“The world of juvenile literature is made the poorer by the death on Saturday of Miss Elinor Brent-Dyer, whose 56 “Chalet School” stories, set in the Austrian Tyrol, attracted a huge readership from all over the world – not only of children but adults also.”
(The Times : 1969)
Poorer. I like that. It speaks of riches lost and a genuine, palpable sense of something being taken away. Brent-Dyer was pretty awesome. Yes, she slunk into self-parody at the end of her career but when she was at her full strengths as an author, her books stand squarely in the camp of world-class.
I’ll be the first to admit that the later books in the Chalet School series are sort of hysterical. I’ve just read the Summer Term at The Chalet School and the list of incidents are as follows: randomly running into your guardian whom you’ve never met before on Oxford Street, some eeeevil modern girls who just need a good wash, a train crash, fire, adopting a potential orphan, a girl trips over which leads to a broken bone in her foot, a bee-perfume swarming thing, a sort of meteor strike, a violent storm, a landslide / earth opening double whammy, and a DISAPPEARING FRINGE.
(Amazing, right? And I’ve not even got to Althea Joins The Chalet School where Miss Ferrars goes all Terminator and backflips from speedboat to speedboat… )
I read the later books with a kind of loving attitude. I give them leeway. And a lot of that is due to the heights Brent-Dyer achieved in her earlier work. I will forgive a lot from an author who produces some of the most ground-breaking work of her generation – one of which I’ll discuss at some length here as part of my entry into the Girls’ Own Blog Carnival.
The Chalet School In Exile is outstanding. First published in 1940, it slammed into a heavily suffering world. The impact of the Second World War was massive at this point and being felt by everybody. Exile provides a complex, provocative and frankly challenging counterpoint to the events occuring in the wider, non-Chalet School world. It addresses reality and it makes no bones about it.
“I’m afraid of Germany’s demands on Austria. I think she’s going to try to bring Austria into the Reich. It’s very likely … I doubt if Miklas and Schuschnigg would involve their country in what could only prove to mean appalling bloodshed” (1951:18)
“Hitler is speaking of including all the German-speaking peoples on the continent in the Reich … you’ll never get a monomaniac to see anything he doesn’t want to see. And I distrust his methods.” (1951 : 19)
You can see by those page references that it doesn’t take long for Brent-Dyer to start making her point. And it’s subtle, and delicate and bloody brave to be doing this in the middle of wartime. Her point is careful and comes to emphatic clarity during the next few pages.
“The girls themselves had held a meeting … they had solemnly formed a peace league among themselves and vowed themselves to a union of nations whether they should ever meet again or not.” (1951 : 33)
This is the birth of the Chalet School Peace League. And I can’t even begin to fathom how stunning it is to be writing this when she was writing it.
“We, the girls of the Chalet School, hereby vow ourselves members of the Chalet School League. We swear faithfully to do all we can to promote peace between all our countries. We will not believe any lies spoken about evil doings but we will try to get others to work for peace as we do. We will not betray this League to any enemy whatever may happen to us. If it is possible, we will meet at least once a year. And we will always remember that though we belong to different lands, we are members of the Chalet School League of Peace.” (1951:35)
A couple of things to note about this. Firstly an equivalent to this these days might have been something like JK Rowling pausing to acknowledge the invasion of Iraq or 9/11. Secondly this is, what people in TV call, breaking the fourth wall. It’s a term which harks back to the theatre where people performed in a three walled space (ie: the stage) and the audience formed the fourth wall. Acknowledging the presence of the audience is when you “break the fourth wall”. Here Brent-Dyer, through careful usage of gender-free language (note how only the first sentence is gendered – remarkable for a series with a distinct female bias ), and the usage of ‘We’ as opposed to ‘I’ creates an all encompassing effect to the Peace League vow. It is a statement that is as much addressed to the reader as it is to the Chalet School girls.
The Peace League was a way for women to ‘fight’ – and for children to ‘fight’. Brent-Dyer is clear throughout Exile that women, and the school, are at the mercy of masculine power. Madge Russell expresses this succinctly:
“Must I finish it [the school] just because a set of men have gone quite mad?” (1951:64)
The subtle differentiation of power continues throughout Exile. Jack Maynard, Brent-Dyer’s perhaps most perfect man in that she allows him to marry her beloved Joey, refers to the Peace League quite specifically as “your League” (1951:189) despite only moments earlier having heard his wife refer to it as “our League” (1951:189) Jack fights with his physicality on the front line and Joey fights with her words and ideology. Women fight with words and men fight with fits. Nowhere is this more clearly stated then by Joey Bettany upon the safe arrival of old friends who had escaped from a concentration camp.
“they had contrived to escape, thanks to the help of three men whose names they flatly refused to give. ‘Oh, why not?’ cried Joey. ‘I wanted to pray for them, seeing it’s the one thing I can do in the circumstance” (1951:186)
The subtlety of Exile does not end there. Brent-Dyer also explicitly draws a difference between Nazism and Germans. Not all Germans are Nazis and not all Nazis are Germans.
“‘Gottfried! It isn’t you : it’s the Nazis. We don’t blame you ; we don’t even blame the German people for all this.” (1951:84)
“‘It isn’t the Germans who are doing it,’ said Robin. ‘It’s the Nazis.'” (1951:118)
“‘You see,’ said Gertrude … ‘I’m not English. I’m a German – I was a Nazi. You can’t want me here when you know that’. The man grinned cheerfully. ‘We don’t war with women and kids,’ he told her” (1951:145)
“I don’t hate Germans – I’m too sorry for them, poor wretches!…” (1951:169)
Perhaps the most subtle message of all in Exile is the experience of Gertrud(e) Becker. She joins the school as a spy, tasked with discovering their secrets. Her Damascene conversion into Real Chalet School Girl is inevitable and occurs with an elegance that is superbly handled.
“…the Chalet School atmosphere was working more and more strongly in the German girl. She noted how careful the girls were to speak as kindly as they could about her country. She saw how they did everything in their power for peace, hushing the younger ones when they talked about ‘horrid Germans’ and, by word and deed, setting an example in tolerance that could not fail to have an effect” (1951:137)
“‘I’m not [a Nazi] now-I couldn’t be. Not after they torpedoed us like that. Besides, the School made a difference’” (1951:145)
Gertrude is iconic rather than realistic. Once she is converted her story is complete. Gertrud provides us with an empowering cipher – an image of a redeemed Nazi and hope for ‘British’ ideals being triumphant.
The Chalet School in Exile possesses an impact and an immediacy distinctly lacking in any others of the series.. It represents a distinct shift in school story writing and the adoption of an ideology which bears resonance and weight to the present day.
And that’s why I’ll forgive Elinor M. Brent-Dyer marrying off Len to Reg. I’ll forgive her for the whole torturous “You can eat White Bread now” maxim to Grizel (SHUT UP JOEY WE HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME). I’ll even forgive her for bloody Mary-Lou.
When she was good, Brent-Dyer was world-class. Game-changing. And so very very brilliant.
(Even if she did do that whole OH NOES WE HAVE A PINK WORM IN THE ENGINE thing in Althea).