between Jo being in bed and the three babies just born:
Dr. Chester came down the stairs at Les Rosiers, grinning broadly. Joey
had certainly done her best to provide the school with a sensation this
time, and he judged that she would have succeeded. (The Chalet
School In Exile, p. 147.)|
'I'll go if you'll go to sleep without any more fuss', he had said.
After this, no mention is made of a baby till p. 149, when Dr. Chester breaks the news to Madge Russell that her sisters has had triplets. The continual observation that Joey "always did do things thoroughly", as Frieda von Ahlen puts it later in The Chalet School In Exile (p. 185), is Brent-Dyer's way of making Joey even more unique within the history of the school (no other ex-pupil has tripets), and also of "rewarding" her favourite character in the way that Brent-Dyer thinks most significant; Joey's family of eleven children exceeds all her contemporaries, and indeed all other characters in the books. There is a competitive element concerning the number of babies produced that reoccurs throughout the series, and would also seem to be significant in the construction of feminitiy:
|'She's as proud as a peacock with two tails, really, to think she's beaten Marie and Wanda, and levelled up with her sister.' (The Chalet School In Exile, p. 187.)|
Such extraordinary fecundity seems, in Brent-Dyer's terms, to be a part of being "a true Chalet School girl" and therefore Joey, as the "spirit of the school" (The Chalet School In Exile, p. 34) is blessed with more than any other ex-pupil, or members of staff.
It is illuminating to constrast Joey's treatment at the hands of her creator with that of Grizel Cochrane, a contemporary of Joey's and one of Brent-Dyer's few really complex and interesting characters. Grizel's loveless upbringing, her sarcasm and chip on her shoulder, her bitterness and jealousy, appear periodically throughout the series when she is a pupil, a Head Girl (a post she nearly forfeits through her own stupidity) and then music mistress. She is unpopular as a teacher, and her status as a misfit in the Chalet School very nearly produces a tragedy when she is almost reponsible for setting Len Maynard on fire:
|As she spoke, she tossed the match in the direction of the fireplace. She threw short, and it fell, still burning, into the reed basket Len was holding. The tinder stuff caught fire at once and flared up. The flame caught the flimsy material of Len's Chinese dress and in an instant the sleeve was a mas of flames. (Carola Storms The Chalet School, 1951, p. 150.)|
Grizel's carelessness is the result of her own anger and frustration at a letter from her step-mother, who was responsible for her mistreatment in childhood. However, paradoxically, this potential tragedy is the beginning of Grizel's redemption (a very appropriate word for Brent-Dyer's treatment of recalcitrant or "bad" characters), and the first act is, of course, Jo's forgiveness:
|'Ah', said Jo, with unusual gentleness of tone, 'we can all say that about a lot of things. I'll only say this and then you and I are going to forget. When things go wrong, it's just as well to learn to hold your horses a little. Count a hundred, Grizel - count a hundred before you fly off the handle. That's all. Now, my dear, I want to wish you every happiness and every success in your new life when it begins.' (Carola Storms The Chalet School, p. 158.)|
Grizel is packed off to New Zealand and is out of the story, except for occasionaly references, till The Chalet School Reunion (1963), Book 54 in the series. This book centres around an Old Girls' reunion, organised, inevitably, by Joey; but it's real concern is with Grizel's final redemption and her elevation to the status of a "true Chalet School girl". First comes Grizel's recognition of her own loneliness and need of love:
|She slipped out, leaving Grizel standing with misty eyes. For the first time in years the elder girl felt as if she were wrapped round with warm affection and friendship. She and Deira had been friends, it is true, but Deira had never given her the wholehearted tenderness that radiated from Jo Maynard. If Grizel had been less controlled, she would have cried. As it was, she remained still, revelling in her friend's unspoken sympathy. (The Chalet School Reunion, pp. 40-41.)|
In a very real way Grizel has to go "back to school" to truly acquire the ways of a Chalet School girl. She is aided, of course, by Joey, who conducts much of the reunion as if they were all back at school, with a timetable, naps, meals and trips, including one to Briesau, the original site of the school; and in typical Chalet School style, there has to be an accident and a rescue. The pattern of accidents and rescues in Chalet School books almost always involves the redemption and reinstatement of an isolated or misguided character (there are ocasional exceptions, such as The Rivals Of The Chalet School), but this accident is the conclusion to the process that began for Grizel in Carola Storms The Chalet School, when she redeems herself finally and undergoes the last stage of alteration and learning through saving Len Maynard's life, causing considerable personal damage to herself:
