School stories - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


35. School stories


Sheila Ray


Attendance at school for some years between the ages of five and eighteen is a common experience, and one well within the comprehension of readers of children’s books. Many books written for children have scenes set in, or references to, school, but the term ‘school story’ is generally used to describe a story in which most of the action centres on a school, usually a single-sex boarding school. In his essay, ‘Boys’ Weeklies’, first published in 1940, George Orwell suggested that the school story is peculiar to England because in England education is mainly a matter of status (Orwell 1962: 182). It is certainly true that the genre is dominated by British writers, who are responsible for most of the examples quoted in this essay.

The world of school is a microcosm of the larger world, in which minor events and concerns loom large and older children, at least, have power, responsibilities and an importance they do not have in the world outside. Despite the rules and regulations, children enjoy a certain kind of freedom. A school story offers a setting in which young people are thrown together and in which relationships between older and younger children, between members of the peer group and between children and adults can be explored. Events and relationships can be imbued with an air of excitement and the possibilities for humour are never far away. Through reading an entertaining story, children can ‘test the water’, learn how people may react in specific situations and see what lies ahead.

School stories for girls differ from those for boys. Even before the advent of feminism, writers must have realised, albeit subconsciously, the advantages of setting a story in an allgirls’ school, where females are leaders and decision takers. In the boys’ school story, there are few references to home life, but the story for girls usually reflects close links between home and school. The boys’ story and the girls’ story have developed in parallel, but separately, partly because they have reflected educational developments in the real world.

In Britain, the Education Act of 1870 marked the first official step towards education for all, but even before this schools catering for every level of society were being established in increasing numbers. Two early, full-length books for children, Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749) and Mrs Leicester’s School by Charles and Mary Lamb (1808), each used a small girls’ school as a framework for a collection of short stories, but the first genuine story of school life, which looks at the experience from the child’s point of view, is, according to Mary Thwaite, Harriet Martineau’s The Crofton Boys (1841) (Thwaite 1972: 153). Hugh finds learning difficult and thinks that life will be easier when he joins his older brother at Crofton School; alas, his high expectations are disappointed. These school stories by Fielding, the Lambs and Martineau are still remembered because of their distinguished authorship; there were others, now long forgotten.

As Beverley Lyon Clark shows in Regendering the School Story (1996/2001), early stories about boys’ schools could be written by women (Harriet Martineau and Louisa Alcott) and vice versa (Charles Lamb and Richard Johnson). After the publication of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), which set the pattern for what came to be regarded as the traditional school story, stories about boys’ schools were generally by men, those about girls’ schools by women. Tom Brown’s Schooldays grew out of Hughes’s admiration for Dr Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, an important figure in the development of the English ‘public’ (that is, private) school system. Preaching the doctrine of muscular Christianity, in vogue in the mid-nineteenth century, the book follows Tom Brown and his friends through their schooldays: Tom arrives as a new boy, passes through a period when he makes the headmaster ‘very uneasy’ and eventually becomes the most senior boy, a credit to the school. The book has survived because of the fresh, lively style, its concern with everyday school activities, the convincing characters, including the archetypal bully, Flashman, and the still relevant themes.

Published in the following year, Dean Farrar’s Eric, or, Little by Little (1858) was based on the author’s own schooldays at King William’s College on the Isle of Man, but it has dated badly. The author was more interested in his hero’s moral development, and Eric, through a series of disastrous misunderstandings, gradually changes from an appealing, basically honest schoolboy to a sad runaway approaching death. Happily for the school story, Hughes proved to be the more influential writer of the two.

The 1870 Education Act, as well as marking the start of the move towards ‘universal’ literacy in Britain, helped to create a larger market for children’s books and magazines; the latter, being cheaper and more accessible, were widely read. Most famous of the many launched in the late nineteenth century were the Boy’s Own Paper (BOP) (1879) and the Girl’s Own Paper (GOP) (1880).

Talbot Baines Reed, whose story, ‘My First Football Match’, appeared in the first issue of the BOP, quickly established himself as a successful writer of school stories; his most famous, The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s (1887), was serialised in the BOP in 1881-2. Although the world it portrays has long since disappeared, the characters, their feelings and attitudes still ring true. Baines Reed was an excellent story-teller; he even manages to make the Nightingale Scholarship examination, described in great detail, sound as exciting as a football match. The themes and incidents which he used were to become the staple ingredients of school stories: the arrival of the new boy and his adjustment to school ways, school matches, the school magazine, conflict between juniors and seniors, concerts, friendships and rivalries, and villainies and blackmail.

The GOP, although it contained stories set in girls’ boarding schools, did not produce a woman author of the status of Baines Reed. The female equivalents of Rugby’s Dr Arnold were Miss Beale and Miss Buss, whose ideas on the education of girls led to the foundation of schools such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College (1853) and Roedean (1885), which were modelled on boys’ public schools, and the high schools, which provided a good, academic education for girls on a daily basis. It was, however, some time before fictional versions of these schools appeared in print. Late nineteenth-century writers for girls wrote from their own experience, which was of girls being taught at home or in small schools which were an extension of home. Fictional versions of the latter can be found in Charlotte Yonge’s The Pillars of the House (1893); Mrs Molesworth’s The Carved Lions (1895), in which Geraldine is sent to Green Bank, a small school of twenty to thirty girls, while her brother goes to Rugby; and Pixie O’Shaughnessy (1903) by Mrs George de Horne Vaizey. Most of these schools were established in ordinary houses in urban surroundings, a far cry from the gracious stately homes and turreted castles which later became the norm. The plot of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) hangs on the fact that the school attended by Sara Crewe is situated in a house in a London terrace. In all these books, however, school is just a small part of the heroine’s experiences, and the authors of them were not attempting to write school stories.

