Did Elinor M. Brent-Dyer have a dolls house? A Mystery .....
by Gil Bomber
Who, you may ask, is Elinor M.Brent-Dyer and why indeed should I care whether she had a dolls house or not? I am fairly sure I am not the only addict of Girls Own literature on the DHP&P website, but for those of you who have not come across this genre of literature, which flourished in the English-speaking world from the mid 1800s for at least a century and beyond, these are books aimed at girls from about the age of 10 to 16 (Backfischromane in German), very often dealing with life in boarding schools. America too has its own version of the genre in such books as the Marjorie Dean High School and College series, or the Grace Harlowe books.
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (EBD) (6 April 1894 – 20 September 1969) was the author of a lengthy series of school stories based on the Chalet School; the first book, The School at the Chalet, was written in 1925 and featured a young English woman, Madge Bettany, who set off to the Austrian Tyrol with her delicate younger sister Joey in tow, and opened an English-style school there. By the time the series ended, some 60 books later (the last one was published posthumously in 1970), the school had escaped from the Tyrol during the Anschluss, based itself in Guernsey (an unfortunate choice), then moved to the fictional county of Armishire (based on Herefordshire where EBD lived for over 30 years), taking in an island stay off the coast of Wales en route, and then back to Europe, ending up in the Swiss Alps, with a smaller branch remaining in England.
So where do dolls houses come into this story? Well if ever there were a tale of unrequited love, I think it must be this one. My theory is that EBD longed all her life for a dolls house but that longing was never satisfied. So she created a character, within the series of books, who could fulfil her dream for her.
Sometime in the mid-1940s (EBD was notoriously bad at maintaining an accurate timeline in the series) Tom Gay – or more correctly “Lucinda Muriel Gay”, but she understandably refused to answer to that – joined the school. She had been brought up by her vicar father to be more like a boy than a girl and scorned all girlish things. She was already a skilled carpenter when she arrived and seems to have been given a more or less free run of the wood-working facilities available at the school.
The Chalet School almost from its very beginnings in the Tyrol had been associated with a TB sanatorium in the mountains above the lake – the Tiern See. (The Tiern See is in fact an actual lake called the Achensee, and Briesau, where the school is based, is a real village called Pertisau – many Chalet School fans visit it.) The chief of the sanatorium, Dr James Russell, marries Madge Bettany in the third book of the series and from then on whenever the san moves, the school follows....
Pertisau-am-Achensee © achensee.info
Each year the girls hold a sale of work, to begin with to bring relief to a poor parish in the Tyrol, but very soon the annual Sale becomes a major event and a means whereby funds are raised to support a child’s bed in the sanatorium. By the time Tom joins the school, the Sales have become quite elaborate – more in the nature of a village fete, with a different theme each year, highly decorated stalls, costumed girls, and competitions as well as goods made by the girls for sale.
At the weekly Hobbies Club, from The Third Chalet School Book for Girls © Girls Gone By Publishers
There is a weekly Hobbies Club during which the girls are encouraged to be creative and ingenious in what they produce, and many and wonderful are their productions. Most wonderful of all are Tom’s houses. She begins in quite a small way but by the end of the series she has produced at least 11 very different contributions to the Sale and we have descriptions, some very detailed, of nine of them.
There are illustrations scattered throughout this article and I suspect there may be Chalet School fans reading it who have their own very clear picture in their mind’s eye of how each house looked. My apologies if there is a mismatch!
We can first read about Tom joining the school in the Second Chalet Book for Girls, published in 1948, but her first house only appears a year later in the Third Chalet Book for Girls. Eventually the two parts of this tale are joined together in the book Tom tackles the Chalet School which is not published until 1954.
Cover of Tom Tackles the Chalet School © Girls Gone By Publishers
This first house is quite modest and is in fact the only one of which a contemporary illustration exists – there are a series of these in the Third Chalet Book, and we are grateful to Girls Gone By Publishers, who hold the copyright of the whole series, for permission to use them here, and to quote from the books. There is barely a description of the house, but on the day of the Sale – the theme is Alice in Wonderland, and the Third Form, of which Tom is a member, has been allocated the Mad Hatter’s Teaparty as a background for their display of toys and games – we can read that At the far end was a smaller table on which stood the house in all its glory, fully furnished, thanks to everyone in the form, with another table in front of it on which were the two “gardens”.
Tom with a chair, from The Third Chalet School Book for Girls © Girls Gone By Publishers
EBD has earlier in the book spent quite a lot of time describing the ideas for furnishing the house. One pupil, Nella Ozanne – who has also been given the role of Alice because of her mane of golden hair - has cut fretwork frames for chairs and put in padded seats, others have made carpets and curtains, and apart from furnishing the house itself, in the time left over after doing this they made up sets of these to be sold separately.
