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Whilst I was looking through old notes on Gosling and Auchmuty’s work on school fiction for my piece on sexualized images of schoolgirls, I found my undergrad thesis on girls’ school fiction and its decline in the twentieth century.  Here’s the first half – amidst the rather stuffy style I made some points I still agree with…


The British girls’ boarding school story is part of our cultural consciousness. The phrase “jolly hockey sticks” has passed into the national lexicon, instantly conjuring up the cluster of images which surround the genre; the midnight feasts, classroom pranks, muddy playing fields, perilous rescues and hopeless crushes. “Jolly hockey sticks” however, was never used in an actual school novel, but coined by Beryl Reid, playing a comic stereotype of a games-playing public schoolgirl in the 1950s BBC Radio series Educating Archie,[1]

That this phrase, which for many people defines the genre, should have come from a satire is typical of the unusual status which the girls’ boarding school novel holds in British culture. Ask for examples of the type, and the names “St. Trinian’s” and Daisy Pulls It Off are as likely to be mentioned as “Malory Towers” and The Madcap of the School. In other words, this genre is as much defined and known by the satires upon it than the original works. This seems strikingly unusual; even as unfashionable and generally risible a literary form as the Victorian stage melodrama is granted more integrity, being most famous for a line; “dead, dead, dead! and…never called me mother!”[2], which it actually produced.

In fact satire, pastiche and parody seem to have outweighed the seriously intended material being produced during the latter half of the twentieth century. Though the Chalet School series continued until the posthumous publication of Prefects of the Chalet School (1970), “Last Term at Malory Towers” had already brought Enid Blyton’s school stories to an end in 1951. Not until 1978 was the first of the “Trebizon” series published by Anne Digby, who is credited by the Encyclopedia of Girls’ School Stories as “the only example of a contemporary writer who has written a really lengthy series of girls’ boarding-school stories”[3] Figures from the same work show that in the decade after Brent-Dyer’s death, only fifteen new girls’ school stories were published, and that the genre had been in steep decline for the past twenty years, the editors giving their opinion that by this point the traditional genre was “well and truly dead”[4]

On the other hand, Ronald Searle’s books of cartoons, which included the famous girls of St. Trinian’s, continued until 1952, and films made on the back of their success appeared in 1954, 1957, 1960, 1966 and 1980. In the early eighties, Dave Robinson and Dick Appleyard set up Recycled Images[5], to publish pictures from school stories of the thirties with humorous captions. In 1983, one of the most famous pastiches of schoolgirl literature, Daisy Pulls It Off, by Denise Keegan, was put on at the Globe Theatre in London, and has been produced steadily since. Then, in 2002, the previously unpublished prose works of Philip Larkin were released, including the 1943 pastiche Trouble At Willow Gables.[6] (Far from tucking it away behind the more “serious” unfinished novels, New World Symphony and No For An Answer, Larkin’s estate’s publishers gave the schoolgirl story star billing on the cover, with the words “and other fictions” in much smaller type below, along with the name of the editor.)

Alongside these “parasitic” forms, the original stories remained immensely popular. Blyton’s school-stories have not been out of print for the fifty years since she wrote them, and in the nineties, Elinor Brent-Dyer’s “Chalet School” series was selling 100,000 copies a year. It would be easy to blame the genre’s decline on it being simply out-dated and lacking any relevance; no-one makes a great deal of fuss that there aren’t many epyllia or revenge tragedies being produced these days. But the substantial and continuing sales of authors like Blyton and Brent-Dyer, along with the obvious cultural resonance of the form demonstrated by the raft of works which subvert or exploit its conventions, rules out any such conclusion. In fact, by 1994, Anne Digby had stopped writing the “Trebizon” series, and in 1999 accepted a contract from Hodder to write continuations to Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl In The School series[7].

