I am so happy to be able to share this guest post with you today from the lovely Rebecca Mills. As you may know, I have a great love for the early Chalet School characters and so this was right up my street. I suspect you’ll enjoy it a lot as well – it’s so interesting! I enjoyed every inch of it… 😊
Rebecca Mills (PhD) is Lecturer in English and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK, where she has taught and researched children’s literature, crime and Gothic fiction, and other literary and media topics. She has a strong interest in popular interwar women’s writing and landscapes in literature, and has been reading and collecting Chalet School books for about 30 years now. Recent publications include Agatha Christie Goes to War (Routledge 2020), an essay collection co-edited with J.C. Bernthal. You can find out more about Rebecca’s research here and follow her on Instagram.
Grand Tours and Great Escapes in the Early Chalet School Books
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (1894-1969) possessed a gift for painterly landscapes and interest in travel that few of her school story contemporaries wielded. Where Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elsie J. Oxenham, and to a great extent Angela Brazil, usually sketched the picturesque moors and shorelines of an idealised England 1, and Enid Blyton was most interested in what happened within school walls, making surprisingly limited use of her seaside setting (with the exception of the famous salt-water swimming pool at Malory Towers, of course), Brent-Dyer embraced, and reflected, the spirit of adventure—and beauty, and threat—presented by the mountains where she originally chose to set her series. In The School at the Chalet (1925), the mountains offer excitement and danger from a physical and social perspective, and in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927) the mountains create a more sensational, even Gothic, setting for drama and suspense.
In the 1920s, when 12 year-old Joey and her older sister Madge Bettany set off for the Austrian Tyrol with Grizel Cochrane in tow to start the Chalet School, the Austrian Alps were—relatively—accessible from England. The Continent had been familiar ground for the wealthy and the aristocratic since the eighteenth-century heyday of the ‘Grand Tour’, a leisurely crossing of Europe from Paris to Venice and back, including the most culturally rich cities and significant landscapes. As Grand Tourist Joseph Spence wrote in 1741, ‘There is certainly nothing equal to travelling for the improvement of the mind and the acquisition of knowledge’ (4 February 1741). This was accomplished by visiting sites of learning and heritage, studying languages among native speakers of a similar class, as well as enhancing and elevating the senses by exposure to beautiful scenery and artistic and architectural grandeur. These aims, I think, resonate with Brent-Dyer’s approach to European travel; the Bettanys may be travelling by train rather than horse-drawn coach, mule, and sedan chair, and Brent-Dyer’s routes and sight-seeing might be informed more by Karl Baedeker’s famous guide books than Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), but there is an alertness to new scenes, experiences and un-English ways of life that resonates with the Grand Tourists of two hundred years before, as well as an intention to improve the mind of the readers as well as the characters. Incidentally, a 1920s Baedeker guide notes of the Achensee, the basis for the Tiernsee, that ‘a dark-blue lake, [it] is the largest and finest in North Tyrol. It lies in a valley dammed at the end by moraines of the glacier period.’
Everything is ‘fresh and new’ to Grizel as soon as they reach Boulogne; we’re not only on foreign ground but in foreign time—Brent-Dyer frequently reminds us that ‘it was five o’clock—or seventeen, if you cared to take the French time’. Joseph Spence in 1733, declared in a letter that
‘Paris is a very agreable place … I have not mist a night since we have been at Paris of being either at the Opera or the Play: these diversions begin early, and after they are done, we go regularly to the public Walks. Their Plays are good; and not ill acted, very often: but their Opera’s are things that I wou’d not advise any body to go to who has not lost his Hearing, or has no mind to lose it.’
Joey, Madge, and Grizel also find Paris ‘agreable’, enjoying the Luxembourg Gardens and the Champs-Elysees, although they find the opera far more pleasant than Mr Spence— ‘[Puccini’s La bohème (1896)] was an entire success. True, neither of the children understood much of the story, but the exquisite music appealed to them both, and even matter-of-fact Grizel felt a lump come into her throat when Mimi died’. Europe, for Brent-Dyer, is a place where even prosaic middle-class English girls might be moved to appreciate history, and art, and sympathise with the operatic death of a consumptive seamstress.
