V. Power and Control

Within the world of the Chalet School, there is a clearly-defined power structure. Younger girls are expected to obey older girls so long as orders are just, with prefects having ultimate power among the pupils. Prefects are responsible to the staff; the staff are responsible to the headmistress(es). Madge, after she retires as head, retains ultimate control, first as the owner of the school and then as head of the limited company which takes it over. Issues of health form the only exception to this structure; the Head Matron "Matey" has the right to over-ride the orders of any character except a doctor.

The school therefore functions as an autonomous all-female community, with girls and women holding all the positions of power. However, men retain much of the control in matters external to the school. The majority of these men are doctors, and in this role men also have the ultimate power of determining whether a character lives or dies when he or she (usually she) is seriously ill. Even when male characters are servants, and so are socially and educationally inferior to Madge and the headmistresses, they have a physical power which these particular female characters lack. Thus it is possible to interpret the series as one which offers a construction of feminine power that is strictly circumscribed and confined to "feminine" concerns, and to a certain extent this is true. However, further analysis reveals a less clear-cut picture, as I will now demonstrate.

Certainly Chalet School pupils are the characters who have least power in the series. However, this simplistic analysis disguises two important facts. First, the girls have a great deal of control over their own lives, far more perhaps than pupils at real middle-class girls' schools ever achieved. Second, the bulk of the texts are devoted to the pupils' activities, allowing for this control to be given greater prominence in the series than its position in the power structure would suggest. It is the autonomy of the pupils rather than their subordinate position which is stressed to the reader.

From the beginning of the series girls are expected to take control of much of the internal discipline of the school themselves, under the auspices of the prefects. The first explicit occasion is early in the first book, The School at the Chalet (1925), when the prefects meet to discuss how to deal with Juliet Carrick and Grizel Cochrane, who have challenged the prefects' authority (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp48-53). When Grizel refuses the prefects' summons, Madge intervenes and makes the prefects' power explicit to both pupils and the readers: "I will allow no rudeness from you younger children to my Prefects. You had better understand that at once. Ask their pardon, and then do whatever they give you for punishment." (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p54).

The fact that the prefects' power is granted to them by the school, and could therefore be taken away, is not disguised. Prefects are often described as the "Head's representatives" (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p172); and this is given as one reason why they deserve to be treated with obedience and politeness. However, Brent-Dyer constantly stresses that the pupils hold the prefects in more awe than they do the staff, showing that the authority which the prefects possess is real. For example, in Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School (1943), Lavender's form is determined to punish her for her anti-social behaviour and pupils suggest not speaking to her, but are concerned that the staff and prefects will think they are being rude.


The prefects are responsible for upholding the school rules and ethos and for punishing all but the most serious transgressions on the occasions when they, rather than staff members, become aware of these first. The prefects decide on the form of punishment, which like the incidents which precipitate punishments often function in the plot as amusing interludes which serve to change the mood of the story. (Unlike real and fictional middle-class boys' schools, corporal punishment is never used in the Chalet School, by staff or prefects.) For example, in Shocks for the Chalet School (1952), Emerence Hope had hidden in the prefects' cupboard in order to overhear their meeting, but has fallen asleep and been locked in their room. She is only discovered after she has been missed at supper and is heard banging wildly (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, pp121-123). The prefects punish her by making her clean out all their cupboards, which takes all of her spare time for six days (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p124). Both the crime and the punishment are perceived as comic by the prefects and, presumably, by Brent-Dyer. However, the incident is also taken very seriously; there is no suggestion that this type of challenge to authority is not wrong.

The prefects' power is not confined to maintaining discipline, but extends to controlling other school activities. For example, although the Head appoints the Head Girl and the prefects, the prefects themselves decide on how their power will be shared, often by voting on who is to take responsibility for individual tasks such as running the library (eg Brent-Dyer, 1933, pp19-22; Brent-Dyer, 1952b, pp46-50). (On one occasion they also decide who will be the new sub-prefect, when Julie Lucy becomes ill [Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp134-142].) They decide on the form of the annual school sale, and organise the Hobbies nights where the girls produce the sale goods (eg Brent-Dyer, 1953a, pp188-197; Brent-Dyer, 1955b, pp95-111). The Games Prefect, rather than the Games mistress, is responsible for choosing the school teams (eg Brent-Dyer, 1952a, pp98-94; Brent-Dyer, 1953b, pp116-124). Similarly, the prefects are not the only girls in the school who have power; to a limited extent all the girls have some control over both their own lives and those of their peers.