It is surprising, considering the popularity of both original books and later parodies, is that there has been no “straight” film or television adaptation. The “Chalet School” books, especially, would appear to be a gift to any prospective adapter; a range of picturesque locations, including Wales and the Tyrol; a wealth of stories about a great number of characters, which could be if necessary selected and combined for the adaptation; and a possible cast of wildly varying ages depending on which characters during which period the film or series focussed upon. Other school stories have been adapted for the screen; in 2003, Carlton put considerable resources into a production of Goodbye Mr. Chips (screened by ITV), and as I write this in early 2005, the BBC are about to release a much-hyped Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which includes Stephen Fry among the cast.[8]

Of course there is one obvious difference between Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Last Term at Malory Towers; the gender of their protagonists. Apparently even male boarding school fiction is more significant than its female counterpart. I would suggest that this is due largely to the status of women as a “marked” group[9]. Just as, grammatically “he” frequently stands for all of mankind, it seems that culturally the young “he” stands for the young mankind. One of the most blatant examples of this entrenched cultural attitude can be seen in the difference between the “St. Trinian’s” books and films, and the “Molesworth” books. Both are based upon drawings by Ronald Searle, the cartoonist.

However, what was produced from the two sets of sketches is entirely different. The girls of St. Trinians became a series of films, in which all the pupils were either cosh-wielding, gin-distilling savages or eyelash fluttering, suspender-revealing husband traps. After a couple of amusing films, they disintegrated into a Carry On-style vehicle for Frankie Howerd, with speeded-up chases and increasing emphasis on the nubile sixth formers. The pupils of St.Custard’s, however, chronicled by Willan’s character Nigel Molesworth, gave rise to one of the finest satirical works of the century. Molesworth claims as his subject just about the entire province of human knowledge and endeavour; as the poet and critic Philip Hensher writes, “you can never rely on Molesworth not to start joking about Proust, trade unions, the Welfare State or Stalin’s show trials.”[10] To which might be added jazz, famous Elizabethans, Existentialism, and the problems of language. His style veers from brutally straightforward (“who said that? i will bash the lot of you. i will utterly tuough you up.”) to high camp (“Too repulsive, my dear”).[11]

By contrast, the only stylistic trait the girls of St. Trinian’s are allowed is an irritating tendency to overuse the word “jolly”, as in “’I jolly well won’t,’ ‘You’d jolly well better’ ‘Oh jolly well had I?’ ‘Yes, you jolly well had’…” and to string adjectives together; “Utterly awful jolly beastly absolutely soppy perfect rot”[12]. The message, here as elsewhere, appears to be that whilst boys grow up into mankind, girls merely grow up into women; they can only conform to the image of a feminine schoolgirl, or deviate and become its opposite, a rather narrow set of options.

Boys school stories continued to be published during the latter part of the twentieth century; as Malory Towers was being wound up in 1951, Lindbury Court was just becoming famous, Jennings Goes To School having been published the year before. Buckeridge’s last “Jennings” book, That’s Jennings! appeared in 1994 after an unbroken stream of prep school adventures over four decades. The Encyclopaedia of Boys’ School Stories notes that the eighties and nineties saw such books published at “regular intervals”[13]. A reviewer for The Times explained that “the subject of life at an English boarding school rarely fails to intrigue those who have attended them and those who have not. Their rituals, promises and threats embody in the crudest possible form many of the basic elements of English domestic, social, spiritual and political life.”[14]

If this sentiment sounds familiar, it is because it is the essential premise of works like Stalky and Co., Kipling’s boarding school stories which implicitly (Regulus) and explicitly (Slaves of the Lamp, Parts I and II) link schooldays with “the world of warfare and imperial government”[15] However, the quotation from The Times comes from the other end of the century to Kipling; it is part of a review of Homesick, which was published in 1997, but apparently still conveys almost the entirety of the society which produced it via a story about boarding school, an institution which the vast majority of that society will never experience.   It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with attitudes towards the genre, that Homesick is a novel about a male protagonist in a boarding school exclusively for boys.[16]

The state of the boys’ boarding school novel, and the attitudes towards it, clearly give the lie to any suggestion that girls’ school stories declined because their settings were out-dated or no longer socially relevant. Linbury Court looks positively ancient when compared to the setting of Anne Digby’s “Trebizon” books, the sole series which defies the post-seventies slump, with their references to pop music and boyfriends[17]. Furthermore, interviews with young fans of the “Chalet School” books during the nineties demonstrated that they were perfectly capable of identifying old-fashioned or “non-relevant” elements within the stories, without this being a problem for them; “the Chalet School is fairly old-fashioned and hard to relate to my school”, and one even said “I’m totally against most things about the Chalet School and would hate to go there myself, but I love reading the books.”[18] These girls are clearly not mistaking Brent-Dyer’s works for a description of the real world, nor an ideal they would rather live in, but see them as pieces of fiction to be read critically and enjoyed at the same time.

