Tales in School : Jacynth Hope-Simpson

Tales in School: An Anthology of Boarding-School LifeTales in School: An Anthology of Boarding-School Life by Jacynth Hope-Simpson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m always a little bit suspicious of anthologies. It seems that either they pull out the best bit (and then cut it), or the worst bit (and then over-extend it), or the most random bit (and then wallow in it for an eternity). You’re very much at the risk of the whim of the collector; an individual who you may not even have heard of, let alone understand their rationale for selection. Anthologies, it may be said, are fraught, fractious children.

But, now that I’ve said all that, Tales in School is rather good. The excellently named Hope-Simpson has chosen extracts which illustrate different parts of the public / boarding school experience. What is very pleasing is the mixture of authors. We have pieces by Talbot Baines Reed, Charlotte Bronte, Elinor M.Brent Dyer laid alongside work from Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke and Winston Churchill. It’s a striking, and pleasantly refreshing mixture to read when one remembers the rather gender biased nature of the school story genre.

And this unusual group throws up some very lovely gems. Two in particular stood out for me; Hugh Walpole’s stunning “The Match Against Callendar” and “Arrival at school” by Horace Annesley Vachell. These two were very early on in the collection and by two authors I know nothing about and they were both really really good. I’ll be hunting down the full versions of both (“Jeremy at Crale” and “The Hill” respectively). One of the other highlights for me was the very brief but very eye-opening description of the weekly bath endured by Susan Ranson whilst evacuated to Canada and attending a school run by French Canadian Nuns.

I think Hope-Simpson handles the shape of this anthology as a whole very well. There were only a few pieces I flicked over (sorry Charlotte Bronte, I still can’t come to terms with you just yet). I actually found a lot of the extracts focused on the boys schools very moving. They functioned both as fiction and almost as historical artefact and I was reminded of the quote: “”The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton”. There’s something very British, and very poignant about these extracts and that is underlined by the name of some of the contributors.

Tales in School is one of those anthologies that is still worth a look due to both the eclectic selection of authors and also the curious critical weight it still levies. I’d also be very interested to consider whether such an undertaking would still be possible today and what the shape or content of it would be. Sadly I have the sneaking suspicion that the concept of the anthology itself is rapidly becoming outmoded.

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