Book name: The School at the Chalet
Author: Elinor Brent-Dyer
Publisher: W & R Chambers
Genre: School story
Publication Date: 1925
Star Rating: 5/5
Life mingled with art in one of the most famous and loved of all school story authors. Elinor Brent-Dyer ran her own school until 1948, when she devoted herself full time to writing.
The School at the Chalet is the first of many books featuring the Bettanys: Madge and Jo. It is reminiscent of other boarding school stories, with the exception that the English sisters school is in the Austrian Tyrol.
After the early death of their parents and then their guardian, Madge and Jo have no reason to stay in England. Jo is a weakly child with respiratory problems, and at that time a move to the mountains of Austria or Switzerland was the usual way to escape the damper climate of England.
The glimpse of how a school is set up and how rough and ready, but exciting, the early months can be is very vividly described. It is more usual in school stories for an existing school to be portrayed. I liked seeing how it all began.
Jo soon rallies in the clearer air of the mountains, and Madge rises to the challenge of founding her own school. Once the practicalities of getting the school open are dealt with, it is an immediate success.
The idea of an English education appeals to local families up in the mountains, for whom a daily trip to Innsbruck would be too far.
Children with health issues like Jo also come to join them from England. Various other challenges at home, such as a hostile stepmother or penniless parents who abandon their daughter to be raised by Madge, provide some variety in explaining why new pupils arrive.
A slight breaking down of barriers between teachers and pupils is possible, courtesy of Jo and Madge’s sibling relationship. Jo isn’t always able to keep to the rule that she must treat her much older sister just like any headmistress, and she usually earns a telling off for it, but there are a few scenes were the sisters are together as a family, which I enjoyed.
The School at the Chalet had something of a sequence feel about it. It was very character driven and much of the interest was supplied by the location. The story moves through a series of scenes with mini-plots that are quickly resolved.
These were sufficient to keep the narrative engaging right up to the end of the story, but the plotline was not the dominant force in the tale. The focus remained on the setting up of the school and the friendships that developed when so many strangers came together under one roof.
There is a more action-filled sequence at the end, when the consequences of one pupil’s disobedience become dangerously clear.
In the many Chalet School books that follow there is plenty of room for strong plots and tight narratives. This opening novel in what was to become a very large number of books about Jo, Madge and the pupils is fascinating for its location and for its wide range of characters. Plentiful recurring characters and the frequent presence of old friends both became as important an element to the Chalet School books as the school’s Austrian location.
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