Alpine adventures, kidnapped princesses, jolly mistresses, brown and flame uniforms and Kaffee und Kuchen; the Chalet School series was everything life in rural Ireland was not and a 9 year old me adored it.
Originally set in Austria, the series of about 60 books written by Elinor Brent-Dyer was based on a school which opened in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1920s and spanned right through to the late 1960s, moving to Guernsey, Wales and finally Switzerland. The books crossed an era of British and European history covering colonial India, Prussia, post World War I, the rise of Nazism, World War II and a post- World War II Britain all through the veiled eyes of a privileged private boarding school for girls.
As with most girls’ books there was a riotous cast of heroes and villains. The Chalet School series recounted tales of generations of girls from the original it-girl ‘Joey’ to her triplet daughters and included one token Irish pupil – the ward of the school ‘Biddy Ryan’ with her cringe-inducing stage Oirish, ghost stories and ‘black flowing hair to her knees’. Begorrah.
Reading them now these books are wildly inaccurate, hugely racist, incredibly sexist and played on stereotypes to a lamentable degree but they also dealt with multi-culturalism and a multi-religious setting not usually found in children’s books at the time. Looking at the social context is also an eye-opener: the school was run in tandem with a sanatorium where ‘delicate’ children went to be treated for consumption – it was the 1940s before effective drugs to treat TB were readily available – not to mention the acceptance that women would only teach ‘until they married, of course’.
The real fascination for me lay not in the actual stories, though tales of storms in the mountain tops and tragic toboggan accidents were gobbled down with much delight – once I’d found out what a toboggan was – but in the foreignness, the otherness of it all. Those books were probably my first introduction to continental Europe and I was smitten.
Ice cold baths from spring fed water, milky coffee drunk from porcelain bowls, hikes over alpine plains, glaciers, drinking goats’ milk from friendly Tyrolean shepherds (which no doubt I would have detested in real life and refused point blank to drink), the gloomy glow of polished wooden parquet salons and hearty fires in pot bellied stoves during winter. The girls ate brioche, danced local Tyrolean dances, spoke fluent French and German. I couldn’t fathom a more amazing thing than to be able to babble in more than one language, quite forgetting the Irish we all used every day. I was enthralled by the detail and the pure exoticism of their day to day schooling, the accounts of scenes at snowy railway stations, the guttural names of the villages, and the descriptions of sunsets over unpronounceable peaks.
This early love affair with all the delightful differentness of foreign climes has remained with me – and maybe inspired my own subsequent European adventures – as impressions from often innocuous childhood books often do. I’m sure I’m not the only ‘Chalet schoolgirl’ present but if so what children’s book made a big impression on you?