THE ORIGINAL RESEARCH PROPOSAL

Introduction:

Girls' school stories developed into a genre at the beginning of the twentieth century, and although new authors largely ceased to contribute to the genre in the late 1950s, the books have been a common reading experience for girls throughout the century. Pre-adolescent girl readers, commonly between the ages of 8 and 12, make a positive choice to read and own the books, often returning to texts again and again, and a minority of women continue to enjoy them in adulthood. Readers' preference for the genre has lasted despite the facts that contemporary educational experiences now differ greatly from the educational establishments portrayed in the books, and that parents, teachers, librarians and literary critics have all voiced their disapproval of the books, citing the representation of bourgeois, outdated values and a discriminatory school system, poor characterisation and banal plots as reasons for this disapproval. For more details of the history of the genre see Part One of my M.A. thesis A World of Girls - Schoolgirl Fiction: Genre, Femininity and the Chalet School (1992).

Initial hypothesis:

Roland Barthes argues that the most popular narratives re-enact the male oedipal crisis, and that this in turn helps to explain their popularity (1977, p121). I believe that the continuing popularity of the early and mid-twentieth century genre of British girls' school stories, both with pre-adolescent and, to a much lesser extent, with adult female readers, more than 20 years after women authors largely ceased to contribute to the genre, can equally by explained by the representation in these narratives of both psychological and to a lesser degree historical events in young girls' development in Britain in the twentieth century, and by the nature of this representation.

In order to test this hypothesis I intend to carry out the following research:

Year 1

* A detailed analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of selected books by Angela Brazil; Dorita Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" series; Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's "Chalet School" series; and Enid Blyton's "St Clare's" and "Malory Towers" series. This will continue and extend the research carried out in my M.A. programme, written up in A World of Girls - Schoolgirl Fiction: Genre, Femininity and the Chalet School (1992). This should establish the common structures and concerns of the genre as well as establishing the structures and concerns common to books by each individual author.

* A similar analysis of Anne Digby's "Trebizon" series, written since the 1970s, and other recently-published children's books set in girls' schools, and a comparison of the findings with the findings of the analysis of other texts in the genre to see where structures and concerns are similar and where and how they differ. This should establish whether or not new authors are still writing in the genre as it was previously characterised. Using historical evidence about changing attitudes to popular children's fiction (see below) it should also be possible to offer some explanations as to why structures and concerns in the Trebizon series and other recently-published children's books set in girls' schools might differ from those of earlier books.

* A less detailed analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of 20th century boys' school stories and a comparison with the findings of the analysis of girls' school stories. This should establish to what extent the structures and concerns of girls' school stories are the same as - and by inference, as the genre is older, inherited from those of boys' school stories - and to what extent they are unique.

* A similar analysis of school stories in twentieth century girls' comics and a comparison of the findings with the findings of the analysis of girls' school stories in novel form. (While the novels are written almost exclusively by women, girls' comics have been largely conceived, written and drawn by men.) This should establish to what extent the structures and concerns of the novels are unique to women authors, and to what extent they are common to all authors working in the genre of girls' school stories.

* A similar analysis of pony stories and ballet stories, the two other popular early and mid-twentieth century genres for pre-adolescent girls. This should establish to what extent the structures and concerns of girls' school stories are the same as those of other fantasies for pre-adolescent girls, and to what extent they are unique. It should also be possible at a later stage in my research to offer a brief interpretation of pony and ballet stories, based on the findings of my research as a whole.

* An analysis of the themes, images and subject matter of parodic forms of girls' school stories in the theatre, on film, on the radio, in texts and in cartoons (initially referred to in Part One of A World of Girls). This should provide evidence about the reception of girls' school stories in wider British society. It should also establish whether the roots of parodic forms lie either in novels or in comics or whether both have contributed to these.

* An analysis of existing criticism of girls' school stories in the context of criticism of twentieth century children's books in general. This will continue and extend the work carried out in my M.A. programme, written up in Part One of A World of Girls, and will consider the influence of librarians and educationalists as well as literary critics. This should establish the values which critics use to judge children's books, to what extent these judgements are supported by evidence, and the assumptions made by critics about their own readers and about the readers of girls' school stories. It should then be possible to offer an explanation of the reasons for past critical responses to the genre.

Year 2

* A substantial oral project conducted on video to investigate the reading experiences of current and past child readers of the genre and current adult readers of girls' school stories. Interviewees will be drawn from two secondary schools (one comprehensive, one girls' public boarding school) and from girls' school story fan club members and book collectors. In devising my methodology for this project I will draw on the work of Gill Frith (1985), who conducted research among young girls reading Enid Blyton's girls' school stories in British comprehensive schools in the early 1980s, and Janice Radway (1987), who conducted research among adult women reading romance genre fiction in the USA in the mid-1980s. It is likely that this methodology will include a mixture of individual and group interviews, as well as the use of questionnaires.

