There’s something distinctly British about the boarding school story. It struck me the other day on my commute home. For some reason I had Sally from Malory Towers stuck in my head. Good old solid loyal steadfast Sally (poor sod!) was always doomed to be second fiddle to Darrell’s central role. And then I got to thinking a little further. I’m not poorly read, in fact I’m actively studying children’s literature, but it struck me that I do not know of a non-British boarding school story.
The genre itself has evolved substantially from Angela Brazil’s fixation with class and letting her girls study abroad without actually coming into contact with any of those foreigners. Even though they’ve dated (most frightfully so!), Brazil’s canon is breath-takingly impressive. Slipping away from the more didactic style of writing which had been very popular, she wrote for the reader (including plenty of thrills, and illicit tucker) and left an indelible mark on the genre of the school story.
Naturally, there were others, both writing beside her and following avidly in her wake. The obvious popularity of Brazil’s work started a boom in the genre. Sadly a lot of these writers have fallen by the wayside now but there’s still charm in these old works. Ethel Talbot is a name that I didn’t know but, noting the similarities of frontispiece and other peritextual elements, I recently picked up a copy of Jan at Island School. It was lovely. There’s a distinct pleasure in reading a book which still bears the mark of the thrill of incipient emancipation felt by these writers. They don’t quite burn the bra just yet but these books were the baby steps of a generation forced to independence by the impact of World War Two. This sort of thing is quite obvious in the roles of characters such as Miss Theobald – a divinely wise woman who imparts pearls of wisdom to her charges.
And there is something quite splendidly British about them. Even modern reinventions such as Harry Potter have the distinctly patriotic Hogwarts (what with the latinate mottos and noble ghosts), where the train to gets it leaves from the indelibly British location of Kings Cross. Think of Trebizon with the obsession over tennis and boys, not necessarily in that order. It seems that the image of the sports mad, gung-ho girl is a resolutely British one (I’m immediately thinking of one such girl who ‘bowls across the playground’ in one of the Follyfoot novels and knocks the bullies out of the way of Callie due to her physical impact).
I hope you’ve gathered by now that I truly love these books. The Chalet School will always have my heart but there’s something about them all that I find perfect. For me it is heavily due to the distinct identity of the genre. Play up, play up and play the game and all that. I also couldn’t imagine them being produced by any other society – and come to think of it, is the boarding school a very English concept? What are attitudes like elsewhere? Do wade in and let me know – I’m happy to be corrected!
For now, I think, the words of Angela Brazil sum up the best of the genre and what made her, and her fellow ground-breaking authors so legendary in their time: “I am still an absolute schoolgirl in my sympathies”