The first woman writer who can be compared to Talbot Baines Reed is L. T. Meade. Like Baines Reed, she was a very prolific writer; she edited a magazine, Atlanta, and wrote many kinds of fiction, but it was in her stories about girls at school that she found the best outlet for her talents, and she paved the way for her twentieth-century successors. At first glance, it is difficult to see why L. T. Meade is not regarded as the first major writer and populariser of girls’ school stories, a role usually ascribed to Angela Brazil; a closer examination of her work, however, shows that, although she uses some of the plots and characters associated with the typical girls’ school story, there is a difference between her work and that of the writers who flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Although Lavender House in A World of Girls (1886), Briar Hall in A Madcap (1904) and Fairbank in The School Favourite (1908) are similar to some of the small schools created by Angela Brazil soon afterwards, Meade is much more concerned with the moral development of her characters. The girls who belong to the secret society in The School Favourite are bound by a code of honour which requires them to be obedient, to work hard, to love each other and to do ‘a little deed of kindness to some one every day’. In A World of Girls, although the heroine, Hester, is clever and hardworking and one of the main themes is the prize essay competition, much of the story is taken up with emotional relationships and with questions of honesty and truthfulness.

Evelyn Sharp’s The Making of a Schoolgirl (1897) shows the prevailing attitudes to girls’ schools, particularly those of the brothers whose sisters attended them, but it puts much more emphasis on the fun side of school, with humorous and sometimes ironic descriptions of school activities and academic achievement. Beverly Lyon Clark rightly describes it as ‘brilliant’ (Clark 1989: 6).

Between 1899 and 1927, a number of books set in boys’ schools, written for adults as much as for children, gave a status to the school story for boys which has never been enjoyed by that for girls. These were usually based on the author’s own schooldays and included Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (1899), Horace Annesley Vachell’s The Hill (1905) and P. G. Wodehouse’s Mike (1909); later, in the same style, came Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth (1917) and Hugh Walpole’s Jeremy at Crale (1927). Of these, the most famous is Stalky and Co., of which John Rowe Townsend says, ‘After the knowingness of Stalky it was difficult ever again to assert the innocent values of the classical school story’ (Townsend 1987: 100). Kipling turns the traditional formula on its head: Stalky, M’Turk and Beetle are three natural rebels who have no respect for the school spirit. The irony is that, while they are smoking, breaking bounds, collaborating on their prep and generally setting themselves up against authority, they are clearly in the process of becoming just the kind of resourceful and self-disciplined young men that the public schools aimed to produce.

The only similar books by women writers, drawing on their own experiences and writing mainly for adults, are The Getting of Wisdom (1910) by Henry Handel Richardson (despite her name, a woman) set in Australia, and Antonia White’s Frost in May (1933). These were not of enough status to give the girls’ school story a more positive image: if Virginia Woolf or Ivy Compton-Burnett had gone to one of the newly emerging girls’ public schools and subsequently used her experience in her writing, critical attitudes to girls’ school stories might have been very different.

Authors of children’s books elsewhere in the Anglo-Saxon world showed little interest in writing school stories: two of the exceptions are very different in spirit from the stories being published in Britain at the same period. Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) describes Katy and Clover Carr’s adventures at the New England boarding school to which they are sent for a year to be ‘finished’; much of the interest centres around the silliness of the other girls in their relationships with the students at the nearby boys’ college, a topic ignored by British writers. In Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians (1894) lively Judy Woolcot is sent to boarding school as a punishment. However, the schools described by Coolidge and Turner are sufficiently like those in stories by British writers for the books to be meaningful and of interest to British readers. The small day school to which the Carr girls go in What Katy Did would have seemed quite familiar to young British readers some sixty years after it was written, while the non-boarding high schools attended by the American Peggy Raymond in Harriet Lummis Smith’s Peggy Raymond’s Schooldays (1928), and by the Australian Lennie Leighton in Louise Mack’s Teens (1897) are shown to be very much like the high schools attended by British girls up to the 1950s. The American books about Katy and Peggy formed part of series, and readers could go on and find out what happened to the girls when they left school, married and had children of their own. Adopting a similar pattern proved to be the secret of success for British writers such as Elsie J. Oxenham, Elinor Brent-Dyer and Dorita Fairlie Bruce.

The heyday of the girls’ school story in Britain was in the 1920s and 1930s. It came in various forms, in serials and short stories in magazines, annuals and miscellaneous collections as well as in books, all of which were published in great quantities for the growing and apparently insatiable market. Like most popular fiction, school stories emphasised what were seen as middle-class virtues such as good manners, the need for self-discipline, a sense of responsibility and a respect for authority.