For example, when the Head, Miss Annersley, sees that Lavender is being punished by her peers, she decides not to interfere, and "wondered if the girls' handling would have any better effect than her own" (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p79). The ability of girls to punish anti-social behaviour covers not just recalcitrant pupils, but also members of staff. For example, in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927), the girls form the S.S.M. - the Society for the Suppression of Matron - members making the vow that "I will do everything in my power to make our present Matron's life a burden to her, and to make her leave us" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p35). In carrying out these vows the members of the S.S.M. play tricks on the temporary Matron. They finally achieve their aims after they decide to talk very loudly all the time, pretending that they have been influenced by Matron's loud voice. Madge, who is known to believe that women should speak clearly but quietly, then sacks Matron (Brent-Dyer, 1927, pp41-50).

Brent-Dyer describes a similar episode in The New House at the Chalet School (1935), where the S.S.M. is revived to tackle a new Matron. On this occasion, Brent-Dyer uses the episode to point to the limitations of Matron's power: Joey and her peers successfully challenge Matron's rulings on early morning reading, visiting other Houses and taking unaccompanied walks when Miss Wilson, the Head and "Matey" uphold their right to these privileges (eg Brent-Dyer, 1935, pp48-55; pp86-90; p102). Later in the series, in Gay from China at the Chalet School (1944), Gay runs away when temporary Head Miss Bubb refuses to let her go home to say goodbye to her brother, who is travelling overseas. Gay's action is supported by two local villagers as well as other members of staff, and Miss Bubb is sacked (Brent-Dyer, 1944, pp12-15).

Brent-Dyer thus makes very clear that girls concur in the operation of the school's power structure. Power is not simply imposed upon the girls; and in extreme circumstances they have the right to reject individual rulings when these are seen to be unjust. On other occasions, if the staff later find that they have scolded or punished a girl unjustly, staff are expected to apologise: "'And that's the beauty of our staff!' thought Gillian . . . 'They are so fair. And if they think they've been wrong they always say so. No wonder this is such a glorious school!'" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p148). The rules operate to give girls rights and to protect them from abuse of power by others, as well as to give prefects and staff power over the girls.

A dramatic example of girls' power in the series is given in Carola Storms the Chalet School (1951). Carola Johnstone is determined to become a pupil at the Chalet School rather than continue to travel with her cousin - "Go to Jamaica she would not!" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, p8). She manages to obtain the basics of the Chalet School uniform, slips away from her cousin at the docks as they are about to board a cruise ship and makes her way to the school, eventually joining the school coach. When her deception is discovered, she manages to persuade both her parents, who are working abroad, and the school, to let her stay. Thus it is Carola, rather than her guardian, her parents or even the school, who decides how and where she will live and how she will be educated. Carola therefore controls her own life.

In fact, all of the pupils are to a greater or lesser extent independent of their families and gain in power as a result. First, they are at a boarding school, living independently from their families, and Brent-Dyer makes it clear that the girls regard this independence as an advantage. For example, in The Chalet School and Barbara (1954) Barbara tells her elder sister Beth:


Second, parents and other relatives are seldom mentioned apart from the period when new girls are introduced. Third, many of the girls come from non-traditional families. Joey herself is orphaned at a very early age and is brought up by Madge, and both later informally adopt the Robin as another sister. Madge also cares for three of Dick's children, Peggy, Rix and Bride, from infancy until they are in their teens, as Dick is working in India, a climate thought to be unsuitable for white children. Joey and Madge both care for Jem's sister's children, Daisy and Primula, after Jem's sister dies, and when Jo has her own family she also becomes guardian to five other children. Many of the other girls, such as Flora and Fiona McDonald, Gay Lambert, Jacynth Hardy, Lavender Leigh, Gwensi Howell and Katherine Gordon are brought up by relatives other than their parents, and other girls such as Mary-Lou and Verity-Anne come from single parent families. In some families, for example Gay Lambert's and the Bettanys', girls are living with relatives because their mothers wish to live and/or work abroad with their husbands. Girls' independence from their families thus allows their mothers greater freedom of choice about where to live.

Brent-Dyer portrays family bonds as very loose, with living arrangements decided by convenience. Girls are not automatically assumed to live with their parents. Girls seldom miss their families, and homesickness is shown to be undesirable. For example, in The Chalet School and Richenda (1958), Odette Mercier is still homesick four weeks after the beginning of term, and the girls are concerned, but do not empathise with her. Len Maynard says:

The girls are more concerned with the school's reputation than with Odette's feelings, which the girls see as "silly".