|On the instant, Len let go, falling straight into Grizel's arms. The shock of her wright nearly sent the pair of them hurtling over the ledge, then as Grizel strained back, she hit her spine violently against the outjutting rock. The force of the blow and the sudden violent pain which tore through her turned her sick, Almost faunting, she yet managed to hold Len until the girl could grip the rock and both of them were standing pressed against the cliff away from the edge. (The Chalet School Reunion, p. 154.)|
Grizel's first reaction to her accident is a recognition that she has "served out" her "sentence":
|'You're safe!' she gasped between the moans that came to her lips. 'I've made up!' (The Chalet School Reunion, p. 157.)|
Grizel's reward for this act comes during her long convalescence, when she is reunited with the doctor she had met on her voyage back from New Zealand, whom she subsequently marries; therefore becoming happy, fulfilled and, in the most significant way, a "real Chalet School girl":
|'Jack and I are very glad, too', Joey replied, her voice changing. 'And Grizel, believe me this happiness is going to last and deepen. I know what it is myself. Dome day - and not so long either, I hope - you'll agree with me.' She flung out her hand towards the window through which the sun was streaming in. 'You've walked long enough in the shadows. Now you're going to walk along sunlit ways.' (The Chalet School Reunion, pp. 248-249.)|
The fact that this absolution - and that is the language in which it is offered - comes from Joey, is both a signal of Grizel's ultimate "forgivenes" and a further illustration of Joey's status in the series as the "spirit" of the school. Therefore, Grizel is finally "born again" and absolved by noth Joey and her "creator", and allowed her own entry into Paradise. This religious terminology may seem far-fetched, but is very much the pattern of reforming and resolving "problem" girls. Ironically, Grizel, for all her creator's dislike of her, is one of Brent-Dyer's most successful, because most credible, characters: although there are examples of bad parenting of other girls, such as Juliet Carrick and Richenda Fry, Grizel's is the only experience which is developed and is expressed consistently through her bitterness and resentment. Her mixed-up nature is possibly the most authentic characterisation which Brent-Dyer achieved.
Joey is certainly not a "problem" girl, but neither is she absolutely perfect, at least during her schooldays. As Rosemary Auchmuty has persuasively argued, Brent-Dyer avoids making Joey quite unbearable by giving her faults, although her adolescent naughtiness and quick temper are always balanced by a strong sense of "honour", and her temper virtually diappears as she moves into adulthood and marriage. Auchmuty also argues that Joey's initial determination to avoid marriage indicates a "real fear of young womanhood" and likens Jo, as do Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, to Jo March in Little Women, in her tomboyishness, "unsentimentality", writing gifts and determination to remain single. Brent-Dyer manages Jo much better in her schoolgirl years than later in the series: clearly feeling that there are qualities, wuch as her short temper, acceptable for Jo the schoolgirl but not for Jo the woman, she makes Jo rather less convincing whan she is in the early books, by dissipating Jo's less "perfect" qualities and emphasising her idealised role. However, there are contradictions inscribed within Brent-Dyer's text: it may well be true that, as Rosemary Auchmuty suggests, Jo's youthful rejection of marriage is a genuinely-felt fear of restriction on her ambitions to write and her future. However, Jo is the only married woman in the series allowed to retain a career: staff members of marry leave the school, and only return if needed to cover an emergency: there are no married permanent staff members. This demonstrates another contradiction at the heart of the Chalet School ethos: the role-models of the girls within the books are mainly unmarried working women, and girls are expected to work hard and achieve academically: there are references to careers and jobs, and girls going on to university, so evidently Brent-Dyer wasn't peddling the idea that education has only a limited value for women, because of their biological destiny. Yet the major achievement of most ex-pupils is to produce future pupils for the school, in some curious spiritual sense putting back into the school what they have gained. One of the exceptions amongst the major characters is Mary-Lou Trelawney, one of Jo's "surrogate" daughters and the character most like her: Mary-Lou remains unmarried and pursues a career, as if she fulfils the destiny which Brent-Dyer felt was inadequate or, perhaps, not sufficiently complete to make Joey the wise woman she is cast as throughout the series. This is one of the aspects that makes the Chalet School more interesting than many of its contemporaries: apart from the originality of its internationalism, Brent-Dyer values scholastic achievement, and, although she may marry off most of her characters and deny them further careers, she does show some awareness of career possibilities.
