Over the decades, thousands of schoolgirls became hooked on a series of stories written by Elinor Brent- Dyer, headmistress of a school in Hereford. The books featured a school set in the mountains, and followed the progress of Joey Bettany and her friends. In all, there were 59 hardback books in the series, and today early editions are becoming extremely sought after. Elinor Brent-Dyer was born in 1894 and combined writing with her scholarly career, often using events and happenings from her school in her books. The lively stories soon gained a large following of fans and today are still being discovered by younger readers, as well as being collected by those who read them the first time round. Her first book, The School at the Chalet, was published by W R Chambers in 1925, and the last book, Prefects of the Chalet School, was published posthumously by the same company in 1970.
The locations of the stories varied with the first books being set in the Austrian Tyrol, but later venues included Wales, the Channel Islands and the Bernese Oberland. Apparently Elinor visited the Austrian Tyrol in 1924, and decided to use it as a location for her imaginary school. Years later, readers managed to identify the village, lake, mountains and small railway which featured in the books, even though Elinor always tried to keep the exact place secret. Perhaps the most dramatic of the books was a wartime publication, The Chalet School in Exile, describing the homicidal persecution of the Jews, and which dealt with the members of the school fleeing from Nazi rule. Elinor’s books spanned several decades, from the thirties to the sixties, and consequently are of interest socially.
In the stories, the Chalet School was founded by Madge Bettany, who married a doctor. The school was linked to a sanatorium (this was an era when TB was still rife) which consequently provided plenty of additional storylines when the girls held fundraising events or became patients. The main character was Madge’s sister Joey, who appeared in the first book as a new pupil, subsequently working her way through the books to become prefect and head girl, before leaving, marrying and having eleven children including triplets! Elinor followed the progress of some of those children through the school too.
Along the way, she introduced a host of unforgettable characters, such as Miss Annersley, the capable headmistress who took over from Madge, and Matey, a firm but kind matron. Elinor cleverly managed to keep most of her main schoolgirl characters throughout the series by bringing them back to work at the school once they had left. The second title, Jo of the Chalet School, was published in 1926, the third, The Princess of the Chalet School, in 1927, and the stories continued to appear at approximately yearly intervals. In between, Elinor was writing other books; her output was phenomenal, and over a hundred were published during her lifetime. Naturally, it is the original, hard-backed copies of the books which most collectors seek out, although, to her keenest fans, condition is less important than content. Many of the paperback editions were heavily edited; sometimes whole chapters were removed, and fans seek the original books so that they can read the missing bits. Prices vary tremendously. Some of the rarer titles, mint with dust wrappers, can now cost upwards of £50, and even tatty copies still cost around £20. If the wrapper is missing, then the book normally isn’t so collectable, and these are the ones which can often be found in charity shops and at car boot sales. Sometimes the books contain black and white line drawings, very characteristic of the era, which show the girls neatly dressed in immaculate uniforms complete with hats, a far cry from today’s more casual clothing, while the wrappers are charmingly illustrated, many of them in delicate colours depicting the scenery of the Austrian Tyrol and the girls of the school. The books are moral, with manners, religion and music playing a great part, yet the principles set by Elinor of different nationalities freely mixing, religious tolerance and the emphasis on the importance of learning different languages are surprisingly modern. Those early readers in the 1930s must have been given much food for thought. The stories were later issued by Armada in paperback form, and these are now becoming collectable in their own right, especially the later publications as these were uncut versions and only available for a limited period.
Over the years, the titles have appeared in several different styles of paperback, the earliest being easily recognisable by a ‘chalet roof’ drawing at the top of the cover. Some of the books have been published as extra-thick ‘doubles’ format, containing two of the novels, while the paperback version of The Chalet School and Rosalie (originally published in 1951 by Chambers as a limited edition) was first published by Armada in 1987, and later republished in a single volume together with The Mystery at the Chalet School. Presumably the first version was so thin that it didn’t sell. The Mystery at the Chalet School was a story which originally appeared in the First Chalet Book for Girls, 1947. The Chalet School Reunion, 1963, was the 50th book in the series, and was celebrated in real life by a presentation to Elinor at a large gathering of fans. In 1994, Armada reprinted a facsimile edition of the first book, The School at the Chalet, from a copy first produced in 1930. The illustration on the front of the book was taken from the original dust wrapper. This attractive paperback is certainly well worth seeking out, and is sure to become a future collectable.
Other Brent-Dyer publications include those in the ‘La Rochelle’ series, which seem harder to obtain than the Chalet School Books, the ‘Chudleigh Hold’ series, many individual titles, three Chalet School annuals and a Chalet School cookbook. Various tales also appeared in girls’ annuals and storybooks of the period, and some of these featured the Chalet School pupils. Elinor’s very first book was Gerry Goes to School, published in 1922, written for the mother of actress Kate O’Hara. In 1959 Elinor Brent-Dyer founded a Chalet School club which was highly successful and ran for ten years. By the time it was finally disbanded after her death it had almost 4,000 members. In 1989 a new Chalet School club was formed, Friends of the Chalet School, (FOCS) which caters for Elinor Brent-Dyer fans of all ages, and which issues excellent information-packed newsletters and booklets. Recently, the publisher Girls Gone By have been republishing uncut versions of many of Elinor Brent- Dyer’s books. Friends of the Chalet School can be contacted at www.chaletschool.org.uk Girls Gone By can be contacted at www.ggbp.co.uk
by Sue Brewer