When Brent-Dyer does describe pupils' family relationships, these are often portrayed as extremely problematic. Girls have to resolve tensions within their families, tensions usually caused by their parents or guardians, or to come to terms with these. Where girls are described as being in the wrong, it is usually parents or guardians who are to blame. For example, in the first book of the series, The School at the Chalet (1925), Grizel Cochrane and Juliet Carrick are both difficult girls, often rude and disobedient. But Grizel "had realised she was decidedly an unwanted member of the Cochrane family"; her mother having died when she was five, after which Grizel was sent to live with her grandmother for five years. Later her father remarried without telling his wife he had a daughter, and his wife rejected Grizel (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p11). "By slow degrees the wilful, high-spirited child gradually became a frightened, nervous creature, who did as she was bidden with a painful readiness. Later she became the excuse for many 'scenes'" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p12).

Grizel improves under Madge's care, but grows up a bitter and hard woman after her father and stepmother refuse to allow her to train for the career she wishes to follow, forcing her to become a music teacher instead. Later Grizel's anger results in a bad accident involving Len Maynard and Carola Johnstone when Grizel's stepmother, a trustee of her inheritance, refuses to allow Grizel to go into business with an old friend (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, pp149-153). Juliet Carrick is abandoned twice by her parents (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp93-94), and later becomes Madge's ward after they are killed (p180). Herr Marani, the father of another pupil, tells Madge that "He [Juliet's father] is not worthy of the name of either 'man' or 'father'!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p94).

Juliet is "deeply grateful" for Madge's kind treatment, "and since she was thorough in whatever she did, she was making valiant efforts to become the same sporting type of girl as that to which her headmistress belonged" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p159). The fallibility of parents and guardians and their responsibility for many of the girls' problems continues to be a theme throughout the "Chalet School" series. These problems are resolved - or girls come to terms with these problems - after girls enter the Chalet School and are therefore more independent and personally powerful. This means that the theme is most prominent when new characters enter the series.

For example, Brent-Dyer begins Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (1930):

At this point Eustacia's parents are both dead, and Brent-Dyer makes it clear that it is Eustacia's own responsibility to change and fit into the community. Where relatives are still alive, girls need to escape from them (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950a, pp187-190) or become reconciled with them (eg Brent-Dyer, 1958b, pp151-153). During the course of the series many other new characters are described as behaving badly due to parental upbringing, including the Balbini twins (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p229); Gwensi Howell (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p10); Lavender Leigh (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p37); Clem and Tony Barras (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p292); Rita Anderson (Brent-Dyer, 1951b, p18); and Emerence Hope (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p9). (It is possible that Brent-Dyer was reflecting concerns about parenting here that she had developed as a result of her teaching experiences.) Once these characters change their behaviour and learn to fit into the community their relatives become irrelevant, and are seldom mentioned again. Brent-Dyer therefore portrays parents and guardians as potentially fallible and guilty with a consequential loss of power over the girls. Girls lose the responsibility for their own bad behaviour, but are granted the power to change when they escape from family influence and move into the Chalet School community.

However, Brent-Dyer also makes it clear that, as with members of staff, girls must obey their parents - concede them power - when parents are just. Parents have to teach their children correctly, children have to obey them. Both Madge and Jo are described as good mothers because they teach their children carefully and strictly. For example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931), former pupil Gisela tells Jo that: "Madame is such a wonderful mother with David. . . I mean to model myself on her. He is so well-trained already, though he is only a baby" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p12). Later in the series school secretary Rosalie Dene says to Miss Annersley that Jo "really does try to see straight with her children. She once told me that she didn't dare do anything else since her training now would make all the difference to them in the future" (Brent-Dyer, 1952b, p6). Con Maynard confirms this to Mary-Lou when they first meet: "When Mamma rings we've got to go at once . . . We always do, else it's disobeying, and Mamma says that's one of the naughtiest things we can do" (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p320).