Issues to be examined will include: the importance placed on their reading experiences by readers of girls' school stories, both at the time and (where applicable) in retrospect; the elements which readers perceive/perceived as being most important in determining reading choices; whether any individual author is/was preferred within the genre; the extent to which readers identify/identified with individual characters; whether readers have/had been influenced or prompted to carry out any action as a result of their reading experiences; the difference which readers perceive between their own lives and experiences of schooling and that of the characters; and the value judgements which readers make about the genre.

The socio-economic class of the readers will also be recorded, as will the frequency with and numbers in which girls' school stories are/were read; the age at which past readers ceased to read the books and which present readers perceive themselves ceasing to read them (if at all); and whether readers also read girls' school stories in comic form and if so which form (if any) is/was preferred. This project should establish the commonalities and differences in readers' experiences of girls' school stories, and whether these differ according to the age of the reader or the decade in which the books were read. It may also establish whether reading experiences are common to the genre as a whole or differ according to the author and books being read.

* A survey of the empirical evidence about children's reading in general and of their reading of girls' school stories in particular. This will include a survey of publishers' sales figures and marketing surveys, readership studies and library studies. This should establish the relative popularity of girls' school stories to other children's books and the extent to which they represent a common reading experience for pre-adolescent girls, allowing an assessment to be made of the relative importance of girls' school stories within children's popular culture. It may also extend the knowledge gained in the oral project of the way in which girls read girls' school stories.

* A survey of evidence of British girls' experience of secondary education during the twentieth century, continuing and extending the work carried out in my M.A. programme and written up in Part Three of A World of Girls. This should establish to what extent values, themes and incidents represented in girls' schools stories reflect girls' contemporary educational experiences, and to what extent they differ.

* A survey of evidence of British girls' experience of contemporary life during the twentieth century, continuing and extending the work carried out in my M.A. programme and written up in Parts Three, Four, Five and Six of A World of Girls. This should establish to what extent values, themes and incidents represented in girls' school stories reflect girls' contemporary social and political experiences, and to what extent they differ.

* A survey of psycho-analytical and psychological evidence and theories about the development of the psyche of pre-adolescent girls and their response to gendering. (This will include contact with and possibly a study visit to the Harvard Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls.) This should establish whether, and if so to what extent, girls' development and responses to gendering have changed during the twentieth century, or whether they have been substantially unchanged. It should also provide a base from which to offer a psychoanalytical interpretation of the function of girls' school stories and thus the reason for their popularity.

Year 3

I intend to spend the third year of my programme analysing and comparing my research findings to discover the extent to which my hypothesis can be sustained. This should establish which psychological and historical events in girls' lives can be said to be represented in the texts, the nature of this representation, and the evidence to support my belief that the continuing popularity of the early and mid-twentieth century genre of British girls' school stories, both with pre-adolescent, and to a much lesser extent, with adult female readers can be explained by this representation. It should also establish what other explanations exist for the books' popularity. I will present my findings in a thesis, accompanied by a video presentation of the findings of my oral project. This video presentation may also explore further the images of femininity represented in the books and parodic images of the genre in other media. The thesis will conclude with a discussion of the implications of the findings for further critiques of children's popular culture, and the significance of the findings in relation to extending literacy and encouraging reading among pre-adolescent girls.

The thesis will be structured as follows:

Part One (15,000 words):

History of the genre;

Common structures and concerns of the genre;

Parodic forms of the genre;

Critical reception of the genre.

Part Two (10,000 words):

Analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of selected books by Angela Brazil.

Part Three (10,000 words):

Analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's "Dimsie" series.

Part Four (10,000 words):

Analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's "Chalet School" series.

Part Five (10,000 words):

Analysis of the narrative structure, characterisation, imagery, plot devices, themes and subject matter of Enid Blyton's "St Clare's" and "Malory Towers" series.

Part Six (15,000 words):

Reading experiences of school-aged girl readers of girls' school stories throughout the twentieth century, to include oral material from current girl readers and past girl readers of the genre as well as empirical evidence.

Part Seven (15,000 words):

Reading experiences of current adult readers of girls' school stories, including a study of the fan clubs and collectors' circles which became established in the late 1980s and a comparison with the original clubs for child readers established in the 1960s.

