School stories, especially those set in boarding schools, have always held a strange fascination for me. The friendships, adventures and practical jokes (rags, usually leading to scrapes – you have to love the slang!) depicted in those tales were so far away from my experience of a very ordinary large day-school that they seemed to be set in a different world. Malory Towers and St. Clares were, in their own way, just as exotic to me as the Faraway Tree. Of course, all school stories take some liberties with the realities of school life and so I suspect that many, if not most, of the happenings I enjoyed reading about were quite far away from actual events in real-life boarding schools.
Enid Blyton’s (in retrospect somewhat limited) depictions of school life are, naturally, only one branch of a long-established “family tree” of girls’ school stories. Early school stories by the exceeedingly prolific L.T. Meade mainly deal with small private educational establishments and the girls’ moral dilemmas. In contrast to later school stories, games are kept to a minimum (hardly suprising in the long skirts of the day), although dramatic rescues and near-death experiences abound. Later writers such as Angela Brazil tell somewhat more amusing tales (except for the interminable, and, to someone who never played either game, extremely mystifying, descriptions of hockey and lacrosse matches!); the schools grow larger, the schoolgirls become more natural in their behaviour and characters, and although near-death experiences still crop up, they are usually (slightly) less melodramatic in character.
Large series of books set in one school become more common as the genre develops; the most well-known authors being those known to fans of the genre as “the big three”: Elsie J. Oxenham (the Abbey series), Dorita Fairlie Bruce (Dimsie) and Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (the Chalet School). The focus in these series is naturally still on adventures and scrapes, but also on friendships made for life, on “playing the game,” on community spirit and of course on having fun while at the same time gaining an education and being prepared for life beyond school. Naturally, the books teem with extraordinarily talented, beautiful or rich girls, most of whom marry baronets, doctors or lawyers. Just occasionally however, an ordinary mortal appears who just gets on with things and makes the best of life!
These fictional representations of schools mirror the development of educational theory and girls’ schools in 19th and 20th century Great Britain: the genre of girls’ school fiction began, as is only logical, with real-life schools for girls. Most of the earliest girls’ schools were small private establishments in which a handful of teachers, often ex-governesses, taught maybe 20-30 girls. A good fictional example of such a school is Miss Minchin’s school in Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s A little Princess (first published in 1888 as Sara Crewe, or, What happened at Miss Minchin’s). These genteel establishments were precursors of the large boarding schools which appeared in the 20th centry, with their very different emphases on plenty of team sports, extracurricular activities and exams that were designed to take pupils on to university or vocational training. Unsurprisingly, many of the best authors of school stories had at some time during their lives been school teachers themselves.
Just as the boarding school is often seen as a particularly British institution, the boarding school story appears to be a peculiarly British (and by extension, Commonwealth) genre, for although there are tales of boarding schools in other languages (Emmy von Rhoden’s 1885 story Der Trotzkopf being a good German example) they are certainly not as plentiful as those published in English. Although, or perhaps because, only very few parents could afford to send their children to boarding school, school stories were among the most popular genres of children’s fiction in the 20th century. In fact, these stories continue to enjoy great popularity, with many books by Angela Brazil et al. being reissued by publishers such as Girls Gone By Publishers, and fan clubs and fan-fiction websites dedicated to the most famous series, such as the Chalet School, attracting a large number of members of all ages.
While I have moved on from Enid Blyton, I still enjoy school stories. The sense of fun, the friendships, and the way the horrible girls always get their just deserts (or are reformed) at the end are very appealing, though I never seriously wanted to go to a boarding school myself, the thought of being away from home and family for prolonged periods of time simply being too awful to contemplate.
Besides, nobody would get me out of bed at midnight just to drink ginger beer…