Joey laughed . . . "My good girl, I'm not the only
writer this school has turned out. What about Eustacia Benson, for instance?"
"Oh, her!" Daisy sniffed. "I'll grant you she's a learned woman, but for one person who reads her books there must be a thousand who read yours."
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Jane and the Chalet School, Chambers, Edinburgh, 1964, p85)
Following the Second World War and the recovery of the
children's book market, critics of children's books assumed far more influence
than they had previously, partly because they encouraged fears about the
influences of children's reading. This tapped into a number of wider post-war
fears: the effects of the war meant that there were a large number of children
without stable homes; the new state socialism meant that the "public
school ethos" represented in the most recent books was seen by many
as being politically undesirable; and feminists were concerned that girls
had been receiving an inferior education along with messages about their
future domestic role, which was reflected in the more "realistic"
books. There was also a very genuine concern that children were not being
exposed to "good" literature as a result of class and/or gender
disadvantages. Most importantly, though, with regard to girls' school stories,
there was a widespread fear that the fragmentation of family life which
had resulted from the two World Wars, combined with the effects of women's
suffrage and education, was resulting in women leading lives which were
separate, but truly equal in all respects including sexually, to those
In 1949, Geoffrey Trease's Tales Out of School was published by Heinemann. This was the first critical survey of British children's fiction, and was to be highly influential. The title reflected Trease's claim that, prior to the twentieth century, there was "a deep moral conviction . . . that it mattered what children read in their leisure time, and mattered very much indeed; 'tales out of school' were as potent an influence as lessons inside" (p1). Trease condemned the fact that, in his view, this was no longer the case, particularly since children could only be offered a small selection of the books now available to them. Equally, children should not be left to choose their own reading without guidance.
We have finished with all that [the deep moral conviction
. . . ] in the free and enlightened West. To suggest any control or direction
of children's reading produces shocked reaction. What are control and direction
but censorship? Let the child range freely. He is omnivorous. What he does
not understand will not hurt him; what he understands, he is ready for.
Trash does not harm, only by his selection and rejection can he acquire
the genuine standards of taste which alone are worth while . . .
This is no plea for prohibition of any kind. The "free range" is the ideal. But is it at present possible in the average home? Very, very few modern homes, whatever the income-group of the householder, offer even a good mixture of adult and children's books.
There are the libraries . . . The best of the British libraries are now magnificent . . . [But] Selection, whether deliberate or accidental, is . . . inevitable in both public and private libraries . . . Fresh titles [of children's books] are spawned like herrings every season. (pp4-6)
Trease felt that it was therefore important to distinguish,
as past critics had done before him,
between "good" and "bad" children's books. He believed
that "what adults know about this subject is nearly always out of
date" (p11), and that "most teachers are ignorant of their pupils'
leisure-reading because they feel too busy to investigate and have little
idea of what they would find if they did"(pp12-13), although he did
feel that this situation was slowly changing. Trease therefore set out
to enlighten his readership about how to ensure that children read only
"good" books, and he goes on to discuss his criteria in depth.
"A good children's book is one which uses language skillfully to entertain
and to represent reality, to stimulate the imagination or to educate the
emotions"(p9). As with the past critics, then, "realism"
was one of his hallmarks of quality. Representations of reality, moreover,
should be used to develop and to educate readers, rather than influencing
them to adopt "bad" habits.
Trease goes on to discuss his own experiences of childhood reading, before providing a critique of story-books, fairy tales, "didactic" stories, comics, adventure stories, historical stories, school stories, family stories and holiday stories. In his chapter on school stories, "Midnight in the Dorm", Trease begins by stating that "school stories bear little relation to reality"(p107), so the reader already knows from this that the genre is "bad". Trease credits Talbot Baines Reed and Angela Brazil as being the founders of the modern genres, and lists Elsie Oxenham, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton as being other prominent girls' school story writers (presumably because their books were readily available at the time of writing). He writes of both the boys' and the girls' genres that:
Absurd and repetitive plots; stereotyped characterization; latent (and sometimes blatant) snobbery; occasionally what Orwell termed "a perfectly deliberate incitement to wealth fantasy"; and a laboured facetiousness of style . . . these have been the salient qualities in the majority of school stories . . . Contrast with them the colloquial first-hand narrative of A. Stephen Tring's The Old Gang, a good story about Grammar School day-boys which broke new ground in 1947. It had no literary quality in the conventional sense, but it spoke with the authentic voice of a boy. (p111)
It is interesting to note here that Trease identifies
the post-war period as "breaking new ground"; there was to be
a widespread belief for the rest of the century that the quality of children's
books "improved" after the Second World War.
Trease then includes a lengthy summary of Judith Grey's Duchess in Disguise as "a typical story", which he examines for its treatment of snobbery. In his view, the book gives readers the message that:
It is all right to go hysterical over a title, but you must not pretend to one which isn't yours. After all, if we can't trust the label, how can we choose our friends? This book was published in 1943, when there was some talk of democracy. (p114)
Next Trease turns to Grace Pettman's The Queensgate Mystery, which he describes as "a moral tale of the good old stamp"(p114). As can be seen from the following extract, this was not intended to be praise.
The usual ingredients are there - the girls' school on the cliffs, secret passage, smugglers and a heroine with an aura of mystery. But there is something more. On the first night at her new school Joan is horrified to find another girl in the dormitory reading something so vaguely indicated that the average young reader was probably mystified by all the fuss . . . This book was published in 1933 and had been reprinted four times up to 1947. Doubtless it is still on many a library shelf. (pp114-6)
It is interesting to note that Trease welcomes Enid Blyton's The Naughtiest Girl in the School - "the theme is the first term of a spoilt little girl at a progressive co-educational boarding-school" - and describes it as "an example of Miss Blyton's school fiction at its best" (p117). However, he adds that: "there is . . . a widespread tendency to dismiss [Blyton's work] in educational and library circles" (pp117-8), and generally seems to agree with this, stating that:
The Blyton school stories entertain, but except occasionally, as in The Naughtiest Girl, they can hardly be said to go far in depicting reality, stimulating the imagination or educating the emotions. Their style, drained of all difficulty until it achieves a kind of aesthetic anaemia, is the outstanding example of that trend towards semi-basic which we noted in the opening chapter. (p118)
Trease does recognise that the "reality" of school stories has little to do with their appeal to readers, and identifies two key reasons for their popularity: the fact that parents are largely removed from the stories; and the fact that friendships with peers are both overwhelmingly important and possible.
The idea of boarding-school - the escape from parental authority, and the companionship of the dormitory - fascinates millions of English children who realise that they have not the slightest chance of experiencing the reality and are thankful, with the more rational part of their minds, that they have not. (p119)
Simply because the readers preferred an absence of "realism", though, Trease did not believe that they should be given it. He goes on to discuss Phyllis I. Norris's Meet the Kilburys, where a private hostel is opened for rural pupils attending a day school. Having criticised the plot for its lack of "realism", he acknowledges that "these improbabilities will not spoil the story for the average child", but "some of the other elements in the book merit more serious criticism" (p119), among them the description of a motor-cycle journey made by an inexperienced driver; Trease warns that these elements could have a damaging influence on readers. As with the past critics, Trease believes that a "good" book should set a "good" example to their readers. Trease concludes the chapter by calling for the reinvention of the genre, so that it would reflect contemporary experiences of schooling, and a post-war as opposed to public-school ethos. "Good" school stories should be realistic, and children should be encouraged to change their reading habits to include them.
The school story is a legitimate and desirable form. School looms large in every child's life from the age of literacy onwards, and deserves the same treatment as home and holidays. But if the literary form is to develop it must begin to reflect the new conditions. Someone will tell us at once that the child does not want stories laid in the new Secondary Modern or the Tech. It must be the aged elms and the velvet turf, the mortar-board and the masked intruder, or nothing. Well, you can seldom know that a child will accept a new thing until you have tried, but that is no reason for not trying. Kipling did not write Stalky at the request of a juvenile deputation. In actual fact children have put the question to me, at National Book League lectures, why aren't there some stories about day-schools like ours? But it is not the author's job to wait for a lead. He should be giving it. The creation of a new secondary school has just the same dramatic possibilities as the creation of a new house, or the revival of a moribund boarding-school, both popular themes in the old tradition. There is just as much potential drama, and infinitely more scope for originality, in depicting the life of any day-school. In an era like this, when we are trying to transform mere school-attendance into that far richer thing, school-life, a handful of good stories might help. (p121)
Trease concludes with a chapter entitled "To You - For Action", which discusses what readers could do to improve the quality of books available. His call was shortly to be taken up by other critics. For example, on 17 November 1950, The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) carried a substantial article on "Children's Book Publishing". The "Correspondent" expresses a number of concerns about the quality of children's books, before concluding that:
The paucity of serious literary appreciation of children's books gives little guidance or encouragement to public, authors or publishers . . . Probably the most influential body of critics in this sense is the growing number of enthusiastic and informed children's librarians and school librarians who by careful selection, by book exhibitions and by talks are working to raise standards of literary and artistic taste. (pxvi)
Significantly, there is not a single review of a school
story among the annual round-up of children's books in the same edition,
although a section is devoted to "Ponies and Riders".
Librarians, who were responsible for deciding which books
to stock and thus for public expenditure on reading, did indeed become
influential critics of children's books. And what had previously been a
muted criticism of girls' school stories, and of girls' books in general,
now became prominent. Books written specifically for girls, almost all
of which were written by women, were generally regarded as being "bad".
It is tempting to believe that this move was part of an effort to raise
girls' expectations from those which they had had before the war. However,
it should be noted that the change took place during a period when there
were widespread concerns that women's growing economic and political independence
might prevent them from becoming wives and mothers, so official homophobia
was prominent alongside the "back to the home and hearth" movement,
while the aim of girls' education was seen as fitting girls for their future
roles as wives and mothers.
Girls' school stories were set in all-female worlds; friendships were central
to them, if no longer "sentimental"; characters were portrayed
as going on to have careers outside the home; and marriage and motherhood
were not portrayed as being the only option in life. It is therefore more
likely that the growing criticism of girls' books because they were
girls' books concealed a fear of the possible influences on their readers
and a wish to remove these.
