Book and Magazine Collector No. 10 - December 1984
Elinor Brent-Dyer, along with Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie-Bruce, is one of a trio of schoolgirl fiction writers whose popularity has proved enduring. Her particular achievement was to have invented a character and followed her through every stage of her life in a series of books. The girl was Josephine Bettany, and the books form the ever-popular "Chalet School" series. Josephine was twelve years old in the first books, and by the time she was nearly forty, in the fifthy-eighth and last, she was still proclaiming her intention of always remaining a Chalet girl at heart!
Inspired by a visit to the Tyrol in 1924, "The School at the Chalet" (1925) proved popular enough for its author to follow in 1926 with "Jo of the Chalet School". For the next ten years, while writing other books in her spare time, Miss Brent-Dyer produced a new "Chalet" book every year. After the last war, she speeded up production, and by writing little else she managed at least two "Chalets" annually. Towards the end of her life, however, she wrote only one "Chalet" per year; the only years she missed completely were 1939 and 1968.
Reprints of the early "Chalet" titles were soon necessary to keep up with the demand. As a result there have always been more copies of the first twenty or so than of the later ones. In 1967 they were brought out in paperback, under the Armada imprint; numbers 1, 2, 14 and 30 were the first to appear, with numbers 5 and 34 coming out a few months later. Since then, other titles have been added regularly. Some of them have been divided into two parts, in which case one half has been given a new title, for example "The Chalet School Fete".
"The School at the Chalet" is the only one of the official set ever given a pictoral cover, and as such is highly collectable in first edition. But this and the other early books are all sought after in the first reprints as well as first editions, because they both have the original illustrations (up to four each) by Nina K. Brisley, who also did the first dust wrappers. With one exception, later reprints and all the new books have only had a frontispiece illustration. Subsequence dust wrappers changed over the years, with reprints and the new books given their number in the sequence at the base of the spines.
Her training as a teacher must have helped Elinor when she wrote her stories, as did the fact that she usually got on well with the children and young girls who enjoyed listening to them. She taught privately in several schools before she eventually opened her own school in 1938. It was known as The Margaret Roper School for Girls and was situated in Hereford.
Many facets of her home life are reflected in her books. She was born at South Shields on 6th April, 1894, the eldest of two children (her younger brother died at the age of seventeen). Their father, who had been married previously, left home when Elinor was three, and her mother did not remarry until Elinor was twenty. Several of her stories had step-parents among their characters, some of whom where made to sound really unpleasant. Yet in the case of Mary-Lou and Verity-Ann, both of whom were first introduced in "Three Go To The Chalet School" (1949), she made their latest step-relationship a happy one.
"The Chalet Club", established by Chambers in 1959, produced a twice-yearly newsletter, written by Miss Brent-Dyer herself. The final issue (above) carried news of her death in 1969.
Although Elinor continued to live at home with her mother and stepfather for short periods, it seems that she did not get on with him very well. However, a book that he gave her for Christmas 1934 was signed "From Dad", so perhaps she eventually became reconciled to the situation.
Around this time, she decided on the name by which she was to be known for the rest of her life. Registered at birth as Gladys Eleanor May Dyer, she attended school as May Dyer but chose to be called Patricia Mariquita (shades of "About Peggy Saville" there? She had obviously read Mrs George de Horne Vaizey's books) while studying at Leeds Training College. She changed the spelled of her second name, retaining 'May' for a short time and preceded her surname by 'Brent'.
Her first book, "Gerry Goes To School" (1922), was important. Not only was it her first to be published, but it became the first of her "La Rochelle" series. There were seven of this set, six written by 1932, but the last, "Janie Steps In", not until 1953. These books have to take their place alongside the "Chalets", since the daughters of most of the "La Rochelle" girls were to play active parts later as pupils in "The Chalet School".
A similar connection applied to other non-"Chalet" titles. "Monica Turns Up Trumps" (1936) was just a school story but Monica became a pupil there in "The Chalet School Goes To It" (1941). "Lavender Laughs In The Chalet School" (1943) had two new girls who were the main characters in "The Lost Staircase" (1946), which must have been written before, but was not published under after "Lavender Laughs". Printed when paper was still in short supply after the last war, "The Lost Staircase" isn't easy to trace, but "Monica" and the "La Rochelle" books aren't too hard to find, particularly in reprints which are about £1.50 to £3. Another book with a faint link is "The School By The River", which is rare. It has been suggested that stocks may have been lost during air raids but, as the book was published in 1930, it is a mystery what happened to copies during the subsequent decade.
