This is the first in a new series of posts in which I’ll be interviewing Girls’ Own characters and finding out a little bit more about them. My first guest is a particularly exciting one – please welcome Lady Russell, better known as Madge Bettany, the founder of the famous Chalet School!
So, Madge, what made you decide to start a school, and in Austria, of all places?
After our Guardian died we hadn’t much money – not enough, really, to pay for school fees for Joey. I’d always been good at teaching but I knew that even if I got a post as a schoolmistress there still wouldn’t be enough money to pay for Joey’s education. And then there was the question of her health. England wasn’t good for her, and neither were a lot of places. So I considered all the possibilities, and at last I came up with what seemed the perfect solution.
And you went ahead and did it! Surely you must have been nervous?
Of course! I was terrified. It wasn’t so bad while we were making all the preparations and enjoying ourselves travelling over, but once Dick had left us and I realised what I’d done, I had a lot of sleepless nights. By that time, though, it was too late – I couldn’t funk it; I simply had to ride it out and try to make my mad idea a success.
Tell us about your greatest challenge?
Getting used to running a school – there were so many things I simply hadn’t thought about. Prayers, for example, for Protestants and Catholics. And I had to learn many of the local customs very quickly because so many of our first girls came from the Tyrol and Europe, and of course their parents expected certain things, such as chaperonage, which were less important to us in England.
We all know about your romance with Doctor Jem Russell. Tell us, did you feel any regrets about giving up your school to marry him? How did you feel about your future life?
Naturally I found giving up the Chalet School very difficult and painful. I’d invested a huge part of my life – and Joey’s – into starting it and making it a success, and then, just as it was becoming what I’d envisaged, I found myself having to make a choice. And it didn’t just mean giving up the school, but also seeing far less of Joey. We’d barely been separated before that. Oh, I was terrified!
Did you ever consider continuing as Head of the Chalet School after you were married?
Hardly. Of course if it happened these days I don’t suppose I would consider giving the school up, but things were very different then. Married women simply didn’t have jobs, and they certainly weren’t Headmistresses! I still kept in close contact with the school and was involved in all the important decision-making, but it wasn’t the same. No, I had to make a choice, and I still believe I made the right one.
Your husband has been very successful in his career – has life after the Chalet School matched your expectations?
I certainly never anticipated becoming Lady Russell! It was bad enough when the horrible children started addressing me as ‘Frau Doktor Russell’, but when it came to ‘Lady’ – well! Joey was a disgraceful tease about it. But I wouldn’t be without my family; they are my most precious possessions now. As I said, I have no regrets.
Sir James Russell has retired now and you emigrated to Australia some time ago. What is the best thing about your new life?
Oh, we’re thoroughly enjoying retired life! I’ve brushed up on my Guiding skills and started helping out with the local Guides, and I’m also doing a little teaching at one or two of the local schools. Jem, having complained about being too busy for his entire career, found that he was bored stiff as soon as he retired and has taken up farming instead, as a sort of hobby. He spends all his free time at a farm nearby and has taken to wearing one of those odd hats and talking in an Australian accent.
It sounds as though you’re both thoroughly enjoying life! Tell me, what’s your biggest goal at the moment?
I don’t really have any huge goals at the moment. Simply to live a life that is worth living.
Well, that’s something for us all to aspire to! Thank you for being with us today, Madge.
That’s all from Madge and me today. I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out a little bit more about her as much as I have – and watch this space for the next in the ‘Interview With a Heroine’ series!