If indeed the gentle, grey-robed nuns who long, long ago
had stolen silently along those very stairs could have come back to survey
the scene of their former activities, I fear on this particular occasion
they would have wrung their slim, transparent hands in horror over the
stalwart modern maidens who had succeeded them in possession of the ancient,
rambling house. No pale-faced novices these, with downcast eyes and cheeks
sunken with fasting; no timid glances, no soft ethereal footfalls or gliding
garments - the old order had changed indeed, and yielded place to a rosy,
racy, healthy, hearty, well-grown set of twentieth-century schoolgirls,
overflowing with vigorous young life and abounding spirits, mentally and
physically fit, and about as different from their mediaeval forerunners
as a hockey stick is from a spindle.
(Angela Brazil, The School by the Sea, Blackie & Son, 1914, pp10-11)
The genre of girls' school stories arose in parallel with
the provision of secondary education for British girls, from the late nineteenth
At the beginning of the twentieth century, less than a quarter of all British
girls aged between twelve and eighteen attended any kind of school, but
by 1920 the number receiving a secondary education had risen from 20,000
in 1897 to 185,000.
Similarly, while the fundamental elements of the genre can be discerned
in stories published in the latter part of the nineteenth century, it was
only in the first quarter of the twentieth century that the genre of girls'
school stories became established and the most popular form of reading
for British girls.
In the nineteenth century, while education was seen as
a passport to success in professional and public life for Victorian middle-class
boys, who were educated "for the world", middle-class girls were
educated "for the drawing room" and their education was social
rather than intellectual.
As a result, the majority of upper- and upper-middle-class girls were educated
at home, with only a minority attending expensive, fashionable boarding
schools with a non-academic curriculum.
Meanwhile the daughters of the professional and the merchant classes were
educated at home until they were about ten years old, after which they
attended a local day school for two or three years, generally followed
by a boarding school which provided a social rather than an academic education.
Lower-middle-class girls attended small, local day schools for about four
or five years from around the age of ten, and their levels of achievement
were particularly low.
For the majority of upper- and middle-class girls, this
pattern continued until as late as the beginning of the First World War.
But in 1850 Frances Mary Buss established the North London Collegiate School,
the first of the modern fee-paying day schools or High Schools, offering
a similar education to that given to boys; in 1869 the Endowed Schools
Act increased girls' access to grammar schools, which had previously been
almost exclusively male; in 1872 Emily Shirreff and her sister Maria Grey
founded the Girls' Public Day School Company, enabling schools to be owned
by trusts or companies and controlled by a board of governors rather than
by private individuals; and in 1877 the first girls' public school, St
Andrew's, opened in Scotland, followed by Roedean in 1885 and Wycombe Abbey
By the beginning of the twentieth century, increasing
numbers of middle-class British girls were attending school, fuelled by
the growing preference of women to teach in schools rather than in private
families. Girls studied a curriculum similar to that which was provided
in boys' schools, with the emphasis on academic attainment and sport rather
than domestic roles. (It should be stressed, though, that girls' ultimate
destination in life was still taken to be that of wife and mother, now
educated to be a "companion" to her husband and better able to
mother her children.) Many more schools for middle-class girls opened in
the first quarter of the twentieth century, including St Felix in Southwold
these were inevitably single-sex and owned privately or by the Girls' Public
Day School trust, and many were boarding schools, fuelled by the demands
of an Empire which meant that large numbers of middle-class British parents
were based overseas.
Working-class British girls, though, had to wait longer
for equal access to education. During the early Victorian period, the majority
of working-class girls attended dame schools, charity schools or state-aided
voluntary or industrial schools, leaving at about eleven years old when
they could enter employment. While at school they followed a restricted
curriculum, comprising reading, religious education and some writing, and
there is evidence to suggest that both their access to education and the
curriculum which they studied was markedly poorer than that of working-class
boys. The 1870 Education Act, which established the state-organised elementary
schools, formalised the differences between boys' education and girls'
with a sex-specific curriculum, with the aim of girls' education being
seen as preparing them for domestic life, both in their own homes and in
the service of others.
Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the 1902
Education Act introduced radical changes to the organisation and administration
of the state-organised schools which working-class pupils attended. School
boards were abolished, and local authorities were empowered to become education
authorities; to administer the elementary schools; and to found and run
secondary schools. However, the education which was provided was still
gender-specific and inferior to that which was given to upper- and middle-class
pupils. Also, while the secondary schools provided a more academic curriculum,
they charged fees. Since scholarship places, which were introduced in 1907,
were limited, access for working-class girls was severely restricted. Similarly,
the age at which pupils could legally leave school was set at twelve years
old in 1899, with fourteen made compulsory only in 1918, meaning that the
length of working-class girls' educational careers was considerably shorter
than that of middle-class girls. It was only with the 1944 Education Act,
which introduced free secondary education for all and raised the school
leaving age to fifteen, that the majority of working class girls began
to achieve greater equality of opportunity.
The early schoolgirls' lives revolved around their school experiences, reinforced by a society which treated middle-class girls as children until they left school at seventeen or eighteen years old. In general, it was a world without boys and adults. Sally Mitchell records that, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century: "both working-class and middle-class girls increasingly occupied a separate culture."
The new girl - no longer a child, not yet a (sexual) adult - occupied a provisional free space. Girls' culture suggested new ways of being, new modes of behaviour, and new attitudes that were not yet acceptable for adult women (except in the case of the advance few).
