IV. Adolescence & Sexuality

As well as aiming to teach a moral code to her readers, Brent-Dyer also portrays a variety of images of adolescence and womanhood in the "Chalet School" series. One reason she is able to display this variety is because former Chalet School girls, particularly Joey and her friends, continue to re-appear throughout the series. However, the physical aspects of adolescence and womanhood - including the onset of menstruation, the development of breasts, pregnancy and childbirth - are largely absent, which seems particularly striking to an adult reader. Frith has noted that in the first half of the 1980s the girls reading school stories were aged between eight and twelve (Steedman, Urwin and Walkerdine, 1985, p115), and it is probable that there was little difference in the average age of the first generation of readers of the series. It is also probable that the age of the readers explains why the physical aspects of adolescence and adult life are not discussed more openly in the books, as traditionally these aspects are not explained fully to girls until they reach adolescence.

Essentially, adolescence in the Chalet School is marked by a girl becoming a "Middle". This means that she is midway between being a Junior and a Senior pupil, and is also, although this is not stated overtly, midway physically between being a child and a young adult. The turbulence of adolescence is reflected in the Middles' behaviour, which is always the worst in the school and a constant problem for the prefects. For example, in The New House at the Chalet School (1935) Mademoiselle tells Jo: "We all, I think, recognise that the Middles are the girls who most need the prefects." (Brent-Dyer, 1935, p9). In The New Chalet School (1938), a prefect reflects this when she sighs: "I don't know how it is, . . . but the best Junior on earth seems to become possessed of a spirit of mischief as soon as she becomes a Middle." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p7 of Part Two).

The most overt connection Brent-Dyer makes between being a Middle and being an adolescent is when reference is made to age. For example, in The Chalet School Goes To It (1941) the prefects ask Jo for advice:

It is also recognised that when girls grow older their behaviour and characters improve, that the period of being a "Middle" is a transitory one. In The New Chalet School Joey advises the prefects:


Brent-Dyer seldom refers to physical development in relation to this chronological development, but one interesting exception is her treatment of Elizabeth Arnett in The Chalet School Goes To It (1941). Initially Elizabeth is one of the worst of the Middles, who is first introduced in the series by another girl as "a kid with red hair and a pale face - looks too good to be true, but is a perfect little fiend on occasion. I'm surprised at any school taking her." (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p181). Although she is one of the worst Middles at the beginning of the book, by the end Elizabeth has changed abruptly.

It is noticeable that Brent-Dyer gives at least equal weight to the mental and intellectual changes that take place in Elizabeth as she approaches adulthood, and it is these, not physical changes, which lead to Elizabeth's appointment as Head Girl later in the series. Changes in facial appearance, voice and manner are, however, the most explicit physical descriptions of adolescence which Brent-Dyer makes in the series. The onset of menstruation, the development of breasts and hips, and pubertal probelms such as weight gain and skin problems are all entirely absent.

This absence is explained at least in part by the fact that there was almost no public discussion of puberty until the 1960s, and at that point Brent-Dyer was herself an isolated invalid. For example, J. Hemming in Problems of Adolescent Girls (1960) examined letters sent to Girl magazine between April 1953 and March 1955, when Brent-Dyer had already been writing her series for 25 years. Although almost one in five letters stressed anxieties about physical characteristics and deportment, topics such as menstruation and the development of breasts were answered by personal letter and references to these seldom appeared in the magazine. When menstruation was mentioned publicly it was seen as a disability, "the curse". For example, an advertisement in Woman's Own on 15 October 1932 for sanitary towels refers to "Women's weakness", and to women being "handicapped by Nature's disabilities" (p35). A similar advertisement in Peg's Paper on 8 June 1940 for iron tablets refers to the onset of menstruation as "those perilous years" (p26).

