When I started reading, Enid Blyton ruled the kiddy book roost. I grew up with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven and all the escapades at Mallory Towers (I discovered St. Clare’s later and the overlaps between the two series always bothered me). The latter ensured that I became a huge fan of school stories in general and I remember harassing my mother to send me to boarding school. At a time when most parents around me threatened to send away their children in a misguided attempt to correct misbehaviour, this request didn’t go down too well. So I had to content myself with endless re-readings of the same schoolyard scrapes as they were called.
I think it was a teacher who introduced me to The Chalet School series, books that nobody seems to have heard of. Which is a shame because fans of school stories are sure to fall in love with this series. The first books were written in the 1920s. They turned out to be so popular that Elinor Brent-Dyer wrote nearly 60 books in the series well into the 1960s. Ever since I read my first Chalet book (I only have vague memories of Jo of the Chalet School, the second book in the series), I’ve been determined to collect all of them. Unfortunately, I don’t think their popularity quite caught on in India so it’s a little difficult to find copies. Currently, I have 11 books, all of which I scourged at sales, street stalls and secondhand bookstores (my greatest triumph was finding one for INR 10). The ones that aren’t out of stock in online stores are imported editions and ridiculously expensive.
The School at the Chalet is the first book in the series. Set in 1925, it starts with Madge Bettany who desperately needs a source of income and hits upon the idea of starting an English school in the Austrian Tyrol (in the Eastern Alps). She’s sure the mountain air will do Joey, her twelve-year-old sister, a world of good after her altogether sickly nature leaves the older sister concerned. A small school is soon set up in a large chalet with 9 students to begin with, but the number soon swells to 17. The book follows the first term of the new school, its students of various nationalities and even a few of my favourite school-story staple, pranks! It also focuses on the Grizel Cochrane, an angsty teenager if there ever was one, who is ultimately responsible for the book’s Exciting Happening. So far, every book I’ve read in the series has at least one alarming event towards the end, most of which seem to involve Joey!
The outdated content, references and general way of life (it was written in 1925 after all) may put off a few readers but I think it adds to the book’s charm and I thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. It’s wholly entertaining and displays a quirky sense of humour. Unlike in Blyton’s books that have an outwardly antagonistic generally despised character right from the start, this book had nothing of the sort. It was all very pleasant and charming. There were interesting turns of speech from girls whose native tongue isn’t English and snatches of varied languages makes it seem all the more exotic. The school’s location made for picturesque descriptions of gorgeous scenery that made me firmly put Austria on my dream travel destinations list. The pictures in my head are beautiful enough but I longed for accompanying photographs just to make my traveller’s soul restlessly happy.
My only worry about the book is that I don’t know how much it would appeal to children today. I genuinely enjoy this sort of story and the style of writing, however old-fashioned it may be, but I have serious doubts about its appeal to kids used to action-packed, joke-filled literature.
The School At The Chalet
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
Price: I got my copy secondhand but Flipkart’s
version costs INR 225. Unfortunately, it’s sold out!