"The School by the River" was one of only two of Miss Brent-Dyer's books to be published by Burns Oates and Washbourne Ltd. A rare title, it would fetch around £15 today.
As well as the basic titles and those above, there were three "Chalet" Annuals in 1947, 1948 and 1949, all of which had a mixture of stories. Part of Miss Brent-Dyer's cookery book was used in the last annual and "Tom Tackles The Chalet School" appeared, serialised, in the second and third annuals. "Tom" was produced later as a "Chalet" book and given the number 31 although, chronologically, the events there occured earler. There were a lot of articles; 'Beauty for the Teenager', 'How To Produce A Play', 'Caring For Your Pets', for instance, as well as recipes and ideas for paper games.
"The Chalet School and Rosalie" (1951) was never issued in hardback or given a number, but as it forms a slight part in the sequence, it is useful to own. So, too, is "The Chalet Girl's Cook Book" (1953) which, although unimportant to the story-line - it is merely a collection of recipes supposedly written down by Joey and her friends - makes an interesting extra.
The series went on for so long that, although some unlikely incidents were introduced towards the end (such as kidnappings, spies, and the father of a pupil going into space), on the whole the books consisted of cariations of previous adventures, like someone falling down a mountain, being saved from drowning, or escaping from a fire. One aspect appreciated by keen readers, however, was the way they were always kept up to date about what had happened to characters from earlier stories, who had since left the school. "The Chalet School Reunion" (1963) is a good example, in that it has many more details that usual given about old girls and members of staff. This book is more collectable is complete with dust wrapper and the 'key' which identifies everyone pictured thereon. As the fiftieth book of the series, it was made 'special' by having five coloured illustrations and a bright blue cover with a white spine, instead of the traditional blue cover.
Unfortunately, Elinor Brent-Dyer was casual about her writing, and even her most fervent admirers have to own that she wasn't always accurate with names, place, details and continuity. There are references in more than one book to the time Joey was supposed to have spent in India with her brother, after she had left school. This manuscript is known to have existed, but appears to have vanished completely. Another instance concerns the character Gillian Culver. In "Gay From China At The Chalet School" (1944), someone asks Gill to relate an adventure she once had. The same episode was given in full in "Chudleigh Hold" (1954), and is identical down to the names of everyone except the heroine who, somehow has turned unto Arminel Chudleigh.
As Elinor Brent-Dyer wrote 100 books in forty-eight years, perhaps there was some excuse for her many mistakes. All the time she was writing, she was struggling to run her own school - not very well, by all accounts; it closed after ten years. Her stepfather had died in 1937 so Elinor had to cope not only with her elderly mother, but numerous other old ladies she tended to care for and provide with a home. It can't have been easy to write in these circumstances - during a war, too - or to carry on in such a big house for several years after her mother's death and the closure of the school. At the age of sixty-three, she moved to Surrey where she occupied a flat in the house of her childhood friend, Phyllis Mathewman, until her death in September, 1969.
Phyllis Mathewman was only one of a group of writers whose books Elinor enjoyed to the extent that she repeatedly mentioned them in her own work - usually by having one schoolgirl tell another to read the latest book by Elsie Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie-Bruce, Phyllis Mathewman and others of that era. Or she would depict a child admiring the contents of another's bookcase, lined with books by the same few authors.
Her books had their own excellent publicity scheme. Chambers, her main publishers, hit on the idea of producing a newsletter twice a year, to be written by Elinor herself. "The Chalet Club", with its badge (a small edelweiss) and membership card, was established in 1959 and was an immediate success. It kept old and new members in touch; there were competitions with prizes (usually the latest "Chalet" book); readers' letters and queries, information about characters, and always news about forthcoming books.
Apart from the "Chalet" books, Miss Brent-Dyer wrote other school stories, a few of which had sequels (i.e. "Lorna at Wynards" (1947) was followed the next year by "Stepsisters for Lorna") and others which she herself would have called 'singletons'. Actually, there is a faint "Chalet" link with the first "Lorna" book - Lorna's cousin had met Joey Bettany and owned some of the books she was said to have written.
Of the trio of "Chalet" books pictured above, "Eustacia goes to the Chalet School" is by far the rarest. It was published by Chambers in 1930 and would cost about £12 today.