Bride and Tom at the sale, from The Third Chalet School Book for Girls © Girls Gone By Publishers
It is with this first appearance of a house by Tom that the tradition of a competition to win it begins. For the first two years the competition is to guess the name of the house from a long list compiled by the girls. Fittingly, it was the Sale’s opener Lady Erroll who won on this occasion, choosing the slightly outrageous name ‘Tomadit’ (Tom made it). ”I’m glad you got it”, said its maker when the Countess came to claim her prize. “You jolly well deserve it.”(Lady Erroll had paid far more for her entry than was necessary). “Thank you” said the lady gravely. “I’m glad too. You see, I mean to send it to the children’s ward at the Sanatorium.”
Tom and Bride carry the first house out to the car for Lady Erroll, from The Third Chalet School Book for Girls © Girls Gone By Publishers
I have very mixed feelings about this. Yes, by all means let children in hospital have dolls houses to play with, but not beautiful hand-made ones with delicate furniture. However this does often seem to be the fate of Tom’s houses.
Her second house is only briefly described in Peggy of the Chalet School,(1950) whilst the girls are reminiscing: "Tom got the wrong colour to enamel it and it came out pillar box red ...... Tom painted the roof black when she saw what had happened and it was awfully effective." The colour led to the name –“Jacynth Hardy was Head Girl then, and when she saw the thing she stared with all her eyes and stuttered, ‘b-but it’s – s-s-scarlet’. So we called it ‘Sacarlet’ because in a way that was what it had sounded like.”
It is in the same book that the first of Tom’s really impressive creations makes an appearance. The house is far bigger than before and we get a really detailed description of the construction:
Tom had taken her tea-chests to pieces, planed them smooth, and cut the dovetails to fit in to a frame so that side and front and back could all be swung open. Inside she was dividing it up into four rooms on the bottom floor, two on each side of the hall, from which she wanted to make a staircase rise to the next floor which would also have four rooms, and a little bathroom over the door. In the roof, which was to be of raffia in imitation of thatch, and have two dormer windows at the front, and windows at the side under the eaves, she proposed to make two more - hence the need for making the sides open as well as the back and front. The sitting rooms will be a foot square and a foot high....
A dolls house made of a tea-chest. Photo © Caroline Whitlock
A turn in the stairs, a landing half way up, and a bathroom over the door ..... Photo © ebay seller lotusflower.2010
The description for this house runs over two books, so in Carola storms the Chalet School (1951), we hear furthermore that there was a landing half way up and a turn in the stairs ..... over the door was a bathroom fitted up with a tin bath all the other etceteras ... All the sides were on hinges and opened. The thatch was yellow raffia. The house had been painted outside to imitate the old black and white houses of Armishire and inside every room was properly papered with the exception of the kitchen and bathroom. They had been painted. The house had lattice windows which swung open delightfully and the front and back doors also opened and shut.
"The old black and white houses of Armishire" : above, Garden Cottage, Herefordshire © visitherefordshire.co.uk; below, The Old House, Hereford © Ruth Harris, geograph.org.au, from Wikipedia.
Not to be outdone, the rest of the form had made furniture, carpets, mattresses, pillows and bedding as usual; a new girl, Polly, at first reluctant to join in, had been cajoled into painting tiny pictures which she framed and gilded, and as a crowning glory the form had decided to people the house with little dolls with papier-maché heads.
Oh to go back to those days – Nella, the chief furniture maker is overheard saying “I had meant to make lots of odd chairs and tables and beds when I had finished the house. People don’t always want to buy a whole set and Miss Wilson makes me put such prices on them, and no one’s a millionaire these days; but I thought they mightn’t mind spending sixpence on an odd chair, or a shilling on a table or bed.” No indeed!
There is a further description of Tom’s skills when Carola says “I still don’t see how it sticks together …. There isn’t a nail in sight! Go on, Tom! Tellme!”
Tom grinned. “I’d be ashamed of myself if I had to use nails for putting a thing like this together”, she said. “It’s all dovetailed, and I’ve used wooden pegs where I simply had to do any reinforcing, though it’s mainly dovetailing.”
Carola gasped. “Well I think it’s super.” she said simply. I do too!
It is Miss Wilson who insists that the competition on this occasion has to be more challenging than just guessing the name. The form – now the Fifth – spend many hours debating what on earth they can come up with as a competition. Suddenly Carola has an inspiration. She lets out a yell which startles Polly so much that she smudges green across the sky of the tiny landscape she is producing.“Tell me Tom” says Carola, “what did you use to make the house – materials I mean?” Tom reached out and felt her head. Carola shied away.
