In the final lines of The School at the Chalet, Elinor Brent-Dyer drops a hint that further adventures are awaiting Joey Bettany and her friends. But when the book was first published, in October 1925, not even the author could have forseen that the adventures of her Chalet School characters were eventually fill more than sixty books, published over a period of 45 years, and be famous today as the longest series of girls' school-stories ever known.
During the years before World War II there were many stories about fictional schools outside Britain, but Elinor Brent-Dyer was the first author to use the Austrian Tyrol as a setting. Her inspiration for The School at the Chalet grew from an idyllic holiday she had spent, probably in 1924, at a Tyrolean lakeside village known in real life as Pertisau-am-Achensee. In the stories, Pertisau is renamed Briesau, and the lack becomes the Tiernsee. But many local places appear under their real names, including Seespitz, Gaisalm, Buchau, Seehof and Scholastika, and no one fortunate enough to have visited Pertisau, with its glorious setting high in the moutains above the Inn valley, could fail to recognise it in the early Chalet School stories.
That Elinor Brent-Dyer fell in love with the Tyrol, and with the Achensee region in particular, is reflected in the many affectionate descriptions of scenery, people and local customs that she gives in the early books; and a capacity for capturing something of the character and atmosphere of places was undoubtedly among her gifts.
Later in the series, the Chalet School was to change its location several times, leaving the Tyrol during The Chalet School in Exile; this book was written after Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938, and the story, part of which relates the thrilling adventures of Joey and her friends during their escape from the Gestapo, shows an awareness of the real-life international situation at the time that was unusual then in children's fiction.
Over the years, the Chalet School gradually acquires many new characters, both staff and pupils, but most of those first introduced in The School at the Chalet remain important throughout the series. Madge, Grizel, Gisela, Juliet, Simone, Margia, Bernhilda and Frieda are among those who reappear regularly; while Joey Bettany continues, right to the end, to play a leading role, despire being by then grown-up, married, a well-known author and mother of a large family! Links with the school are also maintained by Joey's many daughters and those of countless other former pupils, who all eventually turn up at the Chalet School, while some members of staff remain from the school's earliest days until the final book.
Many readers have come to look on the Chalet School characters as personal friends; and it seems that Elinor herself, in the course of writing the long series, began to identify closely with Joey. For although she differed greatly in appearance from Joey - being neither black-haired nor slender - and lived a very different, far less adventurous life, there are strong indications that much of Elinor's personality was unconsciously absorbed into her favourite heroine. As put by a friend who knew Elinor for more than forty years: "Joey was Elinor as she would like to have been."
However, certain things about Elinor can only be inferred, for in real life she seldom talked about personal matters. As a result, only a few people ever knew she had had a beloved younger brother, who died tragically, aged only seventeen, from meningitis; or that, in the previous year, a sixteen-year-old schoolfriend had been stricken with a fatal bout of tuberculosis - a disease that is rare today in developed countried, but one that is much dreaded and sadly prevalent throughout Britain during Elinor's early life. No wonder that illness plays such a prominent part in Elinor's books, for in those days, before the discovery of antibiotics, illnesses that can now be speedily cured would often prove fatal. And, viewed in this light, Madge's constant anxiety about Joey's health is understandable.
Other aspects of Elinor, such as her love of music, history, legends and foreign travel - not to mention continental food! - are clearly shown in her stories. And, in making her own Margaret Roper School in Hereford non-denominational, Elinor was probably modelling it on the Chalet School, where Protestants and Roman Catholics play equal roles in a way that was quite unusual for those days. Other links between the fictional and real-life schools are easy to find - Elinor even chse for her pupils in Hereford a uniform exactly like the Chalet School's! Not that Elinor was really suited to being a headmistress: she was far too erratic and disorganised, and would sometimes become so absorbed by her writing that she completely forgot to turn up for a lesson! Nevertheless, she had real gifts as a teacher - something else that shines through in her books; and despite her reputation for eccentricity she has left affectionate memories with many people, including former pupils.
Elinor Brent-Dyer was a prolific writer, but it is unquestionably the Chalet School series that keeps hre name alive. The stories, which have now been continuously in print for over seven decades, are still selling well; and each year the paperback editions introduce new fans to the books. Today, Chalet enthusiasts can be found not only througout Britain but in numerous further-flung parts of the world. Many of them belong to one - or sometimes both! - of the two fan clubs, the New Chalet Club and Friends of the Chalet School. Fans hold regular meetings; and in 1994 they helped to organise celebrations of Elinor's centenary in a wide variety of places, including Australia, during which memorial plaques were erected in South Shields (Elinor's birthplace); Hereford (where she ran her school); and Pretisau (The setting of the early stories).
The Pertisau plaque stands on the wall beside the parish church, and it highlights the crucial importance of Elinor's Tyrolean holiday, as well as paying her a fitting tribute. Translated, it reads:
President, New Chalet Club