Elinor wrote about dogs, Guides, pirates, twins, ghosts - almost everything possible. Some of her books were for specifically Christian publishers and were given a more religious theme than she used in her other works. There were three historical novels and her "Schoolgirls Abroad" series of four edicational booklets. Although scare, "Verena Visits New Zealand", "Bess On Her Own In Canada", "Sharlie's Kenya Diary" and "Quintette in Queensland" (all 1951) shouldn't cost a great deal - you should be able to pick them up for about £2.50 each.
The historical novels range between scarce and rare. "Elizabeth The Gallant" (1935) was reprinted in an annual some fifteen years later, slightly abridged and with the title changed to "A Cavalied Maid"; this is an easy title to find. "The Little Marie Jose" (1932) and "The Little Missus" (1942) are both more elusive. Perhaps this is because they were short and easily overlooked? They are not worth a lot, as they are only novelettes, but since they're hard to trace, they have a rarity rating (£5+) which they don't really merit.
Most people who want to own books by Elinor Brent-dyer are content with just the "Chalet" series, looking on any connecting links they find as a bonues, but not essential. Those who would like to own everything she wrote are inclined to seek first editions, complete with dust wrappers and original illustrations, which are, of course, much nicer than reprints. These enthusiasts want the lot - the annuals (for the sake of their illustrations), and every other book and short story, along with all the newsletters. The twentieth and final newsletter, as well as giving the news of Miss Brent-Dyer's death, announced that her last book would be out the following year. "Prefects of the Chalet School" was published in 1970.
The great appeal of most of Miss Brent-Dyer's books seems to lie in their settings. Most places can be identified, though often they were given fictitious names. Earnest devotees even spend holidays abroad checking out the backgrounds used in the "Chalet" books. When they first appeared, their main charm was the novelty of the idyllic mountain surroundings. Few school stories of the early part of this century were set abroad, so the 'Chalet' setting must have intrigued schoolgirl readers of the 1920s and 1930s. The books also offered the further novelties of a school where a different language had to be spoken every third day - even for lessons; where the staff and pupils were nearly all described as 'graceful', 'bright', 'lovely', 'slim', etc (very inspiring reading for the average plump and spotty teenager!) and where there was a constant run of fetes, concerts, plays and entertainments. All of which must have enthalled girls of that day and age, and appears to have the same fascination for those of sixty years later.
Collectors cover all ranges of age, sex, creed and nationality. In fact, in one news letter alone, Miss Brent-Dyer received letters from South Africa, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and America, as well as ones from all over the British Isles. The greatest number of fans are older women, but many young girls who were introduced to the paperback "Chalets" are now looking for the hardbacks, being keen to want the full stories in a more durable version.
Young or old, they all have one thing in common. They want to read about a time when, whatever happened, from a girl getting her head stuck between the bars of a char, to an entire school having to be evacuated, one knows that eventually all will be well, and that there will be no fatalities. Where it hardly ever rained or snowed, but when it did, the incident would be turned into excitement with the discovery of an underground spring, or someone being lost or buried in a snow-storm. And where, above all, everything was always right and happy in the fictional world of "The Chalet School".