“I’m not crackers! Don’t be such an ass, Tom! Answer my question and tell me what materials you used.”
Tom gave it up and condescended to reply. “Wood – and glue – and raffia – and glass for the window-panes. What are you getting at?”
“And there’s the canvas and wool for the mats – and the muslin for the curtains – and the silk for the inner ones in the drawing-room – and, oh heaps of things!” The words came tumbling out. Carola was almost incoherent with excitement. “Oh don’t you see all of you? There must be dozens of different kinds of material in it. Let’s count them up and make a list. Then we can tell people there are so many and ask them to name them, and the one that gets the fullest list gets the house! Now do you see?”
From then on the form is convinced of the brilliance of the idea and the list grows apace – cotton for the bedding, best linen hankies (stolen from an uncle) for the best sheets and pillow-cases, Whatman paper for the pictures, water-colour paint, cellophane over the paintings and passe-partout for the frames, oil-paint on the outside, cotton wool and kapok for stuffing, cork for dinner mats, copper wire and gilding for the chandeliers, wax candles, parchment for lampshades, silk brocade (once again ‘borrowed’ from home), flour paste, a tiny sponge in the bathroom, a sliver of soap, sawdust in the chair seats, a brass doorknocker …… In the end the girls manage to find forty-eight different materials in the house and the competition is deemed worthy by the Co-Heads of the Chalet School.
Passe-partout for the frames ...
(as illustrated in the 1948 "Atlas" Handicrafts Catalogue)
The Sale this time has the theme of Many Nations, and the Fifth have been allocated Scotland for their toys and games stall.
The competition, as always, is kept deadly secret until the day of the Sale and the task causes great consternation amongst those entering. The people in charge of the competition for the house had scarcely time to breathe, as Nancy Chester said when she handed over to Audrey Simpson. So far no one had come anywhere near the number of materials used, either.
“So there’s a chance for you, Auntie Jo,” Bride said when her aunt appeared and demanded to be told what she had to do.
She groaned loudly when she heard, but sat down and began to write with grim determination. As no one was allowed more than ten minutes for a list, some of them were scribbled in a manner that made the inspectors groan loudly.
“Anyway”, Bride said during a short pause, “we’ve made twelve pounds ten with it already, so it’s jolly well worth it. No, Mary; I simply can’t make head or tail of that word. You’ll just have to let it go.”
In the end it is not the adult Jo who wins, but her small triplet daughter Con who manages to find 37 materials by thinking of what all the things were made of in the dolls house “La Maison des Poupées”, made by her father Dr Jack Maynard, which already stood in their nursery at home. “Only”, she says, when telling her mother how she had done it, “Miss Alton saw my lists after and she said I must have extra spelling next term if I couldn’t spell better than that”......
A short aside - “La Maison des Poupées” – a house in which all the inhabitants, and therefore the Triplets, speak French, in fact predates Tom’s arrival in the series. It is actually EBD’s second attempt at introducing a dolls house – there is a very early mention of a dolls house in the third book, The Princess of the Chalet School (1927), but this one is made as part of the Guide activities of the school and not in the Hobbies Club. Work, this term, consisted in badge-work, the making and furnishing of a big doll’s house – which was destined for one of the children’s hospitals in Vienna – and special drills. As Miss Bettany, the Guide captain, was away, the girls spent most of their time on the doll’s house. It was a magnificent affair. Grizel Cochrane, one of the prefects, had her carpenter’s badge, and, under her instructions, some of the younger ones were making the house itself. Three or four of the others were keen on fret-work, and they were busy with the frames for the furniture; others were fitting the little seat-cushions into the frames; the needle-women devoted themselves to the sewing of whole sets of household linen; even the babies, who were nearly all Brownies, had their share, for they were making little frames of raffia and passepartout for the pictures. Dr. Jem had provided these with cigarette-cards, and there were some charming pictures for the establishment when it should be ready for them.
Cigarette cards - charming pictures for a doll's house ...
But as we have seen, it is not until Tom’s arrival that EBD’s imagination is given full rein.
By the time we hear about the next of Tom’s creations in Bride leads the Chalet School (1953), Tom is a prefect and one of the grandees of the school; she stands five foot eleven in her stockinged feet. Her wavy brown hair was cropped in boyish fashion and her fresh-coloured face was characterised by a square jaw and a pair of honest grey eyes with a very direct look. She was plain, but her friends always declared that there was something especially nice about her face.
The Crown of Success by Charlotte Maria Tucker (A.L.O.E.)
