The Chalet School books are a series of 59 children’s novels by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published between 1925 (with The School at the Chalet) and 1970 (finishing with Prefects of the Chalet School). I had several of these books when I was young, and read as many of the others as I could find in our little local library. I loved the boarding school stories genre, but the Chalet School books were my favourites.
The timeline of the books roughly follows the years in which they were written. The school is founded by Madge Russell in Tyrol in the Austrian Alps in 1925. The Chalet School in Exile, published in 1940, involves encounters with the Nazis and the school moving to Guernsey (and then, in 1941, to Wales). In 1954 with The Chalet School and Barbara, the school moves back to Europe, this time to Switzerland, and remains there for the balance of the series.
Living in tropical northern Australia, the world of the European boarding school was so exotic as to almost amount to secondary world fantasy. The strictures of life at the Chalet School – the days on which the girls could only speak French and German; the hurried morning routines where each girl had to bathe, strip their beds, and say prayers before breakfast; the solemn nature of “prep”, where homework was completed en masse under prefect supervision – were oddly alluring. Boarding school is a place free of parental supervision, and yet with its own labyrinthine internal structures and rules. The characters’ freedom to determine whether they would keep those rules, or experiment with breaking or bending them; to find their own place in the school community, is part of the appeal of the genre.
There is a wealth of writing on the world of the Chalet School books online. The World of the Chalet School discusses among other things the Chalet School as an educational institution and the moral themes of the series. I also love LH Johnson’s wonderfully funny reviews of many of the books, such as this one of Althea Joins the Chalet School, the penultimate book in the series published in 1969:
“It’s no secret that quality dips substantially towards the end of the Chalet School series, and Althea is emblematic of that shift. Following the now traditional format of ‘new girl attending the school’, we witness Althea’s eventual and inevitable integration into a true Chalet Girl during the first half of the term. The Borg-like overtones of the Chalet School at this point in time are hard to escape, and resistance is truly futile.
There are moments in this book which are truly legendary, and not in a good way. Whilst the actual quality of the writing has slipped, the tendency to ‘throw a maelstrom of incidents into the plot that make little to no sense’ has not. As a result of this, we get to witness a genuinely jaw-dropping moment where, and please note this is not hyperbole, Miss Ferrars manages to leap from one speeding motorboat to another. Frankly it’s an incident which sells the entire book.”
In 2008, prompted by a fit of nostalgia, I started re-reading the Chalet School books from the beginning of the series. I made it to around book 23 or so (Carola Storms the Chalet School) before succumbing to weariness. Too many Chalet School books read in quick succession ensure that the flaws of the series become all too apparent. This year, awake in the middle of the night with a baby, I took up where I left off, starting with book 30 and continuing up to book 43 (my collection is unsurprisingly incomplete, given the length of the series, and I’m missing many volumes between books 30 and 40.) They’re perfect midnight reading while breastfeeding; short, easy, and comforting. Brisk walks are taken in the mountain air, social dilemmas are solved over Kaffee und Kuchen in Jo Maynard’s garden, series of very unlikely disasters happen (avalanches! car accidents! infectious diseases! sometimes all in the one book) and are resolved.
I’m taking a break again from re-reading, partly because I started getting more sleep and wanted to read books with a bit more substance again, and partly because I wanted to avoid Chalet School burnout. One of my favourite tropes is the oft-repeated “new girl at school” plot, when new girls are brought kicking and screaming (mostly metaphorically) into the fold and emerge reborn as “real Chalet School girls”; morally upright little cogs turning within the school community. Jo neatly summarises this principle at the end of Ruey Richardson, Chaletian, “You’ve become a real Chaletian – someone who can face the hard things of life as well as accepting the pleasant ones. Someone who’s going to be some good to the world and her fellow human beings.” It’s all very soothing. May we all go out and be of some good to the world.