But the mountains are where these sensibilities are given full rein—appreciation of beauty and the moral and intellectual improvement of travel are infused with a desire for adventure, even danger. Eschewing Mr Mensch’s kind offer of an easy climb up a pleasant mountain to see butterflies, ‘I want to climb the Tiernjoch,’ said Grizel. ‘I like difficult things’. For Joey, imaginative and sensitive to beauty and horror, the Tiernjoch is sinister: ‘It’s such a cruel-looking mountain!’ said Jo with a little shiver. ‘It looks as if it doesn’t care how many people were killed on it!’. Mr Marani comments that ‘It is not a girl’s climb’ and advises her to leave it alone. For Grizel, however, therein lies its appeal. The Tiernjoch offers the opportunity to display her strength (for Grizel is a girl who glories in physicality, who desires to be a games mistress instead of the music teacher’s life she’s doomed to by her parental figures), to break free of confines—both those inflicted by her rigid father and stern stepmother, and the more gentle communal confines of the Chalet School and its expectations for good behaviour and ‘playing the game’. To sneak away in the early morning is decidedly not the ‘straight’ thing to do. Perhaps she also desires liberation from the expectations attached to being a girl—even though the Chalet girls had a lot more physical and intellectual freedom than their Edwardian and Victorian forebears, and the Chalet School actively promoted sports, games, rambles, country-dancing, and gentle climbing, nevertheless these were all communal. On the moors of Cornwall she had been accustomed to ‘run about like a wild thing’ in brief escapes from her stepmother’s supervision, but in the Tyrol she is constantly in close quarters with peers and prefects. For a girl of Grizel’s age and class to climb a mountain solo was transgressive, quite apart from the danger involved.
One of the things that Brent-Dyer does is navigate distinction between self-reliance, to be achieved and commended, and self-centredness, to be trained out, and in Grizel this tension is most evident. She comes to grief on the Tiernjoch, of course:
It was easy going at first, but soon became more difficult. The mist-clouds closed in round her, and presently she found herself struggling upwards, surrounded by white walls of mountain fog, which hid the path from her and deadened all sounds save those of her own footsteps. She was plucky enough, but the deadly silence and the eeriness began to frighten her.
This is solitude with a vengeance, with an uncanny edge. Grizel’s eventual panic at the edge of a literal precipice makes her aware of her need for others, and her desire to be reintegrated into her community and its rituals. Joey appears out of the fog, as if in answer to Grizel’s hasty prayers ‘Our Father, oh, send someone! Please send someone quickly’. It is easy to read Grizel’s crisis, and her subsequent guilt at Joey’s illness, as punishment for her transgression. This sort of consequence for wrongdoing is by no means unknown in children’s fiction—disobedient Katy Carr’s fall from the swing in What Katy Did (1872), or the injuries that overly-confident Amanda sustains when trying to swim in the sea in Last Term at Malory Towers (1951), for instance, come to mind.
There are elements of fairy-tale in all the early Chalet School stories; Grizel has a wicked stepmother, and another pupil’s uncaring parents abandon her and are suitably punished with death. A couple of books later, the fantastical strain of the series is heightened into the fully Ruritanian story of Princess Elisaveta and her mad cousin Cosimo, who plans to kidnap her and blackmail her grandfather, the King of Belsornia, into making him heir to the throne.
‘Ruritania’ is a fictional Eastern European country in Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda (1894); the name came to be associated with popular fiction set in imaginary Balkan countries—the periphery of Europe was far enough from England to be exotic and intriguing, but close enough that its fate had an effect on English foreign affairs, and was therefore fertile ground for English adventurers and political intrigue. We find Ruritanian countries in a great deal of popular fiction between the wars; Agatha Christie invented Herzoslovakia in The Secret of Chimneys (1925), for instance. We’re not told much about Belsornia; its court language is French, its native language is a mixture of Italian, Rumanian, and Greek (a highly unlikely Greco-Latinate hybrid—no wonder Joey ‘had found it not at all easy’!), the capital city Firarto is famous for its fountains. A key feature is the Salic Law, which forbids the female line from inheriting the throne—hence Elisaveta, despite being the sole direct descendent of the King, cannot be Queen. These dynastic concerns, along with the disruptive element of Cosimo’s insanity and cruelty, cause the novel to veer towards the eighteenth-century Gothic; in novels like Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791) and The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Europe is a murky and treacherous terrain where girls are pawns in the hands of their enemies and their families (not mutually exclusive).
‘If Cosimo finds out what Joey is doing, will he hurt her?’
‘If Cosimo is in a good mood he may do no more than take her prisoner’, he said.
‘And if not?’
‘Then God pity them both,’ replied the captain gravely. ‘Cosimo has a warped brain. I do not know what he is capable of.’
Elisaveta is sent to the Chalet School for her health; in the Tyrolean air she is rapidly transformed from the pale, sickly ‘Little Lady of Belsornia’, overly dignified for her years, to a ‘jolly natural child’ and fairly accomplished Girl Guide. Indeed, as Baedeker’s Guide remarks: ‘The invigorating effect of the Alpine winter climate is principally due to the dryness and purity of the atmosphere.’ Yet trouble and danger follow Elisaveta from across the mountains; the ‘horrid Prince Cosimo’, as Joey calls him, and his accomplice track her across Europe, and dupe her into going with them up a mountain pass, with the intention of hiding her in the German Schwarzwald, or Black Forest—so far so Grimm!
