Higher and higher they climbed, now and then stopping at a tiny wayside station, till at last…before them, dark, beautiful, and clear as a mirror, spread the Tiern See, with its three tiny hamlets and two little villages round its shores, and towering round on all sides the mighty limestone crags and peaks of the mountains.The School at the Chalet 1925
It could have been me arriving except that I was probably more excited, and less exhausted, than Madge, Jo and Grizel. Yes, it’s our introduction to the Chalet School and its original setting. For the uninitiated, the Chalet School series was a 58 book long epic about a school founded by young Madge Bettany on the shores of a lake in the Austrian Tirol. Although run by an Englishwoman, her partner in the business was French and of the pupils turning up on the first day only two, the afore-mentioned Jo and Grizel, were British. The others were Austrian and French. The books were considered to be unusual, too, for their time in that Catholics and Protestants were educated together.
The School at the Chalet introduces us to the setting: a fictionalised Achensee above the real-life town of Jenbach, not far east of Innsbruck. The school is situated in one of the villages referenced above – actually Pertisau and fictionally Briesau. You really do reach the lake by train from Jenbach and there are boats serving the places around its shore. These days there is a well-engineered road, however, and a bus service to Pertisau too. It is truly a beautiful place ringed by mountains, some of which can be reached by cable car. Not if you’re a Chalet School pupil though. They roamed the countryside on foot.
In this first book, the school is still finding its feet and things are fluid. New pupils join randomly throughout the book and a new mistress, Miss Maynard, is added to the staff. Elinor Brent-Dyer, who had holidayed in Pertisau, wrote warmly of the people and places. It’s noteworthy that the girls of all nationalities get on with each other and there’s no idea, from either author or characters, that the British girls and staff are superior in any way. In fact Elinor often stresses that they are the foreigners. There are excursions to Innsbruck and places around and above the lake; there’s the first celebration of the Head’s birthday; and the inaugural edition of the Chaletian. The prefects are chosen with Gisela Marani, an Austrian, becoming the first Head Girl. Madge and her much younger sister Jo are the main characters and the latter will be omnipresent until the end. This really is the set-up for the rest of the series.
Again in case you don’t know the books, I should point out that the school moves from Austria. Elinor Brent-Dyer, unlike some of her contemporaries, didn’t ignore the coming of the Second World War. One of the most famous books in the series (It has, in fact, just been voted the best by Chalet enthusiasts.) is The Chalet School in Exile in which the school is forced to relocate because of the Anschluss and, for a children’s book of the time, there’s a significant amount of detail about Nazi Germany. Once again, Elinor is careful to distinguish between the abomination of Nazi-ism and the German people as a whole. We read of former pupils in concentration camps and, later on in the series, discover the dreadful fate of many. So the school moves, first to Guernsey (oops!), then to Wales and finally to Switzerland. Internal dating of the series is a bit of a nightmare but, using the outbreak of war as a reference point, the series ends in 1957 or thereabouts. As the Austrian State Treaty was only signed in 1955, Elinor was never able to take the school back to its beginnings for anything more than a visit.
I read the Chalet School series from the age of eight and was fascinated by the setting. My life didn’t include foreign holidays and Austria (Tirol really, I suppose) sounded impossibly exotic. I was amazed to learn that my Mum had actually been there (although not to the Achensee) in the 1950s. She dug out her photos and my Dad joyfully got his atlas and we tried to work out where the book was set. We were able to make a rough guess and when family friends came back from a holiday saying they had visited Maurach (they had no idea about the books) we were able to pin the setting down. I was glad to have it confirmed by Elinor’s biographer, Helen McClelland, a few years later.
I was in my late twenties by the time I made it to Austria and by then I had read Behind the Chalet School, Helen’s biography, and knew all there was to be known at that point. I was on holiday with a friend who had never heard of the Chalet School but she humoured me and enjoyed my overwhelming excitement at Jenbach on seeing the train, and watched it building as we climbed higher and higher until we arrived at Seespitz. There we transferred to the boat and went all the way round the lake before disembarking at Pertisau. I took photos of everything and babbled on about events in the books. And I didn’t care that Joyce thought I was a bit mad! I’ve been back to Pertisau a number of times and, although the village has continued to change, I still love it. Even with lots of tourists there, there’s space to wander, and the mountains and lake are beautiful, awesome, fearsome or sun-dappled depending on the weather and the season.
I think I’ve written myself into a return visit just as soon as that becomes possible!