It should also be noted that this was not a judgement
which was simply applied to contemporary writing. For example, in 1954,
the chapter on "Writers for Girls" in Percy Muir's English
Children's Books 1600-1900 (Batsford) begins thus: "The long line
of women writers for girls, from Agnes Strickland to Mrs Molesworth and
from Mary Elliot to Juliana Horatia Ewing and Mrs Marshall, are all inferior
in the provision of what children want to their male counterparts"
(p116). Without producing any evidence whatsoever for this assertion, Muir
goes on to concentrate on the work of women writers who did not
write specifically for girls. In his chapter on "School Stories",
he fails to mention girls' school stories at all; as with the earlier critics,
he refused to recognise the girls' genre as being anything but an adjunct
to the boys' books.
However, authors continued to write in the genre, and
the following year, on 4 November 1955, the TLS review of children's
books once more contained a section on "In School and Out" (pvi).
The reviewer notes that fewer books are now being produced in the genre,
but surmises that: "the decline in new school stories is probably
due more to changes in education than in popular taste . . . private schools
are on the wane." As with past critics, the reviewer perceives the
genre as reflecting "real life"; since "reality" has
changed, it is natural that authors have moved on to different genres.
(In fact many authors now simply failed to find publishers: whereas before
a publisher could simply hope that they had commissioned a "good girls'
school story author; now, by definition, all of the genre's authors were
"bad"). The reviewer also makes the important point that, by
the mid-1950s, school life was neither perceived to be nor was at the centre
of girls' lives. "Education in schools is becoming more functional
. . . Now going to school is more like going to the office, and real life
starts elsewhere." "Real" life revolved around girls' roles
as daughters and as future wives and mothers. However, the reviewer does
acknowledge that there is still a demand for the genre by readers, so "realism"
was at least not the only standard by which readers judged a "good"
It is interesting to note that, despite the presence of a children's book review section within the TLS of 1955, the girls' books are described as being "rubbish". In contrast, books intended primarily for boys are not perceived to be an unhealthy influence. Boys' books are not all "good" - Frank Richards' Backing Up Billy Bunter is criticised for being "trite, unendurably slow and execrably illustrated". However:
Intense snobbery, slang and nicknames far beyond what Arthur Marshall can do - all told with the straightest of faces - these are the ingredients of Susan's Stormy Term [by Nancy Moss] and A Chalet Girl from Kenya [by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer].
In contrast, Anthony Buckeridge's Rex Milligan Raises
the Roof, about "a grammar school boy", and Our Friend
Jennings receive much more enthusiastic reviews. "In the field
of school stories there is at present no rival to Anthony Buckeridge, who
shows that school today has its own glamour, and that close observation,
a sound technique and an infallible ear for dialogue can make for success
in a difficult field." And of William Mayne's A Swarm in May
the reviewer writes that: "One can only stand aside and enjoy the
subtle and satisfying intonations of a writer of eccentric genius, most
of whose images, matched so faultlessly in their expression, will inevitably
and regrettably pass by those into whose hands A Swarm in May will
The belief that, as future wives and mothers, girls should not read "unrealistic" "rubbish" but books which equipped them for their intended role in life was almost made explicit by a "Correspondent" in the same edition of the TLS.
the adolescent girl [should] be encouraged to read any or all of the classic novels, for the simple reason that never again will she have time to do so. When once school-days are over shades of the prison house begin to fall very quickly about the boy - and even more quickly about his sister. By the time she is out of her teens she may well find herself tied for life to the sink and the gas stove, with no portion of her day to call completely her own. If the average woman is ever to read Scott or Dickens or Tolstoy or Balzac it must be in adolescence. This being so it seems a thousand pities that the adolescent should be encouraged to waste time on "teen-age" books when the whole vast field of the novel is waiting to be explored and so very few years remain for its exploration. (pvii)
(Despite this view, the same TLS devoted a large
number of pages to children's book reviews, including a section on pony
books, accompanied by a considerable amount of related advertising.)
By the end of the decade, boys' books were still being
judged by a different standard and criteria to those for girls. For example,
on 25 November 1960, the annual review of children's books in the TLS
includes William Mayne's Cathedral Wednesday and E.W. Hildick's
The Boy at the Window in the "Family and Friends: Ways of Life
at Home and Abroad" section (pxii). Mayne's writing is described as
"brilliant", while both authors are described as creating schoolboys
who are "really alive". But while the old standard of realism
still prevails for boys, only one girls' school story is reviewed at all.
Anne M. Westwood's Trouble at Kittiwake Rock - "a boisterous
schoolgirl story, genuinely funny at times - receives this brief mention
in the "Books for the Unbookish" section (pxxiii). School stories
for girls were now regarded as being only suitable for the "unbookish",
and this may well have been taken to mean girls from working-class backgrounds
rather than the middle-class girls who formed the original target readership
for the genre.
Then, in 1961, Brockhampton Press published Margery Fisher's Intent Upon Reading: A Critical Appraisal of Modern Fiction for Children, which was to become a seminal work on children's book criticism. Fisher, who had previously been "sole reviewer of children's books for a national monthly magazine" (p7), looked at children's books published between 1930 and 1960 (a second edition extended this until 1964). Her starting point, like Trease's, was that children should be encouraged to read "good" books.
We must help the child to choose his books so that the
ineffaceable impressions will be worth while; and this means that we must
regard children's books, primarily, not as toys or merchandise, but as
a form of literature.
In the last fifty years and more, many critics have reviewed the history of children's books and have discussed the psychology of reading. Literary principles (formulas and intentions, style and technique) have nearly always been incidental . . . We need constantly to revise and restate the standards of this supremely important branch of literature; constantly, because of the overwhelming number of books published each year. (p10)
Fisher goes on to define her standards.
For a good book for children is not, and never has been, the sole property of children. C.S. Lewis has remarked that he is "almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's book". There is a moral for critics here, as well as a prescription for good writing. (p11)
The question of whether or not "good" writing
can be prescribed does not seem to trouble Fisher, who at the time would
no doubt have been surprised to discover that girls' school stories would
survive to meet Lewis' prescription. (Twenty years later she wrote a favourable
review of Helen McClelland's biography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Behind
the Chalet School, in her own children's book magazine, Growing
Fisher concludes that:
a child's story must, ideally, be written from the heart and form at least some memory of and contact with childhood. It must appeal directly to the imagination of the reader, must create a unique world into which the child will go willingly and actively. It must, necessarily, contain some proportion of adult comment, but this must be delivered as from one intelligent individual to another, not in a spirit of condescension. And it must be written, within the demands of the story, as well as possible. (p18)
School stories as a genre, in Fisher's opinion, do not meet this prescription.
Certain types of story become popular and are easily imitated; children, seizing upon a favourite plot, demand more of the same thing. A formula is born, and a formula, in the end, can kill life and originality for all but the genuinely talented writer. Take school stories, how can children distinguish . . . between innumerable madcaps of the Fourth recognizable only by the colour of their tunics or the length of their hair? How can they distinguish between one set of ink-stained desks and another? How many writers have managed to bring life the apparently monotonous and restricted subject of school days? (pp170-1)
As with Muir, Fisher goes on to discuss the school story
primarily in terms of boys' school stories. Like the past critics, she
takes "realism" and characterisation to be primary in determining
"good" school stories: "It is characterization that makes
certain writers live on, long after the boarding-school formula seems to
be worked out; and I would name Talbot Baines Reed [author of The Fifth
Form at St Dominic's, the founding text of the modern genre of boys'
school stories] as one of them." (p172) In terms of modern readers,
Fisher recommends "Vachell's THE HILL, E.F. Benson's DAVID BLAIZE,
D.Wynne Wilson's EARLY CLOSING and Alec Waugh's THE LOOM OF YOUTH - any
of these will give him a picture of school as a living and complete world"
(p171), although these are in fact "adult" novels.
In terms of girls' school story writers, Fisher selects only Antonia Forest as meeting her criteria.
Because Antonia Forest concentrates on character, I can
absolutely accept her limited sphere of action. I mind very much whether
Nicola Marlow or the spoilt Pomona gets the spare front desk in Form 3
Remove; but when E. Brent-Dyer, a prolific writer, writes ten or twelve
pages of drama concerning the dire consequences of tilting your chair while
working [according to my reading of the series, this is a gross exaggeration],
I cannot see the incident as she (presumably) does, for the characters
involved are so shadowy and uninteresting.
In E. Brent-Dyer's stories about the Chalet School . . . we have another clear case of fossilization . . . These are survivals, and they must eventually suffer the fate of other books, creatures and tribes that prolong existence in a world that has passed them by. (p180)
In retrospect, of course, it is easy to take exception
with Fisher's prediction. While most readers and critics agree that Brent-Dyer's
published work deteriorates after the early 1950s, in the mid-1990s the
series still sold more than 100,000 copies a year in paperback and had
yet to suffer the fate of extinction which Fisher predicted for it more
than thirty years beforehand. As with the majority of the twentieth-century
critics, though, Fisher failed to recognise or acknowledge the reasons
for the genre's appeal.
Following Fisher's work, in 1962 The Library Association
published Marcus Crouch's Treasure Seekers and Borrowers: Children's
Books in Britain 1900-1960. Crouch was a member of the staff of Kent
County Library, and had previously edited Chosen for Children, an
illustrated account of the books which had been awarded the Library Association's
Carnegie Medal between 1936 and 1957. He was therefore perceived as being
an expert in defining a "good" book. Crouch correctly describes
the 1920s as "above all, the age of the school story" (p41),
although he does not regard the genres as having developed from the patterns
set by Reed and Brazil. In terms of "good" books, he states that:
"by far the best of the prolific writers of boy's stories were Gunby
Hadath and Hylton Cleaver. Both saw school-life as an excuse to play games,
but they described sport (particularly rugby football) with understanding
details and great gusto, and they allowed themselves to show some understanding
of the details of character." (p41) As with the previous critics,
"realism" and characterisation were taken to be hallmarks of
the "good" book.