It is probable that readers, particularly pre-adolescents, would not wish to read about these "disabilities", and that authors of girls' stories would find this "weakness" hard to reconcile with the portrayal of girls as fit, active, high achievers. And it is important to remember that it was not until the 1980s that teenage magazines became much more explicit about menstruation and sexuality and that advertisements for sanitary wear were allowed on television, so Brent-Dyer was only avoiding subjects that are often still considered publicly unmentionable today. It is also important to remember that bodily functions were seldom discussed in actual middle-class girls' schools during the time that Brent-Dyer was writing the "Chalet School" series. Evans recalls that: "the school, and adults who had any association with the body at the school, was dismissive of the body as anything but a body" (Evans, 1991, p50). She also remembers that "as we were growing up we were not expected to mention menstruation even to our female teachers and discussions about sex and sexual morality never formed part of the curriculum" (Evans, 1991, p63).

When Brent-Dyer describes the physical appearance of girls in the "Chalet School" series she concentrates on girls' hair, facial features and complexions, and never refers to features such as breasts and hips which are associated with adolescence and sexuality. Many of the girls are described as being extremely good-looking and traditionally feminine in appearance. For example:

Brent-Dyer continued to create these romanticised portraits throughout the series. In Gay From China at the Chalet School (1944), Jacynth:

Later in the series, in Bride Leads the Chalet School (1953):


However, although there are many similar descriptions in the "Chalet School" series, Brent-Dyer is careful never to lay any emphasis on the importance of good looks. Significantly Joey herself, who embodies all the best qualities of a "real Chalet School girl", is never described as conventionally pretty, although she is attractive. Even on the eve of Jo's engagement Brent-Dyer describes her as "tall Jo, with her delicate, clear-cut face, straight black hair, and glowing black eyes . . . Not pretty, there was something about her that made people look at her twice" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p19).

Brent-Dyer also uses the series to show that character is more important than appearance, and that vanity about personal appearance is extremely undesirable. For example, in The Chalet School and the Lintons (1934) Joey discusses Joyce Linton with Madge, who describes Joyce as "exceedingly pretty". Jo replies: "And knows it! I should say myself that she's chockful of conceit! . . . I thought she was a loathsome little wretch" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p36). Later in the series Brent-Dyer is writing that: "Joyce Linton especially looked lovely, though no one informed her of the fact. Miss Joyce was not ignorant of her good looks, and no one wanted to make her conceited" (Brent-Dyer, 1938, p87 of Part Two). Later in the series Brent-Dyer makes a more direct comparison between a girl with a good character and a girl with good looks, stressing that a good character is by far the most important attribute. Bride Bettany, later to become Head Girl, is "not at all pretty and . . . had, during the previous term, been condemned to wearing glasses". On the other hand her cousin Sybil:

In fact Sybil only reforms after her carelessness has almost led to the death of her younger sister (Brent-Dyer, 1944, p72), yet another example of Brent-Dyer's use of the "Illness/Injury" plot device.

While Brent-Dyer makes frequent references to girls' appearance, she makes little reference to their clothes unless it is in conjunction with descriptions of girls wearing the school uniform. For example, Daisy Venables, "in her brown tunic, with shantung top, and flame-coloured tie . . . looked very pretty" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p185). Later Brent-Dyer describes Katherine Gordon wearing the sports uniform.

When the school moves to the Oberland the school colours are changed. Hilary Bennett exclaims:

The uniform, of course, functions to identify girls as belonging to the Chalet School community, and actually obscures their individuality rather than enhancing it.

Keeping clean and tidy, while portrayed as a necessary accomplishment, is also acknowledged as inconvenient on occasions. For example, in The Princess of the Chalet School (1927) Princess Elisaveta asks her father about the Chalet School uniform.

Later in the series, in The New Chalet School (1938), Jo complains about the difficulties of looking after her hair.