By far the most popular girls’ writer before 1940 was Angela Brazil (1869-1947), whose name is known to many who have never read her books. She published her first school story, The Fortunes of Philippa, in 1906, her last, The School on the Loch, in 1946. Although her books reflected events in the outside world - the two world wars, for example - her underlying attitudes changed very little during forty years. Her fictional schools range from small day schools to large boarding schools; her stories are episodic, describing everyday school activities, but are usually underpinned by plots about missing heiresses, the restoration of family fortunes or the successful achievement of some important goal. Her books contain a lot of information about literature, geography, history, botany, music and the visual arts (Freeman 1976: 20). Schoolgirl readers of Angela Brazil and her successors do not seem to have demanded an exciting plot; rather, they were fascinated by the minutiae of school organisation and a lifestyle which was probably somewhat different from their own experience. Readership surveys of the period show that Angela Brazil was a favourite author among girls from all kinds of backgrounds. In 1933, The Bookseller described her as a ‘juvenile bestseller’ (McAleer 1992: chapter 5). In 1947 she was still the most popular writer for girls according to a survey carried out in north-west England (Carter 1947: 217-21). However, her popularity waned after the Second World War, and her place was taken by Oxenham, Bruce and Brent-Dyer.

Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, the daughter of the journalist and author John Oxenham, may have had ambitions to write for adults. Her early stories were mildly romantic family tales, but in 1913 she published Rosaly’s New School, which has a strong school interest, and, in the following year Girls of the Hamlet Club, the first story in the long sequence of Abbey stories, into which most of her books eventually linked. The mainly day school in Girls of the Hamlet Club has recently opened its doors to less wealthy girls who live in the nearby hamlets. Cicely Hobart comes to the area to be near her maternal grandparents, who had not approved of their now dead daughter’s marriage, goes to the school and is appalled by the snobbery and the way in which the hamlet girls are outsiders. She befriends them, organises them into the Hamlet Club, with the motto, ‘To be or not to be’, and arranges country rambles and folk-dancing sessions for them. Cicely meets, and is accepted by, her grandparents, and also unites the school by persuading the Hamlet Club to provide a programme of dances when the official school play has to be cancelled because of illness. In The Abbey Girls (1920), the Hamlet Club members visit the Abbey, where Mrs Shirley is caretaker; they meet her daughter, Joan, and Cicely arranges for Joan to have a scholarship to the school. Joan sacrifices this to her cousin, Joy, whom she feels needs the discipline of school. Fortunately, Joy is eventually reconciled with her grandfather (he too had disapproved of his daughter’s marriage), and both girls are able to go to the school, join the Hamlet Club and in due course become May Queens. In Oxenham’s last book, Two Queens at the Abbey (1959), Joy’s twin daughters are crowned joint Queens. In many of the Abbey books, school is peripheral to the main interest, which centres on the Abbey and the girls who come to live with Joy in the house which she has inherited from her grandfather. However, they were clearly enjoyed in much the same way as school stories.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce, undoubtedly the best writer among what have become known as ‘the big three’, wrote a number of interlinking series. Her best-known character is Dimsie, who first appeared in a supporting role in The Senior Prefect (1920), later retitled Dimsie Goes to School. Dimsie (her name is a nickname drawn from her initials (Daphne Isabel Maitland) proved to be such an attractive personality to both author and readers that she is followed through school and into marriage and motherhood, and appears as an adult in the series of books about Springdale School, set in a thinly disguised Largs on the west coast of Scotland. Bruce also wrote a series featuring Nancy Caird, who was asked to leave her Scottish boarding school and went to live with her grandmother and attend a day school. Bruce’s Scottish roots were very strong, and some of her earliest books are historical novels. Her Colmskirk books trace the fortunes of families living on the west coast of Scotland from the seventeenth century through to the period after the Second Word War. All her novels throw an interesting light on the period at which they were written.

The books of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer survived best of all, and were still in print in paperback, sometimes slightly abridged and revised, in the 1990s. Her first book, Gerry Goes to School, appeared in 1922, but it was The School at the Chalet (1925) that launched her on the road to success. In this, a young Englishwoman, Madge Bettany, establishes a school in the Austrian Tyrol, with her younger sister Jo as its first pupil. The school flourishes, evacuating to the Channel Islands and then the English/Welsh border during the Second World War, and returning to Switzerland afterwards. In the final book, Prefects of the Chalet School (1970), Jo’s own daughters are senior pupils, looking forward to university and adulthood.

Brent-Dyer also wrote other school and family stories, but it is the Chalet School that captured popular imagination and, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there are two magazines devoted to discussion of her work, conferences are held, and several sequels by other hands have been published, filling in gaps or continuing the story. Some of these, it must be said, are rather better written than Brent-Dyer’s own later books.

Although the school story is generally thought of as being set in a boarding school, there were also stories about day schools. Winifred Darch (1884-1960) concentrated on these; her books, from Chris and Some Others (1920) to The New Girl at Graychurch (1939), are all free-standing. Some of her fictional schools are the newly established county high schools, in one of which she taught, which educated both children who passed the eleven-plus examination and were given scholarships, and those whose parents could afford modest fees. Most of her books have strong plots, and many contain detailed accounts of school plays; they are also fascinating social documents, reflecting the snobbish and class-conscious attitudes of the period. In The New School and Hilary (1926), for example, Hilary, who has to leave her expensive independent school on the death of her father, and Judith Wingfield, a successful ex-pupil of the same school, both arrive at a new county high school for girls, Hilary as a pupil, Judith as a young teacher. The school is rather despised in the town but, through their combined efforts and a successful production of As You Like It, it is established as a real asset among the local people.

