September 01, 2015

The Chalet School

So this summer I have been obsessed with a series of books called the Chalet School books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. 

I've been borrowing the books from the library (and have bought one of my own!!) and they are VERY addictive. At least if you are me. And the people all over the internet who are also obsessed. 

They're a kind of school story. A bit like St Claire's and Malory Towers- except a bit more 'grown up'. Not necessarily because they contain things people know would associate with being a bit more 'grown up',  but they can be a bit more 'life like'. When people get ill.... they don't always get better. 

The book starts of being set in Austria- on the Tirol. It's an English school (originally) but Madge (the headmistress) chose to start the school there due to the fact that, as well as being cheaper, she thought the climate and atmosphere would do her younger sister, Joey, some good. For a time the school moves to the Chanel Islands, then to Wales, and finally to Switzerland. At some point (I REALLY want to read about when if anybody can tell me which book it is) the school becomes trilingual. Having a day each for French, German and English. Sunday is reserved for 'whichever tongue wanted' - which can mean Italian, some Scandinavian languages, Belsornian, Russian, Spanish.... Which is basically... write up my street. A trilingual school? Why couldn't I go? 

An abnormal number of adventures happen in the stories- I guess if there weren't then the books wouldn't have been half as interesting. But expect a lot of fun (and not so fun) adventures. 

Also -this is possibly the only school I know were skiing and tobogganing (coasting) are positively on the curriculum. You may do either- but you must do one! 

The books were written between 1925 and 1970- and you could definitely say that they are 'of there time' in places. Towards the end of the series they may even of been bordering on slightly old fashioned- I don't know. I wasn't around then.

This enormous time span is quite fun- you get to see the children of old girls come and have adventures at the school themselves. Joey has triplets. And Len, Con and Margot all have their fair share of adventures. Madge's girls all come as well. It's... it has a strange sort of appealing atmosphere- were the girls out of hours will quite often call the mistresses "aunt" because as well as being their history teacher- they are also their Godmother. 

Also - interestingly compared to the Malory Towers and St Clare's I read when I was younger - Brent-Dyer chose to 'keep the books real' by implementing what was happening at the time into the books. This means that when war came for her readers- war came to Joey, Madge and the Robin (Joey's adopted sister). This may be because- as the school was set in Austria- Brent-Dyer, unlike Blyton, would have struggled to ignore it. After Austria became a Nazi country - it would not have been in keeping with the 'war spirit' to read about a school happily enjoying life in 'enemy territory'.

This meant that the school had to move. Of course (and in keeping with the many drama's and catastrophes that happened over the course of the Chalet School) this could not be done quietly. Which make's 'The Chalet School in Exile' possibly the least favorite of the titles that I've read. Not because it's not the best. In terms of quality- I'd definitely rank it higher than some of the later titles- but because it's slightly too..... real. It's..... a bit like 'The Sound of Music'. But without the singing to make it alright. There are many not so pleasant run in's with Nazi soldiers. People are threatened. People go missing. People are put into Concentration Camps. People die. A group has to flee the country in secret and smuggle themselves across the border. The school is forced to close- it looses many students because the government won't let them go to a English run school- and more because parent's don't feel it's safe for their children to remain there. Which it isn't.

When the school re-opens in Guernsey they still aren't safe from Nazi spies. But when a pupil is found out to be a German sent to retrieve information- the school's first thought is 'the poor thing'. They don't blame her- that is one thing that everyone is very clear on. In the books I've read that take place in 'the War years' - the school and it's pupils make a big thing of making sure that everyone appreciates that the German's aren't the enemy. The Austrians aren't the enemy. It's the Nazi's who are the enemy. They pray for their friends who are not with them - both those who are native German's and Austrians who are now under the Nazi regime, and those who have died because of it.

And when the war's over- there is a great effort to meet up with old friends. In some cases it just isn't possible. But the members of the Chalet School seem to have a great skill for finding each other again, apparently the tight knit community of the Chalet School lasts well into adulthood.

There are over 50 Chalet School titles... but I definitely prefer the earlier one's than the later. I don't know... I still love the later ones, but the earlier ones are the ones that I prefer. Maybe it's just because I prefer the setting- or that it's because as a smaller school at that time- they are a more tight knit community. 

One thing I do like about the books though- is that you get to see what the Chalet School made the girls into- you get to see the girls when they are grown up, and have careers and families. Sometimes thais get's a bit annoying (you are reading a school story- sometime it would be good if there were a bit more of the actual exploits of the school girls in there) but as a general rule- it's nice. 

There are still plenty of school girl tricks, plenty of prefects and head girls and school rivalries (although not so many as they are often quite a way away from the nearest school), plenty of shows, plenty of exams. There are fines for speaking the wrong language, fines for slang (and they are big on not using slang) and fines for getting splashes on the table cloth. And if you don't like traditional folk dancing..... what's wrong with you? 

The other thing that is big in the Chalet School is the Girlguiding movement. There are several Guide units, and Rangers and Brownies as well. Which basically just makes the books the best ever to me. Because Guides makes everything the best. Almost all the girls are involved in one way or another- and the Guiding is quite deeply ingrained in school life... it's a big part of who a lot of the girls are- and sometimes whole weekends are reserved for Guiding activities- when visitors come they are more likely to show off what they have learnt in Guides as opposed to what they have learnt in lessons, and they actually use a lot of what they learnt in Guides and Brownies- especially first aid and tracking symbols. 

Overall- I really like these books, and I could probably go on all day about how great they are- but I have other things to write and you have other things to read. So I'll stop know- but if you ever have a chance to read one- they're really cool. 

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