The Princess of the Chalet School, incidentally, was the first Chalet School book I read. The cover showed a girl poised between empty blue sky and rocky mountainside, fingertips clinging to safety, stockinged legs delicately positioned on the narrow path, St. Bernard dog Rufus loyally scrambling beside her. At first, I had assumed that this slight figure in the red beret was the princess, but of course this is Joey Bettany on a solo rescue mission (one of many, I came to find). Later editions of the cover show both Joey and Elisaveta—some mid-rescue, with one schoolgirl precariously lowering the other down a cliff with the aid of cut up and knotted pairs of stockings (reef-knotted, of course, in accordance with Girl Guide recommendations for rescuing princesses). There is danger to life and limb, to be sure—but it’s a matter of sharing wits to solve a puzzle, and the companionship and shared peril ameliorates the terrors of solitude and uncertainty. If the Little Lady of Belsornia is in the process of being rescued, the end of the adventure—baths, bed, hot milk, watchful care—is already in sight. These covers don’t have the same sense of the intrepid, the solitary grandeur of the heroine, the sublime vista of sky and mountain of the original cover.
It got steeper and steeper, and it was all Joey could do to go on. What was more, the sun was setting and the darkness would come very soon in this place, overshadowed as it was by mountain peaks all around. … Joey, following [Rufus], discovered that it was just possible for her to scramble up by tiny projections in the rock, and guessed that it had been necessary to put the Princess down while one of the men went up first, and they pulled her up between them. It would be the only way in which they would ever get her beyond it. She cut her trefoil deep in the side of the soft rock, and then followed a scramble beside which anything that had gone before was mere child’s play.
Joey marks her territory with the trefoil, inscribing the inhospitable terrain with the Guide mark, and demonstrating the resourcefulness of the English schoolgirl. Not enough, has been made of the fact that Joey single-handedly rescues a princess, a damsel in distress, subverting the gender roles of centuries—this is the act of a hero, an escapade worthy of an adventurer. The usual prize would be the princess’s hand in marriage and half the kingdom, but Brent-Dyer decides to re-feminise Joey, granting her an elaborate court ceremony in Belsornia, a string of pearls, and a future post as Elisaveta’s lady-in-waiting as a more suitable reward. Elisaveta does better, as after Cosimo is found dead in a ravine, the Salic Law is repealed and she becomes heir to the throne in her own right, ending her position as pawn.
But there’s another dimension, and that’s the landscape—the inherent romance and danger of the Alps, and their unpredictability. ‘The mists were so dense that they prevented us from seeing the other alps surrounding us’, wrote young George Lyttleton in 1729. Other travellers had a different experience of the same scene: “the journey thro the Alps, till you come to the foot of Mount Cenis is really charming,… The greatness, solemnity, and singularity of the views exceed all one can imagine’, rhapsodised Caroline Lennox 30-odd years later. Radcliffe wrote of her young heroine Emily St. Aubyn in The Mysteries of Udolpho that
It was one of Emily’s earliest pleasures to ramble among the scenes of nature; nor was it in the soft and glowing landscape that she most delighted; she loved more the wild wood-walks, that skirted the mountain; and still more the mountain’s stupendous recesses, where the silence and grandeur of solitude impressed a sacred awe upon her heart, and lifted her thoughts to the GOD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH.
This recalls Joey’s habit of pausing mid-climb up to the Sanatorium on the Sonnalpe, begun in The Head-Girl of the Chalet School (1928):
‘They could see the school, surrounded by its fence, and lights twinkling in the windows told them that it was already dusk in the valley. Beyond lay the pinewoods, black against the snow, and beyond them the great limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.
In the West the sun was sinking in a glory of saffron light, which told of high winds for the morrow, but Jo paid no heed to this at the moment. She stood there, her little pointed face glowing with the beauty of it all, her black eyes soft and unfathomable.
‘Come on!’ said matter-of-fact Grizel at last when her patience was worn out.
The mountains offer infinite possibility, and this can be terrifying. Even as Jo carves her mark on the limestone, the glory and infinity of the mountains imprint themselves on her cosmology—and ours.
1 Rebecca is grateful for comments offering further details about settings in the UK and on the Continent, and will absolutely consider these in any future work on the topic.
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Princess of the Chalet School, W. & R. Chambers Ltd., 1941 .
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The Head-Girl of the Chalet School, W. & R. Chambers Ltd, 1960 .
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet, W. & R. Chambers Ltd, 1955 .
Vesna Goldworthy, Inventing Ruritania: The Imperialism of the Imagination, Yale University Press, 2013.
News from Abroad : Letters Written by British Travellers on the Grand Tour, 1728-71, edited by James T. Boulton, and T. O. McLoughlin, Liverpool University Press, 2012.
Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Project Gutenberg edition, 2019 .
Karl Baedeker (firm), Tyrol and the Dolomites: Including the Bavarian Alps : Handbook for Travellers, Leipzig: Karl Baedeker, 1927.