The School at the Chalet (by Elinor M Brent-Dyer)

I don't remember when I first discovered Elinor M Brent-Dyer. I should think I was about ten or eleven; there were several of the earlier hardbacks at my grandmother's house. I know that by the time I was about thirteen I was regularly borrowing books from her lengthy Chalet School series from my school library.

As a young adult I started collecting some of them myself, although most were only available in rather abridged Armada paperback form. I've re-read most of them, sporadically, over the years.

Recently I've acquired the rest of the series, including a good number in hardback. So I decided to start over at the beginning and read the full version of 'The School at the Chalet'. It's the story of the orphaned Madge (aged 24) and her younger sister Joey (aged 12). Struggling financially, and unable to go to India where Madge's twin brother works, they decide to rent a chalet in Austria and start a small school.

It's set in the 1920s, when apparently it was a great deal less expensive to live in Europe than in the UK, and where young women could start schools and take on students without any prospectus or much experience. The Chalet School is run on what were, at the time, fairly radical principles - no doubt those of the author, who was herself a school Head - and seems like an attractive school.

Naturally it seems a bit dated now, particularly in the slang used by the British girls - 'topping' and 'ripping' being particularly popular. Some of the situations, too, seem rather caricatured. But the conversations are realistic, and the people feel alive and believable; it's the characterisation which pulls these books - and there are over 60 of them in all - out of the rut formed by an immense number of school stories written in the early part of the 20th century.

They experienced something of a revival in the 1970s and 80s when they were republished in the abbreviated paperback forms, and more recently hardback facsimile versions have also been published. 'The School at the Chalet' is often found in charity shops, mostly in paperback form, and makes a good light read for anyone who enjoys classic teenage fiction.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 17th September 2009

NB: I also wrote a longer review of 'School at the Chalet' at the Ciao site, back in 2004.

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