And this time she produces, with the help of two others, not just a dolls house but a whole village. We are given no clue as to the scale, but the individual buildings cannot have been very large since when it comes to the day of the Sale (the theme this time is based on the Victorian book The Crown of Success by A.L.O.E.), the village is set out on a green cloth, probably on one or two trestle tables. The three girls had, between them, produced ten cottages, three larger houses, two shops, a church, a school and what purported to be the village hall. The actual buildings were finished and they were hard at work now with the finishing. Usually the dolls’ house had been furnished, but this year they were leaving that alone. Five of the cottages had roofs made of raffia to simulate thatch. The rest of the buildings had wooden roofs and the three had set their hearts on painting in the tiles ..... I think this is the first time that, during a discussion in Tom’s absence, we get an inkling about her future road in life: “Tom’s a real genius at that sort of thing, isn’t she? I should think that when she really starts out as a missionary it’ll give her a tremendous pull with small boys.”
"A cottage .... a garden made of moss, with flowers ..." This cottage is made and photographed by Robin Britton of Coombe Crafts Miniatures.
The competition is once again to select the name from a pre-prepared list. On the day of the Sale, Head Girl Bride sees it in all its glory for the first time and cries out in admiration. The church, which stood in a little churchyard with tiny gravestones and crosses set among the dried moss used for grass, was lighted up inside by a small electric bulb so that the windows, filled with many coloured scraps of cellophane, glowed with colour. Some of the cottages and all the houses had gardens also made of moss with fragments of coloured paper for flowers. The thing had been set out on a heavy green cloth and paths about it had been made of strips of wide tape gummed and sanded, while at one end, near the church, was a round pond with trees and bushes manufactured out of twigs and more dried moss here and there.
“But you’ve got the stones lettered with names!” Bride cried.
A village church ... This one is in Lily's Barton Village.
Wonderful though the village may have been, it is unlikely to have been as amazing as the one that can be seen on this website.
The village is won, once again, by the opener of the Sale, the great doctor Sir James Talbot who chooses the name Honey Combe. And once again the prize is sent to a hospital for very poor children suffering from TB.
The Chalet School does it Again (1955) features a Willow Pattern Sale, and by then Tom is ‘a big six-footer’ who looks ‘utterly British’ despite the Chinese costume she is wearing. The house is a ‘model chalet which stood by itself on a big stand’. Very fitting, because the Chalet School is by now based on the Görnetz Platz in Switzerland, together with the finishing branch where Tom is now. The chalet is three feet long and two and a half feet wide.
This time we are back to a completely furnished house, down to the tiniest detail:
”Just look at the little stoves! However did you get that shiny look on them Tom?” “Easy,” said Tom, “Daph Russell painted the tiles effect on cardboard and then we stuck cellophane over that.”
“Oh Madge! Do look at the cuckoo clock!” “Whoever made that?” Lady Russell demanded. “See, Jo; even pine-cone weights! Who’s the genius, Tom?” “Your own niece. Peggy did the case and the weights – they’re of plaited raffia. And look here,” Tom unhooked the little clock and showed the back of it. “We got this out of an old wristwatch. I roved this crocheted chain over these cogs and when you wind them up like this,” she suited her action to the word, “and hang it up, they unwind, very slowly.”
She hung it up and sure enough, the tiny weights began to descend.
“It’s marvellous!” Lady Russell said. “I must have a go at it. What’s the competition this time? Have we to guess some awful German name?”
Tom grinned broadly as she said, “No. Bill – er – Miss Wilson, wouldn’t hear of it. You take a minute’s dekko at it – six of you at a time. Then you answer the question you’ll find inside this envelope. You have five minutes.”
They tore open their envelopes and found inside a sheet of lined paper headed with the question, “How many of the articles in the chalet will work? Tell no one what this question is.”
A chalet dolls house © Susan Hale
Unbelievably the chalet is once again won by Con Maynard who guesses all fifteen working items. Since she and her triplet sisters already have two dolls houses they give the chalet to a young girl, Leila, who is a patient at the sanatorium and whose cousin Sue is at the Chalet School.
In A Chalet Girl from Kenya, also published in 1955, the chalet is almost responsible for saving Leila’s life when she is sinking fast after a major operation. In a moment of consciousness, she calls for Con, whose father Dr Maynard rushes her to Leila’s bedside in the san with the instruction “You must be quiet, Con. Don’t say anything to excite her, honeybird. Just tell her what you are doing and – and – oh, talk about your dolls’ houses. And Con; don’t kiss her!” Con duly does as she is told and Leila sinks into a natural sleep. This may be the first time a dolls house is responsible for saving a life .....
