Chalet school: It's another country

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Indy Lifestyle Online
In a second-hand shop devoted to children's books, I recently came across a battered, ex-school-library edition, its pages thickened with the touch of countless small fingers, encrusted with God knows what. It had no dust-jacket, yet it cost pounds 33; a 1965 first edition of Adrienne and the Chalet School. In the same shop, a young woman wistfully fingered a copy of The Highland Twins at the Chalet School (1942), its jacket crisply cellophaned, then blushed and nearly dropped it when she saw the price: pounds 45.

The proprietor murmured: "Oh yes, very rare" unapologetically failing to make a sale. The Chalet School books are fun to read when you're a kid, but this puzzling, silly, repetitious, unintentionally funny, pious, charming and peculiar series is even better when you're an adult, which is why prices of Elinor M Brent-Dyer hardbacks are going through the roof.

I first came across the series at the age of 11 in the school library, which had an almost complete set of the 50-plus titles, running from 1925 to 1970. The book I picked at random, the Chalet School Reunion (today's price around pounds 65) was not a smart choice for a beginner.

I was perplexed by a story purporting to be about an international boarding school in Switzerland, but in which most of the characters were adults and nothing much happened beyond reminiscence, with whole passages beginning: "Do you remember when Lonny, Evvy and Corney ..." I cast it aside, but tried an earlier book, and was soon gripped by a world of eccentric names and curious customs, of Mitagessen in the Speisesaal, of Kaffe und Kuchen, of strange games and country dances, of cosmopolitans, cream cakes and TB scares.

Brent-Dyer's mythographic skills give the stories their addictive power. The school's legends are told over and over again, and it's to the portentous, over-determined quality that the series owes its heavy-handed charm. The innocent, PC-free tone is refreshing, if startling: the teachers all smoke furiously, and Daisy Venables, an otherwise admirable girl, announces she will "work like a nigger" to get into the Royal College of Needlework.

But there's an almost fascistic insistence on obedience in children, and some of the moral strictures are near unfathomable now. When Jo, the series heroine, teases that a pre-occupied friend must be too busy thinking of her forthcoming marriage to concentrate, she is reprimanded as though she'd made a particularly filthy joke.

Brent-Dyer is bearable today if you employ a keen modern counter-reading at moments like this. It is difficult to share her enthusiasm for certain girls. Jo is always delightful, but her infantile, cloying step-sister The Robin is a rebarbative creation. "Me, I will sing Ze Red Sarasan!" she burbles, and you can only sympathise with the nasty new girl who knocks her over. So delightful does Brent-Dyer consider The Robin that she finds it next to impossible to make her grow up.

The problem of Jo's development, meanwhile, is resolved with scant regard for probability, or even gynaecology. She goes to live next door to the school with her doctor husband, and her single character-note after that is one of unnatural fecundity. She has triplets, twins and singletons, all of every possible hair and eye colour; the final count is 11, and she ends the series threatening to have quads. Even in the 1970s, Brent- Dyer couldn't express Jo's charisma in any other terms than motherhood.

A much more interesting case study is Grizel Cochrane, Jo's bete noire and a veteran Old Chaletian who nearly spans the series. There is something up with Grizel and it isn't PMT; she's a bitch all the time. A wild child, she nearly kills herself in the first book trying to climb a forbidden Austrian peak, then grows up to become an embittered music teacher, tongue- lashing the Chaletians and setting Len, one of Jo's triplet daughters, on fire with a mis-aimed cigarette. She flees to New Zealand to run a shop with a girlfriend, which I was happy to decode as a lesbian relationship (Brent-Dyer never married) until I found the book where Grizel meets a nice man on a cruise, gets engaged, and attains a measure of peace by saving Len from falling off a precipice.

Every term brings its near-tragic incident. Death in a raging torrent, at the hands of an assassin or a lunatic (another near-miss for The Robin), by falling into a frozen lake, or getting lost in a blizzard, is a constant danger. But Brent-Dyer also dealt honourably and unflinchingly with real horror when the war came. It is some reality check when Onkel Florian, father to two old Chaletians and a key figure in the early years, disappears into a concentration camp and is returned to his wife as a heap of ashes. There's power in the old books yet.