Brent-Dyer's lack of reference to clothes and fashions, and the stress that she laid on the importance of character compared with good looks, reflects the norms of real middle-class girls' schools during the period in which Brent-Dyer was writing, although it is probable that both the pupils and the first generation of her readers, like teenagers today, placed much greater emphasis on clothes and on following fashions. Evans recalls that "'good' girls were expected to have little interest in clothes, no personal narcissism and no interest in self-expression in dress . . . dress had been defined as the preoccupation of the vulgar lower orders" (Evans, 1991, pp31-32). Later she adds that: "the wearing of uniform was publicly and frequently defended and rationalised on the grounds that this compulsory and universal regimentation in navy blue serge would keep our minds off our appearance and our bodies" (Evans, 1991, pp54-55).

Although the Chalet School uniform was far more attractive than Evans recalls her own as being, on one occasion Brent-Dyer did agree that dress was "the preoccupation of the vulgar lower orders". In A Problem for the Chalet School (1956) Joan Baker follows her scholarship-winning friend Rosamund Lilley to the Chalet School after her father "had a big win on the Pools" (Brent-Dyer, 1956c, p38). (Doing "The Pools" was a mainly working-class occupation, based as it was on football scores.)

Later Jack Maynard tells Mary-Lou:

"People who finish school at fifteen" were, of course, mainly working-class.

Evans recalls that her school also believed, like Jack, that middle-class girls remained much younger than working-class girls.

Ann Shearer has a similar recollection of her own teenage years in the 1950s.


It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Brent-Dyer makes no overt reference to sexuality in the "Chalet School" series. And, unlike the much later "Trebizon" series written by Anne Digby in the 1970s and 1980s, Chalet School girls do not associate with boys at similar schools, nor do they see boys other than their brothers in the school holidays. Even when girls have brothers, for example the Russells, Bettanys and Maynards, these are very seldom mentioned, and this absence includes many of those chapters set in a holiday period, when one would expect boys to be part of the household. Together with the absence of all physical descriptions of adolescence, this exclusion of almost all mention of boys means that there is little or no overt expression of heterosexuality among the pupils. Evans recollects a similar attitude at her own middle-class girls' school in the 1950s: "What we had absorbed was an attitude which stated that nice girls were heterosexual and yet totally uninterested in men and sex" (Evans, 1991, p62).

However, there are incidents and passages in the books which seem to reflect girls' innate sexuality, as well as expressions of lesbian sexuality. First, girls - particularly the Middles, who are adolescents - are often affected by changes in the natural environment. For example:

This description hints at repressed sexual energy. Similar descriptions occur frequently throughout the series. Another example is of Emerence the arsonist's first major act of disobedience at school.

The message in both of these passages is that adolescent girls are affected by the natural environment and need fresh air and exercise to keep their sexual energy under control. Perhaps this is why the girls are also required to take their morning bath either lukewarm or, preferably, cold (eg Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p36).

The many references to food and eating might also be considered as expressive of sexuality. The constancy of these references has been noted by McClelland and others; McClelland quotes one 26 year old Australian fan who wrote "Why, oh why, are they always eating?" (McClelland, 1981, p174). These descriptions in the main fall into one of two categories: specifically 'foreign' food; and festive meals at school. 'Foreign' food is often eaten on excursions. For example, in the first of the Swiss books, The Chalet School and Barbara (1954), the girls have a "typically Bernese" lunch.

Later "they went to a patisserie where they had the sort of luscious tea with cakes of cream and nuts and honey and chocolate that everyone enjoys once in a way" (Brent-Dyer, 1954b, p154). A typical description of a festive meal is as follows: "A gorgeous meal was spread. Jellies, creams, fruit, sweets, chocolates, cakes and sandwiches of all kinds covered the table; and there were [sic] frothing chocolate with whipped cream, and iced lemonade to drink" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p98). It is noticeable that most of the food on offer at this latter meal is sweet, and the only savoury items - sandwiches - are listed last although sandwiches are normally eaten first. As the majority of Brent-Dyer's readers were pre-adolescent, it is probable that many readers derived a sensual pleasure from reading these descriptions of mainly very sweet foods, both 'foreign' and British. However, unlike many girls' school story authors Brent-Dyer did not portray midnight feasts as desirable, and used the only midnight feast mentioned in the series to illustrate the consequences of greed. Other authors such as Enid Blyton kept their descriptions of sweet food for descriptions of midnight feasts, where its association with an enjoyable, forbidden night-time activity made its erotic function more overt.