And as with the past critics, Crouch
accords far less respect to girls' school stories. He selects Elinor M.
Brent-Dyer, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Josephine Elder as exploring "the
convention of school life, and the minds of their heroines, with greater
subtlety", but goes on to add that: "Such books stand out so
brightly from the grey mass of school-stories that it is tempting to exaggerate
their excellences. They are in fact the shallowest of steps towards Elfrida
Vipont, but at least they lead upwards." (pp41-2) Elfrida Vipont was
the author of The Lark in the Morn (1959), which is emphatically
not part of the genre. Although a later chapter of Crouch's book deals
with "Children's Books in the Second World War", he makes no
reference to Brent-Dyer within it, despite her descriptions of escaping
from an Austria under the control of the Third Reich and her unique (within
wartime children's books) approach to internationalism and peace. Instead,
he writes only that: "Spies even penetrated, not perhaps for the first
time, the walls of the girls' school." (p88)
Three years later, in 1965, Garnet Miller published John
Rowe Townsend's Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language
Children's Literature. Townsend was then a journalist with the Guardian
and his book was to be another highly influential text, with revised editions
appearing in 1974, 1983 and 1987 in a number of different printings. Like
Muir and Fisher before him, Townsend's chapter on "The world of school"
is devoted to boys' school stories, although he refers to Antonia Forest
and Mary K. Harris at the beginning and later makes a passing reference
to Blyton. This indicates that he did not perceive the girls' books as
being anything other than an adjunct to the genre, nor as being as "good"
as those for boys. But throughout the book Townsend concentrates, not on
popular or gender-specific fiction, but on authors such as C.S Lewis and
Tolkien: "good" books were now "literary" as well as
being aimed at both genders.
In fact, the general content of contemporary children's books had by now undergone a complete change. For example, on 9 December 1965 the TLS reviewer notes in "Girls on the Go" (p1135) that:
This has been outstandingly the year of the difficult child: delinquents, orphans, unmarried mothers, the lot. Many of these social novels have been done very well, with sincerity and understanding as well as a modicum of literary skill. The doubt remains: who reads these books? Are teenage girls sufficiently interested in themselves?
Underneath, in "Bleak New World", the reviewer writes of Eva Figes's Classic Choice and Modern Choice collections of short stories that:
As collections of stories for children, Eva Figes's two
books must represent the oddest choices ever made . . . it could well be
that collections of short stories could help to lead children towards the
But towards what adult world? Surely not desirably towards that which emerges from the stories collected here: of a wife murdering her drunken husband (Maugham), a recluse murdering his dog (Thomas Mann), a rejected man kissed only by mistake (Chekhov), a fugitive and hangman (Hardy), a miner brought home dead to his wife (Lawrence). . .
That adult life can be even better than childhood, that it can be rich and splendid, a brave new world might well be a theme for a collection of stories designed to launch the child into adult reading. But these two books reek only of despair.
Modern schoolgirls, in fiction at least, continued to change considerably from the heyday of the genre, as the review of Rodie Sudbery's Rich and Famous and Bad in the TLS of 30 October 1970 shows. The heroine, Polly, "is a taking character, lively and intelligent and resentful of school routine . . . original enough to capture our interest straight away". "The story ends with investigations by probation officers, magistrates and psychiatrists, all faithfully true to life but somehow out of place after Polly's lighthearted adventurousness." (p1267) Elsewhere the reviewer states of Climb a Lonely Hill, "the first book by a Sydney children's librarian", that:
Miss Norman is not squeamish. She doesn't shrink from describing the uncle's body in the coffin of his car or Jack's attempt to drink his own urine. Everything is loaded against the children and there isn't even the knowledge for the reader that, if they survive, there is a good home and fond parents waiting for them. Their mother is dead and their father a hopeless drunk. (p1266)
In the TLS of 5 December 1975, the reviewer looks at the influences on the content of children's books during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, and offers a convincing analytical summary of the reasons why writers chose their subjects and their treatment of them.
The Victorian writer knew how to cope with death (he made it into a grand scene) and mental illness (he romanticized it as brain fever) and class (he didn't give it a second thought); other difficult areas such as sex and adult relationships he pretended didn't exist, certainly so far as the young ones were concerned. Then, with the horrors of war and the relief of peace, even death became unmentionable, and almost everything was taboo for the "real-life" writer who was forced instead to concentrate on such everyday aspects of life as riding, sailing and school. Inevitably the pendulum has swung back, and the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth. (p1455)
Clearly the more "realistic" books which had
emanated from publishers to replace girls' school stories had left some
critics feeling doubtful as to whether this was in fact quite what they
had envisaged when pleading for a change. Of course, the critics themselves
had always felt that children's books should not have a "bad"
influence on their readers, whereas publishers' priorities had to be their
The death of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer in September 1969 brought renewed attention to the genre of girls' school stories, but this was chiefly to celebrate its assumed demise. C.S. Tatham reflected this in "Yesterday's Schoolgirls", published in The Junior Bookshelf of December 1969.
The recent death of Elinor Brent-Dyer marked the end of an era: or, perhaps more accurately, it drew a final line under an era that came to an end a long time ago. The 57th Chalet book, published this autumn, is the last flicker of life in a type of book that has properly been dead for many years.
In fact this was the 58th book in the series - although the 57th to be published in hardback - and the 59th book, Prefects at the Chalet School, was to be published posthumously in 1970. Tatham continues of the genre as a whole that:
It is a type that is generally, but mistakenly, despised
probably because, having survived too long, it is usually looked at out
of context and judged by the standards of an age other than its own . .
The books varied in quality, of course, but, at their best, they gave a very fair picture of the life of middle and upper class girls of their own time and were a pleasant change from the general run of their predecessors . . .
By present day standards, little of the work of these writers can be called outstanding but, looked at within their own period, they can be recognised as having made a definite contribution which is seldom appreciated. As period pieces they yield much that is interesting. Among other things, they give what is almost the only picture, outside official publications, of the early days of the Guide movement . . .
"Realism", then, was still the criteria on which the books were being judged. Tatham merely queries whether lack of "realism" is a fair criticism of the first Chalet School books, although he adds that: "long before the varying series ceased, they had almost all become complete anachronisms, using the idiom and background of a world that has gone." Tatham concludes, prophetically but not entirely accurately, that:
The Abbey Girls, the Chalet School and the Anti-Soppists may seem, now to be rather poor jokes but it is, perhaps, worth reflecting for a moment on how many of today's books will be as clearly and as happily remembered in fifty years time . . . They were read, in the main, by what would now be called privileged children who read Angela Brazil and Elsie Oxenham and the rest because they liked them and regarded the characters as friends. To many of these readers Elinor Brent-Dyer's death will bring a shadow of regret that Joey Bettany must now join Joy, Joan, and Jen and Dimsie, Nancy and Primula Mary in the past to which they all rightly but honourably belong.
Perhaps the continuing popularity of the Chalet School books had become more apparent by the following year, when Nicholas Tucker's "Ditchwater at the Chalet School" was published in The Times Educational Supplement of 3 July 1970 to mark the publication of the final book in the series, Prefects at the Chalet School.
the fantasy is so very limited. The gruff, earnest prefects
("prees") with their masculine names, Ted, Len, and Sam, the
headmistress Miss Annersley with her "air of unconscious command"
coexisting uneasily with gurgles and chuckling in the privacy of her own
study, the obsession with school routine and fuss over trivial health hazards,
the flat, mechanical level of the writing itself, all help to create a
world that is as dull as ditchwater.
So what is the appeal? . . . Miss Brent-Dyer's special quality, other than the atmosphere of total belief in her stories, can only be described as an invariably plodding dullness, which obviously must have attractions to her huge audience amongst children and "old girl" readers.
After all, who says that successful daydreams always have to be interesting? Perhaps for every youthful Florence Nightingale or Jean-Paul Sartre, both splendidly romantic daydreamers in their youth, there are equal numbers of dull daydreamers, who prefer things a little quieter. They would find admirable accommodation in the Chalet School . . . (p4)
At this time Tucker was a lecturer in developmental psychology at Sussex University. It is questionable whether he would have been quite so dismissive of equally successful books written by men for boys and their readers, given he recognises that the Chalet School series continues to be popular and this is in itself worthy of historical record.
When they eventually disappear, as they surely must some day, beyond the reach of even the most active Old Chaletian, it will be interesting and informative for the social historian to notice that in the era of the Beatles, James Bond, and the mini-skirt, the Chalet School books were also very popular amongst children of all social classes.
It is interesting to note that neither Tucker nor Tatham
seem to have been aware of the numerous criticisms which were directed
at the genre prior to the mid-1920s - when the Chalet School series began
- for "sensationalism";
and that these "dull" stories and others like them had originally
been welcomed enthusiastically for their greater "realism".
It is also interesting to note that here "the obsession with school
routine" is not taken to be "real" or "good";
yet routine is what characterised my life at a girls' school in the 1970s.
The very different tone of Anne Cordiner's "Goodbye Joey", published in March 1970 in The Scotsman, seems to reflect the divide between the critics who had reviewed the books and the girls and women who read them for pleasure.
What made, and still makes, the series so popular? What kept Miss Brent-Dyer's finger so unerringly on the schoolgirl pulse for so long? . . . Take one of the first, one from the middle and a recent one, and you will see how the girls have kept up with the generations. The subtle changes in names, conversations, outlook, even in the uniform, has mirrored the same changes in schoolgirl lives in the last 50 years. But the sense of honour is still there, the leaven that so many school stories lack.
It is highly questionable whether this assertion of "realism"
is true; part of the continuing success of the series was due to the fact
that Brent-Dyer relocated it to Switzerland, where it could not be expected
to reflect contemporary girls' experiences of schooling very closely. But
it is interesting to note that Cordiner accepts without question that "realism"
is the hallmark of quality.
Whether the Chalet School series is "realistic" or not, though, Cordiner goes on to identify a number of characteristics which were selected by readers in the 1990s as being reasons for their own love of the books, and to predict the series' longevity.