While girls' own lives varied widely, fiction provided them with a common imaginary world. Mitchell claims that: "whether they were at work, at home, or at school, girls could be defined through their shared stories, feelings, interest, self-image, language, and values." Many of those stories were set in girls' schools, where girls' feelings, interests, language and values were reflected along with the schoolgirl image, characterised by the gym tunic which had become the uniform dress and which symbolised the separate identity of the schoolgirl. This image signified a revolution in British girls' lives. Mitchell describes:
the turn-of-the-century girl's dramatic liberation when she first dressed in a costume distinctively her own, which marked her as neither child nor woman, had pockets, made it possible to run and climb, and let her add a boy-style shirt and tie.
Along with their own costume, girls now had their own literature, which focused, not on their lives as daughters and future wives and mothers, but on their often heroic activities in an all-female world which could lead on to university and a career, with their school being central both to the stories and to the characters' lives. As Rosemary Auchmuty points out:
School stories were literary proof that (middle-class) girls' education was at last being taken seriously and that (middle-class) girls should have access to a masculine curriculum, including games, and a masculine value-system, perceived in a patriarchal society as the best available. This in itself was a source of pride for schoolgirls. A still greater source of strength and pleasure was, no doubt, the fact of studying, playing, and learning to live together in a community of girls and women, free from the constant patronage, harrassment and competition of the male sex.
Margaret Simey, who was born in 1906 and became a pupil at St Paul's girls' public school in London, recalls that:
School as a great institution was a right thrill, we'd never experienced it. Our brothers had gone to school, that kind of school, but women hadn't. And of course, in those days, I keep telling people, I remember what it was like not to have a vote. And in that atmosphere, where the boys were everything, you went to this school where it was an entire world of women. And these books, Angela Brazil and that were all about our private world, it was our world. (archived interview, 1990)
However, from the beginning the genre did not appeal only
to girls who were receiving a middle-class girls' education such as Simey's,
but also to those educated at home and from lower-middle-class and working-class
backgrounds. There were initially far more readers of school stories than
there were British girls receiving secondary education, and many girls
encountered the genre before the experience of school itself. It was not
simply the representation of readers' own lives, then, which appealed to
them about girls' school stories.
The genre of girls' school stories is generally believed
to have developed in imitation of the boys' books, of which the first is
generally taken to be Tom Brown's Schooldays, published in 1857.
In fact, however, the earliest known boarding school story is a girls'
school story, Sarah Fielding's The Governess: or, Little Female Academy
which was published in 1749. Between then and the publication of Tom
Brown's Schooldays, at least 87 other English school stories were published,
containing most of the characteristics which would distinguish the genre
in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In the mid-1850s, the growth of the children's book market in Britain was paralleled by the development of a style of writing for children where, as Judith Rowbotham describes:
the intention was to give an illusion of reality through the setting of the story in order . . . to coat the powder of the moral in the jam of a good narrative. In order to increase both realism and digestibility, these stories were carefully aimed at specific age, class and gender targets. . . most authors . . . claimed to write stories that would act as guides, influencing children in the ways in which they should think and act for the rest of their lives.
This perspective on the purpose of British children's
literature was to remain dominant. However, since "realism" was
becoming the world of the school as well as the home for girls, women began
to write more stories set in schools.
In general, the growth of the children's book market had beneficial effects for girls and women. Rowbotham points out that:
the creation of a body of fiction concentrating specifically on an adolescent middle-class female market actually aided the expansion of women's role in society. It gave a considerable boost to the profession of author, markedly increasing the number of women writers.
Between 1870, when the Education Act became law, and 1880, when compulsory education was introduced in Britain, there was then a rapid expansion in children's book publishing. Kimberley Reynolds records that:
By the 1880s, the range of fictional books alone included adventure stories, historical fiction, school stories, and domestic stories . . . Among those producing books for girls by this time were Mrs Ewing, Anne Beale, L.T. Meade, Anna Sewell and Charlotte M. Yonge. Not all of these writers or their works were new, but through cheap reprints, lending libraries and periodical serialisation their works became accessible to the masses, making it possible to see the commercial and ideological potential of juvenile fiction as popular entertainment.
The "lesson" inherent in nineteenth-century girls' school stories, though, was still the desirability of traditional constructs of femininity. For example, Meade set many of her stories in boarding establishments for teenage girls and girls' colleges, with titles including A Sweet Girl Graduate (1891) and Betty: A School Girl (1895), but, as Reynolds points out: "it becomes evident that her books are consistently structured so as to underline traditional images of femininity and to undermine the attractions of changes to women's roles."
Through an inversion of genius, the school setting which had seemed so threatening is, in this new off-shoot of girls' fiction, turned upon itself and made the means of new and greater opportunities for self-denial, service and adherence to the established principles of femininity. At the same time, the works subtly instill a model and code of internal self-regulation which had to replace the old, external parental and social controls once girls no longer received their educations and preparation for the world solely at home.
Girls' books, too, had already been assigned the low status that would continue to mark them throughout the next century. Reynolds records that:
By 1880 . . . girls' books are coming to be seen as those which boys will not read, an important step towards classifying them as works of lower status and so of attributing to girls the need for an inferior literature.