Although Brent-Dyer makes no overt references to sexual desire in the "Chalet School" series, she does make certain oblique references to lesbian sexuality in the guise of "crushes" and "sentimentality", both of which are shown to be undesirable in the texts. This theme is most prominent in the first books of the series, in the treatment of Jo's friendship with Simone, a relative of Mademoiselle (Madge's partner and later head mistress in her own right). Simone conceives "a violent affection for Jo", and asks her to be her "amie intime" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, pp38-39). This immediately begins to irk Jo: "Simone had remained glued to her side the whole afternoon, and it was beginning to dawn on Joey that she might have undertaken a friendship which was to prove rather tiresome on occasion" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p41). Very soon Jo is "getting thoroughly tired of Simone's jealousy and all-in-all friendship, and there had already been more than one scene, when Simone had accused Jo of hurting her on purpose, and not liking her any more" (Brent-Dyer, 1925, p56). Simone, in a bid to attract Jo's attention, cuts off her hair, but this simply makes her look foolish and she soon regrets it.

Having short hair was possibly a reference to the hostile images of the "New Woman" in circulation in the 1920s and 1930s, associated with lesbianism (Beddoe, 1989, p10).

Simone continues to be jealous of Jo's other friends:

Jo makes it clear that she will not commit herself to an exclusive friendship, but Simone does not give up hope. In the following book Brent-Dyer describes her as: "intensely sentimental, and cherished a tremendous admiration for unsentimental Jo, who was thoroughly bored by it, but was too kind to say so" (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p28). After the Christmas break there is an example of this when Simone is again upset because: "'I came across to see you! - and y-you have not yet embraced me.' 'Oh - bother! Get on with it, then!' And Joey presented her cheek for Simone's kiss, since that young lady sounded tearful." (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p126). By the ninth book Brent-Dyer is still writing that Simone's "chief weakness was a romantic affection for Jo, which had survived nearly five years of teasing" (Brent-Dyer, 1933, p5). However, by the 12th book in the series Brent-Dyer writes that "the adoration had become a true, healthy friendship" (Brent-Dyer, 1935, p15), with the clear implication that Simone's previous feelings were "unhealthy". But while Simone's feelings were always shown as undesirable, this passage marks a transition in the series.

For more than ten years following, until after the war, Brent-Dyer makes no references at all to these type of feelings. Then, although the references become much less prominent and "sentimentality" is still seen as undesirable, Brent-Dyer once again acknowledges that these feelings exist. The most prominent post-war example is in Tom Tackles the Chalet School (1955), first published in 1947 in the Third Chalet Book for Girls. Tom Gay, who has been brought up more like a boy than a girl, comes to school thinking that "Girls are awfully sentimental usually". But she is soon told by her peers that "You won't find people being sentimental here, I can tell you! We haven't time, for one thing. For another, no one approves of such tosh" (Brent-Dyer, 1955, p18). Later Tom is more explicit in her complaints when she tells Matron that girls: "do silly things - like adoring someone, a senior or some mistress, and giving them flowers and things, and trying to meet them all the time, and wanting to do things for them" (Brent-Dyer, 1955, p43). Matron replies that:

(Or, presumably, in Elinor's books. Perhaps significantly, another overtly-erotic reference is to girls' school stories themselves, where Polly Heriot is described as having "indulged in an orgy of school-stories" in Jo Returns to the Chalet School [Brent-Dyer, 1936, p45].)

Despite Matron's assurances, in the following book Tom is proved right when new girl Rosalie Way develops a "crush" on her.

Tom is horrified, and Rosalie is unhappy until she becomes integrated into the community and admits that "I've been simply silly" (Brent-Dyer, 1951, p95).