The most obvious attraction of the books is in their setting
. . .
As the books grew to a series, we had the added excitement of keeping up with the characters. Joey is one of the first pupils, yet she crops up in most of the books as pupil, prefect, wife, mother and brevet aunt.
It is in this family atmosphere, this weaving together of the different lives into an enormous tapestry that carries readers from book to book. But in each Miss Brent-Dyer managed to convey her own clear-cut moral values, her own belief in loving kindness towards our own immediate circle and then outwards into the world beyond. The books become studies in relationships, leading by the international character of the school, to understanding of other standards in other countries.
If Miss Brent-Dyer hoped to open our eyes to the world, she succeeded admirably judging by the enormous membership of the Chalet School Club . . .
To three generations the Chalet School girls were real. We knew their looks, their views, their secret hopes and fears, their own families and the interlocking relationships in and out of the school. It seems impossible that none of it really existed.
But perhaps I am wrong, because it all does exist in the minds and hearts of countless schoolgirls over the last 50 years, who have loved, identified with, and envied the Chalet schoolgirls, and who will pass on their passion to the next generation. To that extent the school does exist, and always will as long as girls read books.
Brent-Dyer's death had been preceded less than a year earlier by Enid Blyton's, and as a result there was a resurgence of critical - highly critical - interest in Blyton's life and work. Blyton was not, of course, primarily a school story writer, although her three series - the Naughtiest Girl, St Clare's and Malory Towers - have remained constantly in print and are perhaps the best-known girls' school stories available in the mid-1990s. Barbara Stoney's Enid Blyton: A Biography, published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1974, reflects the fact that Blyton was not a school story writer as such by only including a passing reference to the school stories, concluding that Blyton's secret:
lay not only in her extraordinary creative and imaginative gifts, her great vivacity and charm, her amazing capacity for hard work and shrewd business acumen - but also in her very ability to look with childlike wonder on to a world of constant enchantment and surprise, putting aside those things which were unpleasant and keeping only her dreams of life as she would like it to be. (p179)
Stoney's biography was essentially unflattering, as the
quote above illustrates, and this reflected the critical atmosphere of
the time. The librarian Sheila Ray carried out research into Enid Blyton
for an MPhil degree during the 1970s, which was published in 1982 as The
Blyton Phenomenon: The controversy surrounding the world's most successful
children's writer (Andre Deutsch). In 1994 she explained to the audience
at the Bettany Press conference "Studying girls' school fiction"
that the subject would have been regarded as unfit for serious study prior
to the 1970s - when Blyton had at least achieved the status of being dead
- and that even then the atmosphere of the time was such that only a critical,
semi-contemptuous tone was acceptable to academia and publishers alike.
This recollection of the critical atmosphere of the time is supported by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's biographer Helen McClelland, who describes her experience of carrying out research in the 1970s both at the conference and in "In Search of Elinor" in The Chalet School Revisited (Bettany Press, 1994).
Elinor Brent-Dyer . . . ? But what on earth makes you want to write about her? That, in the mid-1970s, was the usual reaction to my plan for a book about the author of the Chalet School series. Many of my friends appeared to think that women who wrote school stories were just a bit of a laugh. And even my husband, normally most supportive of my writing projects, failed to see why anyone wanted to devote so much time and labour to the "Shilly-Shally School" - as he called it. A gloomy pronouncement that "People who want to read well-researched, in-depth biographies, don't want to read about Elinor Brent-Dyer; and vice versa . . . " summed up his attitude. Nor was there any lack of Cassandras to join him in the chorus; the bottom line of their predictions being that the book would never find a publisher (which almost proved to be true). (p29)
McClelland also recalls that, in the 1970s:
the girls' school story was thought to be stone-cold dead and deservedly so. Publishers were becoming ever more socially conscious; and children's books, as well as having to be unisex (if not actually slanted towards boys) were expected to cover only subjects considered relevant to the 1970s. My children were happy enough to read stories in this contemporary genre (later they would nickname it "Oil Rigs and Rape"); but their enjoyment of the Chalet School books continued unabated right into their teens. (p32)
It is important to note here that the popular perception of girls' school stories as containing politically undesirable material is not an accurate one, quite apart from the facts that girls' lives are central to the books and they are portrayed as going on to have careers. For example, this extract from Brent-Dyer's Redheads at the Chalet School (Chambers, Edinburgh, 1964) shows that views which were then considered to be politically desirable were included within the genre. "Copper" 's father, a senior policeman, explains the behaviour of the criminal whom the girls have captured as follows:
"Albert Manley never had a chance.
As a schoolboy, he was sent to reformatory, and later, by the time Josh
Manley came out of Dartmoor, he was a promising young hooligan with three
convictions of robbery to his name. Nowadays, of course, it couldn't have
happened. He would have been looked after properly and given a decent training.
In those days, there was no provision for anything of that kind."
"Why not?" Copper asked with interest.
"Well, for one thing it was thought in those days that the best deterrent for crime was punishment. It isn't, you know. In nine cases out of ten it only hardens the criminal." (p179)
It is actually extraordinary to reread this at a time
(April 1997) when both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party promise
tougher action against criminals, in particular the extension of "reformatories"
for juvenile offenders.
Tania Modleski, writing about popular genres by women for adult women, has pointed out that: "very few critics have taken them seriously enough to study them in any detail" (Loving With a Vengeance, Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women, Archan Books, Hamden, Conn., 1982, p11). She describes a double critical standard, already identified by feminists as biasing literary studies, which she states is also operative in studies of mass-culture. Modleski claims that:
Women's criticism of popular feminine narratives has generally adopted one of three attitudes: dismissiveness; hostility . . . ; or most, frequently, a flippant kind of mockery . . . It is significantly, indistinguishable from the tone men often use when they mention feminine popular art . . . In assuming this attitude, we demonstrate . . . our acceptance of the critical double standard and of the masculine contempt for sentimental (feminine) "drivel". (p14)
It is probable that the reason why so many women critics
have adopted the same attitudes towards the books as men is related to
the fact that these attitudes have been internalised without being questioned.
For example, the only history of fiction
written specifically for girls, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig's You're
A Brick, Angela! The Girls' Story 1839-1985 (Victor Gollancz, 1976),
takes a negative and superficial view of girls' school stories. This is
in sharp contrast to the tone of Musgrave's From Brown to Bunter: The
Life and Death of the School Story (1985), which takes a serious approach
to boys' school stories (the only subject of the book) and is published
by the academic publisher Routledge and Kegan Paul. Even the title of Cadogan
and Craig's book suggests that girls' books are anachronistic and ridiculous
and not to be taken seriously, and this is also reflected in the books'
reviews, which are reproduced on the back cover of the 1986 paperback edition.
They include "Spiffing, girls, absolutely top hole!" from Mary
Manning of the Irish Times; and "Scrumptious dorm-feast of
a book" from the Birmingham Post. Meanwhile the publishers
describe the book as "Taking an entertainingly irreverent look at
girls' stories in novels and magazines".
At the 1994 Bettany Press conference,"Studying girls'
Mary Cadogan claimed that the book did not reflect the authors' attitudes
to the stories, but publication was contingent on this "irreverent"
approach . So far as the publishers were concerned, if it was not possible
to take girls' books seriously, how could a book about girls' books claim
to be a serious text? The "critical double standard" is underlined
by a comparison with reviews on the back of the 1976 Penguin paperback
edition of E. S. Turner's Boys Will Be Boys, a history of boys'
comic books which was originally published by Michael Joseph in 1948. These
include "A beautifully balanced piece of work" from The Spectator
and "It was a classic in its field when it first came out, and it
remains a classic" from The Times.
In fact, Cadogan and Craig's book provides a detailed survey of British fiction produced for girls; it also takes a "feminist" viewpoint in that girls' school stories by women are perceived as being less "good" than girls deserve.
. . . it is becoming obvious that it is better, less restricting, more related to quality, in the end more economical, to write books which may be read by anyone. The term "women's fiction" has always had a derogatory implication which brushed off to a certain extent on girls'; we have tried to show which stories deserved the dismissals involved in this, and which did not. (pp371-2)
While historically accurate, though, most of Cadogan and Craig's analyses are superficial and lack supporting evidence - probably as a result of the approach which had been insisted upon by the publishers. For example, of Angela Brazil Cadogan and Craig write simply: "It is almost as though her more admirable qualities as a writer were arrived at in spite of herself" (p123). Later they go on to claim that: "once the novelty of her approach had worn off, it was the laughableness of her stories which came across, because there is no ironic undercurrent, no acknowledgement of inevitable obsolescence" (p180). In neither instance do they offer any evidence in support of these assertions. Similarly, Cadogan and Craig describe "the Dorita Fairlie Bruce type of fiction, where tensions, complexities of nature or improperly assimilated or contradictory ethical principles do not need to be considered" (p191) - no examples are given - while of the Chalet School they write that:
By the late 1940s the possibilities of the series clearly had been exhausted, yet the books continued to appear with dispiriting regularity . . . although the direct sociological content of the books had always been negligible, by the end of the series they had become absurdly anachronistic, and were no longer explainable even as a queer manifestation of contemporary taste. (pp201-202)
Once more, there is no evidence offered to support this
assertion. And as can be seen from the example above,
the sociological content of Brent-Dyer's books was far from being anachronistic.
Yet Cadogan and Craig also regard the genre's influence as being politically
undesirable, claiming that: "girls' books quickly became a medium
for the reinforcement of social prohibitions and expectations" (p9);
there is no discussion of the significance of the foregrounding of girls'
lives and the representation of women's careers.