A Genius at the Chalet School is published in 1956 and by then Tom has left the school and is at Oxford. The girls lament the fact that this year there will be no house. However they are in for a big surprise. A huge packing case arrives and the house is set up in secret so that when the doors are opened to the Sale – the theme is Old England – there are shrieks of delight from everyone. They make so much noise that in the end Miss Wilson rings the bell to bring them to order: “Tom is not here,” she said “she sent the house though and with it a letter which I’ll read to you if you can all stop this wild screaming and listen.”
There was instant silence and she produced a big sheet covered with Tom Gay’s dashing hand.
“Hello, School!” it began, “Sorry I can’t be with you this minute but it just can’t be done. However here’s the house as usual - and I’ll bet you’re all yelling your heads off about it. Only wish I could be a fly on the wall to hear you.
“I always meant to do it , and Mother and Dad and some pals rallied round to help with the furnishings etc. The comp is to guess exactly how much it makes. I’m leaving it to the Heads to fix the price for entering and I should say it had better include some odd centimes to make things more difficult. It’s not exactly interesting, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything else. Hope it makes a packet, anyhow!”
“Tell young Con from me that she’d better give it a miss this time. She won that one just before they all went to Canada and she got last year’s. I know she handed that one over to Leila Elstob, poor kid, but the principle’s the same. Tell her she’ll give everyone else an inferiority complex if she has a shot!”
The girls are allowed to form an orderly queue and file past to view the house in all its glory: The house stood four feet high and was three feet long and three feet deep. It opened on all sides and the front not only had a little balcony but there were four steps leading up to the front door which opened and shut. The roof was made out of tiny shingles, painted red to simulate tiles, each fixed separately. Tom must have put in hours of work on them because each was fixed separately. The windows were sash windows and pushed up and down in the proper way. There were three sitting rooms and a kitchen on the ground floor; a drawing room over the dining room and the little hall; three bedrooms finished off that floor and in the roof were an attic bedroom, day and night nurseries and a storeroom which contained tiny trunks made out of jeweller’s boxes. The staircase went up with two half landings and on one was a bathroom. Underneath the house was a garage with sliding doors containing a clockwork car and a coal cellar stocked with shining black beads for coal. It was fully furnished down to carpets, pictures and even electric lights, for Tom had fixed a bell battery to one side which you could switch on and off. The one snag was that when it was on, the whole house was lighted up.
“How on earth did Tom manage that?” Bride Bettany asked, awestruck.
"Red tiles" - these are on Treehotel's Blue Cone Room, at Harads, Sweden. Photo: Peter Lundstrom, WDO – www.treehotel.se
They learnt later that one of the boys in the Boys’ Club run by her father’s church was an electrician by trade and he had seen to it for her. Her parents had helped when they could, and various friends had done all the needlework part for her. Others had given assistance with the furniture. Tom had bought half-a-dozen little dolls and her mother had dressed them. When Carola gently opened one of the little wardrobes, they found that it was full of tiny frocks and coats. For a girl who was working hard at the university in term time and a busy rector and his equally busy wife, it was a marvelous piece of work.
Tom had even fixed a little tablet over the door with the name “Red Tiles” painted on it . It was a toy fit for a princess and the girls reckoned delightedly that it would bring a substantial addition to their takings.
“This,” said Julie Lucy as the school finally scattered to take up the various duties of the day, “is the house of houses! The kid who gets that is jolly lucky – that’s all I’ve got to say!”
And everyone agreed with her.
In the event the house is won by Frieda von Ahlen, one of the original pupils of the Chalet School and a bosom friend of Joey Maynard’s, née Bettany. And the former Crown Princess of Belsornia, Elisaveta, who was a pupil for two glorious terms in the early days of the school, offers Tom the same amount of money as Red Tiles took in the Sale to make one for her daughters, the money to go to the same cause.
The publication of The Coming of Age of the Chalet School in 1958 celebrates 21 years since its founding – EBD’s timelines have gone somewhat astray again – and with it a quintessentially English Sale theme: Shakespeare. Many of the old girls return for the celebrations, and one of the pupils from the early days, Margia Stevens, now a famous concert pianist, is the opener of the Sale.
An Elizabethan Manor House ... Photo © ebay seller oliveirisperrett1924
Tom is one of the returning girls and has brought with her another amazing house – an Elizabethan Manor House in black and white. It is set up in Portia’s garden at Belmont and Joey and her sister Madge view it with awe:
“This,” said Joey emphatically, when she had surveyed it, “is no toy! It ought to be in a museum! It’s a work of art! Just look at it! And look at the rooms!”