Power is also described in class forms. The school is largely middle-class, with the exception of a handful of titled pupils in its early days, the most important of whom is Elisaveta, Crown Princess of Belsornia (Brent-Dyer, 1927), and a few working class pupils, who are discussed most prominently in A Problem for the Chalet School (1956). Previous critics of girls' school stories have noted that the stories' location in private schools partially accounts for the 'demise' of the genre (which as I have shown in Parts One and Two has not actually taken place). Cadogan and Craig describe the fictional schools as constituting "en masse an enclave of privilege" (1976, p179), while Frith writes that:


While the above statement is more true of authors such as Enid Blyton than of Brent-Dyer, Brent-Dyer does portray the Chalet School as superior to local state-funded educational establishments. For example, in Three Go to the Chalet School (1949) Len tells Mary-Lou that she is sure to be entered for the Chalet School because "There isn't any other near 'cept the village school; and you won't go there" (Brent-Dyer, 1949, p321). Similarly Lala Winterton explains that she and her sister have not been to school before because "it would have meant the village school where you learn't nothing - except broad Yorkshire" (Brent-Dyer, 1950b, p12). "Broad Yorkshire", of course, is spoken by working-class girls, and is seen to be inappropriate for Lala and her sister because their father is a journalist, a member of the professional middle class.

Felicity Hunt, in her study of girls' education between 1850-1950, notes that "it was in the middle classes that girls and women were placed in separate institutions" (1987, pxii). Mary Evans recalls that the pupils at her own state-funded day school in the 1950s were uniformly middle-class.


By the 1960s there was widespread concern about the social divisiveness of private boarding schools, and the 1968 Newsom Report described public schools as belonging, "in a remarkable degree, to a world of their own", due to class and sex segregation during term time that often extended to the holidays (pp55-58). The Report continues:

At real schools as at the Chalet School, the pupils actually held more power in terms of class than their teachers, who usually needed to earn their own living. Many of the pupils would go on to be supported financially by their parents and/or husbands, and could work voluntarily.

Frith points out that the very representation of femininity in the genre of girls' school stories gives girls far more power than the ideology portrayed in other specialist media such as girls' magazines allows.

In addition, having a traditionally "feminine" appearance does not stop girls from exercising this power in the "Chalet School" series: "Peggy was slight and dainty, very pretty and gentle as a rule; but no-one could better her discipline when she chose" (Brent-Dyer, 1952a, p47).

Girls are also seen to be physically powerful on some occasions, although men do carry out physically difficult rescues. For example, in The Chalet School Does It Again (1955) new girl Prunella Davidson dives into Lake Lucerne to rescue Margot Maynard after Margot falls into the water. The rescue is completed by a boatman and a doctor, but it is Prunella who has saved Margot's life (Brent-Dyer, 1955b, pp143-145). In the following book, A Chalet Girl From Kenya (1955), new girl Jo Scott prevents Emerence from falling down a cliff face by taking Emerence's full weight in her arms. In this instance the rescue is completed by Mary-Lou, a pupil, and Nancy Wilmot, a staff member and former pupil (Brent-Dyer, 1955c, pp198-200). Later in the series Mary-Lou rescues a new member of staff, Kathy Ferrars, by pulling her off the ice when the glacier on which they are standing begins to break up (Brent-Dyer, 1957a, p113).

The physical strength of girls which Brent-Dyer describes here contrasts sharply with the many incidents where girls become ill or are injured (see 6: I.and 6: II.), where Brent-Dyer portrays a much more fragile image of femininity. Girls are seen as physically vulnerable to the stresses and strains of normal life, and must not over-exert themselves. For example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931) Miss Wilson (Bill) forbids the Guides to take more than three badge exams in a term: "You have your schoolwork as well, Jo, and this is the hot-weather term. There will be the excitement of Oberammergau at half-term, and you can't possibly do all this and keep fit" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p38).

Later in the series, in Three Go to the Chalet School (1949) Brent-Dyer warns her readers of the dangers of over-work, using Mary-Lou as an example. Mary-Lou wants to move to a higher form in the school in order to be with her older friend Clem Barras, so asks Clem to give her extra teaching after lights-out in the room they both share. Soon Mary-Lou begins to run a fever and becomes delirious. Miss Annersley tells Clem:


This image of feminine fragility may have its roots in late nineteenth century concerns about girls' health, when psychiatrists claimed that educating adolescent girls to a similar standard to boys would endanger girls' mental and reproductive health because of their "weaker" constitutions (Showalter, 1987, pp124-125). These concerns continued into the first quarter of the twentieth century, so Brent-Dyer would have been aware of them both as a pupil and as a teacher. As I have discussed, it is possible to interpret the stress which Brent-Dyer places on the school's function to protect the pupils' health as a means of extending the choices available to the girls rather than limiting them, thus increasing their power, and it is probable that she genuinely believed that girls' health needed protecting.