As with the previous critics, the main distinction which Cadogan and Craig make between authors of girls' school stories is between "good" writers and "bad" writers. "Certain writers, like Angela Brazil and Dorita Fairlie Bruce, are unintentionally funny but nonetheless good [sic]; others, like L.T. Meade, are not" (p10). Once again, there is no evidence or further explanation provided to support this. And as with earlier critics, they locate the "crystallization" of Meade's "fusty tone" in her attitude to "friendships between the girls - who exchange photographs, kiss, and behave generally towards one another with unnatural intensity". (p54) Cadogan and Craig's reading reflects their belief, at least at the time of writing, that girls' school stories "are best read with sympathetic recognition of the fact that they are products of another era" (p205), as well as the critical attitudes prevalent at the time. But perhaps they should have known better than to assert that:
Unlike the situation which existed in the 1920s, when elementary schoolgirls were happy to read about the doings of the Earl of So-and-So's granddaughter or the cheery exploits of the Hon. Amelia Whatsit, comprehensive schoolgirls today prefer to read about girls at comprehensive schools. (p200)
This assertion, for which they also offer no evidence,
is contradicted by the contemporary - and more recent - sales figures for
Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series and Blyton's St Clare's and Malory Towers
series. It is also contradicted by Gill Frith, who in her 1985 study of
girls' school stories points out that: "as a teacher in comprehensive
schools, I found that many working-class girls, some of them Asian, read
these stories." ("The Time of Your Life: The Meaning of the School
Story", in Language, Gender and Childhood, Steedman, Carolyn,
Urwin, Cathy and Walkerdine, Valerie (eds.), Routledge & Kegan Paul,
London, 1985, p115)
It is interesting to note that Cadogan and Craig are much more enthusiastic about the girls' school stories which appeared in comic book form. Comic books have not been considered in this hyperthesis, because the differences between the two genres in both form and in the gender of the author merit a further critical study. As Cadogan and Craig explain, girls' comic books were first created in the 1920s by male writers who were already writing for boys. The comics then continued to be written, drawn and owned by men throughout the century, with male writers often assuming female pseudonyms (pp227-235). Cadogan and Craig claim that the "team of male authors was not content merely to reflect the activities of contemporary schoolgirls and the mood of the period. They projected a new image of responsible but lively girlhood." (p230)
the male writers were so inventive and convincing that they managed to involve readers as well as fictional girls in the vivid situations which they created. Using a wide variety of feminine pseudonyms, they transported their audience for twopence a week through endlessly successful school themes . . . (p233)
This represents a considerable change from Cadogan and
Craig's attitude towards female authors of girls' school stories, and it
is also noticeable that "realism" is not used as a touchstone
of quality here. The fact that Cadogan and Craig accord these works more
weight is particularly unusual considering the hostility towards comics
by parents, educationalists and critics, which began during the mid-twentieth
century and which continued to a certain extent for the remainder of it
(Barker, 1989, pp13-14); and the fact that, unlike the novels, the popularity
of girls' school stories in comic book form has not survived. It is more
than likely that Modleski's internalised "critical double standard"
provides the explanation.
Gillian Avery, whose Childhood's Pattern: A Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children's Fiction 1770-1950 (Hodder and Stoughton, 1975) preceded the publication of Cadogan and Craig's work by a few months, did manage to avoid similar unsubstantiated assertions and criticisms. This is perhaps because her book covered a broader historical period; but more likely because she looked at boys' as well as girls' books, and boys' books had already been the subject of greater critical rigour. Avery's chapter on "Modern girls' and schoolgirls 1880-1940" provides a serious survey of the literature and an analysis of the themes within it, while in the following chapter, "The Child's Heroes", she locates the genre's appeal as:
satisfying the . . . pre-adolescent craving to belong
to an elite, a clique, a gang, with its particular mystique and clothes
and allusions, where outsiders are spurned, and only the initiated can
understand the jokes and slang. Angela Brazil . . . supplied these needs,
together with a host of other writers in the 1920s and 30s. They did not
find it possible to involve themselves so closely with the characters in
their fictitious schools that they could do without melodramatic elements
. . . The reader might enjoy the story in this type of book but did not
identify herself with the school in it.
Elinor Brent-Dyer was one of a handful of writers who succeeded in inventing a school whose domestic doings alone could grip the reader . . . The author's own pleasure in the smallest detail . . . is infectious. There is an atmosphere of calm security in this world where nobody wants to grow up . . . The setting in the Austrian Tyrol [in fact the later books are set in Switzerland] at once removes the school from reality and saves it from being humdrum. (p225)
It is interesting to note that, once again, sensational
or "melodramatic" content is the hallmark of a "bad"
book for girls, while "domestic" content is "good".
A serious and indepth biography of Angela Brazil, Gillian
Freeman's The Schoolgirl Ethic (Allen Lane), was also published
in 1976. In this case, it was probably her subject matter which allowed
Freeman's work to be taken seriously. The fact that Brazil had died twenty-five
years beforehand, together with her reputation as the founder of the genre
and the fact that she had published her first school story, The Fortunes
of Phillipa, in 1906, helped to give her some historical respectability.
It is possible that the fact Brazil's books had not survived in popularity
may also have played a part; there was no need to worry about their influence
on contemporary girls. Freeman's work is discussed further elsewhere in
Certainly little had changed in the tone of mainstream reviewers by the beginning of the next decade. In 1981, Nicholas Tucker continued to locate the Chalet School books' appeal in the fact "that fantasy does not always have to cater for wish-fulfilment on a grand scale. There is apparently a need for safer, even sometimes rather dull, daydreams." (The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration, Canto, 1981, p125) Tucker's opinion appears to have been modified from a decade earlier only to the extent that he now offers more detailed reasons for the series' appeal.
The image of the Chalet School itself, with its international population of pupils, provides readers with a pleasant fantasy of social togetherness and independence from parents. The special, schoolgirl slang invented by the author - including the expression "fab", later to pass into genuine teenage argot - emphasised the exclusive nature of this cosy assembly of pupils, set in an exciting part of the Swiss Alps. The teachers are fun, too, 'gurgling' with mirth in the privacy of their own rooms . . . The fantasy that is offered here seems mainly to do with living a more interesting life in glamourous surroundings . . . (p125)
Tucker regards "single-sex school stories" in
general as providing "very clear models for what is supposed to be
'typical' masculine or feminine behaviour" (p123). In this reading,
school stories offered undesirable role models. Either the model of the
importance of girls' lives was "bad" in itself, then, or Tucker
believed that girls deserved better and allowed for no subversive element
or positive images in his analysis.
1981 also saw the publication of Fred Inglis' The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction (Cambridge University Press). Inglis - who, like Trease and Fisher, goes to great pains to define "good" writing - writes of his boyhood love for Angela Brazil's and Enid Blyton's school stories.
I read my sisters' books, partly because I read everything on the shelves, partly because those values sounded as deep in me as manly ones . . . I read Angela Brazil and Madcap Mollie with the same delight as I read of Teddy Lester's 100 against the Australians . . . I read Angela Brazil away at school, ashamedly covering the outside with brown paper and writing Billiards for Beginners as a suitably boy-like phoney title. It wasn't until I met at Oundle that excellent schoolmaster and hilarious but loving mimic of all such stories, Arthur Marshall, that I began to feel that perhaps these tastes were not only regressive and infantile. I have no doubt that they were these bad things, but they were not only these things. (Inglis pp65-6)
It is interesting to note that Inglis learnt early on that to read girls' school stories with "delight" was "bad", but to appreciate them "lovingly" because they were "hilarious" was not. Girls enjoyed the books for their content; but men enjoyed the books because they were ridiculous. Inglis concludes that:
The school story, in all its extraordinary variety and vitality, is one of the biggest monuments in popular culture to the institution of friendship. Emerging from the dark of history, groups of laughing, noisy, back-slapping, japing and swaggering fourth-formers come up the staircase into the light and walk past us: Tom Brown and Harry East; Stalky and Co; Bob Cherry, Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, and some paces behind, Billy Bunter - 'I say you chaps'; Joey Bettany, Grizel Cochrane and the girls of Chalet School [sic]; the prefects of Malory Towers and St Clare's. Even at their most routine, the school stories retain their power. The fact that so many of them are set in boarding schools has nothing much to do with class and the alleged wishfulness of the poor to go to posh schools, but has much more to do with removing parents from the story, and providing a structure which promises safety while making resistance attractive and understandable. The stunning snobberies of these tales, awful though they are, are unimportant to their readers beside the celebrations of friendship. (pp176-7)
Inglis correctly identifies the two key reasons for the popularity of school
stories: the fact that parents are largely removed from the stories; and
the fact that friendships with peers are both overwhelmingly important
and possible. He also notes that the political undesirability of some of
the content was irrelevant to the genre's readers.
Another book which appeared in 1981 was Helen McClelland's biography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Behind the Chalet School (New Horizon). In the Bettany Press revised edition of 1996, McClelland writes that the critics were slow to take notice of it, although it did in the end receive favourable coverage.
. . . it took the BBC well over a year to show any interest, either in the book or in what may be called the Chalet School phenomenon. In the end, a highly successful programme, featuring an interview with Helen McClelland and extracts from the books read by Kate O'Mara, was broadcast in January 1983 on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, with two repeats, including one on Christmas Day. (p292)
In November 1983 Margery Fisher reviewed Behind the Chalet School in her magazine Growing Point. Both the appearance of the review and the tone of it seem to reflect that Fisher's attitude towards girls' school stories had changed from two decades earlier.
