You’ll have often heard the names Elsie J Oxenham, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce grouped together. But why?
These three giants of girls’ stories were so influential that a literary movement was named after them: the Big Three. They all wrote in the first half of the twentieth century and between them the Big Three came to dominate the market.
Elsie J Oxenham wrote the popular Abbey Girls series. In total, 38 books delighted girl and young women readers from 1914 to 1959.
A key feature of the Abbey Girls series, apart from the girls’ school element, was Elsie J Oxenham’s decision to see the same characters through from girlhood into adulthood.
This was central to their popularity: the ability to stay with the characters we loved and see them move into adulthood and become wives and mothers.
Elinor Brent-Dyer is famous for a similar decision to follow the same group of characters (in this case a single family, the Bettanys) through school days at the Chalet School and then on into adulthood. By the end of the series, we are thrilled to see Joey, Dick and Madge’s own daughters at the school.
Likewise, Dorita Fairlie Bruce delighted readers from 1921 to 1941 with series which feature the same characters continuing through their lives. She is most well-known for the Dimsie series, though Dorita Fairlie Bruce wrote a number of different series of girls’ stories.
Elinor Brent-Dyer was the second member of the Big Three after Elsie J Oxenham. She started her literary career with the La Rochelle series when Gerry Goes to School was published in 1922.
The Chalet School, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s best-loved series of girls’ school stories, was inspired by a holiday in Austria. Set in the Tyrol, high in the mountains, a steady stream of girls benefit from exercise, fresh air and an insistence on hard work and good manners.
Madge Bettany starts the school partly because of her younger sister’s fragile health. Joey gains in strength from the move from England to the Tyrol. Madge marries, and so eventually does Joey. But we don’t lose sight of them. Far from it.
The Chalet School series sees us enjoy Joey and Madge’s daughters going to the school and growing up to become characters we care for a great deal in their own right. We spend a whole generation with the Chalet School, until Joey and Madge’s daughters are older than Joey was when the school began.
The final member of the Big Three was Dorita Fairlie Bruce. She is famous for producing more different series than either Elinor Brent-Dyer or Elsie J Oxenham: a total of five different locations and groups of characters.
These were St Bride’s and Maudsley (or Nancy), Springdale, Toby and Sally and Colmskirk, in addition to the Dimsie stories.
What made these three authors of girls’ stories so unique that they became part of the Big Three literary movement, to the exclusion of other writers such as Angela Brazil?
The answer lies in their decision to stay with the same core characters from book to book within each series. Angela Brazil, by contrast, is better known for creating a new school and new characters with each story.
Sales alone were not enough to gain entry to the Big Three, although Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Elsie J Oxenham were titans of the girls’ story market. Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s novels sold so well that she was second only to Angela Brazil in sales of girls’ stories in the Twenties and Thirties. By 1947, the Dimsie series alone had sold over half a million copies.
I love Angela Brazil novels, and I am constantly aware when reading her books of the talent she showed in producing a new location and school full of original characters for each one.
I often reflect on how unfair it seems that Angela Brazil was not included in the Big Three. It would have been perfectly possible to make it the Big Four, after all.
It is easy to understand the emotional lure of seeing the same characters develop and grow. We all know what it is to become heavily invested in our favourite girls’ story heroines and to long to see more of their lives.
It must have been incredibly enticing for the girls and young women who loved the Big Three’s stories to glimpse the adulthood that lay ahead for them too on the pages of their much-loved books from Elinor Brent-Dyer, Elsie J Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce.
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