Brent-Dyer's enormous involvement in the character of Jo does have negative effects for the series. Jo's association with the school is extended long past her youth, as Cadogan and Craig have pointed out, and is excused with the recurring explanation that Jo remains a "schoolgirl" even after the birth of her long family, as if this justifies the way that Joey follows the school in its (several) moves. An explanation of sorts is proferred in Jack Maynard's involvement in the Sanatorium, and its connection with the school: yet this involvement does not include Madge and Jem Russell, founders of the school and the sanatorium respectively, who disappear out of the books for long stretches. Joey is the character who knits the books together, who connects a variety of disparate characters and is, in a very real sense, the "series"; and the very few books where she is absent, or relatively uninvolved, show her author strugging to generate the same level of enjoyment and commitment that she feels towards Jo. Brent-Dyer tries to recreate Mary-Lou Trelawney and Len Maynard in Joey's mould: but since one is a surrogate daughter, the other an actual daughter, they function really as second-generation representatives of Joey, rather than as individually-realised caracters, particularly as there are times when for example, Mary-Lou acts "for" Joey, when Joey herself is unable to help:
Mary-Lou looked at her apprehensively. 'What are you getting at?'|
Just what I say. You're going to be my - my reformer.' (Mary-Lou Of The Chalet School, p. 31.)
'Why don't you take it on yourself?' Mary-Lou demanded.
Mary-Lou's success rate is as high as Joey's: she "reforms" Jessica Wayne, a jealous and better girl; in Trials For The Chalet School (1959), she converts an atheist schoolgirl to an accpetance of religion, and in the previously mentioned example from A Problem For The Chalet School, helps bring Joan Baker back to an appropriate status of girlish innocence. Brent-Dyer perhaps realised that, in Joey's own words, she was "not in school" and it was necessary to develop a successor; the nature of the school, and the requirement that pupils move on, necessitates replacements for "role-model" characters, but the fact that the two closest successors to Joey Maynard are also closely related to her signifies that Brent-Dyer couldn't evre really relinquish Joey: in the last book of the series, Joey is still described as "very much of a girl both in character and looks" and "a Chalet girl to the end" (Prefects of the Chalet School, 1970, p. 36).
So we are left with a curiously contradictory set of images: a scathing dismissal of "sentiment" in stories that are acutely sentimental, particularly in the matter of religion, as the following example demonstrates:
|The others took no notice of her, and when she knelt down at the window-sill to say her prayers, and stayed there for long, Marie made no comment. She knew that Jo was asking of the great Father the Robin's happy little life. (The Chalet School And Jo, p. 58.)|
A series in which divorce, difficult births or miscarriages, and emotional trauma of any kind is outlawed, yet one that conveys tragedies and huge subjects, like the war, with a real sense of identification. The Chalet School In Exile is particularly good for this reason. The panoramic background of Hitler's invasion of Austria, the genuine excitement of the girls' escape, plus Brent-Dyer's refusal to shy away from tragedy and the horrors of war (the murder of Herr Goldmann by a Nazi mob, the death of Herr Marani in a concentration camp, the imprisonment of Friedel von Gluck and Bruno von Ahlen in a concentration camp, the treachery of Gertrud Becker, the death of Mademoiselle Lepattre from cancer) lift this to a level above most of the Chalet School books, and Brent-Dyer also writes in some convincingly emotional exchanges between Joey and Jack Maynard. It is rare for Brent-Dyer to confront such subjects so frankly, and it is worthwhile constrasting the above example with her treatment of Jack Maynard's disappearance during battle in The Highland Twins At The Chalet School. Obviously feeling that she could not "write out" such a major character, or make her beloved Joey a widow, she uses Jack's apparent loss as a way of trying to further emphasise Joey's "unsentimentality", even in the face of such huge personal loss, while demonstrating her strength and the "perfectness" of her motherhood, and doing this in a highly sentimental way:
|As she felt their arms about herand heard their voices, Jo sat up and held out her arms. 'Yes; come to me, my darlings! I am all that you have now. I must be father and mother both to you now. Oh, my babies, my babies!' (Highland Twins At The Chalet School, p. 139.)|
This entire episode raises the contradictions encoded in Joey's character, and within the books themselves: Jack Maynard's re-appearance is dealt with almost as an aside in the final chapter, which indicates that Brent-Dyer's emphasis was not on the potential tragedy, but on Joey's reaction to it, and, having described that, the school Christmas play becomes more important than Jack's safe return. Very rarely does Brent-Dyer display the courage which she shows in The Chalet School In Exile, and having built up Jack Maynard's disappearance, she ships over his re-emergence as far less important than a detailed description of the play, which occupies most of the final chapter. Furthermore, the drama of Jack's fate is mitigated by Brent-Dyer's use of one of the highland twins, Flora Macdonald, and her "gift" of second sight, through which she sees a vision of Jack alive and injured. Thus the author creates two potentially interesting scenarios, and uses them both to deflate the other: Flora's vision removes all drama from Jack's disappearance, while the all-too-convenient occurence of the vision removes any mysticism and interest from Flora's "gift". Brent-Dyer carefully sidesteps any accusations of paganism or anti-Christianity in the use made of Flora's giftby having her see the vision by touching Jack's rosary, which connects it explicitly with Christianity, specifically, Catholicism, and which therefore makes it safe rather than subversive. Thus Brent-Dyer further deflates an interesting and unusual angle in the book. Nevertheless, The Highland Twins At The Chalet School, like all th wartime books, gives Brent-Dyer a larger landscape and more room to manoevre than usual, especially when she introduces espionage and treachery in the search for the Chart of Erisay, and the eventual expulsion of Betty Wynne-Davies for her part in this.