Brent-Dyer never again overtly refers to "crushes", but she does include passages which refer to the effect that physical appearance has on individual girls, this time without authorial comment. For example:

Another example is Mary Woodley, who causes trouble for Barbara Chester in her first term because Barbara becomes friends with Vi Lucy.


It is probable that Brent-Dyer's treatment of the theme of "crushes" and "sentimentality" in the "Chalet School" series reflects inter-war concerns about lesbian sexuality and the links that were made between lesbian sexuality, single women, particularly school teachers, and girls' schools (Beddoe, 1989, pp26-28, 42-43), rather than any specific beliefs of Brent-Dyer's. These concerns continue after the war, when growing tolerance towards male homosexuality was not reflected in public attitudes towards lesbianism. Whatever Brent-Dyer's own views, it is probable that she would have been constrained by commercial considerations. This hypothesis can be confirmed by the way in which the theme is first prominent, although condemned; then excluded completely during the 1930s when public concern was at its height; then referred to again openly, although once more with condemnation; while more unconscious episodes such as the ones quoted above were not given any moral weighting at all.

Another very interesting example of an incident which can be seen as an unconscious example of lesbian sexuality is in The Chalet School and Jo (1931). Juliet Carrick, Madge's ward, returns to the Chalet School to teach. Together with Jo, she encounters a Kay Hillis and her brother Donal O'Hara, and it is obvious to Jo that Juliet knows them and there is tension between them. Jo asks Juliet about them and Juliet tells her that she met Kay at university.

Although, thanks to Jo's interference, Juliet and Donal later become engaged, it is obvious from the vocabulary used in the passage that it is Kay with whom Juliet is emotionally involved rather than with her brother. Engagement to Donal is a socially acceptable way of forming a legal relationship with Kay. And unusually in the "Chalet School" series, Brent-Dyer describes Jo as loving Juliet rather than simply describing her feelings as friendship, or qualifying her love in any way. It is probably significant that it is Jo, Juliet's true love, who arranges her eventual engagement, rather than Kay, her false love.

The links between lesbian sexuality and girls' school stories have been well-documented by Rosemary Auchmuty in her study "You're a Dyke, Angela! Elsie J. Oxenham and the rise and fall of the schoolgirl story" (in Not A Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians in History 1840 - 1985 (1989)). In particular Auchmuty has noted that these stories reveal: "a very conscious love for women which in 1923 was fine and after 1928 became abnormal and unhealthy, representing a level of intimacy which was too threatening to be allowed to continue" (Lesbian History Group, 1989, p140). Auchmuty points out that following the scandal which arose after the successful prosecution for obscenity of Radclyffe Hall's novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), in Oxenham's later books "heterosexual love was idealised beyond belief", and later versions of Oxenham's early works were edited to remove "the passionate and to post-Freudian eyes sexually suggestive scenes between women" (Lesbian History Group, 1989, pp137, 140).

It is not surprising, then, that "sexually suggestive" scenes are absent in Brent-Dyer's "Chalet School" books, all but four of which were published after 1928. But the absence of boys and of references to the physical signs of adolescence suggest at the very least that Brent-Dyer did not perceive heterosexuality to be important to her readers. And, as is discussed below, the emphasis she placed on the marriages and fertility of many of the former Chalet School girls cannot detract from the fact that their husbands are largely absent from the series. Nothing is documented about Brent-Dyer's own sexuality, but she remained unmarried all her life, and her one known heterosexual "love affair" appears to have been largely fantasy (McClelland, 1981, p125). McClelland has also noted that Brent-Dyer had close female friendships that later ended for no apparent reason, including one with a woman whom she spent a holiday with in the Tyrol and to whom she dedicated The School at the Chalet (McClelland, 1981, p95). This pattern seems more characteristic of passionate relationships than of non-sexual friendships.