But Mitchell stresses that, at the same time, the new genre of the school story created:
a community where the important rules are the children's own ethics and mores. The new girl's popular fiction emphasises peer standards, not adult standards - that is surely one reason adults came to ignore or despise it. Meade, for example, ranks courage higher than obedience. And more than anything else, her school stories value cohesion, formation of a group, loyalty, and care of girls for one another.
The genre was to contain similarly contradictory messages
throughout the next century, and this was to be a key reason for its attracting
criticism, since both sets of messages had their opponents.
By the end of the nineteenth century, though, the content of girls' school stories had begun to change. Rowbotham points out that:
during the last decade of the century fiction began to
reflect the growing acceptance of girls' schools that deliberately aimed
to parallel more closely in organization and administration the long-established
and successful boys' institutions. It is probable that in this respect
didactic fiction was reflecting a trend that was more acceptable to the
pupils than to many conventional middle-class parents. . .
However . . . there was no fundamental change in majority attitudes towards the essentials of feminine education. . .
Education remained for the majority of girls simply the way to character improvement.
Despite these caveats, the fact that some middle-class schoolgirls, both real and fictional, now had access to a very similar type of schooling to that of their brothers signified a revolution in the status of and opportunities open to girls. Mitchell records that:
By the 1890s, stories often used a high school setting and made the conflict between home and school explicit. These high school stories are more overtly feminist than a lot of girls' fiction, though the feminism may be diluted in overlapping layers of tale and interpretation.
Of the plots of turn-of-the-century high school stories, including "Mrs Henry Clarke" 's A Clever Daughter (1896), Geraldine Mockler's The Four Miss Whittingtons (1899), and Elinor D. Adams' A Queen Among Girls (1900), Mitchell writes that:
day schools encourage a girl to accept family responsibility and learn domestic skills while she gains the education to become a self-supporting and responsible woman. At the psychological level - as light reading - they supply the fantasy that one can have it all: parental love and true womanliness without giving up ambition, success, and new-woman independence.
After 1900, the genre also began to feature boarding schools
modelled on boys' public schools, such as Jessie Mansergh's Tom and
Some Other Girls: A Public School Story (1901). Other authors now writing
in the genre included May Baldwin, Dorothea Moore, Lilian F. Wevill, Mrs
George de Horne Vaizey and Helen Watson.
The growth of the popularity of the genre at the beginning of the twentieth century was related to the fact that girls, unlike boys, were encouraged to read, and it was popularly supposed to help to develop their character. Reynolds records that:
Girls had more leisure at the end of the century than boys and fewer ways of filling it. This was true even of working-class girls, for the worsening economic situation both resulted in fewer opportunities for work and led to social pressures which gave rise to a widespread retreat into the home. In marked contrast to boys' reading, the reading of fiction was regarded as a suitable pastime for young women, as long as what they read was not considered to be challenging or corrupting in any way. Moreover, unlike boys, girls were often encouraged to read and study literature at school.
Reynolds adds that:
just as their abilities and areas of study tended to be dismissed as inferior to those of boys, so what they read was regarded as frivolous and classed as low-status, popular fiction. So it is that the largest area within juvenile publishing, books written specifically for girls, and the largest and most avid group of readers, girls (a term which in late-Victorian and Edwardian England could encompass an age range the upper limit of which was twenty-five) were constantly ridiculed by teachers, critics and journalists, and their authors discredited, at least in terms of literary standing.
This attitude was to remain unchallenged for much of the
twentieth century (see 7. The Critics of Girls' School Stories
and 8. The Parodies of Girls' School Stories
Then, in 1906, the publication of Angela Brazil's The Fortunes of Phillipa rejuvenated the genre and signalled the beginning of its mass popularity. Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig point out that: "Angela Brazil's first school story struck at once an optimistic note; The Fortunes of Phillipa could not have failed to be popular, when so many Victorian heroines had been characterized solely by their misfortunes."
Angela Brazil broke deliberately with tradition, by expressing the girls' attitudes from the inside. Instead of boring her readers with a long-winded narrative view of events, she adopted as far as possible their vocabulary and their viewpoint, to achieve a zest and immediacy which the Edwardian schoolgirl must have relished. Her girls can be ruthless, stupid, vain or pig-headed without incurring overt narrative disapproval; the issue is rather the girls' tolerance of one another, than the author's concern to instruct her readers (though that of course is implicit in the stories' outcome, and occasionally does obtrude).
Shirley Foster and Judy Simons point out that Brazil's
use of language was a key reason for the popularity of her stories: "Brazil's
slang, considered sufficiently outrageous by contemporary readers for her
books to be banned from some schools, effectively creates its own anti-authoritarian
code that is distinctively juvenile and female."
(This was to continue to be a factor in the popularity of the genre, most
notably in Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series,
where overt strictures against slang - presumably as a defence against
the criticisms which Brazil had faced - obscured the fact that Brent-Dyer
created an alternative schoolgirl language, including the use of "fabulous"
or "fab" which later entered mainstream discourse.)
Brazil, the first of five authors
who can be counted as the major writers in the genre, went on to produce
45 full-length school stories and a number of short stories (these latter
were published in annuals) before her death in 1947. These were not only
popular in Britain but internationally; Gillian Freeman records that: "Not
only Indian girls, but Dutch, French, Polish, German, Scandinavian and
American girls were reading Angela's books, the illustrative style changing
radically from one country to another."