Girls' power is not limited to the school; Joey in particular is seen to be a very powerful figure in all spheres while still at school. The most dramatic example of this is in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927): when Joey discovers that Elisaveta, the Crown Princess of Belsornia, has been kidnapped Joey follows her and rescues her single-handedly. Brent-Dyer writes that if the kidnapper, Elisaveta's cousin Prince Cosimo, "had realised what she [Joey] was he might have reconsidered his plans again" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p91). Brent-Dyer stresses that Cosimo is dangerous and might consider killing Joey (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p116), so Joey is shown to be extremely powerful by outwitting him. This episode is one of several occasions in the series where a rescue outside the school sphere is carried out by a girl instead of a man - Joey outsmarts not only Cosimo and his servant but also beats Jem Russell, a royal equerry and Frieda's father to find Elisaveta. Significantly this is by far the most dangerous rescue which is carried out by any character, male or female, as well as the one which Brent-Dyer describes in most detail.

Similarly in a later book, The Chalet School in Exile (1940), it is Jo and Robin who tackle a Nazi mob which is attacking a Jewish neighbour, and this precipitates their flight from Austria. It is Miss Wilson who plans their immediate escape, although Jack Maynard and Gottfried Mensch lead them out of the country afterwards. On other occasions during the war girls rescue two men from a burning plane, while the doctors do not arrive until later (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp296-297). Girls also discover the mystery of who has been showing lights after black-out when the army has failed to do so (Brent-Dyer, 1941, pp126-129). Perhaps it is significant that it is the pupils - girls - who are able to exercise power outside the sphere of the school, while women's power outside the school is limited. Adolescence can then be seen as a transitional period, whereafter girls are granted more power at school - they can become prefects and later teachers - while suffering a corresponding loss of power in the wider community. Joey in particular is afraid that this will happen, and says so when she begins her last term at school.


In fact Joey remains the most powerful female character in the series, perhaps because after Brent-Dyer repositions the series in The Chalet School in Exile (1940) she describes Joey as remaining in part "a Chalet School girl" for the rest of the series. For example, when Mary-Lou first meets Jo she:

Later Brent-Dyer writes that: "Everyone who knew her could have told you that there were times when she seemed very little removed from the most beloved Head Girl the Chalet School had ever known", and that "Privately she [Carola] was thinking that Mrs Maynard talked more like one of her own nieces . . . than any other grown-up she had ever met" (Brent-Dyer, 1951a, pp12,63).

Joey therefore remains in part eternally adolescent, at the height of her powers for the rest of her life. Accordingly Brent-Dyer describes her as very dynamic and energetic, with great physical presence and rapid changes of mood, as the following example will show. Taken from Changes for the Chalet School (1953), I have isolated the authorial descriptions of Jo from an episode which takes place on her return to the Chalet School after a year's stay in Canada. At this point she has eight children.

Brent-Dyer's use of verbs and adverbs to describe what is in essence a conversation serves to underline Joey's active, positive qualities, and thus the personal power which she possesses.

The majority of the women characters who appear in the Chalet School belong to one of two types: former pupils; and staff members (who may also be former pupils). Most of the former pupils who are not staff members appear in the books as married women, or, very occasionally, as career women, and Brent-Dyer treats the rest as older girls. Thus women characters tend to occupy one of two roles, as teachers or as wives and mothers, with several characters making the transition from the former to the latter as the series continues. Within the school, teachers are the group with the most power. They have their own hierarchy, based on age and seniority, with the Headmistress(es) in control. Madge occasionally intervenes when questions such as where the school is to be based or whether the uniform should be changed are concerned and she appoints the Headmistress(es), but she leaves the running of the school to the staff.

The most common way in which the staff members exercise their power is in upholding school rules and discipline, and in punishing transgressors. As already stated, much of this power is delegated to the prefects, who the girls hold in more awe than they do most of the staff. But Brent-Dyer makes clear that the ultimate authority and the person who the girls respect most is the headmistress, and it is her punishments which are dreaded most.

For example, in The New Chalet School (1938) Joey and the prefects explain to some new girls that the girls whom the prefects have caught breaking rules will be forced to accept the prefects' punishment because otherwise these girls will be reported to the Headmistress.

Later in the series, in Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School (1943), Brent-Dyer writes that:


Excepting Miss Bubb, the Headmistresses all have powerful physical presences, expressed through their voices, appearances and facial expressions. For example, in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953) Miss Annersley subdues a gathering of the whole school when she asks them who is responsible for wrecking Bride's study. Brent-Dyer describes her as sounding "her grimmest", speaking in "freezing tones" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p223). When she discovers the culprits "nervous members of her audience shivered, so icy was her voice" (Brent-Dyer, 1953a, p225).