In the 1920s and 1930s, a high proportion of British girls joined the Girl Guide movement, which recruited from all sections of society. It offered girls some of the same opportunities as an all-girls’ school, an environment in which friendships and competition flourished, and in which they could develop skills and interests and experience leadership. Many of the fictional schools had Guide companies; Catherine Christian, editor of The Guide magazine in the 1940s, specialised in Guide stories, and in at least two of her books, The Marigolds Make Good (1937) and A Schoolgirl from Hollywood (1939), the plot develops from the fact that schools which have grown slack or fallen on hard times are brought up to standard with the help of the Guides in their midst.

There were many popular stock characters, such as the ‘wild’ Irish girl; another was the Ruritanian princess who, sent to an English boarding school for safety, was frequently kidnapped (Trease 1964: 107). Elinor Brent-Dyer’s The Princess of the Chalet School (1927) and F. O. H. Nash’s Kattie of the Balkans (1931) both use this theme; a typical set-piece has the brave English girl who has rescued the princess riding in state to receive the grateful thanks of the Ruritanian citizens. In some cases, English schoolgirls were required to substitute for Ruritanian princesses, and in others the princesses, whose dearest wish had been to attend an English boarding school, discovered that life was not quite as enjoyable as they had expected. Authors were well aware of their readers’ fantasies and did their best to fulfil them.

The Ruritanian theme was also used by boys’ writers. In A. L. Haydon’s His Serene Highness (1925), Prince Karl of Altburg arrives at Compton Prior, a famous boys’ public school, and earns the respect of his fellow pupils by beating up one of the school bullies. He is kidnapped and it then transpires that he is only a look-alike cousin of the real Karl and has been sent to Compton Prior as a decoy. However, the real Prince Karl does visit the school to thank both his cousin, and the English schoolboys who had saved his life. Apart from this, the book is typical of its time, with a subplot concerning two rival gangs of younger boys, each trying to make the other believe that the school is haunted.

Harold Avery, Richard Bird, Hylton Cleaver, R. A. H. Goodyear, Gunby Hadath and Michael Poole were the most prolific among the many authors who supplied the steady demand for stories set in boys’ public schools, but none of them achieved the popularity of the writers for girls already mentioned, with the exception of Frank Richards (1876-1961), whose work appeared in The Gem (1907-39) and The Magnet (1908-40). It is estimated that Charles Hamilton, using over twenty pseudonyms, of which ‘Frank Richards’ is the best known, wrote over sixty million words (Richards 1988: 266). As Martin Clifford, he created Tom Merry and St Jim’s for The Gem; as Frank Richards, writing in The Magnet, he launched Greyfriars and the Famous Five of Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Johnny Bull and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, together with the bounder, Herbert Vernon-Smith, and the famous fat boy of the Remove, Billy Bunter.

In 1919, as Hilda Richards, he introduced Billy’s sister, Bessie Bunter, to Cliff House in the School Friend; the Cliff House stories were then taken over by other writers and the characters developed into more realistic personalities, with Bessie herself becoming a still fat but loyal and popular friend. The other famous girls’ school in magazine fiction was Morcove, a boarding school on Exmoor; the Morcove stories, which appeared in Schoolgirls’ Own (1921-36), were also written by a man, Horace Phillips, using the pseudonym of Marjorie Stanton.

Many school stories in the 1920s and 1930s were badly written with banal and carelessly constructed plots, unconvincing characters and situations, and a lack of attention to detail. It is not surprising that the genre was poorly regarded by adults who cared about what children read. There were few outlets for the criticism of children’s literature and the fact that some school stories might be better than others was easily overlooked in view of the amount of material that was being published.

The years of the Second World War provided a watershed, after which the gaps between school, domestic and adventure stories began to close. The changes are well illustrated by looking at the work of Geoffrey Trease, who is both a critic and a writer of children’s books. He paid tribute to A. Stephen Tring’s The Old Gang (1947) as a ‘good story about Grammar School day-boys which broke new ground’ (Trease 1964: 111) and he himself began a series of books about day schools with No Boats on Bannermere (1949). He wrote this because two girls whom he met when he gave a talk to a group of schoolchildren in Cumberland in 1947 at a ‘book week’ asked him for stories about real boys and girls going to day schools (Trease 1974: 149). Later, beginning with Jim Starling (1958), E. W. Hildick published a series of books set in and around Cement Street secondary modern school, in which school is seen as an integral part of the boys’ lives.

The boarding-school story was not dead, even for boys. Anthony Buckeridge’s schoolboy, Jennings, first appeared in a radio play on the BBC’s Children’s Hour in 1948; Jennings Goes to School (1950) followed, the first in a series of books about the pupils of Linbury Court, a preparatory school for boys. The humour of these, which sometimes borders on farce, made them very popular and Buckeridge shows a good understanding of how small boys talk, and very shrewdly invented his own, dateless, slang. In 1955, William Mayne, educated at a choir school himself, published A Swarm in May, the first of four books set in a cathedral choir school. In most of his books, however, the children attend day schools.