Brazil's stories were characterised by their "realism"; very
little happens in Brazil's stories which does not conform to the rules
that govern the external world, although, along with the minor authors
writing at the time, she does make use of "deus ex machina" in
her early sub-plots, restoring missing relatives or lost inheritances.
(Some use of "deus ex machina" was always to
characterise the genre, and to be one reason why the genre attracted criticism.
Similarly, few of the books are conventionally plotted, with the majority
consisting only of a series of loosely connected sub-plots.)
In general, though, Brazil's stories picture girls studying
together, organising together and playing together, and their relationships
with other girls, often passionate, are of overwhelming importance. Brothers
and families are often represented within the stories, many of which are
set in day schools, but the school and its girls are shown as being at
the centre of characters' lives. The stories also include lengthy descriptions
of holiday travels in Britain and abroad which must have appealed to readers,
the majority of whom would have had no such experiences themselves. For
readers abroad, of course, most of the representations within the stories
would have been outside of their experience.
Brazil's reworking of the genre meant that girls' school stories soon became enormously popular, with other authors now including Ethel Talbot and May Wynne. Mitchell records that:
By the first decade of the twentieth century, "Books for Girls" had become a standard category on the lists of British publishers. The genre included school stories and tales of heroic action in the Indian Mutiny or the Boer War, holiday adventures that showed girls on their own in dangerous places, and career books featuring young artists and nurses and typists in detective firms.
School stories were the most popular of all of these.
Mitchell points out that, despite Brazil's stress on more "realistic"
stories, the school experiences represented still remained fantasy for
most of the genre's readers. "It was thus primarily in fiction that
school became a privileged space for girls' interactions and ethics."
In 1913, Elsie J. Oxenham's first school story, Rosaly's
New School, was published, followed in 1914 by The Girls of the
Hamlet Club. This story, set in a Buckinghamshire school where a division
existed between the wealthier girls who lived in the town and the poorer
girls who lived in the surrounding hamlets, marked the first of the series
which was later to become known simply as "The Abbey Girls" after
the publication of the book of the same name in 1920. Oxenham was to become
known as the second major author writing in the genre, but in contrast
to Brazil, representations of schooling itself are largely absent from
Oxenham's books, even when the action supposedly takes place within school.
Instead, the action revolves around the girls themselves and their leisure
organisations, chiefly the Camp Fire movement, the Girl Guides and, centrally,
folk dancing. The majority of the Abbey Girls books, in fact, are set away
from school, and many of them take place when the "girls" are
Perhaps Oxenham recognised that it was schoolgirl society rather than school itself which was central to readers' enjoyment of the books. Margaret Simey, a member of Oxenham's own Camp Fire group, recalls that:
In those days . . . [St Paul's] was a boys' public school
really . . . and it was all directed to examinations, and the peak of my
achievement was that my hockey captain was Evelyn Sharp, who was the first
woman civil servant to head a department. And that was the life we were
directed towards. She wasn't of the tiniest interest to me, and so I sailed
through school never even listening to a word. . .
I think what [Oxenham] gave to me was all that school didn't. All that learning Latin and Greek, passing exams and things were no good to me at all. And [the Camp Fire movement], we put all the lights out and we drew the curtains, and you dressed up in your Indian stuff with the head band and everything, and you lit a candle, and you recited verses from Hiawatha. And I can see the contrast, it must have been wonderful. Now I laugh at it. But on the other hand we worked for badges and things, just like Guides. (archived interview, 1990)
In fact, Simey became the first woman to take a social
science degree, and later went on to a distinguished career. But her memories
show clearly that girls did not want mere representations of their school
experiences to entertain them during their leisure time.
However, for most of the genre's authors, school was central to girls' school stories. 1920 saw the publication of Dorita Fairlie Bruce's The Senior Prefect (republished as Dimsie Goes to School), her first full-length story about the Jane Willard Foundation (three short stories previously having appeared in annuals). Bruce quickly established herself as the third major author of the genre. Eva Löfgren records that:
The success with Dimsie Maitland gave rise to the rapid appearance of five sequels to The Senior Prefect in as many years, and a reprint of the first novel as soon as 1923. The concept of a series of full size novels about the schooldays of one particular character, or of the same group of characters, was a fresh one at this time, and one that had hardly been tried in girls' fiction. Dorita Fairlie Bruce is a pioneer in this respect, although Elsie J. Oxenham employs it about the same time.
The secret of the success of the series did not lie in
the continuation of the adventures of a single heroine, who was less important
in the books than the title suggests, so much as the continuation of the
adventures of the group to which the heroine belonged. Following Oxenham
and Bruce, the genre then became characterised by series rather than by
individual books, with the development of what were effectively sub-genres
by different authors. Bruce went on to write two other series, the St Bride's
& Maudsley and the Springdale series, as well as two sets of three
stories which each starred the same heroine, the Toby books and the Sally
Series commonly lasted for six or nine books, but in 1925
the publication of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's The School at the Chalet
marked the beginning of the longest-running series of the genre. The Chalet
was eventually to encompass 59 books and nearly half a century; the last
book in the series, Prefects for the Chalet School, being published
posthumously in 1970. Brent-Dyer, who soon became known as the fourth major
writer in the genre, created a school which capitalised on the attractions
of "abroad" for its readers, set as it was in the Austrian Alps.