Part Eight (15,000 words):

Comparison of the structures and concerns of girls' school stories with the structures and concerns of boys' school stories;

Comparison of the structures and concerns of girls' school stories with the structures and concerns of school stories in twentieth century girls' comics;

Comparison of the structures and concerns of girls' school stories with the structures and concerns of pony and ballet stories for girls;

Comparison of the structures and concerns of recently-published children's books set in girls' schools with the structures and concerns of books by Angela Brazil, Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton;

The extent to which values, themes and incidents represented in girls' school stories reflect girls' contemporary educational experiences and to what extent they differ;

The extent to which values, themes and incidents represented in girls' school stories reflect girls' contemporary social and political experiences and to what extent they differ;

Girls' development and responses to gendering and the extent to which these have changed during the twentieth century;

Psycho-analytical interpretation of the function of girls' school stories and thus the reason for their popularity.

Major secondary sources:

In keeping with the feminist nature of my research the most relevant secondary sources - critical, psychoanalytical and historical works, together with existing analyses of the meaning of children's popular culture - will be largely those written by women from a feminist perspective.

Critical works will include: Nina Auerbach's Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1978); Catherine Belsey's Critical Practice (Methuen, London, 1980); Gayle Greene's and Coppelia Kahn's Making A Difference, Feminist Literary Criticism (eds.) (Methuen, London, 1985); Maggie Humm's Feminist Criticism, Women as Contemporary Critics (The Harvester Press, Brighton, 1986) and The Dictionary of Feminist Theory (Harvester Wheatsheaf, Hemel Hempstead, 1989); Terry Lovell's Consuming Fiction, (Verso, London, 1987); Tania Modleski's Loving With a Vengeance, Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (Archan Books, Hamden, Conn., 1982); Janice Radway's Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (Verso, London, 1987); Elaine Showalter's The New Feminist Criticism, Essays on women, literature and theory (ed.) (Pantheon Books, New York, 1985); Sylvia Walby's Theorizing Patriarchy (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990); Chris Weedon's Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987); Judith Williamson's Consuming Passions, The Dynamics of Popular Culture (Marion Boyars, London, 1985); and Elizabeth Wright's Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in practice (Methuen, London, 1984).

Psychoanalytic works will include: Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the sociology of gender (University of California Press, London, 1978); Emily Hancock's The Girl Within: A Radical New Approach to Female Identity (Pandora, London, 1990); Jean Baker Miller's Psychoanalysis and Women (ed.) (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973), and Towards a New Psychology of Women (second edition) (Beacon Press, Boston, 1986); Juliet Mitchell's Psychoanalysis and Feminism (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1974); Sue Sharpe's 'Just Like a Girl', How Girls Learn to be Women (Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976); and Sue Wilkinson's Feminist Social Psychology (ed.) (Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1986). I will also draw on the work of the Harvard Project on the Psychology of Women and the Development of Girls (see The Guardian, 15/1/92, p35) if practicable.

Analyses of the meaning of children's popular culture will include: Gill Frith's "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); Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the GROWN_UPS: Subversive Children's Literature (Bloomsbury, London, 1990); Kimberley Reynolds' Girls Only? Gender and Popular Children's Fiction in Britain, 1880-1910 (Harvester Wheatsheaf, London, 1990); Judith Rowbotham's Good Girls Make Good Wives: Guidance for girls in Victorian fiction (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989); and Margaret and Michael Rustins' Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in modern children's fiction (Verso, London, 1987).

Historical works will include: Deidre Beddoe's Discovering Women's History, A practical manual (Pandora, London, 1983) and Back to Home and Duty: Women between the wars 1918 - 1939 (Pandora, London, 1989); Carol Dyhouse's "Towards a 'Feminine' Curriculum for English Schoolgirls, The demands of ideology 1870-1963" (in Women's Studies International Quarterly Vol 1, 1978); Felicity Hunt's Lessons for Life: The schooling of girls and women 1850 - 1950 (ed.) (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1987); Jane Lewis's The Politics of Motherhood, Child and Maternal Welfare in England 1900-1939 (Croom Helm, London, 1980), Women's Welfare, Women's Rights (ed.) (Croom Helm, London, 1983), Women in England 1870-1950, Sexual Divisions and Social Change, (Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1984), and Labour and Love, Women's Experience of Love and Family 1850-1940 (ed.) (Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986); Angela McRobbie's and Trisha McCabe's Feminism for Girls, An Adventure Story (eds.) (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981); Angela McRobbie's and Mica Nava's Gender and Generation (eds.) (Macmillan, Basingstoke, 1984); and Elizabeth Wilson's Only Halfway to Paradise, Women in Post-War Britain 1945-1968 (Tavistock, London, 1980).

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