Book name: The Head Girl of the Chalet School
Author: Elinor Brent-Dyer
Publisher: W & R Chambers
Format: ebook, print
Genre: School stories, vintage children’s fiction
Publication Date: 1928
Star Rating: 5/5
It is very common for girls’ fiction set in boarding schools to analyse how a newcomer has trouble fitting into the school environment and ethos.
However, it’s far less typical to see a longstanding pupil still falling short of expectations.
This is the premise of The Head Girl of the Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer.
Grizel Cochrane has been at the Chalet School almost since its inception, having been sent there by a stern stepmother eager to be rid of her husband’s troublesome daughter.
I always felt sympathetic towards Grizel because of the way that Elinor Brent-Dyer was careful to lay out for us the link between Grizel’s home life and her behaviour.
Years later, when The Head Girl of the Chalet School opens, she is on the verge of turning eighteen and leaving the school. She’s picked for the position of head girl for her last term, which triggers a crisis of confidence that just made me root for Grizel all the more.
Grizel finds the forthcoming position of head girl oppressive, and in a subconscious effort to avoid having to do it she runs off on an excursion of her own.
She is followed by Miss Maynard, Jo and the Robin, and is never in any danger. This is just a short train trip to a waterfall that she’s keen to see during their holiday.
However, she’s in plenty of trouble for not telling anyone where she was going. Despite this terrible behaviour, Grizel is given one last chance to be head girl and make a success of it.
Most of the rest of The Head Girl of the Chalet School is taken up with Grizel’s efforts as head girl. This is a tricky time for all the girls.
The Robin is lured away by a man living wild in some local caves, only to be rescued by Jo and her St Bernard Rufus.
Later, new arrival Cornelia Flower will develop a fascination with the caves and set off by herself to find them.
In many ways, the most satisfying part of any girls’ story about boarding school is that the girl around whom the story resolves makes the emotional journey to improve until she does fit in, giving herself and their school the credit for making this transformation.
This has been such a popular line of approach that it has become a staple of girls’ fiction.
I loved the way that in The Head Girl of the Chalet School Elinor Brent-Dyer develops this premise to describe what happens when an existing pupil struggles to live up to what is expected of her.
Grizel does her very best, even though she finds it more challenging than earlier head girls like Gisela Marani. Being head girl is by no means an effortless position, and I liked the way that Elinor Brent-Dyer brought out how challenging that kind of responsibility can be.
The Head Girl of the Chalet School is unusual in another way, too. The man who kidnaps the Robin comes back into the story later on. His behaviour is the result of mental health issues, and Elinor Brent-Dyer treats his situation with compassion and kindness.
The narrative also features a visit to the sanitorium up at Sonnalpe, where Jo and the Robin spend some time with Madge and Jem. During this visit, one of the patients there dies. Elinor Brent-Dyer is careful to explain to her young audience that death should be viewed as falling asleep to awake with God.
I thought it brave to introduce both death and mental health issues into the story, but of course Elinor Brent-Dyer’s handling of it was superb.
Partly due to all of the above considerations, The Head Girl of the Chalet School felt a little different to some of the other stories in the series but I loved it every bit as much as the other books.
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