Wartime meant that Brent-Dyer had to relocate the school, first to the
Channel Island of Guernsey and then, after the Nazi occupation, to the
Herefordshire countryside where she lived herself. But after a brief period
when she moved the school to a Welsh island after the end of the war, she
returned the school to an equally exotic location, Switzerland, where it
continued to flourish. Brent-Dyer's series was also unusual in that it
featured both Anglican and Roman Catholic girl, together with girls and
women of different nationalities who were given equal respect to the British,
and girls were expected to be trilingual in English, French and German.
The period between the two World Wars marked the height
of the popularity of the genre, with other writers including Marjorie Barnard,
Nancy Breary, Dora Chapman, Christine Chaundler, E.M. Channon, Alys Chatwyn,
E.E. Cowper, Dorothy Dennison, Josephine Elder, Joy Francis, Mary Gervaise,
Joan Butler-Joyce, Irene Mossop and Norah Mylrea. By the beginning of the
Second World War, though, critical opposition had become more vocal, at
the same time as the range of fiction available for children was widening.
However, this did not prevent women from continuing to write in the genre,
among them Enid Blyton, the most popular British children's writer of the
twentieth century. Blyton first began to write school stories in the late
1930s with The Naughtiest Girl in the School, serialised in her
children's magazine Sunny Stories before being published in book
form in 1940. This was followed by two sequels: The Naughtiest Girl
Again (1942) and The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor (1945). Although
very popular, though, these stories were set in a progressive, mixed-gender
school and cannot really be considered to be part of the genre. In contrast,
Blyton's St Clare's (1941-45) and Malory Towers (1946-1951) series, containing
six books each, were archetypal girls' school stories and immediately became
enormously popular, remaining in print in the 1990s.
Who were the women who created and sustained the
genre? Auchmuty notes that: "as professional writers they were following
one of the two traditionally acceptable careers for 'ladies' - teaching
being the other - and one which, moreover, was (rather more than teaching)
a source of pride rather than embarrassment or resignation."
Few came from similar backgrounds to their heroines, though, nor did they
have similar experiences of schooling. Brazil, born the daughter of a cotton-mill
manager in 1869, attended the most similar types of school - the preparatory
department of a Girls' High School and a leading modern girls' day school,
Ellerslie - but this was before the modernisation of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. For example, Brazil later wrote that: "When
I go to see modern girls' schools, and know what jolly times they have
with games and clubs and acting, I feel that I missed a very great deal."
Meanwhile Oxenham, born the daughter of a writer in 1880, spent most of
her girlhood in the London suburb of Ealing and attended private schools
there. Bruce, who was the daughter of a civil engineer, was born in Spain
in 1885 and spent much of her childhood in Scotland, before eventually
moving to the London suburb of Ealing where she also attended school.
Brent-Dyer, born the daughter of a ships' surveyor in
1894, grew up in South Shields in a terraced house with no inside toilet
or bathroom, and had what she later regarded as being a poor education.
Her father left home when she was three, a fact which her mother kept hidden,
pretending to be a widow. Blyton was the daughter of a salesman and was
born in a flat above a shop in South London in 1897. Soon afterwards her
father joined the family "mantle warehousing" company and they
moved to a villa in the Kent suburb of Beckenham, where she lived and went
to school until she left home to train as a teacher. Blyton's father left
the family when she was thirteen, and her mother pretended that her husband
was away in order to avoid social stigma. It is not surprising, in the
circumstances, that parents are absent from so many school stories.
Löfgren argues that the differences between the school experiences of the writers of girls' school stories and that of their heroines and readers can be explained by the fact that the genre reflects, not the prevailing reality of contemporary girls' schools during the height of popularity of the genre, but rather:
the atmosphere of the pioneering era in the late 19th C. The period between the World Wars is the heyday of the British girls' school story, and it signifies a belated triumph of the pioneers of the reformation of female education, quite independent of the successes and failures of this reformation in real life. This is a modern version of the nostalgia for an Arcadian era. These stories embody the myth of the Great School for Girls.
This reading fits with the actual period in which most
of the writers were themselves educated, and is particularly convincing
since, for the most part, the writers encountered the myth rather than
the reality when schoolgirls themselves.
Likewise Gill Frith argues that: "The school story has always been a dream, a fantasy, has never had more than a tenuous connection with 'real' life." Löfgren points out that:
The "realism" of a formula story is closer to
the classical conception of "mimesis" or imitation, in the sense
of imitating nature by means of imitating older, model depictions of nature.
. . This is how a writer of school stories might create a successful literary
world of boarding school only by imitating the worlds of other writers
- assisted by her or his own imagination - without any personal experiences
from a real school of this kind. . .
Once the genre is established, writers copy each other rather than reality, following and contributing to the expectations of the genre, slowly changing it. . .
No writer in the genre could . . . leave the ever growing line of percursors and colleagues out of consideration - even when deliberately deviating from their models.
From the beginning, then, the world of girls' school stories
owed more to myth than to reality, and authors read and used characteristics
from each other's work. This self-referencing also functioned to make it
clear to readers that the books were part of the genre as a whole, since
this was obviously a key motivation for their reading. And, of course,
the genre's characteristics developed as characteristics from one author's
work became used by other writers and became stock elements of the genre
as a whole.