It would be inaccurate, and missing the point, to suggest that there was no girls’ fiction set in schools published during the last decades of the twentieth century. The long-running syndicate-written “Nancy Drew” series was extremely successful in its eighties and nineties incarnation. The first Sweet Valley High book was published in 1982, four years later the Babysitters Club by Anne Martin arrived[19] and 1994 saw the first volume of Katherine Applegate’s Making Out series. As the title of Applegate’s series implies, these books are largely, if not mainly, centred around the romantic relationships between their teenage characters. The first chapter of a randomly chosen example, Sweet Valley Twins 20: Playing Hooky contains these passages;

“This is just what we need to win that basketball game next week – special             purple sneakers for the star player. Besides, the Unicorns will flip when they see these.” The Unicorn Club was a group of girls who thought they were as beautiful and as special as the mythical beast for which they were named. And they wore something purple every day.[20]

Drifting off to sleep moments later, she had the most wonderful dream. She          and Kent were on the beach at sunset. Kent held her hand and gave her a gentle kiss on the cheek. “You’re beautiful, Jessica”, he said in a dreamy voice. “Every bit as pretty as Brooke said you were. I have a feeling we’re going to be very good friends.” As Jessica fell into a deeper sleep, she vowed to make her dream come true.[21]

Apart from the more modern elements of the settings such as fashion and boyfriends, (and an obsession with personal appearance), there is a drastic difference between these series and the earlier boarding school stories. Where Blyton, Brent-Dyer, Brazil et al focussed upon the school almost as a entity in its own right, it is rarely anything more than a convenient meeting place for the characters in the work of Pascal, Martin, Applegate and the “Nancy Drew” syndicate. The schools portrayed are without exception mixed American high schools, a setting which also held sway in the movies for much of the eighties and nineties in many genres; The Breakfast Club, Scream and Ten Things I Hate About You being an appropriately diverse handful.[22] Libraries, which had spent the early seventies selling off their collections of school stories, were apparently quite happy to buy these new series; my local village library still has comparatively large holdings of Sweet Valley, Nancy Drew and Making Out.

Why were these books, with their female central characters, and school setting, dominant in Britain during this period? The newer series cannot be said to be more “realistic”, since the British teenagers reading them were as far from the sun-drenched California setting of Sweet Valley as they were from the Cornish coast of Malory Towers or Trebizon. The shopping and dating in Sweet Valley does not bring teenage fiction any closer to social realism. I would suggest that the distinction drawn above, between books set in a school, and boarding school novels, is vital. The American high schools are not in any sense (to reuse the phrase which both Rosemary Auchmuty and Ju Gosling borrowed from L.T. Meade) “A World of Girls”. They integrate the female characters into a mixed society, though they remain as the protagonists. Whether this is desirable, on the grounds of reflecting the experiences of the readership or the arrangement of modern education, or not, it has effectively done away with the previous genre, which involved institutions consisting of, and ruled by, girls and women. The female-centred model which these works presented has not been out-dated, or joined by an alternative, it has been effectively obliterated as a model for new literary production.

Auchmuty has written persuasively on the decline of the girls’ school story as part of the imposition of heterosexuality as the norm in the twentieth century[23]. The same volume contains an essay by Jeffreys in which she discusses Faderman’s conclusions on female friendship in the late nineteenth century; “…the acceptable form of friendships between women became more and more circumscribed…She attributes this change to the greater necessity of controlling women which resulted from a really strong women’s movement”[24] In the light of such a statement, the disappearance of the “World of Girls” school story model in the seventies, after the massive intellectual and social advances of the women’s liberation movement in the sixties, looks far more than coincidental.

The increases in women’s education which had jump-started the girls’ school story had taken hold, and the academic improvements had been set in the motion which would lead to the headlines which appear every summer in apparent outrage that girls outperform boys in some competitive examinations. These gains ironically seem to have led to the dismantling of a literary genre which presented women as capable, powerful and united. The all-female boarding school setting was vulnerable, as it was no longer revolutionary as an idea, nor did it match its readers’ educational experiences. I would suggest that once women had been admitted to education on a large scale, they were expected to forget how they had got there, and blend gratefully into mixed schools. Soon after the link had disappeared between the texts I have discussed and perceived reality, so did the genre, since this literature almost entirely populated by women could not symbolically represent anything beyond a rather funnily-dressed group of young women talking in humorous slang.