Perhaps it is not surprising, given Brent-Dyer's treatment of adolescent sexuality, that she makes only veiled references to the physical side of marriage, pregnancy and childbirth. The first heterosexual adult relationship that is referred to in the series is Madge Bettany's and Jem Russell's. Jem Russell, a doctor, has treated Joey in the past, and when the school is hit by flood waters Joey wishes aloud that he was with them.

While Madge's blushes would be significant to an adult reader, it is doubtful that a pre-adolescent reader would accord them much significance in the middle of an exciting flood scene. However, the setting for this incident may be significant. The school is hit by a:

This might be read as a representation of the male orgasm. At the end of the book Madge tells Joey that she is engaged, and Joey claims that she has "wanted it for ages!" (Brent-Dyer, 1926, p192). However, there has been no description of any contact between Jem and Madge outside Jem's attending Jo during her illnesses to give weight to this, and the reader can only assume that events have taken place during the time of the story which are not described in the book. Brent-Dyer thus portrays courtship and marriage as something which is personal and not for public consumption, something that will always be mysterious to anyone not directly involved.

In fact it is important to remember that Brent-Dyer appears to have had little personal experience of heterosexual relationships - she was brought up by her single mother and remained unmarried all her life - so she may have found it particularly problematic to describe them. Another, more explicit example of the secrecy with which heterosexual relationships are treated is Juliet's eventual engagement to Donal O'Hara. Jo arranges for the two of them to meet "accidentally".


Similarly Jo's own engagement and marriage is given little prominence in the book, although, like Madge's, it irrevocably changes her function in the book. (Madge ceases to be actively involved in running the school after she marries, Jo on the other hand cements her connection with the school with her marriage.) As discussed in 6: I., Brent-Dyer gives the first hint of Jo's coming relationship when she writes that Jack Maynard:

Brent-Dyer makes no futher allusion to Jack's feelings until Jo discovers that the Robin, for whom they have been searching, has been found.

One paragraph later, Joey's engagement has been finalised for nearly a month. Her marriage takes place during a break in the story, and is only alluded to when Brent-Dyer writes of "Jo - no longer Jo Bettany, but for the past ten months Jo Maynard" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p169).

Brent-Dyer is similarly mysterious about pregnancy and childbirth in the "Chalet School" series. For example, in The Head Girl of the Chalet School (1928) the only hint that Madge is pregnant is when a girl asks Jo: "if it is true that Madame is not coming down to school at all this term?". Jo replies that it is quite true. "Jem thinks the walk will be too much for her in the hot weather, and she's not strong, you know" (Brent-Dyer, 1928, pp248-249). Pregnancy is therefore equated with illness and physical weakness, and this continues throughout the series. This is first made explicit when Madge gives birth, and apparently comes close to death in the process. Jack arrives at the school and summons Jo urgently. "'Mrs Russell has a little son, born this morning, and she wants Jo,' he said brusquely." Later Jo "had very little to say, but she assured them that the baby was a darling, and Madge was all right - now." (Brent-Dyer, 1928, p269)

When Madge has her next child, Brent-Dyer makes it obvious that Joey has not even realised that she was pregnant. At half term Joey is going to stay with her sister at their home near the sanatorium. Madge has not let her invite any visitors: "She said she wanted to be quiet for once. Can't think what's happening to her - it's not like her to be stodgy." (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p118 of Part One). As she arrives she finds that Madge has a daughter, born seven weeks prematurely. Jo has last seen Madge a month beforehand, when Madge was six months pregnant, but has noticed nothing. Madge later tells Jo: "I did try to hint the last time I saw you . . . but you were most unaccountably thick, Joey!" (Brent-Dyer, 1934, p130 of Part One). It is perhaps credible that Joey would not understand hints about pregnancy, but the fact that she did not notice the physical signs of pregnancy is not. However, in keeping with Brent-Dyer's exclusion of all things physical Madge's appearance is not described as changed.