Many of the authors did have teaching experience, though, and of the five main authors, Blyton began her career as a junior teacher and governess; while Brent-Dyer taught for more than thirty years, eventually running her own school. However, Brazil, Bruce and Oxenham did not work outside the home and had to rely on memories, contact with contemporary schoolgirls and their knowledge of the "myth" to create their stories. Brazil defended this perspective, writing that:
I have always had the strong feeling that had I added B.A. to my name, forced myself into a scholastic mould, and become a headmistress, I should never, never, never have written stories about schoolgirls, at any rate not from the schoolgirl's point of view, which is the attitude that has appealed to me most.
This was a period where up to one in four women remained unmarried, and Löfgren notes that:
Of British female children's writers born between 1880 and 1900 less than half the number were expressly said to have been married, compared with about two-thirds of the generation born between 1901 and 1911.
It is interesting to note that Brent-Dyer, Bruce, Brazil
and Oxenham never married, while Blyton, who married twice but always used
her birth name professionally, presented a facade of happy marriage to
her readers while hiding the fact that her first marriage had broken down.
Blyton's biographer, Barbara Stoney, and her daughter Imogen Smallwood
both describe her as being unfulfilled by domesticity, unable to cook and
delegating the responsibility for housework and childcare (although she
was able to sew).
Much to Imogen's continuing grief, she preferred her imaginary worlds,
her fans and a close woman friend to family life, and she avoided close
contact with her children. Blyton eventually died in a nursing home in
1968, having lost touch with reality and possibly suffering from Alzheimer's
Meanwhile Brent-Dyer spent most of her adult life living
with her mother and step-father, and after her step-father's death was
joined by a succession of women lodgers of her mother's generation; eventually,
after her mother's death, moving in with her friends the Matthewmans until
her death in 1969. Bruce looked after her parents until they died and her
dead brother's children until they grew up, after which she lived with
a woman friend from 1949 until her friend died in the early 1960s, then
living alone until her own death in 1970. Brazil lived with her brother
and sister until her death in 1947; and Oxenham with her sisters after
the death of their respective parents, dying herself in 1960.
Were the authors feminists? Certainly Brazil is known
to have had suffragette friends.
However, there are no records of the five main authors taking part in any
political activity, nor evidence of them overtly promoting organised feminism
within their books. (Indeed, there are occasional anti-suffragette references
in Brazil and Bruce's work.) Rather, with the exception of Blyton, who
was clearly unhappy with family life, the authors lives' were girl- and
women-centred. Brent-Dyer's life revolved around her teaching, her mother,
her lodgers and her friends. Brazil involved herself with local schools
in Coventry and gave parties for local children, as well as being active
in numerous charities. Bruce was involved in the Girls' Guildry movement
(which predated the Girl Guide movement) for more than thirty years. Oxenham
was Guardian to a girls' Camp Fire group (originally an American girls'
movement), as well as being an enthusiastic member of the English Folk
Dance Society, then dominated by women.
There has been speculation that many of the women who wrote girls' school stories were lesbian, but there has been little evidence to support this, if by being lesbian we mean that they consciously had sexual feelings towards other women, resulting on occasion in genital contact. Helen McClelland notes that Brent-Dyer "was chiefly renowned at college for the way in which she took violent crushes on other students"; Gillian Freeman describes Brazil's "possessive passion"" for her friend Dorothy Milward; and there is speculation about the nature of Blyton's relationship with her friend Dorothy Richards. It should be remembered, though, that the early part of the twentieth century was still a period when it was accepted that women could have passionate relationships with each other, and that these were generally believed not to be sexual. McClelland warns that:
Today it has become almost impossible to believe in the existence of any adult woman so innocent - and ignorant - that all sexual or homosexual undercurrents flow past her unnoticed. Yet such women did exist. Moreover it seems probable that they numbered among them many of those who wrote schoolgirl fiction in the pre-war days.
Of course, at the same time it was believed that women
did not have sexual feelings at all, so, whether sexual or not, it is difficult
to see how their relationships with other women could be ranked below those
relationships which they had with men. Certainly the writers were girl-
and women-centred, and since they deviated from the heterosexual norms
for twentieth-century British women of marriage and motherhood, they can
be regarded as being queer.
In particular, it is interesting to note that both Blyton and Brent-Dyer are described by their biographers as being noticeably loud and exuberant girls, unable to conform to a "feminine" norm. Perhaps their writing, regarded as being a "quiet" activity, later provided their only outlet for travelling, for being noisy, for being the centre of attention - in the world of their imagination rather than as they experienced it externally. Barbara Stoney further writes that Blyton explicitly rejected a domestic role as a girl in favour of reading and going on excursions with her father (p18), withdrawing to an upstairs room or a friend's house after he left home (p27). She was the first girl in her school to have her long hair cut off to shoulder length, and later admitted that she had based her "Famous Five" character George - the girl who longed to be a boy and who dressed and acted like one whenever she could - on herself.
George is real, but she is grown-up now . . . The real George was short-haired, freckled, sturdy, and snub-nosed. She was bold and daring, hot-tempered and loyal. She was sulky, as George is, too, but she isn't now. We grow out of those failings - or we should! Do you like George? I do.
Stoney also notes that Blyton was unable to have children
until she underwent a course of hormone treatment for an undeveloped uterus
which had remained characteristic of that of a pre-adolescent girl.
In the 1990s, what is known of Blyton's life is commonly taken as evidence
that she "refused to grow up", but it may be that she was simply
transgendered in a society which did not recognise this as being a possibility.
One final point about the authors of girls' school stories.