Brent-Dyer sometimes vacillates between an occasional and insidious desire to be realistic, and an inability to relinquish her ideal of both her characters and her school: therefore, she allows occasional moments of realism, but almost always qualifies or deflates them by giving them happy endings, or diverting attention on to some happy school event. Jo embodies this contraditiction: she is at times utterly convincing and at times wholly idealised, a "schoolgirl" who mothers eleven children, which implies very active sexuality (although her conversion to Catholicism when she marries Jack Maynard offers some explanation for this), a wife and mother who works, a child and an adult, naughty but good, youthful and wise, spiritual yet down-to-earth. Therefore, Joey's presentation as the "spirit" of the school has a real existence for Brent-Dyer: she personifies every aspect of the school, its contradictions and also the contradictions of her creator. n this sense, she represents much of the ambivalence that one can occasionally detect in Brent-Dyer towards the role of women that she is advocating. This ambivalence is not explicit, and is encoded in the text, rather than overt: but it is there.
Elinor Brent-Dyer, as Helen McClelland has told us, did not come from a happy family, did not marry, and found her own experience as teacher and headmistress less than the ideal she created in her books. This may well have contributed to the ambivalence at the root of her writing: in creating the perfect school, she was forced to acknowledge the gap between her own creation and the reality of most schools, of which her own experience as a teacher formed a part; demonstrating an awareness that no real school lived up to this image of perfection, and that such a school could not exist entirely divorced from wider events. There are significant omissions in her "ideal": her attempt to create an international school paradoxically ignores issues of race and is obstinately white and Westernised: no elemt of a multiracial society is suggested, even though the last book was published as recently as 1970, and the only two books which have any reference to black or asian culture, A Chalet Girl From Kenya (1956), and Gay From China At The Chalet School (1944), are about white girls, not black or Chinese ones. She does introduce a Kashmiri girl as a minor character in Lavender Laughs In The Chalet School (1943), but this is an exception: the vast majority of girls are white and Christian: there is also a complete lack of Jewish girls in the School. Yet the wartime books, for example, do not permit any racist comments against Germans: it is made clear throughout that it is the Nazi regime with which we are at war, not the German people, and any implication of hatred towards Germans is rebuked. This is ostensibly based on the school's strong Christan belief in forgiveness: the formation of the Chalet School Peace League, which causes the danger in The Chalet School In Exile, develops out of this. However, this stance of forgiveness and tolerance is placed alongside a complete denial of the existence of any cultures other than white/European or American. In this, as in so many aspects, Elinor Brent-Dyer is contradictory.
Much of the series has recently been re-published by Armada, which indicates that there is still a demand for Brent-Dyer's form of schoolgirl heroism and honour. So what is the appeal of the Chalet School series? It certainly bears little relation to the likely experience of most modern schoolgirls: its coy innocence, old-fashioned values, and the strong identification of pupils and staff with the school would not seem to have any common ground with late twentieth-century education. Perhaps the appeal lies in this very difference: maybe the Chalet School represents, for its legions of fans, an image of what school should be: fun, pranks, fair and just discipline, kindly but strict teachers, strong friendships (though the kind ofsentimental crushes on teachers or other girls favourite by other school-fiction writers are firms, to use one of Brent-Dyer's favourite phrases, "sat on" in the Chalet School), and, of course, heroism and bravery. But within this image are inscribed certain contradictions, whether conscious or not. There may be a less apparent appeal in the existence of these contradictions, and that the maintenance of Brent-Dyer's popularity is rooted in the combination of the idealised image underpinned with occasional subversions. It is also true that the build-up of the central group of characters in the early books, and the subsequent tracing of the fortunes of their offspring at the school, encourages a feeling of familiarity and knowledge on the part of the reader, and, as Helen McClelland has commented, "what amounts to a personal relationship between the readers and the character begins slowly to be established". All of these elements, no doubt, have contributed to the Chaet School's enduring success: describing an idealisitic vision, but a vision with the occasional insight that reality falls far short.