Shortly after her own marriage Jo becomes pregnant, and Brent-Dyer makes her hints slightly more explicit, perhaps reflecting the greater openness about sexuality that arrived with the war years. Once more pregnancy is associated with ill-health. First, Robin tells Polly that "'Jem says Jo isn't well just now and isn't to be excited or worried.' Polly's eyes widened, and she rounded her lips to a soundless whistle." (Brent-Dyer, 1940, p241). Later Brent-Dyer writes that Jo "was unable to take long walks at present" and "was having breakfast in bed at present" (Brent-Dyer, 1940, pp250,252). Jo duly gives birth to triplet daughters. In the following book, after she has had to flee to England from the Nazi invasion of the Channel Islands, Jo is ordered "to stop feeding her babies herself at once" (Brent-Dyer, 1941, p33). This is Brent-Dyer's most explicit reference to the physical aspects of motherhood, but in fact there has never been a description of or reference to Jo breast-feeding.

Jo's second pregnancy follows a similar course. Robin tells the others that "she's got to keep quiet for the next few weeks or so. We shan't see much of her this term, if anything." (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p58). Before the end of term "the Head came to Prayers . . . with a beaming face. After Prayers, she announced to the school that Joey Maynard had had a son at six o'clock that morning - a fine, big baby, who was to be baptized Stephen" (Brent-Dyer, 1943, p130). In later books characters are more explicit about the fact that a baby is expected, although there is still no reference to the physical side of pregnancy. Imminent childbirth is usually described as "an extension to the family" (eg Brent-Dyer, 1944, p27), an image of growth which refers to the increase in the size of the family rather than the increase in the size of the expectant mother.

However, Brent-Dyer's reluctance to describe the physical side of pregnancy and childbirth and the fact that men are largely absent from the books did not prevent her from giving many of her characters extremely large families. Madge has six children including one pair of twins; her own twin Dick Bettany has seven children, including two sets of twins; and Jo has eleven children including one set of triplets and two sets of twins. Multiple births do run in families, so perhaps the Bettany family's fertility is (barely) credible, but the size of their families would have been very unusual in the post-war period. While a typical Victorian family had between seven and nine children, more than two-thirds of marriages taking place in 1925 had two children or less, and the birth rate continued to decline until the war (Beddoe, 1989, p104). Following the war there was a certain amount of concern about the birth rate, associated with racist fears that the white race was declining, and pressure was put on women to stop being "selfish" (Wilson, 1980, p27).

Perhaps not surprisingly, the birth rate did rise again after the war, but the majority of families had less than three children and the small family became the 'norm' (Wilson, 1980, p99). By the late 1940s contraception became widely available and was recognised as part of the welfare state, and there was a major expansion of family planning clinics. Almost three-quarters of couples married in the 1950s used contraception to control the size of their families (Wilson, 1980, pp95-96). Wilson points out that by the 1950s large families were in fact seen as problem families "almost by virtue of their size alone" (Wilson, 1980, p99). It seems unlikely that Brent-Dyer supported post-war calls for the increased domestication of women, given the careers her pupils aspire to and the positive role models of single women that she portrays in the series. And while Jo has a large family, all her children are sent to boarding school at an early age while she continues with her writing career. It is probable that Brent-Dyer's Catholicism led her to reject the concept of birth control, particularly as she herself was not affected by the practical considerations of limiting family size, but this is only really credible in the case of Jo, a Catholic by marriage.

It is also possible that Brent-Dyer's status as a single woman and the fact that she lost her only brother during childhood led her to idealise large families. The physical practicalities of bringing up children, such as nappy-changing, the effect which repeated pregnancies have on a woman's body, and the possibility of giving birth to children with a disability are never mentioned in the series, while the families also have some paid assistance and send their children to boarding school as soon as possible (the three eldest of Dick's children in fact live with Madge from infancy while he is working in India). All in all, the representation of motherhood in the series is more reminiscent of a girl reader's fantasy than of the reality known to many of Brent-Dyer's adult readers throughout the twentieth century.

Next: 6: V. Power and Control
Return to: 6. The World of the Chalet School Index
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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