Only Blyton, who wrote general children's fiction for all age-groups, made
substantial amounts of money from her writing: for example, in 1923, almost
twenty years before she started writing school stories, she earned over
£300, the price of a small suburban house.
Brent-Dyer, meanwhile, despite her writing output and her popularity, had
to rely on her income from teaching and her lodgers to support herself
and her mother for much of her life. The profits from girls' school stories,
for the most part, went straight into the pockets of the male publishers;
the financial reward given to the authors, along with their status generally,
was always low.
Yet the authors took their writing extremely seriously. Brazil worked in a studio in her garden, plotting her books and her characters before beginning work on her story.
I am often asked if I only write when "the spirit moves me". If so, I fear I should get very little done. I think it is absolutely necessary to have certain definite daily hours set aside for literary work. Sometimes one's ideas flow best in the evening, but often the morning is one's brightest period.
Blyton wrote in a much quicker and less structured way,
but allowed nothing to interfere with her daily work;
while Brent-Dyer on occasion asked her mother to take her classes so that
she could write.
However, their work was not taken seriously by anyone other than girls. The critical reception of the genre was marked by hostility for most of the twentieth century (see 7. The Critics of Girls' School Stories for details), and by the 1930s men were familiar enough with the genre to begin to ridicule it in the form of parodies (see 8. The Parodies of Girls' School Stories for details). Even teachers despised the stories; Freeman describes how:
On the first day of the autumn term in 1936, a new girl to St Paul's in London was stunned by a dramatic address from Ethel Shrudwick, the principal, who at morning prayers expressed the wish to collect the books of Angela Brazil and burn them.
Only girl power, then, was responsible for the rise of
the genre and for its continuing popularity. The genre dominated popular
fiction for girls until the middle of the twentieth century, when it was
briefly and to a much lesser extent joined by adventure stories for girls
(often set in schools),
ballet stories (usually set in ballet schools)
and pony stories (often featuring riding schools).
Publishers' attentions then turned to producing books
aimed at both sexes, influenced by the growth of children's book criticism
following the end of the Second World War (see 7. The Critics of Girls'
School Stories, 1949-1995 for details).
The representation of the "reality" of girls' lives in fiction
and other forms of popular culture, always taken to be important in children's
literature, was now believed to be paramount, as was the production of
"good" children's books. In 1941, Penguin Books launched the
first Puffin fiction books for children as "something of a counterblast
to those who were thinking in terms of Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton".
Librarians also began to promote alternatives to genre fiction, and opposition
to Blyton's books in particular became widespread.
Generally, the rise of other types of children's literature was seen as
marking a "second Golden Age" of children's books, the first
"Golden Age" being the half-century before 1915.
However, many authors continued to write in the genre,
among them Mabel Esther Allan, Margaret Biggs, Norma Bradley, Rita Coatts,
Gwendoline Courtney, Antonia Forest, Janet Grey, Judith Grey, Helen S.
Humphries, Sylvia Little, Joanna Lloyd, Phyllis Matthewman, Constance M.
White, Jane Shaw and Elizabeth Tarrant. Popularity was not confined to
Britain, either. In addition to widespread publication in the English-speaking
parts of the former British Empire, the 1940s and 1950s marked a period
of popularity for the genre in Europe. For example, in Sweden translations
were published of Bruce's "Dimsie" books, Blyton's St Clare's
series and the school stories of Phyllis Matthewman, together with re-issues
of translations of earlier school stories, including those of Christine
Brent-Dyer's books were published in Portugese, while Blyton's girls' books
were republished in translation all over the world. Clearly the genre's
representation of "reality" could not have been a factor here.
Brent-Dyer's published writing output actually increased
with the closure of her school in 1948, but in June 1955 Bruce's publishers,
the Oxford University Press, allowed all but the last four of her books
to go out of print, and the publication of The Bartle Request the
following year marked the end of her association with them. The Press,
as with contemporary critics, librarians, teachers and parents, believed
that the genre was effectively dead, and should certainly be buried as
quickly as possible. Despite this, though, when the Chalet School series
was launched in paperback by Collins in 1967, 198,539 copies were sold
between May and October 1967: 169,938 at home and 28,601 in the export
Sheila Ray points out that: "The writers of the 'Second Golden Age'
had failed to make an impact on many children."
Girls' schooling had, of course, by now changed radically
since the beginning of the twentieth century. By the second quarter of
the century there was already a widespread belief that girls required a
different type of education to that of boys, aimed at their domestic role
in life, rather than their schools mimicking those of boys, while at the
same time girls' culture was breaking up.
At the same time there was a strong movement in favour of co-educational
schools, although it took time to make its effects felt. The end of the
Empire - which meant that many parents returned home to the UK - and the
availability of free secondary education following the Second World War
then led to the closure of the majority of the privately owned boarding
and day schools where girls' school stories were set. Girls were still
largely educated separately - indeed, working-class girls had only just
become "schoolgirls" in large numbers - but the ethos driving
their education was now very different.
By the 1960s, there was, despite evidence that girls achieved
more when educated separately, a strong belief in the superiority of mixed-gender
education as providing better training for "real life". This
led many of the remaining girls' schools (both state-run and privately
owned) to close, to amalgamate with boys' schools or to open their doors
to boys. Girls were offered a similar core curriculum, but were still expected
to study cookery and needlework while boys learned metalwork and woodwork
and to play separate sports. Within the mixed-gender, state-run schools,
uniforms were then either relaxed or abolished, taking away a staple identifier
of the schoolgirl (although many British schools have reintroduced traditional
uniforms since the beginning of the 1980s). In reality, too, girls' space
is now much more proscribed; fear of assault, the increase in road traffic
and the criminalisation of groups of young people mean that, out of school,
today's schoolgirls are often isolated within their homes.