However, although girls fear being sent to the Head, none of these women except Miss Bubb use their power to intimidate or bully girls into obedience. Instead, they talk to the girls and explain to them exactly what is wrong before pronouncing punishment, combined with warnings about what will happen if girls do not accept these punishments and try to reform. For example, in Shocks for the Chalet School (1952), Emerence is asked to tell Miss Annersley why she has behaved in an untrustworthy manner by breaking bounds in order to block up a drain with a scarecrow, causing a flood. Emerence:

As I have already discussed, Brent-Dyer uses the pastoral convention common in children's literature of presenting all her child characters as essentially good and capable of reform. This is perhaps one reason why Miss Annersley's superior disciplinary power is associated with her ability to appeal to the essential goodness in a girl's character and to persuade a girl to change her behaviour.

Another example of this comes in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953) when Miss Annersley asks new girl Diana Skelton to explain why she has wrecked Bride's study.

As with Emerence's "barrier", Diana's "armour" and "thick skin" isolate her "real", essentially good character, and only Miss Annersley has the power to break through it. Elsewhere in the series the other Heads apart from Miss Bubb, and occasionally the adult Joey, also have this power.

This method of discipline has also been popular with liberal educationalists for much of the twentieth century. Jonathan Croall writes that of all the educational theories of A.S. Neill, founder of the Summerhill progressive school, "absolutely paramount was his belief that children are innately good" (Croall, 1983a, p390). Croall points out that "Neill's most spectacular achievement at Summerhill was with problem children, and here he made a strong and lasting impression on many English teachers" (Croall, 1983a, p392). Neill's achievements were based on treating children with love and respect. Walkerdine has pointed out that in the liberationism upon which 'progressive' education was founded in the sixties, the position of women teachers was vital.

It is therefore possible that Brent-Dyer's descriptions of Miss Annersley's successful methods of dealing with transgressors reflect the growing support for progressivism amongst educationalists during the period in which Brent-Dyer was writing, which Brent-Dyer would be aware of through her teaching career.

However, although Brent-Dyer portrays the Headmistresses as the most powerful individuals in the school and although individual teachers and prefects are also powerful, much of the power which women wield in the "Chalet School" series is wielded collectively rather than individually. Both staff and prefects take many decisions as groups rather than as individuals, and on other occasions their leaders, the Head Girl and Headmistress, consult their colleagues before taking action (eg Brent-Dyer, 1930, pp61-62, 66-67; Brent-Dyer, 1935, pp59-60; Brent-Dyer, 1959a, pp7-13). The community is considered to be more important than any individual within it, and both staff and prefects use their power to benefit the community. For example, Madge, as the only person who is more powerful than Miss Bubb, asks her to leave because: "I do not choose to have all our work undone to suit any single person!" (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p102). Collective action has been seen by feminists as integral to the successful overcoming of disadvantage (Humm, 1989, p31), and so it is possible to interpret Brent-Dyer's portrayal of women's power in the "Chalet School" series as one which offers her readers a more desirable alternative to the traditional patriarchal hierarchy.

One school rule which both staff and prefects unite to uphold is the rule against the use of slang. For example, in Peggy of the Chalet School (1950) Head Girl Peggy makes Sybil Russell and Blossom Willoughby pay double fines for saying "smashing" (Brent-Dyer, 1950b, p124). Brent-Dyer defends this policy as "absolutely necessary, since it was not to be expected that the mothers of girls who were not English would be pleased if their daughters picked up vocabularies of English slang" (Brent-Dyer, 1927, p39). (Note that it is mothers who will not be pleased rather than fathers; women control these type of domestic matters.) Brent-Dyer's treatment of slang is particularly interesting because slang can be seen as the product of a particular sub-culture's appropriation of the language of the main culture for themselves, and in some cases can even be viewed as a separate dialect. The staff and prefects' struggle to force the girls to speak Standard English can therefore be viewed as a power struggle between the younger, pre-adolescent and adolescent girls and the older girls/staff. Significantly, although girls are continually facing punishments for speaking slang (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950b, p142; 1951a, pp86-89), they all continue to use it, including the adult Joey (eg Brent-Dyer, 1965a, p26). Once again the power structure inherent in the texts is ambiguous, giving girls power when they would initially appear to be denied it, leaving the staff and prefects with less power than they have at face value, although their power undeniably exists.