In school stories published after 1950, the day schools continued to be largely singlesex for some time, but there was more communication between boys and girls and sometimes co-operation is important to the plot, as in Trease’s Bannerdale books and in William Mayne’s Sand. There were few examples of mixed boarding schools in fiction. Enid Blyton set her first series of school stories about the ‘Naughtiest Girl’ in the mixed Whyteleafe School with its two headmistresses, Miss Belle and Miss Best (an echo of Miss Beale and Miss Buss or, more probably, names which lend themselves to the nicknames Beauty and the Beast?). Whyteleafe is also a progressive school with a School Meeting at which all the children are involved in making rules and deciding on appropriate awards and punishments. It seems likely that Enid Blyton was aware of the existence of progressive, mixed, independent boarding schools such as Dartington, Bedales and Summerhill, but almost certainly she chose to set her first school stories in one because they first appeared as serials in Sunny Stories, a magazine intended to appeal to both sexes.

However, the girls-only school was far more popular with the girl readers (who were in the majority), and by the early 1940s Blyton’s own daughters were at boarding school, so after Whyteleafe came St Clare’s and Malory Towers, both girls’ schools. Beginning with The Twins at St Clare’s (1941) and First Term at Malory Towers (1946), the careers of the O’Sullivan twins and Darrell Rivers respectively are chronicled, from the time they arrive as new girls until their final term. Darrell is one of Blyton’s most attractive and convincing characters, and the Malory Towers books are some of Blyton’s best work. Despite the general belief that Blyton’s work was ephemeral, her school stories have stayed in print, and in the 1990s Ann Digby, author of the Trebizon school stories, produced new titles about Whyteleafe, while Pamela Cox filled gaps in the career of the twins at St Clare’s. In 2002, A Treasury of Enid Blyton’s School Stories, compiled by Mary Cadogan and Norman Wright with a foreword by the then Children’s Laureate, Anne Fine, was published. This included excerpts from all three series, a full-length story about St Rollo’s, a co-educational boarding school, written for younger children, and a selection of short stories that had appeared in annuals and magazines. As Anne Fine wrote in her Foreword: ‘What is it about boarding schools that so enchants even the child who walks fifty yards down the road for lessons, and is back home by tea-time?’ (Cadogan and Wright 2002: Foreword).

If Enid Blyton was influenced largely by the demands of her market, Mabel Esther Allan was genuinely interested in the theories of A. S. Neill, who founded Summerhill, when she created several co-educational boarding establishments among her numerous fictional schools. She acknowledges his influence: ‘All my schools were progressive ones, where pupils relied on self-discipline and not imposed discipline. Many of them were coeducational’ (Allan 1982: 16). The School on Cloud Ridge (1952) is about a co-educational school, Lucia Comes to School (1953) about an equally progressive (but all-girls) school, where potholing, walking and cycling take the place of organised games. Lucia, half Italian, arrives at Arndale Hall to find that it is nothing like the schools described in the English school stories she has read but, although the rules are made by the girls themselves and school work is done on a flexible learning basis, she still has to learn to fit in with the other girls.

Although Blyton and Allan use many of the conventions and situations pioneered by earlier writers, their style and attitudes are very different. Their schoolgirls have more freedom and their outlook is more modern. This is also true of Nancy Breary who, between 1943 and 1961, and writing about more traditional schools, produced a succession of humorous stories, skilfully ringing the changes on standard plots and characters.

Three outstanding writers for girls in this period were Mary K. Harris, Antonia Forest and Elfrida Vipont. Mary Harris specialised in school stories; her first, Gretel at St Bride’s (1941), is a fairly conventional boarding-school story although Gretel is an unusual heroine, a refugee from Nazi Germany. Her last, Jessica on Her Own (1968), is centred on a secondary modern day school.

Elfrida Vipont’s work included a sequence of five novels about an extended Quaker family. In The Lark in the Morn (1948), Kit Haverard goes to ‘the great Quaker school for girls at Heryot’. In a later book, Kit’s niece, Laura, fails to pass the eleven-plus examination for the local grammar school, refuses to be sent to Heryot and settles in well at the nearby secondary modern school for girls, where her acting talent flourishes. In both books Elfrida Vipont, who won the Library Association Carnegie Medal for the second book in this sequence, The Lark on the Wing (1950), uses their school experiences as an important element in the careers of her central characters, but their family and out-ofschool life are not excluded.

Antonia Forest’s sequence of novels about the Marlow family began with a school story, Autumn Term (1948), in which twelve-year-old twins Nicola and Lawrie arrive at Kingscote, a traditional girls’ boarding school, in the wake of their four sisters, the eldest of whom is head girl. The sequence includes three more school stories and five books set in the school holidays, giving a rounded picture of the lives of the twins as they grow from twelve to fourteen.