Documentary research and many interviews with friends and relatives of Elinor Brent-Dyer are put together in an absorbing book which presents her in the round, her unattractive traits and her passionate ambitions, her abundant energy and her eccentricities. Students of children's literature will be especially grateful for the careful analysis of readers' opinions and fan letters . . . The fact that the biographer has not tried to sum up or dogmatise does her credit:the facts she has amassed are used to delineate a fallible, complex and fascinating person. (p4175)
Perhaps the fact that McClelland portrayed Brent-Dyer
as "fallible" was also a factor in the enthusiastic tone of Fisher's
A year after the publication of Behind the Chalet School, Sheila Ray's MPhil research into Enid Blyton was published as The Blyton Phenomenon: The controversy surrounding the world's most successful children's writer (Andre Deutsch, 1982). This contains a complete survey of the criticism directed at Blyton's books, particularly by the post-war librarians and educationalists who regarded them as "bad". It may be that post-war attitudes to girls' school stories have been coloured by Blyton's connection with the genre, although, as has already been pointed out, she was not primarily a school-story writer. Certainly Ray found that:
since the early 1950s some parents have become aware of the fact that Enid Blyton's books are poorly regarded by some teachers and librarians and tend to be on the defensive, while other parents, who try to encourage children to read what are thought to be good books, have adopted the accepted critical attitudes. Certainly by the late 1950s children's librarians talking to groups of parents at meetings of parent-teacher associations, mothers' clubs and the like, found that one of the most frequently asked questions was about the effects of reading Enid Blyton. (p49)
It is important to note here the influence which Ray assigns
to the critics. Ray goes on to state that "by 1960 Enid Blyton's books
were not being bought by a number of public libraries, having been phased
out, but this fact only became publicly known in 1963 when the policy of
St Pancras library made headlines in the national press" (p77), sparking
a continuing public debate. However, Ray found that neither librarians
nor teachers held such firm views or instigated such widespread proscription
against the books as was popularly believed, so it may well have been the
media reporting of the critical debate which was most influential on parents'
Of Blyton's school stories, Ray writes that:
Her plots were constructed around the characters; the
girls are what their families, their upbringings, their circumstances and
their special gifts have made them, and for the most part the action arises
from their characters . . .
At the time when they were first published Enid Blyton's stories catered for a somewhat younger girl than most of the school stories then available . . . She was also much more up to date . . . (pp196-7)
Characterisation and "realism", then, are still being used as the hallmarks of a "good" book here. Ray concludes that Blyton's school stories:
do not have many of the weaknesses, or the sentimentality and snobbishness, of earlier school stories by other authors, and in their plot construction and particularly in the way in which the plots develop from the characters, they rank high amongst the best of Enid Blyton's work. (p200)
"Sentimentality" is still being used by Ray
as the hallmark of a "bad" book, as is content such as "snobbishness"
which it was feared could adversely influence readers. It is interesting
to note that Ray accepts the critical attitudes towards books "by
other authors", with which she was not familiar, but rejects these
attitudes when discussing the findings of her own research.
In general, the late 1970s and early half of the 1980s was a period when popular fiction, especially that written for children, was regarded with political suspicion. In 1977, Bob Dixon concluded of Enid Blyton's work that:
In Blyton, the language we are invited to identify with
is, sociologically, middle-class based. It's colourless, dead and totally
undemanding. . .
What overwhelmingly pervades Blyton's work . . . is the insistence on conformity - and conformity to the most narrow, establishment-type beliefs, practices and values. . .
The common factor, underlying all questions of conformity, is a strong sense of hierarchy. With this in mind, we can see that the class allegiance, jingoism and racism noted above are merely stops on the same line. What's fundamental is the sense of hierarchy. Further, underlying this strong hierarchical sense is fear, which is the emotional mainspring. (Catching Them Young 2, Political Ideas in Children's Fiction, Pluto Press, London, 1977b, pp68-9.)
Meanwhile Ariel Dorfman's The Empire's Old Clothes:
What the Lone Ranger, Babar and other innocent heroes do to our minds
(Pluto Press, 1983) reflects contemporary fears among socialists about
the extension of capitalism through popular culture, and of the power of
internalised oppression (this, of course, was also of concern to feminists).
Dorfman states the belief that: "industrially produced fiction has
become one of the primary shapers of our emotions and our intellect in
the twentieth century. Although these stories are supposed merely to entertain
us, they constantly give us a secret education." (pix) Dorfman believed
that readers were essentially unaware of these elements within their reading,
and that analysis would reveal "a veritable black-and-blueprint of
the ways in which men and women repress themselves in contemporary society,
the way they transform reality's unsettling questions into docile, comforting,
bland answers" (p7). Later he concludes that: "the enemy is inside,
and we find it hard to distinguish him from some of our innermost thoughts
and nurturings." (p207) It is interesting to note here that Dorfman
does not even consider whether the "black-and-blueprint" found
within popular fiction could be anything but "bad". He assigns
enormous weight to the influence of popular fiction, but does not question
whether the public condemnation of some types of popular fiction, including
girls' school stories, could be because their influence was regarded as
In 1984 Oxford University Press published Humphrey Carpenter
and Mari Prichard's The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature,
a publication which reflected the growing respectability of children's
book criticism. As with Muir et al before them, the authors regarded books
written by women for girls as being inferior to those aimed at both genders,
stating that: "The 1950s saw the beginning of a general improvement
in British children's fiction, leading to a decline in the number of books
written specifically for girls." (p208) Readers are left in no doubt
here that girls' books are of inferior quality. As with past critics, though,
the authors make no similar criticisms of books written by men for boys,
and their treatment of boys' school stories differs markedly from that
of girls' school stories.
Once again, Carpenter and Prichard regard girls' school
stories as merely being an adjunct to the boys' genre, with just three
column cm given to girls' school stories out of a total of 46 column cm
devoted to "School stories" (pp470-471). The authors of girls'
school stories are also treated as being less important than boys' school
story authors. For example, under listings for individual authors, Elinor
M. Brent-Dyer receives four column cm (p82) and Dorita Fairlie Bruce three
column cm (p86), while Talbot Baines Reed receives 17 column cm (p445).
Reed's first book, The Fifth Form at St Dominics (1887), which is
taken to be the founding of the modern genre of boys' school stories, also
receives an individual entry of 13 column cm (p186), yet there is no corresponding
entry for Brazil's first book, The Fortunes of Phillipa (1906),
which is taken to hold an equivalent place in the genre of girls' school
The tone of the entries also varies according to the gender
of the author. Fairlie Bruce's entry explains that her books "were
published by the Oxford University Press, in the days before it had a more
discriminating policy towards children's fiction" (p86), while Brent-Dyer's
entry is merely factual. Brazil's entry (p81), meanwhile, includes a quote
from her biographer Gillian Freeman as suggesting that Brazil was emotionally
retarded by the passionate relationships with other schoolgirls which Brazil
describes in her 1926 autobiography, making her "obsessed with schoolgirl
'crushes' for the rest of her life. Certainly she never married."
This reveals that criticisms of girls' school stories were still being
affected by homophobia.
In contrast, Reed's entry describes him as "immensely
influential, inspiring school novels by many other authors . . . Reed more
than any other writer was responsible for establishing the school story
as a genre" (p445). Clearly there was nothing felt to be undesirable
about the influence of boys' school stories, despite the high levels of
homosexual activity within real boys' boarding schools. It is interesting
to note further, that, as with Cadogan and Craig, Carpenter and Prichard
describe girls' school stories in comic book form, which were written by
men, in much more enthusiastic terms than the novels, and also assign twice
as much space to describing the plots and authors of comic book stories
as they do to the plots and authors of the novels (p208).
Isabel Quigly's The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story, also published by Oxford University Press in 1984, makes it even more clear that she considers the girls' genre to be a mere adjunct to the boys' books. She devotes just one chapter out of seventeen to girls' school stories - nine pages out of a total of 296 - and refuses to treat the genre seriously, claiming that the books:
never achieved the status of the boys' books.. . . Like every other form of fiction, girls' school stories have a sociological interest, telling us a great deal about their time and attitudes; but it is very hard to consider them as more than (occasionally charming) kitsch. (p212)
In fact, of course, the girls' books were accorded a higher status than the boys' books for most of the 1930s, the last years when the books could be said to reflect "reality". Quigly goes on to state of girls' school story writers that:
The only well-known name [to whom?] among school-story
writers for girls is that of Angela Brazil . . .
Angela Brazil seems almost like a fictional character herself, so closely does she conform to type . . .
She seems to have been only slightly more likable than Enid Blyton (who wrote much more and much worse). Snobbish, self-regarding, fey, self-centred and self-willed, at once wildly romantic and a tough businesswomen with a touch of meanness . . . (pp214-5)
Perhaps it is significant that at Quigly's own school
"all school stories were strictly forbidden" (p217), since she
is apparently unaware of major authors such as Brent-Dyer and does not
seem to be able to relate to the genre's readership.
It is unsurprising, given the treatment
of girls' school stories by the literary and cultural critics, that they
were treated no more seriously by other cultural institutions during the
1980s. The very title of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood's 1984 exhibition,
"Jolly Hockey Sticks - The World of Girls' School Fiction", seems
to suggest that girls' school stories should not be taken seriously. The
emphasis of the exhibition was on book covers and illustrations rather
than on distinguishing individual authors or on sub-genres, nor did the
exhibition offer any sustained analysis of the genre, as might have been
It was 1985 before a feminist critic took girls' school
stories seriously and reappraised their significance. Gill Frith's study
of modern comprehensive schoolgirls reading Enid Blyton's school stories
was published as "The Time of Your Life: The Meaning of the School
Story" in the Routledge & Kegan Paul collection Language, Gender
and Childhood. Frith begins by asking "why it is that the boarding-school
story is now (and has been for the past century) such a popular form of
reading for girls", and states that: "My purpose is to explore
the meaning of the school story as a genre, the changes in that meaning
since its inception, and its relationship to ideologies of female subjectivity."
(p113) Frith was the first critic to take the school story as being synonymous
with the girls' school story rather than the boys', as well as being the
first post-war critic to take notice of the genre's readers, although she
regards the genre as being a "hidden, embarrassing, repressed aspect
of women's culture" (p116).
Frith's paper considers past critical treatment, including the parody Daisy Pulls It Off, before moving on to discuss the findings of her classroom research. Frith found that:
the girls who read school stories are aware from the start that they are fictions. Almost without exception, the girls in my survey said that they did not believe real boarding schools would be like the schools in the stories, and that they had no desire to go to such a school themselves. Most thought that the teachers and girls in the stories were not at all like the ones they knew. They were drawn to the stories because they were fun, because the girls in them were having the time of their lives: they particularly enjoyed the tricks played on teachers (a central feature in Blyton's stories), the jokes, the breaking of bounds, the midnight feasts. (p117)
Rather than being "realistic", Frith locates the books' appeal as being directly related to their distance from the reality of their readers' lives.
the school story presents a picture of what is possible
for a girl to be and do which stands in absolute contradistinction to the
configuration of "femininity" which is to be found in other forms
of popular fiction addressed specifically to women and girls.