Members of staff also have power by virtue of the fact that they are in paid employment, and so are financially independent of men and their families. Madge founds the Chalet School in order to gain financial independence, pointing out to her twin Dick that in any case he does not have the financial power to pay for herself and Joey: "You can't keep us on your pay; that's quite out of the question!" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p6). At the beginning of the book Dick tries to assume responsibility for Joey and Madge:


The raison d'etre for the series is therefore Madge's assertion of her independence and ability to care and provide for Joey and herself single-handedly, which Dick does not possess. Dick knows that "he had neither the strength of will nor the authority to turn her from her purpose" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p7). Dick then leaves to go to India and rarely appears in the series again, leaving Madge as the most powerful member of the family (Great-Uncle William is never a contender). Madge continues to have financial control of the school for the rest of the series, retaining power both in the school and in the outside world although she loses power in the domestic sphere on marriage. Joey also becomes financially independent shortly after leaving school when her first book is published, and remains a "career woman" while married. Staff members retain the ability to be financially independent after they marry and leave employment, as do the many former pupils who have trained for a career, leaving both groups with more power than would otherwise be the case.

However, when women characters marry they do lose power to their husbands. Madge in particular becomes a much weaker character once she has married, perhaps because as Jo becomes an adult she takes over from Madge as the most personally powerful of the two sisters. For example, in The New Chalet School (1938), which takes place when Jo has left school and sold her first book, Madge collapses after the Balbini twins run off with her baby Sybil. "The relief of knowing that her husband would be at hand to take over the worst of the trouble on his broad shoulders had been too much for Madge, and even as he rang off, she fainted quietly away" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p273). Jo is left to nurse Madge, while Jem searches for the children with a colleague, Gottfried Mensch, and the baby is eventually discovered by another man, Herr Anserl. When the children are returned Jem stops Madge from getting out of bed. "'Indeed you aren't!' A masculine voice spoke emphatically" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p286).

Joey retains more power in her marriage, but is still seen to defer to Jack. For example, on one occasion he addresses Jo as "young woman" and instructs her to "go and get yourself and the babes ready" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p317). Jo readily accepts Jack's authority: "Jo smiled, and went off obediently" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p318). Former pupils are seen to have similar relationships. For example, in The Chalet School and Jo (1931) Gottfried "smiled down" at his wife, former Head Girl Gisela Marani, and calls her "little wife"; when Gisela replies to him she speaks "softly" (Brent-Dyer, 1931, p160). However, Brent-Dyer only refers to these relationships briefly and sporadically, and on other occasions Jo and Jack are shown to have a much more equal relationship (eg Brent-Dyer, 1950a, pp146-148).

As well as having more power than women in marriage, men also have greater physical power. For example, in Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (1930) a group of girls have to be rescued by village men after they have been forced to spend the night on the mountainside.

Later Eustacia is rescued by the village men when she runs away. The men are described as "trusty fellows" with "strong arms" (Brent-Dyer, 1930, p154); Eustacia, on the other hand, is severely injured as a result of her flight.

After the school returns to the Alps, Brent-Dyer writes about similar rescues. For example, in the first of the 'Oberland' books, The Chalet School and Barbara (1954), the girls are rescued by the village men and the doctors when they are trapped because of a storm.

All the responsibility - and power - has been taken over by male characters with greater physical strength, who can keep the girls safe when the girls cannot look after themselves. Brent-Dyer does not confine her descriptions of male strength to rescues; for example Dickie Christy's father, owner of the school buildings when the school moves to St Briavel's Island, is described as vaulting out of the open window after a conversation with Miss Annersley (Brent-Dyer, 1953b, p21) - women use doors and are confined by social conventions.

Significantly, male characters are at their most powerful during the war years, when Europe was effectively controlled by military authorities who were of course almost exclusively male. The Chalet School in Exile (1940) begins with the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, when Jem Russell assumes control of the school from his wife. Madge tells Robin that: "Jem feels he had a good deal of responsibility with the Sanatorium, and the School, too" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p17). In fact the school is Madge's responsibility, as she owns it. Jem orders Miss Annersley, the Head, to gather her staff together, and tells them they must move the school to the Sonnalpe where he lives at half term (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp25-28). He tells them that he is doing this because they need male protection: he admits that "Madge thinks I'm making a fuss about nothing"; but his wishes prevail (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p30). From this point onwards Jem makes all the major decisions regarding the school for the rest of the book.