[1] As noted in World Wide Words, Michael Quinion, (www.worldwidewords.org)

[2] East Lynne, Ned Albert, (Samuel French, 1941), p.37.

[3]Sims and Clare, The Encyclopedia of Girls’ School Stories, (Ashgate, 2000) p.120

[4] Sims and Clare, Encyclopedia of Girls’ School Stories, p.15

[5] Schoolgirls and Situationism, part of the hypertext cluster Virtual Worlds of Girls, ed. Ju Gosling, (www.ju90.co.uk, 1998) 8, IV

[6] Trouble At Willow Gables and other fictions, Philip Larkin, ed. James Booth (Faber and Faber, 2002) pp.3-129

[7] As mentioned in Interview with Anne Digby, Paul Norman, Gateway Magazine,, (www.gatewaymontly.com)

[8] Neither are Chorion, the firm who own the rights to the Enid Blyton “brand”, as well as that of Agatha Christie, at all averse to developing their properties in other media. Noddy has been made into a brand of playschools in Asia, and Miss Marple, a character with even less obvious social relevance than the heroines of the “St. Clare’s” books, was last month revived by Geraldine McEwan in a production including such other star names as Simon Callow. (Telephone conversation with Andrew Sholl of Portland PR, representatives of Chorion PLC, December 2004)

[9] Discussed from a specifically linguistic point of view in Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, (Macmillan, 1985), pp.57-72 and Swift and Miller, Words and Women (Gollancz, 1976) pp.76-77, inc a quotation from Armagost, Letter to the Editor, Newsweek, 27th December 1971.

[10] Hensher, Introduction to Molesworth, Willans and Searle (Penguin Classics, 2000) p.xi

[11] Molesworth, Willans and Searle, p. 115, p.191

[12] The Terror of St. Trinians, Lewis (Parrish 1952) p.74, p.35

[13] Kilpatrick, The Encyclopaedia of Boys’ School Stories, (Ashgate, 2000) p.5. Though their definition of “school story” seems to include any almost work which uses a school as a background or significant element, and I am focussing here upon boarding school stories, there still seems to be a discrepancy between the boys’ genre which marched on through the seventies, eighties and nineties, and the girls’ genre, which had largely died by the seventies.

[14]The Times, March 1997 Homesick is strictly speaking a novel for adults set in a boarding school, but the comments of the reviewer on the setting are still significant.

[15] Back cover text, The Complete Stalky and Co., Rudyard Kipling (OUP 1999)

[16] Whilst I have no desire to bite the hand that feeds me academically, it also seems worth noting that in order to write this thesis I was calling up individual books from the stacks to the Bodleian reading rooms, but were I working on boys school stories, I could have chosen from 44 copies of Stalky and Co. scattered across the university and 36 of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Equally notable, even amusing, is that the Encyclopaedia of School Stories which deals with stories for both boys and girls, is listed by OLIS as pertaining to the categories “Children’s Literature, English”, “Schools in literature” and “Girls in literature”.

[17] for example, Second Term at Trebizon, Anne Digby (Allen, 1979) p.11 and much of Boy Trouble at Trebizon (Allen, 1988) If I seem to be ignoring Jean Ure’s “Peter High” series in identifying “Trebizon” in this way, it is simply because these books are set in a comprehensive day school, not a boarding school.

[18] Gosling, Virtual Worlds of Girls, 9, III

[19] A truly gargantuan series, with 279 books so far, if sub-series are included.

[20] Sweet Valley Twins 20: Playing Hooky, Jamie Suzanne, series created by Francine Pascal, (Bantam, 1989), p.3

[21] Playing Hooky, Suzanne, p.12

[22] The Breakfast Club, dir. John Hughes (Universal Pictures, 1985), Scream, dir. Wes Craven (Buena Vista, 1996), Ten Things I Hate About You, dir. Gil Junger (Touchstone, 1999)

[23] Auchmuty, You’re a Dyke, Angela!, Elsie J. Oxenham and the rise and fall of the schoolgirl story in Lesbian History Group, ed. Not A Passing Phase; Reclaiming Lesbians in History (Women’s Press 1989) p. 119-140

[24] Jeffreys on Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men (Women’s Press, 1985) in Does It Matter If They Did It?, in Lesbian History Group, ed. Not A Passing Phase, p.20