The School At The Chalet (Chambers, 1925)|
Jo Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1926)
The Princess Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1927)
The Head Girl Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1928)
The Rivals Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1929)
Eustacia Goes To The Chalet School (Chambers, 1930)
The Chalet School And Jo (Chambers, 1931)
The Chalet Girls In Camp (Chambers, 1932)
The Exploits Of The Chalet Girls (Chambers, 1933)
The Chalet School And The Lintons (Chambers, 1934)
The New House At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1935)
Jo Returns To The Chalet School (Chambers, 1936)
The New Chalet School (Chambers, 1938)
The Chalet School In Exile (Chambers, 1940)
The Chalet School Goes To It (Chambers, 1941)
Highland Twins At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1942)
Lavender Laughs At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1943)
Gay From China At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1944)
Jo To The Rescue (Chambers, 1945)
Three Go To The Chalet School (Chambers, 1949)
The Chalet School And The Island (Chambers, 1950)
Peggy Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1950)
Carola Storms The Chalet School (Chambers, 1951)
The Wrong Chalet School (Chambers, 1952)
Shocks For The Chalet School(Chambers, 1952)
The Chalet School In The Oberland (Chambers, 1952)
Bride Leads The Chalet School (Chambers, 1952)
Changes For The Chalet School (Chambers, 1953)
Joey Goes To The Oberland (Chambers, 1954)
The Chalet School And Barbara (Chambers, 1954)
Tom Tackles The Chalet School (Chambers, 1955)
The Chalet School Does It Again (Chambers, 1955)
A Chalet Girl From Kenya (Chambers, 1955)
Mary-Lou Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1956)
A Genius At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1956)
A Problem For The Chalet School (Chambers, 1956)
The New Mistress At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1957)
Excitements For The Chalet School (Chambers, 1957)
Coming Of Age Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1958)
The Chalet School And Richenda (Chambers, 1958)
Trials For The Chalet School (Chambers, 1959)
Theodora And The Chalet School (Chambers, 1959)
Joey And Co. In Tirol (Chambers, 1960)
Ruey Richardson, Chaletian (Chambers, 1960)
A Leader In The Chalet School (Chambers, 1961)
The Chalet School Wins The Trick (Chambers, 1961)
A Future Chalet School Girl (Chambers, 1962)
The Feud In The Chalet School (Chambers, 1962)
The Chalet School Triplets (Chambers, 1963)
The Chalet School Reunion (Chambers, 1963)
Jane And The Chalet School (Chambers, 1964)
Redheads At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1964)
Adrienne And The Chalet School (Chambers, 1965)
Summer Term At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1965)
Challenge For The Chalet School (Chambers, 1966)
Two Sams At The Chalet School (Chambers, 1967)
Althea Joins The Chalet School (Chambers, 1969)
Prefects Of The Chalet School (Chambers, 1970)
OTHER CHALET SCHOOL TITLES (not main series):
First Chalet Book For Girls (Chambers, 1947)
Second Chalet Book For Girls (Chambers, 1948)
Third Chalet Book For Girls (Chambers, 1949)
The Chalet School And Rosalie (Chambers, 1951, pb only)
The Chalet School Cookbook (Chambers, 1953)
LA ROCHELLE SERIES:
Gerry Goes To School (Chambers, 1922)
A Head Girl's Difficulties (Chambers, 1923)
The Maids Of La Rochelle (Chambers, 1924)
Seven Scamps (Chambers, 1927)
Heather Leaves School (Chambers, 1929)
Janie Of La Rochelle (Chambers, 1932)
Janie Steps In (Chambers, 1935)
CHUDLEIGH HOLD SERIES:
Chudleigh Hold (Chambers, 1954)
Condor Crags Adventure (Chambers, 1954)
Top Secret (Chambers, 1955)
A Thrilling Term At Janeways (Nelson, 1927)
The New Housemistress (Nelson, 1928)
Judy The Guide (Nelson, 1928)
The School By The River (Burns Oates, 1930)
The Feud In The Fifth Remove (Girls Own Paper, 1931)
The Little Marie-Jose (Burns Oates, 1932)
Carnation Of The Upper Fourth (Girls Own Paper, 1934)
Elizabeth the Gallant (Butterworth, 1935)
Monica Turns Up Trumps (Girls Own Paper, 1936)
Caroline The Second (Girls Own Paper, 1937)
They Both Liked Dogs (Girls Own Paper, 1938)
The Little Missus (Chambers, 1942)
The Lost Staircase (Chambers, 1946)
Lorna at Wynyards (Lutterworth, 1947)
Stepsisters for Lorna (Temple, 1948)
Fardingales (Latimer House, 1950)
SCHOOLGIRLS ABROAD (geography readers)
Verena Visits New Zealand (Chambers, 1951)
Bess On Her Own In Canada (Chambers, 1951)
Quintette in Queensland (Chambers, 1951)
Sharlie's Kenya Diary (Chambers, 1951)
The 'Susannah Adventure (Chambers, 1953)
Nesta Steps Out (Oliphants, 1954)
Kennelmaid Nan (Lutterworth, 1954)
Beechy Of The Harbour School (Oliphants, 1955)
Leader In Spite of Herself (Oliphants, 1956)
The School At Skelton Hall (Max Parrish, 1962)
Trouble At Skelton Hall (Max Parrish, 1963)
Helen McClelland: Behind The Chalet School (New Horizon, 1981); Nicholas Tucker: Ditchwater At The Chalet School (Unknown, 19xx).