Men generally have more power during the war years than women. For example, Jack accompanies Jo, Robin and Hilary to hide the Peace League document from the Nazis because "We aren't allowed to go on our own" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p59). At this point Jo is a financially-independent adult. Later in the episode, when Robin and Hilary disappear, Jo collapses: "'Jack, I can't bear it!' And half-fainting, Jo collapsed in the strong arms holding her" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p87). At the end of this episode Joey has agreed to marry Jack; she is not strong enough to survive the war on her own. She continues to be physically weak, becoming ill during their escape to Guernsey (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p151) and later during their escape from Guernsey to England (Brent-Dyer, 1941, pp29-33).

Further on in the book Jem is able defy the Gestapo and stop the Gestapo from taking Joey away for questioning when Joey's and Madge's protestations have failed. The Gestapo officer has "shrugged his shoulders" and used "an insolent gesture" to Joey and Madge, but to Jem the officer speaks "civilly". "He had not realised that Miss Bettany might be under the protection of anyone so powerful as the great doctor." Jem tells Joey "sternly" to "hush", "I will see to all this" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp106-108). This is men's business, and in this incident Jem seems to have no more respect for his wife and sister-in-law than the Gestapo officer does. At the end of the book, when all the main characters have reached Guernsey safely, Bruno and Friedel tell more of the story of their escape to Jack than to Jo - "Much was not fit to be repeated" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p327). Joey is seen as too weak to be told what had happened, but in denying her - and the readers - knowledge Brent-Dyer is also denying her power.

In The Chalet School Goes To It (1941), Miss Annersley, the most powerful character within the Chalet School community, is forced to resort to subterfuge to calm down the local Colonel. Miss Annersley asks the Colonel, who is convinced that the school is harbouring a spy, for his advice about air-raid shelters, pretending to be unable to make her own decision. Brent-Dyer portrays this as a very clever move, revealing that Miss Annersley is indeed a powerful character who can outwit the head of the local military. "Clever Miss Annersley! There was nothing the Colonel liked so much as being asked for advice" (Brent-Dyer, 1941, pp146-147). Perhaps one reason that Brent-Dyer may have portrayed female characters as losing power to men in the wartime books was to convince her readers that women were not responsible for the war or the crimes related to it.

Instead Brent-Dyer describes her female characters as devoted to internationalism and peace, founding their own Chalet School Peace League. Cooper, Munich and Squier point out that:

In addition to this, Brent-Dyer is working within many of the conventions of classic children's literature, and a portrayal of women actively involved in warmaking rather than in peace initiatives would have contravened these. However, it is also true that women did play a central role in the peace movement following the war. For example, the National Assembly of Women was active in organising around the issue of peace (Wilson, 1980, pp177-178).

Despite the emphasis which Brent-Dyer places on men's superior power in the war years, this is not the most significant display of men's power in the "Chalet School" series, since only six books of the series were published in wartime. Neither is men's greater physical strength and controlling role in relationships particularly significant, since these characteristics are described only briefly. Instead men's greatest power comes from their profession, because the overwhelming majority of male characters are doctors. Male doctors are called in to the school when characters suffer life-threatening illnesses or injuries, and spend the rest of the time treating TB patients, whose only chance of survival lies with the sanatorium staff. They are therefore seen as having a semi-godlike power over life and death. Sontag points out that in typical accounts of TB in the nineteenth century TB was represented as "the prototypical passive death" (Sontag, 1979, p25). Patients were perceived as being extremely passive, leaving an image of the doctors who treated them as extremely active and positive.

While the doctors at Brent-Dyer's sanatorium are all men, the majority of patients are women and children. The physical proximity of the sanatorium to the school is a constant reminder of potential physical weakness. However, the sanatorium can also function to reduce men's power in the series. First, because of their work, men are usually absent from the family home, leaving women in control of the domestic environment. Second, the sanatorium provides former pupils and members of staff who marry doctors a means of continuing their links with the school after marriage, and thus the possibility of maintaining a self-identity within a marriage. Third, it is men who are identified as carrying out caring, nurturing work rather than women, as Brent-Dyer rarely describes women as carrying out childcare or domestic work, and this type of work is more often identified with women and is thus commonly seen as lacking importance. As with the whole of the content of the Chalet School, then, analysis reveals mixed and often contradictory messages which serve to expose the arbitrary and shifting nature of what it has meant to be "female" in twentieth-century British society.

Next: 6: Plot Summaries
Return to: 6. The World of the Chalet School Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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