“I’m looking!” Madge responded. “Tom’s a real genius at this sort of thing!”
An Elizabethan Manor House bedroom ... Photo ;© Alison Bomber
It really was worth looking at. Tom had elected to produce an Elizabethan manor house in black and white. She had done her work thoroughly, even to inserting the beams of the frame separately, and the Tudor chimneys were a joy. The interior had been fully fitted up, for Tom had called on various friends, like-minded with herself when it came to handicrafts, and the beautifully made stools and tables, day- beds and chairs with leather backs and seats, were very complete.
Preparing food in an Elizabethan Manor House ... Photos © Alison Bomber
The dining hall had the long table laid out for a banquet, with tiny pewter plates and dishes which Tom had coaxed out of an aunt who had treasured her childhood’s toys all her long life. The bedrooms had four-poster beds with curtains that drew all round, and one also contained a cradle for the doll-baby which was properly swaddled like all Elizabethan babies. Others wore farthingales and tiny stomachers, and the three gentlemen were in puffed breeches and jerkins and capes, with wee swords at their belts. And all the gentry wore ruffs starched to a cardboardlike stiffness.
Tom describes the competition to her friends: “I was so nearly stuck over that I’d almost made up my mind I’d have to fall back on that awful idea of yours, Nancy – remember-? – and make everyone guess at the cubic contents of each room and of the entire house” – she paused for the expected groans which came in full force – “however I managed to give that the go-by. You’ll know what it is when you enter and not before.”
Those entering are allowed to look their fill at the house and then tear open the competition envelopes to find the question “Name the great historical event that took place in the year the house is supposed to have been built.” There is much protesting that no one had noticed any clues to the date. Tom is adamant it was visible for all to see and sure enough, after writing down a lot of wild guesses, those who go back to check finally find the date neatly traced in the clay which formed the chimney-breast of the fireplace in the banqueting hall in Elizabethan figures: “Erected A.D.1577”.
A long table laid out for a banquet, with tiny pewter plates and dishes ... Photo © Alison Bomber
When the results are announced, it turns out that the event is the setting off of Drake to sail round the world and the house is won by Miss Denny, one of the foundation stones of the school, who chose it because the only other event she could think of was the defeat of the Spanish Armada and she thought that too obvious a choice for Tom. Madge Russell asks what she plans to do with it.
“Do with it? Why, what Joey said, of course!”
“What I said? I said nothing whatsoever!” Joey exclaimed loudly.
“Oh yes, you did! You said it was a museum piece. We haven’t a museum in this place, and it’s high time we had. I’ll present the house to form the nucleus of one. That’s what I’ll do with it!”
Although a Sale is mentioned in Theodora at the Chalet School (1959) there are no details of either the Sale or a house and so the next time we hear of anything is in The Chalet School wins the Trick (1961), when Tom herself is not responsible for the “twelve little houses, all copies of modern villas and no two alike. Each stood in a miniature garden with fencing around and, as the girls soon discovered, each opened at either side. They were unfurnished, but they were most attractive. They were not the lavish things Tom Gay, who was an old girl, had contributed each year since she had joined the school at thirteen but they were quite big enough to thrill any small girl who got one.
Modern villas ... no two alike .... *
Tom’s accompanying letter is read out to the assembled school: ”Cheerio, everyone! I run a large club for younger boys and teach them woodwork among other things. I told them one night all about our Sale and happened to mention my own dolls’ houses. Next class, the leaders came and told me they wanted to have a go at houses themselves. When the houses were finished we had a show and families came and admired them. The kids asked to see the one I was doing for you folk this year and I had to tell them I had no time for my own work nowadays. Result – they got into a huddle and then told me they wanted me to choose any twelve I liked of theirs to send. Decent of them, for they’re none of them wealthy. Most are the kids of dock labourers and that sort of thing.
All the houses are named and the competition is to name the lot. I enclose a list of the proper names and a lot more we added before we sent it off ...... the twelve people who get nearest to the correct list have a house each.”
A miniature Chinese pagoda .... © Sara L. Chapman, lovethatimage.com
In Jane and the Chalet School (1964), with a Spanish theme to the Sale, Tom perhaps surpasses all previous efforts. On a trestle table are set out a long series of miniature houses, no two of which were alike. There was a Swiss chalet, a Chinese pagoda, a whitewalled eastern house with a dome and an inner courtyard round which a cloister-like passage ran on all sides, an Eskimo igloo of beehive shape, painted white and with fine black lines tracing the shape of frozen snow-blocks, an English country cottage, complete with thatched roof, lattice windows and tiny climbing roses clinging to the walls and dangling over the rustic porch. There were many others, each belonging to a different land and all attractive to the last degree. They had all been set up and the girls were busy disposing tiny dolls, dressed in the native costume of the country to which the house belonged, before each.