By 1960 it seemed that the boarding-school story, even for girls, had run its course. Publishers were rejecting manuscripts, saying that the demand for such stories had ceased, and librarians no longer stocked them in great numbers. Elsie J. Oxenham’s last book was published in 1959, Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s in 1961, while Elinor Brent-Dyer’s last Chalet- School title appeared posthumously in 1970. Their later works, however, are so weak that they seem to provide an appropriate death knell.

But, despite the views of most publishers and librarians, there were signs of a continuing demand. Enid Blyton’s school stories and the Chalet-School books, which began to appear in paperback in 1967, sold in their thousands for another thirty years, while the Dimsie books were updated and published in the 1980s.

Some major children’s writers found that the enclosed world of school provided an ideal framework within which to explore matters of concern to young people. Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes (1969) marks the beginning of this revival; in a satisfying time-travel story, the author explores the question of identity through the eyes of Charlotte, who goes to school some time in the 1960s and wakes up one morning to find that she is in the body of Clare who was a pupil in 1918. How, Charlotte wonders, can the schoolgirls and teachers in 1918 accept her as Clare, and why is Clare so readily accepted in the 1960s?

Barbara Willard’s Famous Rowena Lamont (1983), Michelle Magorian’s Back Home (1985) and Ann Pilling’s The Big Pink (1987) were all to use the conventions of the boarding-school story to explore the problems of growing up and adjustment, but they also break away from the accepted pattern. Rusty, the heroine of Back Home, for example, is one of the few schoolgirl heroines to be expelled. In Frances Usher’s Maybreak (1990) the boarding-school conventions are essential to the fast-moving plot.

Two books published in the USA in the 1970s contrast with the British school story, where, despite the developments in the genre, integration and the triumph of good over evil continued to be the norm. Robert Cormier’s controversial book The Chocolate War (1974) is set in the all-boys Catholic day school, Trinity. It is a sad, pessimistic story; Brother Leon, in charge of the annual fund-raising event, which involves the selling of 20,000 boxes of chocolates, is helped by The Vigils, a powerful secret society led by the corrupt bully, Archie Costello. Jerry Renault, a new boy with hidden strengths, refuses to participate and is trapped into a fight which he cannot win, his downfall and humiliation brought about with the compliance of Brother Leon. The school setting is essential to the story and makes the triumph of evil over good all the more horrifying.

Rosemary Wells’s The Fog Comes on Little Pig Feet (1972) is based on the author’s experiences. Rachel lasts two weeks at North Place, a private New England girls’ boarding school, where she is appalled by the lack of freedom, the snobbery and the corruption; favourable treatment can apparently by bought by rich fathers for their rebellious or under-achieving daughters. Instead of settling down in time-honoured fashion, Rachel is allowed to return home.

In the 1970s, British authors set stories for younger children in primary schools, which offer an environment in which children from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds come together naturally; against this background, racial attitudes and sex roles can be examined, and both these topics were of new importance in the 1970s. Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler (1977), set in a state primary school, won the Carnegie Medal; the reader assumes from the evidence that Tyke is a boy and only at the end of the book does it become clear that she is a girl. In the late 1970s Mabel Esther Allan began a series of books about Pine Street primary school. Samantha Padgett, bright and intelligent, a natural leader at Pine Street, moves on to a secondary comprehensive in First Term at Ash Grove (1988) and has to prove that she can cope with the new challenges. The setting may be different; the message is the same.

In 1976 Anna Home, in charge of children’s drama programmes at the BBC, was looking for a series which would reflect contemporary school life rather than ‘the traditional worlds of Bunter and Jennings’ (Home 1993: 102). Grange Hill School, created and peopled by Phil Redmond, proved an ideal vehicle for looking at contemporary issues such as bullying, serious illness, death, broken homes, teenage pregnancy, smoking and drugs, while presenting a rounded picture of school life. When Grange Hill was first shown, it was seen as anti-authoritarian by adults; skilfully crafted, its underlying purpose is to look at school from the child’s viewpoint and, while reflecting the real world, it supports traditional values. The popularity of the first series led not only to its continuation but also to books, based on the series, by Phil Redmond and Jan Needle, while Robert Leeson used the characters in original stories.

Since the 1970s, writers of school stories have had to take account of the fact that children mature earlier and are more worldly-wise, but they continue to use school as a setting where the problems that face young people can be aired. In Goggle-Eyes (1989) Anne Fine uses the framework of a girls’ day school to examine contemporary problems such as divorce and conservation; in Flour Babies (1992), she challenges accepted gender roles in a humorous account of boys engaged in a school science project. Allen Sadler’s Sam’s Swop Shop (1993) finds boys raising money for essential school equipment rather than charity as would have been the case in the past, but some problems are perennial. The Present Takers (1983) by Aidan Chambers and, a decade later, Jan Dean’s Me, Duncan and the Great Hippopotamus Scandal (1993) both show that bullying, a theme which provided a memorable scene in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, still looms large in the lives of many schoolchildren.

Series books are popular with young people and commercially successful for authors and publishers. Jean Ure’s Peter High books and Mary Hooper’s School Friend series make good use of traditional themes while showing awareness of the realities of life in the 1990s. In stories about older children, school may provide a background for light romances as in the popular American series such as Sweet Valley High.

