Written by Becca Dean
A large proportion of my heroes are children’s books authors. When I reflect on who shaped the world with colour, diversity and ambition in my young mind it was the compassionate and pastorally educational stories of Jacqueline Wilsons that opened my mind and my heart, or the absurdity and eccentricity of Roald Dahl’s that erased social boundaries and conformity. Like many girls, I read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books and fell in love with the dream of the boarding school of yesteryear. When I was about nine years old, I discovered the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. My mum had read them as a child and introduced them to me, but there seem to be few in my generation who’ve known and loved them. There are 57 Chalet School books altogether, but due to their obscurity, part of the Chalet School adventure for the committed reader was tracking down copies and piecing the stories together, filling the gaps as copies were found in any yet unexplored bookshops that I’d begin an immediate search for this literary gold in.
Luckily my best friend Laura had also discovered them, so I had an outlet to share our treasure trove of stories as we hit our teenage years, and secretly rebelled against the social demands of the teenage girl to stop playing and imagining as we drew characters and dreamed up more stories.
Brent-Dyer had a slightly edgier approach to boarding school life lessons than Blyton. Rather than girls who learned how to control their temper and to tame themselves into sweet young women, the Chalet School girls climbed Alps, thwarted Nazis, and adopted outcasts into their number. They were hardy and adventurous, and painted me a world where women could do anything.
It wasn’t until adulthood that I learnt just how much of a hero Elinor M. Brent-Dyer truly was. Of course, I knew her through her words and stories that she embedded so much of herself into, but at a comedy gig in celebration of women, in the upstairs room of a pub in Camden, I met another fan who shared some of the author’s life story with me.
Elinor was born in 1894 in South Shields, and raised by her single mother. She published her first work of fiction in her twenties, and opened her own school in her thirties. She wrote until her final and 75th year, when her last book was published posthumously. To add to the colour of Elinor’s life, she lived in a committed relationship with her female companion, defying society’s conventions and restrictions in her personal, as well as professional, life.
To me, adding the author’s context to the stories she told, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer was a pioneering author. A leader who coped with adversity and generously educated other young women her whole life in her schooling and writing, and to readers like me, painted a picture of a world that was there with arms wide open for young women to dream, adventure, and build in. To me, she is amongst those who’ve bravely ushered me into a world without the restrictions women of previous generations. Both my nine year old self and my twenty-nine year old self are deeply thankful for her.
Becca Dean is a writer and currently writing a PhD researching dialogue in Christian youth work at Durham University. Alongside working for churches as a youth worker she has spent her twenties building her interests in creative prayer, literature, funny Youtube videos, and experimenting with hairstyles. She blogs at www.beccaislearning.com and is the proud owner of a label maker.