“Tom told me in her last letter that she had spent every moment of her spare time on it,” Rosamund Lilley remarked. “Of course her boys helped on carpentry nights at the Club and the girls dressed the dolls.”
“No need to tell us that last bit,” Con Maynard said with a chuckle. “The day I see a doll dressed by Tom herself, prepare to catch me, for I shall certainly swoon completely.”
Whilst the girls are putting the finishing touches to the display on the trestle tables, the Head Girl Maeve Bettany is called away and returns to say ‘“We’ll have to begin all over again! Just look at this!”’ and from a newly arrived wooden packing case they remove another fifteen houses. “That makes forty-five, all told! Here’s a note that was on top. Shut up nattering and I’ll read it.”
In the ensuing silence she read aloud “Dear Maeve, I didn’t know if we’d get this lot finished in time or not, but we’ve done it – with an almighty struggle. Hope they arrive in time. Mind you send me a detailed account of the show on Sunday or else expect trouble when we next meet. Good luck to it! Yours, Tom. ”
Name the countries represented by the miniature houses ... Left © Joan Joyce, © Comfort
The competition is to name the countries represented by the houses. Joey Maynard, as the sister of the founder of the Chalet School, the school’s very first pupil, is this time the lady opener of the Sale. Traditionally her husband Dr Jack Maynard, head of the TB Sanatorium on the Platz, is the one who usually reads out the competition results but on this occasion he passes the sealed envelope to her to open.
“Well, crisp me in a frying-pan!” she exclaimed, her clear tones reaching to every corner of the garden. “Believe it or not, I’ve won it!” She stopped short and looked severely at the assembled school. “Do you girls mean to tell me that I, who left school more years ago than I care to remember, have beaten you who are still at school?”
Peals of laughter broke out, but she held up her hand for silence.
“I can only say I’m horrified! In fact, I think the only thing to do is to present this prize to the geography room in the hopes that before long all of you will be able to recognize a pagoda when you see it and also an African pigmy’s tree-nest. Miss Annersley,” she turned to the Head who was stifling her laughter with difficulty, “I have much pleasure in making this presentation where I feel it will do most good.”
Miss Annersley replied in a choked voice. “Th-thank you!”
Jack Maynard later announces the total raised by the Sale and tells the School that "...at long last we can make a beginning on the new children’s ward we need so badly. And since it is owing to this magnificent sum that we can begin now, we are going to call it The Chalet School Ward.”
Summer Term at the Chalet School (1965) has the mention of a house in the Kate Greenaway Sale, but it is not described other than as the annual gift of a house.
The final book of the series “Prefects of the Chalet School”, published posthumously in 1970, sees Joey’s triplet daughters amongst the grandees of the School, with Len, the oldest as Head Girl and her sister Margot the Games Prefect. The third triplet, Con, is the editor of The Chaletian, the school magazine. The house cuts it very fine, arriving the day before the Four Seasons Sale is due to be opened by Lady Russell. The stalls are in the process of being set up when there came an imperative cry of “Clear the decks!”
No need to ask what that meant. Tom Gay’s annual offering had arrived. “I’m just thrilled to know what form it takes this year,” Peggy Burnett confided to her colleague Kathy Ferrars. “Tom has rung the changes so often I don’t see how she can manage it this time.”
Kathy laughed. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if she’s gone full length, though I don’t quite see how she can have done.”
Matey, standing near, overheard. “She’s always managed it so far, though whether she does it herself or gets advice from other people I have yet to know. But, like you, Kathy, I should be surprised at nothing. After all, I’ve known Tom for a good many years.”
By this time the men were wheeling an enormous case towards the big trestle table which had been set aside to take Tom’s model, whatever it might be. Slowly, carefully the packing case was lifted on to the table, and an envelope was handed to the Head, who had come to receive it. She opened it with some curiosity.
“Good gracious,” she exclaimed, as she glanced at its contents. “This is merely instructions as to what to do with the packing case. Ah, there you are, Gaudenz. Miss Gay says that we are to unscrew the four end panels, the case will then drop apart and can be removed. She asks us to preserve the panels and let her have them back sometime. Also the screws.”
“Is she coming herself this time?” queried Nancy Wilmot.
“That’s absolutely all she says – instructions about opening the case. You’d better go ahead Gaudenz.”
The school’s man of work does as he is bid and as the last panel drops away a series of small boxes is revealed. When these are set to one sidethey were gazing at the model of an old country inn, complete with dangling sign – carefully covered over – and with a courtyard, stabling and all the other etceteras.......
