The concept of the new pupil arriving at school is a common conceit amongst school-stories. Whether ranging from
gym-slip time-slip classics such as Charlotte Sometimes and the more recent Beswitched , (and, fyi, here’s another excellent review of Beswitched) through to the vivacious charms of Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones, it’s a theme that reoccurs time and time again. And no wonder – every new pupil is a guaranteed source of tension, story and excitement as they all bring their own stories through to the fixed world of the relevant school and the reader is left to wonder if the new girl will, or won’t, conform to the status quo.
For this post, I have to go back to my specialist topic and review one of the Chalet School books.
The School at the Chalet is the first in the series (1925) and is perhaps one of the greatest (along with The Chalet School in Exile) of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s books. The essential premise is that the orphaned Bettany siblings, Madge and her twin, Dick and their younger sister, Joey, have been left in the lurch following the sudden death of their guardian. Dick is due back to work overseas, Joey is “delicate and shouldn’t live in a wet climate” and something needs to change in order to ensure the safe future of the Bettany women. That something is Madge and her plan to start a school in Austria:
“.. I shouldn’t want a large number, not at first at any rate-about twelve at most, and counting Joey. I should want girls from twelve to fourteen or fifteen. I would teach English subjects; Mademoiselle La Pâttre would come with us, and she would take the French and German-and the sewing too. Music we could get in Innsbrück.”
Things progress, and shortly thereafter the two Bettany sisters and Grizel, “the second pupil with a bit of a permanent chip on her shoulder” Cochrane, arrive in Austria and open up the Chalet School in the most romantic and evocative location possible: “Higher and higher they climbed, now and then stopping at a tiny wayside station, till at last they reached the great Alp, or rather Alm, as they are called in the Tyrol, and there before them, dark, beautiful, and clear as a mirror, spread the Tiern See, with its three tiny hamlets and two little villages round its shores, and towering round on all sides the mighty limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.”
What I love about this book is the wild range of characters. We have a world of new girls; English, Austrian, French, and all of them are palpably different. There’s shy, emotional Simone; the hail fellow well met Joey, the stubborn John Bull-esque nature of Grizel and the tall quiet grace of Gisela and Bernhilda, Tyrolean mountain girls. Brent-Dyer was ahead in her genre and colours her books with a warm multicultural respect and genuine love for Austria. This school may be English but that comes to mean something very different than say that Angela Brazil bit where she goes off on a eugenics-esque rant.
This is a book that might be very good to share with families facing international travel and also those engaged in alternative educational methods. Whilst there is one relatively scary incident at the end, it’s one of those incidents which sort of doesn’t lend itself to a morbid ending. It’s also notable for the strong multicultural warmth and the genuine faith in the startlingly realistic girls. I would also reccomend this to those readers who are devouring Malory Towers and St Clare’s – it’s a little stylistically different due to age (there’s mention of fires in bedrooms which *totally* baffled me as a child) but it still stands up very strong in comparison.
And, the best bit, is that this title (in direct comparison to some of the others) is very easily available. I checked on Amazon and there’s a load of copies available from 1p. It’s also one of those books that turns up more often than not in charity shops so it’s worthwhile keeping your eyes open. You’ll be picking up a book that quite often, to be honest, reads as if it was written yesterday instead of nearly 90 years ago.