. . . In a world of girls, to be female is normal, and not a problem. To be assertive, physically active, daring, ambitious, is not a source of tension. In the absence of boys, girls "break bounds", have adventures, transgress rules, catch spies. There is no taboo on public speech: in innumerable school stories, girls hold and address a tense, packed meeting. The ructures and rewards of romance are replaced by the ructures and rewards of friendship, and pop stars by idealised Head Girls. "Pretence" and "pretension" are questionable, mysteries are unravelled, codes broken, secret passages explored, disguises penetrated. "Tricks" played on teachers replace "tricks" of make-up; in place of diets, there are midnight feasts. Away from the family, girls are free; domestic tasks are invisibly performed. Clothes and appearance are of little significance in the unchanging world of the school, and to be beautiful is not an advantage. The exceptionally pretty and "feminine" girl is represented as weak, frail, easily led, often vain. The heroine, on the other hand, is often . . . wilful, outspoken, impulsive, loyal to her friends. While the "best friend" is the crucial relationship, the group is equally important . . . "The group" itself has almost unlimited licence. (pp121-2)
However, Frith concludes that the genre's weakness does nonetheless lie in its distance from 'reality". (In fact she had only studied Blyton's books, taking them to be typical.)
Located in an impossible time - the age of puberty in
which puberty never happens - and an impossible place - the fantastic dream
of a school which has no relationship with the world beyond it - the school
story offers its young reader the possibility of resolving the contradictions
in her life without ever needing to confront them directly.
. . . The "time of her life" which the schoolgirl heroine enjoys, the time of puberty-and-not-puberty, can never be realised by the reader; asked to recognise that the stories cannot be good because they are not realistic, she may come to accept that the desires they allow her to express - for fun, freedom, friendship and a life unconstrained by gender difference - are also "unreal". (pp133-4)
Like previous post-war critics, Frith also regards the genre's influence on its readers as being politically undesirable.
Set in that institution which is so clearly a product and reflection of bourgeois capitalism, and a most effective instrument in its perpetuation - the private boarding school - school stories are complacent about class privilege, inherited wealth and xenophobia. Exclusive, expensive and enclosed, they represent a sealed, rigidly hierarchical world in which "normality" is white and middle-class. (p115)
In Frith's analysis, the only "good" girls'
school story would be one which was set in a modern comprehensive school
- catering for both genders - and which reflected the reality of modern
girls' lives, but somehow included within it a political education which
would enable girls to realise their desires for "fun, freedom, friendship
and a life unconstrained by gender difference" in "reality".
It is hard to envisage just how such a book could be written.
Following Frith, in 1987 Deborah Gorham provided a deep
and thoughtful reading of early girls' school stories in "The Ideology
of Femininity and Reading for Girls, 1850-1914", a study of girls'
reading in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (in Hunt, Felicity
[ed.], Lessons for Life: The schooling of girls and women 1850 - 1950,
Basil Blackwell). However, Gorham believes that the growing popularity
of girls' school stories during the period ending with the First World
War "brought with it significant losses . . . the best Victorian writers
of domestic fiction not only defined their audience much less narrowly,
they wrote out of deeply felt conviction" (p57). Like the previous
critics, Gorham judges the representations of educational institutions
in girls' school stories against standards of "realism", and
criticises Brazil because "her books do not acknowledge the deep conflicts
that existed between the role that was still expected of the majority of
upper middle-class daughters, and any serious commitment to further study,
to a profession or to employment" (p57).
In terms of mainstream critics, Margaret and Michael Rustin's
Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children's Fiction (Verso,
1987) does not refer to school stories at all, stating simply that: "We
have chosen to write about works all of which we value highly." Bob
Mullan provides a useful though highly critical plot analysis of Blyton's
school story series in The Enid Blyton Story (Boxtree, 1987), but
he regards the books as promoting highly undesirable constructs of femininity.
"Her girls do go to university and indeed are encouraged to
be self-reliant, but they are also encouraged to be 'sensible and trustable'
people on whom 'the world can lean', - which is another way of saying domestic
slaves." Mullan's criticism is well-meant, but his analysis is faulty.
Certainly women on whom "the world can lean" possess an ethos
of self-sacrifice, but the image is still very powerful. These are women
who can not only stand alone, but can provide support for others, including
men. And if the world leans on them, it is presumably changed in the process.
"Domestic slaves", on the other hand, lean on men, and play no
part in the world outside the home.
Mary Cadogan's Chin Up Chest Out Jemima! (Bonnington
Books, 1989) claims to be "A Celebration of the Schoolgirls' Story".
However, parodies by Cadogan, together with contributions from Arthur Marshall,
Terence Stamp and Daisy Pulls It Off
author Denise Deegan, are presented alongside girls' school stories written
by both male and female authors. Although parts of the book, particularly
the introductory chapter, are clearly meant to be informative and are historically
accurate, the title and the choice of contributors again suggests strongly
to the reader that girls' school stories are not to be taken seriously,
whereas the parodies themselves hold up the genre to ridicule.
It was only with the publication of Rosemary Auchmuty's
"You're a Dyke, Angela! Elsie J. Oxenham and the rise and fall of
the schoolgirl story" in Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming Lesbians
in History 1840-1985 (The Women's Press, 1989), that feminist critics
began at last to reappraise the meaning and significance of girls' school
stories. Auchmuty writes specifically about the work of Elsie J. Oxenham
here, and argues that, because the books "are fundamentally about
female strength and bonding, they provide an interesting example of a phenomenon
which was at first tolerated and even encouraged, but which came to be
seen as a threat of such magnitude it had to be exterminated" (p120).
Auchmuty sums up this threat as being "a very conscious love for women
which in 1923 was fine and after 1928 became abnormal and unhealthy, representing
a level of intimacy which was too threatening to be allowed to continue"
(p140): the "sentimentality" which was so often criticised by
Auchmuty demonstrates convincingly that girls' school stories were perceived
by the critics during the 1920s as encouraging lesbianism and women's independence,
and that the content of the genre was heavily influenced by these fears.
Another feminist work published in 1989 is Judith Rowbotham's
Good Girls Make Good Wives: Guidance for Girls in Victorian Fiction
(Basil Blackwell). Rowbotham's interest in the books is primarily in treating
them as a historical source: she compares the genre seriously with the
development of real girls' schools over the period; without previous critics'
insistence on "realism" as a touchstone of quality.
Kimberley Reynolds' Girls Only? Gender and Popular
Children's Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910 (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990)
covers a slightly later period than Rowbotham. Like many critics before
her, she discusses school stories only in terms of the boys' books, referring
extensively to P.W. Musgrave's From Brown to Bunter: The Life and Death
of the School Story (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985), which, despite
its subtitle, does make it clear that it is a book which is intentionally
devoted to boys' school stories. Similarly, the 1992 Macmillan collection
Stories and Society: Children's Literature in its Social Context (edited
by Dennis Butts) contains a chapter on "The School Story" by
Jeffrey Richards which discusses the development of boys' school stories
from the nineteenth century to the BBC series Grange Hill (set in a mixed-gender
comprehensive school), without a single reference to girls' school stories
or their authors.
It was left to Auchmuty and The Women's Press, also in 1992, to publish the first book which provided a feminist reappraisal of the importance and meaning of the genre as a whole without simply repeating the themes of critics throughout the twentieth century. Significantly, Auchmuty introduces A World of Girls by writing that:
It is to my mother that I owe the suggestion that I should write a book about school stories . . . But in the early 1970s girls' school stories were hardly considered suitable material for historical research; the book was not to see the light of day in my mother's lifetime. (p2)
Auchmuty states that her aim in writing the book was "an
attempt to say why girls' school stories have appealed, not only to me
personally, but also to many women of different ages and background, in
Britain and elsewhere, across more than half a century" (p3). In using
this as her starting point, Auchmuty takes a very different attitude to
the genre's millions of girl and women readers to Nicholas Tucker, who
had simply dismissed the readers as "dull daydreamers".
Despite her background as a historian and more recently as a law lecturer, Auchmuty also eschews "realism" as the touchstone of quality. Having presented her findings, Auchmuty concludes that:
School stories portray what I have called . . . A World of Girls. This is a world where authority figures as well as colleagues and comrades are female, where the action is carried on by girls and women, and decisions are made by them. Girls and women rise to the challenges presented by ideals such as honour, loyalty and the team spirit. Women's emotional and social energies are directed towards other women, and women's friendships are seen as positive, not destructive or competitive, and sufficient unto themselves. School stories offer female readers positive role models to set against a reality which is often restrictive or hostile to them. (p7)
Auchmuty, then, was the first critic to identify the real
significance of the absence of parental authority and centrality of friendships
in the genre (features which had first been noted by Trease).
Perhaps it is relevant that Auchmuty spent her childhood in Australia,
rather than being exposed to contemporary critical attitudes in the UK.
The publication of Eva Löfgren's Schoolmates of
the Long-Ago: Motifs and Archetypes in Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Boarding
School Stories (Symposium Graduale, 1993) also reflects the fact that
British girls' school stories were read in many different countries, often
in translation, and that this phenomenon was not, as might have been expected,
confined to the former constituents of the British Empire. Löfgren
provides a detailed and serious analysis of Bruce's work using Northrop
Frye's system of archetypal criticism, and her work is discussed further
elsewhere in the hyperthesis.
Shirley Foster and Judy Simons also take the genre seriously, devoting
a chapter to Angela Brazil's The Madcap of the School in What
Katy Read: Feminist Re-Readings of 'Classic' Stories for Girls (Macmillan,
1995), and describing her work as "an exemplar of the school story
genre that Brazil pioneered and that was to have such a profound impact
on girls' reading experience during the twentieth century" (p192);
their work is also discussed elsewhere.
Janet Montefiore's "The Fourth Form Girls Go Camping:
Sexual Identity and Ambivalence in Girls' School Stories" (in Still,
Judith and Worton, Michael [eds.], Textuality and Sexuality: Reading
Theories and Practices, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1993,
pp173-192) is largely concerned with parodies of girls' school stories,
and thus is discussed further in the following section.