An old-fashioned English Inn ... this one is from the Hobbies 1938 Handbook.
Everyone looking at the Inn was delighted and a chorus of admiration rose, but there was more to come. When the boxes were opened, they were found to contain old-fashioned settles, tables, a hay-ladder to fasten to the loft door at one end, and all the other appurtenances of a really old-fashioned English Inn, including model horses for the stables, a coach, a beautifully made little post-chaise and dolls dressed as ostler, landlord and even a jolly barman.
Other boxes held tiny glasses, tankards – “and where Tom got hold of those, goodness only knows,” Ruth Derwent murmured to Nancy Wilmot. It really was an outstanding effort.
Finally out of the largest cask came a much folded-up note.
“I thought I was done in this time, but this was finally suggested to me. I hope you like it. Please admire the tankards. They were made by one of my boys who wants to go in for that sort of thing; not tankards but trinkets. I think he has managed marvellously. The glass things came from a firm of glass blowers who visited our shop and were very much taken with what they saw of the inn as it then was, and offered to send a set of glasses. In fact, the old boy was all over it.So much so that he ordered a facsimile as an advertisement for their firm. So that has done the Club quite a lot of good, and what is more, has done one or two of our lads even more good, because it has brought their work so much more before the public. Now for the competition.
I am sorry to say I have had to fall back on a very old competition but really there didn’t seem to be anything else which would fit the bill, but it has got a twist in it. How many of you have noticed that the Inn sign is covered up? There’s a purpose in that. Because this competition consists in guessing the name of the Inn. I’ll give you one clue. There is a reference to an animal. Now that’s all the help you’re getting from me so good luck to you all and may the best man win.”
Lady Russell arrives just as they finish unpacking everything and adds to the chorus of admiration and wonder,“Tell me, is this Tom’s latest? Well I think she’s excelled herself. Look at the darling little stalls for horses. Oh, and those settles are too delightful for words.”
“See the beer barrels and the bottles of wine!” Peggy Burnett pointed them out.
“What I like,” said Nancy Wilmot, “is the kennel with the noble hound. Look at him! You can see he’s just going to give tongue.”
The Sale duly opens, much money is taken, all the competition results are announced and finally they came to Tom’s effort.
Dr Maynard beamed round on everyone before announcing “I will now unveil the sign of the Inn.” He stooped over the model and very carefully peeled off the paper which covered the inn sign.
Joey takes pity on those who cannot see and reads aloud " 'The St George and Dragon'. Oh, and what a lovely sign! How did Tom get it?”
“Who on earth painted it?” Madge exclaimed.
The inn sign. This one hangs at "The St George and the Dragon" riverside inn at Wargrave, Berkshire, and we gratefully acknowledge their permission to use their photo.
Before the girls all line up to view the sign, the winner is finally announced and fittingly, right at the end of the series of books, it goes to someone who has been one of the foundation stones of the school, there almost from the very beginning. It is Matron Lloyd, known throughout the series as ‘Matey’ and much loved though as everyone knew she possessed "a tongue that could take the skin off you, and if you knew what was good for you, you did what she told you without fuss and without argument”.
Matey donates her house to the School Museum, to join the Elizabethan model that is already there.
And with that the procession of Tom’s creations comes to an end. It is interesting to reflect that of the ten creations we hear of in detail, at least seven do not go very far from the School – two in the museum, one in the geography room, two in the nursery of the Maynard’s house, Freudesheim, where the younger members of Joey’s long family of eleven children can enjoy them, one in the Children’s Ward, and one with a young patient in the San. Another ends up in the children’s ward of a hospital elsewhere.
Researching this article has made me realise what a profound influence Elinor M. Brent-Dyer has had on me, an influence not just restricted to dolls houses, but that is another story. I was born in 1942 and therefore read many of her books as they were published, particularly the ones featuring Tom and her houses. Perhaps I should hold EBD entirely responsible for the creation of the Small Worlds Museum?
Whether that is the case or not, I am grateful to her for giving me so much pleasure over the years and I should also like to thank Girls Gone by Publishers who are now in the process of reissuing all the Chalet School series in their unabridged form and who have allowed us to use both illustrations and material from the books. Thank you too to Noreen and KB of the Chalet School Bulletin Board for research help – and Noreen for fact-checking the article. And of course to Rebecca for her search for suitable illustrations.
Girls Gone By Publishers http://ggbp.co.uk/
Friends of the Chalet School http://www.chaletschool.org.uk/
The Chalet School Bulletin Board http://www.the-cbb.co.uk/index.php