Between 1978 and 1994, Ann Digby published fourteen titles about Rebecca Mason of Trebizon School, which constitute the most significant girls’ boarding school series to be published in Britain in the latter part of the twentieth century. This illustrates the way in which the genre has had to change to reflect contemporary society and to meet the new needs of young readers. Rebecca goes to boarding school reluctantly - her father has been promoted to a post in Saudi Arabia; in the fourth book, Boy Trouble at Trebizon (1980) Rebecca, despite her opening line: ‘I’m not interested in boys ... I’m going to stick to tennis’, acquires a boyfriend.

Rebecca goes to Trebizon because her parents are going abroad. In The School from Hell? Here for a Year? Forget It! (1997), Yvonne Coppard creates King Arthur’s, a coeducational boarding school, to which rock stars and lottery winners send their children for a ‘proper English upbringing’.

Adele Geras’s Egerton Hall trilogy, although set in the 1960s, faces the problems of growing sexuality head-on. Three friends have gone through the school together and, now in the sixth form, are preoccupied by sex and impending adulthood. Each of their lives parallels that of a fairy-tale heroine (Geras 1990: 20-1). Megan, heroine of The Tower Room (1990) is the Rapunzel figure; Alice in Watching the Roses (1991) is Sleeping Beauty, while Bella of Pictures of the Night (1992) is Snow White, complete with wicked step-mother and the apple which nearly chokes her to death. The trilogy is a significant literary achievement which shows how far the school story has come since its first manifestation over 200 years ago.

Crazy (2001) by the German author Benjamin Lebert, is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s experience as a sixteen-year-old who arrives at Castle Neuseelen boarding school, his fifth school, where his parents hope he will improve his grades. Although the focus is on the comradeship and new experiences, the latter include climbing into the girls’ dormitories, having sex and running away to Munich.

That the concept of the traditional boarding-school story is by no means dead is reflected in the Harry Potter phenomenon, which has manifested itself world-wide. Admittedly, J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts is co-educational, but there are many features of the typical school story. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) Harry is offered a place at Hogwarts, assembles his kit with enthusiasm, travels by the school train from King’s Cross, is allocated to a house, attends lessons, plays the school game, makes good friends - and enemies - and is, like almost all school-story heroes and heroines, keen, upright, truthful and brave.

Rowling was not the first children’s writer to use the school-story format for a story about magic. Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch (1974) introduced Mildred Hubble and her adventures at Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. This and its successors, written for younger children, are still extremely popular, and follow the school-story conventions quite closely. The buildings have gloomy grey walls and turrets, usually half-hidden in the mist. The girls wear black gymslips, grey shirts, black and grey ties, black stockings and hob-nailed boots. Halloween and Sports Day are celebrated during the school year of two terms. There is a school song - ‘Proudly on Our Brooms We Fly’ - and there is a strict code of honour. Miss Cackle is kind and friendly, a contrast to her deputy, Miss Hardbroom, who terrifies the girls. Mildred has the best of intentions, but is an incompetent trainee witch, and each book chronicles her accidents and mistakes, although she comes through triumphantly at the end.

And what of St Sophia’s? Lyra Silvertongue, at the end of the three substantial volumes that make up Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000), comes back to Jordan College in Oxford where it all began, to the suggestion that she should go to the boarding school in north Oxford set up by St Sophia’s, the women’s college. It is thought that she needs ‘the friendship of other girls’ of her age - another reflection, perhaps, of the place which single-sex boarding schools hold in the British imagination?

School stories were largely ignored by critics until nearly the end of the twentieth century. Books such as Isabel Quigley’s The Heirs of Tom Brown (1982), P. W. Musgrave’s From Brown to Bunter (1985) and Jeffrey Richards’s Happiest Days (1988) deal with boys’ stories but have little or nothing to say about those for girls. The standard work on girls’ stories is Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig’s You’re a Brick, Angela (1976).

In the 1980s, women from a wide range of backgrounds confessed that they still reread the stories they had enjoyed as schoolgirls. Although there have long been societies for specific authors, the period from 1989 onwards saw the establishment of magazines devoted to writers who had written for girls in the twentieth century and who had been either ignored by critical studies, or disparaged. The Abbey Chronicle (1989) and The New Chalet Club Journal (1995) both covering the writings of Elinor Brent-Dyer, Serendipity (1996) for fans of Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Folly (Fans of Light Literature for the Young) (1990), which has somewhat wider coverage, have all flourished, publishing articles ranging from the scholarly to the just-interested-but-with-something-worth-saying, and compensated for the critics’ neglect. Unaware of these activities, Rosemary Auchmuty published A World of Girls, the first scholarly study of girls’ school stories, in 1990. Written from a strongly feminist viewpoint, this included detailed studies of the work of Blyton, Bruce, Brent-Dyer and Oxenham.

Although the magazines provide an important focus for discussion of school stories, there are spin-off publications, and local and national meetings and conferences, all reflecting the debt which many women, with more money to spend, feel they owe to those authors who provided strong female role models, showing that women could be positive, take on responsibility beyond the immediate family, pursue successful careers, and demonstrate qualities of leadership.

In 2000, a two-volume Encyclopedia of School Stories, edited by Rosemary Auchmuty and Joy Wotton, was published. The first volume, mostly the work of Sue Sims, one of the Folly editors, and Hilary Clare, covers girls’ stories; the second, by Robert Kirkpatrick, deals with stories for boys.

