I had a such a lovely time revisiting the first in a series of books written by the school story writer Elinor M Brent-Dyer.
Best known for her prolific Chalet School series, the book that I am speaking of is ‘The School at the Chalet’.
The Legacy of the Chalet School Series
The Setting of the Chalet School
The setting is the glorious cold climes of the Tyrolean Alps, to be more exact a small lakeside village perched up in the mountains above Innsbruck. The time is the interwar years.
Madge Bettany finds herself left with a small legacy and the predicament of having to look after herself and her younger sister. Their brother Dick Bettany is posted in the Forestry Department in India but living there poses a problem for the delicate health of Jo Bettany, Madge and Dick’s young sister.
To Madge’s mind, opening a small English boarding school in the Alps is a solution to all their problems. It provides Madge a source of income and allows Joey to recover her health.
The trio travel to Briesau in the Tyrolean Alps and set up school in a chalet on the shores of an alpine lake. Initially the students are few in number, consisting of a handful of girls from England, France and a few locals. However, based on the glowing reports of the English education provided at the institution, the students swell in number.
The Chalet School Book Plots
Most of the Chalet School books are quite formulaic. There is usually an errant school child who tries to break the rules, causes trouble and strife and learning the fault in her ways – tries to conform.
If you can tolerate these slightly predictable plots the books have a lot more to offer. Brent-Dyer writes beautifully about the customs and cultures of Tyrol, the simple ways and endearing relationships that the Tyrolean people nurture with the British and international students at the school.
In the second book in the series, ‘Jo of the Chalet School’ a typical Tyrolean Christmas in Innsbruck is described with great charm.
A Portal to a Different Culture
In a way, the books provide a good example of travel writing. Ever eager to discover the world through books, the Chalet School series are the perfect portal in to discovering Austrian culture.
As the series progresses (58 or more books in total!) the school ages in real time and the effects of the Second World War are felt by the inmates of the school. Shifting to Guernsey and later to England and Wales and finally to Switzerland, we follow a protracted course in the school’s growth and development.
‘Chalet School in Exile’ is the book that describes the Chaletians fleeing from Austria to safer pastures during the ensuing Second World War.
The Central Characters of the Chalet School Series
Josephine Bettany is one of the most central characters in the Chalet School stories. She is a strong, independent character, blessed with great writing skills and a bad temper. She reminds me so much of another Jo- the Jo of Louisa May-Alcott. Are all great female heroines of a certain type?
Strong female characters have always been the way in the Chalet School stories. They are uplifting to read. Though the times change and school girls come and go through the hallowed precincts of the Chalet School, the example of female leadership and female education burns very bright.
I’ll be curious to see how my 6 year old daughter enjoys the Chalet School series. I hope to pass on the legacy of reading the Chalet School series on to her. I have twenty more books to collect in the Chalet School series. Filling the gaps in my collection of this substantial work of children’s literature has kept me busy and has been tremendously satisfying.