Montefiore's paper, as with Frith's, purports to cover the genre as a whole,
but is actually based largely on the study of books by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer,
Enid Blyton and Dorita Fairlie Bruce, resulting in claims about the role
of character and realism which could not be sustained in an analysis of
the genre before the mid-1920s. For example, Montefiore claims that school
stories "always present a range of characters who persist from story
to story". This is true of series by the authors mentioned
above and by more recent writers such as Antonia Forest, but many of the
books in the genre are not part of any series, and only a tiny minority
of books by Angela Brazil feature the same characters (Bruce was probably
the first series writer).
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's biographer Helen McClelland has recorded the changes in critical attitudes towards girls' school stories in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
A softening in attitudes towards the school story was gradually to increase as the 1980s went past; and by 1989, when Armada decided to publish Elinor Brent-Dyer's Chalet School [a full-colour collection of Chalet School-related information and material, edited by McClelland], things had changed completely. No need with this, my second venture into Chalet territory, to search The Writer's Handbook for a publisher: my contribution to the compendium was actually commissioned, and the book's appearance heralded by live radio interviews (I had waited for 18 months for the BBC to take any interest in Behind the Chalet School!). And this time the whole experience of writing the material was unbelievably different. In the 1970s it had seemed vital to write Elinor Brent-Dyer's story from a detached, even critical viewpoint; and with the expectation of socially conscious editors in mind I had deliberately highlighted for discussion the weaknesses of the books, being aware that anything enthusiastic would be instantly rejected. Not so in 1989, when I enjoyed the wonderful freedom of writing as I liked and no longer having to appear aloof. ("In Search of Elinor" in Auchmuty, Rosemary and Gosling, Ju [eds.], The Chalet School Revisited, Bettany Press, 1994, p62)
Similarly, in her revised edition of her biography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Behind the Chalet School (Bettany Press, 1996), McClelland writes that:
Back in the early 1980s, when Behind the Chalet School
first appeared, it took the BBC well over a year to show any interest,
either in the book or in what may be called the Chalet School phenomenon.
In the end, a highly successful programme, featuring an interview with
Helen McClelland and extracts from the books read by Kate O'Mara, was broadcast
in January 1983 on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour, with two repeats,
including one on Christmas Day. This was due entirely to the efforts of
one producer, Pamela Howe, herself a great fan of the Chalet School, who
also arranged, on 23 March 1987, for Martin Spence and Gill Bilski to appear
on Woman's Hour and talk about the Chalet School series and why
the books still appeal today. But without Pamela Howe's personal intervention
it is unlikely, bearing in mind contemporary attitudes, that there would
have been any reaction from the BBC.
Whereas in the summer of 1995, when Visitors for the Chalet School [McClelland's Chalet School novel, published by Bettany Press] appeared, it became the subject of six radio interviews within the space of barely ten days, as well as being given an excellent review in the Independent on Sunday - one, moreover, that took the story seriously, something that would have been quite unlikely during the 1970s and eighties. Just at it would then have been unthinkable for the BBC to allow a Mastermind contestant to choose for her special subject "The Life and Chalet School Novels of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer", as did Barbara Inglis, a librarian from Perthshire, in 1992. (pp292-3)
It is probable that one reason for the changing attitude
towards the genre during the 1990s was its continuing readership and the
emergence of a thriving fan movement at the beginning of the 1990s,
as well as the critical reappraisals by Auchmuty which gave support to
women who wished to take the books seriously. The fans themselves have
written extensively about the genre in their own publications, and in 1994,
the centenary of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's birth, they organised their own
six-week exhibition, "Back to the Chalet School"
at the Edinburgh Museum of Childhood. This had a very different tone to
the Bethnal Green exhibition held a decade beforehand.
(By now the Bethnal Green exhibition area had been turned into a cafeteria.)
The Edinburgh exhibition included a great deal of factual information alongside
the inevitable dustjackets, and treated the memorabilia so treasured by
the fans - much of it created by themselves - as being an integral and
equally important part of the whole. The exhibition was opened by Tony
Chambers, head of Brent-Dyer's original publishers, and it received hundreds
of visitors as well as favourable reviews in the media.
The fans' attitude to the critics is summed up in the introduction by Rosemary Auchmuty and Ju Gosling to the Bettany Press book The Chalet School Revisited (1994), which urges Brent-Dyer's fans to:
bear . . . [her] achievement in mind whenever we are tempted to apologise for our interest in such a "low" form of literature - for the fact that we continue to read and enjoy the Chalet School books. For a start, we should remember that we are not alone. Elinor Brent-Dyer deserves serious critical attention not simply because she is clearly a significant social phenomenon, but because she has given us and thousands of others so much pleasure. And we should be clear in our minds that what we like is just as important as what other people like, and a great deal more important than what other people think we should like. (p2)
Perhaps it would be tempting to believe that post-war
critical attitudes towards girls' school stories had no effect at all on
the genre's readers, given that such a loyal readership remained until
the 1990s. It might even be argued that post-war readers were alerted by
the critics to weaknesses in the genre of which they would otherwise remain
unaware, and were offered new insights into the books as well as a richer
reading choice as a result. However, my analysis of the criticism during
the first half of the century
shows that the themes of the post-war critics remained largely unchanged
from the 1920s: "good" books were realistic, with good characterisation;
"bad" books were "sensational" and "sentimental".
And my study of the parodies of girls' school stories
reveals that in any case the fans are highly aware of the weaknesses in
in fact they have charted the genre's weaknesses in far greater detail
than the critics.
The significant differences which exist between the post-war
critics and the critics writing in the first half of the twentieth century
are, first, that the public school ethos which had been praised during
the 1930s was now seen as being politically undesirable; and second, that
the definition of a "good" book was now extended to mean only
one which could be enjoyed by both genders or solely by boys. In this analysis,
there was no place left for girls' school stories. It cannot be a coincidence
that the vast majority of "girls' books" which were marginalised
by this critical judgement were girls' school stories rather than any other
genre. Since boys' school stories were not treated in a similar way, it
is probable that the broader reasons which were given by the critics regarding
the undesirability of girls' books masked a specific attack on the genre
itself, for reasons other than those stated overtly.
There was, of course, a genuine fear among some that the
propagation of pre-war values would encourage racism, class prejudice and
under-achievement by girls, and the concept that girls could read subversively
did not arise until the 1980s. However, my study of the parodies of girls'
reveals that the fans themselves are highly aware of the political undesirability
of some of the ideas portrayed in the books, while many fans are both high-achievers
and socialists. Equally, the pre-war books still foregrounded girls' lives
and represented them as having careers, while, as has been shown above,
post-war values in the genre kept pace with contemporary society. And it
is noticeable that there has been very little criticism published of contemporary
girls' books such as the "Sweet Valley High" or the "Babysitters"
series, although the books could justifiably be accused of lowering girls'
expectations and so of being a "bad influence", nor have there
been mainstream attempts to create alternative, more feminist popular reading
In fact, the underlying reason for
the attack on girls' school stories can be detected by examining the effects
of the post-war criticism on the genre's readership and potential readership.
Whereas, before the Second World War, girls had a constant "flood"
of popular fiction of their own, after the war there were far fewer new
books on offer which were aimed at girls. While authors continued to write
and publish books which were aimed specifically at boys, the critics' view
of girls' books as highly undesirable was reinforced by parents, teachers
and librarians. Girls were reminded by these attempts to censor and direct
their reading that the all-female community which, before the war, had
been at the centre of their fictional and often of their real lives, was
secondary to their lives within the community. In the world of the girls'
school, girls and women held positions of power; their relationships with
other girls and women were forefronted; and they moved on to independent
lives which meant that, if they wished, there was no need to marry. In
the outside community and the mixed school, though, women were subordinate,
and girls' most important relationships were as daughters and as future
wives and mothers, dependent on men.
The combination of the attack on the genre of girls' school
stories by the majority of the critics, and the ridicule to which they
have been subjected by most of the parodists,
means that post-war readers have been encouraged to regard the ideals of
female community and female friendship portrayed in the genre as being
equally undesirable and ridiculous. The use of "realism" as a
hallmark of a "good" book has also been used to attack the genre.
As Frith states: "the reader; asked to recognise that the stories
cannot be good because they are not realistic . . . may come
to accept that the desires they allow her to express - for fun, freedom,
friendship and a life unconstrained by gender difference - are also 'unreal'".
(pp133-4) However, Frith assigns the blame for the readers' acceptance
that their desires are "unreal" to the "unrealistic"
contents of the genre itself; this is probably an example of the effects
of Modkeski's internalised "critical double standard".
As my study of pre-war criticism shows,
many girls' school stories were in fact perceived as being "realistic"
at the time when they were first published. Stories were only regarded
as being "bad" if they were "sensational", i.e. portrayed
girls heroically, thus being "unrealistic"; or overly "sentimental",
i.e. portrayed girls' friendships as passionate and competing in importance
with heterosexual relationships. The core values and ambitions which girls
were being encouraged in by their reading were never criticised, and the
centrality of friendships was acceptable so long as they were "wholesome".
However, as Auchmuty demonstrates, the fear already existed that the genre
would encourage women to live independent lives, and would teach girls
and women to value their relationships with other girls and women above
their relationships with families and heterosexual partners.
Auchmuty has noted that the effects of these fears on
the content of Elsie J. Oxenham's girls' stories is apparent by 1930.
As my study of the pre-war criticism shows,
the content of the genre changed in the 1930s to centralise "the public
school spirit", and it is highly significant that these were the only
books which met with the approval of the critics. The growth of children's
book criticism following the Second World War disguises the fact the opponents
of girls' school stories had simply become more overt, and had seized the
authority which they had previously lacked in order to destroy the genre.
Auchmuty's claim that: "the destruction of the schoolgirl story is
a major piece of evidence for the imposition of compulsory heterosexuality
in twentieth-century Britain"
may seem to be extreme on first reading, but this study proves that there
is abundant evidence to support her claim.
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