Why does the school story figure so strongly in British children’s literature while scarcely seen elsewhere? It may be partly due to the way in which education developed in Britain, with the ‘public’ schools leading the way. It may also owe something to the island mentality of the British; a boarding-school setting is a useful way of bringing together a group of young people who have to learn to get along with each other while adults hover in the background, providing some kind of disciplined framework.

However, the boarding-school setting also appeals to young people elsewhere. Eva Lofgren (1993: 39) points out that the boarding-school story for girls was so popular in Germany that not only were all Blyton’s stories about St Clare’s and Malory Towers translated between 1960 and 1972, but sequels were produced by German writers to meet the demand. Lofgren’s own interest was aroused by her reading of English stories translated into Swedish.

The French writer Paul Berna recognised the usefulness of the boarding-school setting in La Grande Alerte (1960) [Flood Warning (1962)]. When the rivers rise and flood in the area of Anjou, some boys and masters at Chateau-Milon School are cut off. They include a new master, Monsieur Sala, whose ability to keep order has been so poor that he has just been sacked. In the story of their survival and eventual escape, the characters, their attitudes and relationships change radically. M. Sala emerges as a hero, while boys who were hitherto rebellious and disaffected become valuable members of the community. As in Benjamin Lebert’s Crazy and Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School, a period spent at boarding school is seen as a time during which a rite of passage can take place.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, school, whatever its nature, remains an attractive setting for a story for young people, providing a stable and safe environment in which children from different backgrounds can meet, develop relationships and share experiences. School stories continue to appeal to children at the age when the peer group is all important, when they are seeking independence and curious about what lies ahead. The genre has a special appeal for girls, who enjoy stories and series in which the characters are seen to mature; boys are more likely to read for the enjoyment of the moment - Jennings is always eleven, Bunter forever in the Remove.

School stories have been criticised for their unreal picture of school life, but authors have responded to changes in society, and time-honoured themes are adapted to new circumstances. School stories, with a few exceptions, provide a positive picture of one of the almost universal experiences of childhood and, perhaps most important of all, show a respect for intellectual and personal achievement, preparing readers to play a responsible role in society.



Allan, M. E. (1982) To Be an Author, Heswall: published by the author.

Auchmuty, R. (1992) A World of Girls, London: Women’s Press.

Auchmuty, R. and Wotton, J. (eds) (2000) The Encyclopedia of School Stories, 2 vols, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Cadogan, M. and Craig, P. (1985) You’re a Brick, Angela!: The Girls Story 1939-1985, 2nd edn, London: Gollancz.

Cadogan, M. and Wright, N. (2002) A Treasury of Enid Blyton’s School Stories, London: Hodder Headline.

Carter, G. A. (1947) ‘Some Childish Likes and Dislikes’, Library Association Record 49, 99: 217-21.

Clark, B. L. (1989) ‘Introduction’, in Sharp, E. (ed.) The Making of a Schoolgirl, New York: Oxford University Press.

- (1996/2001) Regendering the School Story: Sassy Sissies and Tattling Tomboys, New York:

Garland; New York and London: Routledge.

Freeman, G. (1976) The Schoolgirl Ethic: The Life and Work of Angela Brazil, London: Allen Lane.

Geras, A. (1990) ‘Fairy Frameworks’, Books for Keeps 65: 20-1.

Home, A. (1993) Into the Box of Delights: A History of Children’s Television, London: BBC Books.

Lofgren, E. M. (1993) Schoolmates of the Long-Ago: Motifs and Archetypes in Dorita Eairlie Bruce’s Boarding School Stories, Stockholm: Symposion Graduale.

McAleer, J. (1992) Popular Reading and Publishing in Britain 1914-1950, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Musgrave, P. W. (1985) From Brown to Bunter: The Life and Death of the School Story, London: Rout-ledge and Kegan Paul.

Orwell, G. (1962) Inside the Whale and Other Essays, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Quigley, I. (1982) The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story, London: Chatto and Windus.

Richards, J. (1988) Happiest Days: The Public Schools in English Eiction, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Thwaite, M. F. (1972) From Primer to Pleasure in Reading, 2nd edn, London: Library Association.

Townsend, J. R. (1987) Written for Children, 3rd edn, London: Penguin.

Trease, G. (1964) Tales out of School: A Survey of Children’s Eiction, 2nd edn, London: Heinemann.  

- (1974) Laughter at the Door, London: Macmillan.


Further reading

Auchmuty, R. (1999) A World of Women: Growing up in the Girls’ School Story, London: Women’s Press.

Avery, G. (1991) The Best Type of Girl: A History of Girls’ Independent Schools, London: Deutsch.

Kirkpatrick, R. J. (2001) Bullies, Beaks and Flannelled Eools: An Annotated Bibliography of Boys’ School Eiction 1742-1990, new edn, London: published by the author.

McClelland, H. (1981) Behind the Chalet School, 2nd edn, London: Bettany Press.

Reynolds, K (1990) Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children’s Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910, Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Tucker, N. (ed.) School Stories from Bunter to Buckeridge, London: National Centre for Research in Children’s Literature (NCRCL Papers 4).