A similar picture emerges in an analysis of mainstream
British popular culture of the 1990s. Girls are usually portrayed as attending
mixed-gender, state-run schools (for example in the long-running BBC series
Grange Hill, which is set in outer London). Plots may sometimes
centre around groups of girls, but the all-female, enclosed world which
is so crucial to the genre of girls' school stories is absent. Instead,
girls' experiences are set within mixed-gender (and race), middle- and
working-class school communities and sub-cultures. The characters' identity
is now that of school students rather than schoolgirls, and their lives
outside of school are portrayed as being equally or more important than
their school experiences.
This is generally reflected in other children's books,
magazines and television series in Britain in the 1990s: girls are more
likely to be shown within the local community and their family than in
school; where they are more likely to be shown in mixed groups; and to
be identified by the American-inspired image of the teenager. There is
no separate space for girls within broadcasting; the majority of children's
books are produced for a "mixed" readership; and girls are left
with only magazines such as Just 17 and Mizz to call their
own. These magazines target girls as consumers, and readers' careers, political
interests and aspirations are ignored.
Content instead centres around boyfriends, sex, make up, shopping, popular
music and fashion - subjects which are absent from or frowned upon in girls'
school stories. Sport is most likely to be represented by male sports stars
whose sports themselves are all-male: since the Second World War team sports
such as hockey and cricket have declined rapidly amongst girls and women;
to be replaced by activities such as aerobics which have strong links to
body image and weight loss.
In other English-speaking countries, school and higher
education continue to be represented as being central to characters' lives
within popular culture. For example, in the US television series Beverly
Hills 90210, scenes are frequently set in classrooms, and exams, discipline,
sport and activities such as producing the school newspaper are all seen
as being worthy topics for plot development. Undesirable characters are
those who do not work hard at school. Likewise, in the Australian soap
opera Home and Away, the school is an integral part of the community
and many plots are set in it. Bobby, a reformed wild girl, has her finest
moment when she gets her Higher School Certificate (HSC) and receives the
Pupil of the Year award. Angel leaves the streets to study for her HSC;
as does Finn, who stays on for another year after failing the first time;
while Marilyn returns as a mature student specifically to take her HSC.
Aspiring to succeed educationally is presented as being both important
and within the reach of all.
But in Britain in the 1990s, popular culture presents
education as being both marginal and beyond the aspirations of working-class
characters. For example, in the film The Higher Mortals, made by
the Children's Film Unit in 1993 and broadcast on Channel 4 on 25 September
1994 from 5.40-7.00pm, the plot revolves around five inner-city children,
four boys and one girl, who are sent by the female Minister for Education
to a minor public school which is threatened with recession-related closure.
The children kidnap the Minister in order to make her admit that her plan
is mistaken, asking why they are being trained for the "scrap heap".
Then, when she tricks them, they burn the school down. The leading character,
a schoolgirl, ends the film by saying that the school had to go as it was
completely outdated; it is only now that her real education is beginning.
In the BBC soap opera EastEnders, school is presented
only as a site for bullying and crime. In terms of higher education, the
character Michelle Fowler goes to university, but the students are shown
only as taking drugs and as acting irresponsibly towards her daughter Vicky,
and a student boyfriend is revealed as a psychopath who makes continual
threatening phone calls. The storyline returns to the university only when
Michelle graduates, when she begins an affair with her much older tutor,
Geoff. Her family are seen to treat her education with respect - "A
Fowler with a degree, now that would be something," says her brother
Mark (17 May 1994) - but they treat it as a one-off incident, beyond the
realistic aspirations for their family and class. One other character,
Kelvin, also goes to university, but this is used simply as a means of
writing him out of the series and no scenes are set there.
Similarly, in the Channel 4 soap opera Brookside,
schoolchildren take drugs, steal cars, go joyriding, smoke, have underage
sex and abortions, and bully other children - there are no positive representations.
Only three characters, Karen Grant, Mike Dixon and Beth Jordache, go on
into higher education. Of these, Karen leaves the series, while Mike's
studies are characterised by his interest in his band and video-making;
there are no scenes showing his ordinary studies and interactions with
other students. After graduation, Mike is unemployed and shown to be a
dreamer, wanting to be a writer but without the talent to succeed; the
message to the audience is clearly that his education was irrelevant to
a working-class young man. Beth Jordache, meanwhile, goes to medical school
only to begin a lesbian affair with her tutor, and dies before she graduates.
In the ITV soap opera Coronation Street, Andy MacDonald,
the only young character to reach university, drops out to become a trainee
supermarket manager, since the university world is irrelevant. Eventually
he returns, but his graduation is marred by psychological problems resulting
from his mother's affair with a gangster, and he himself is shown to be
disenchanted with the educational system. And in the ITV soap opera Emmerdale,
the University of Leeds is used as a setting to explore themes of disability
and lesbianism, but the studies itself are unimportant and we never even
find out what subject Rachel Hughes is studying. She then drops out after
the death of her brother; her studies are irrelevant to "real life"
and she begins a series of typically female administrative jobs, marries
and has a child.
Nonetheless, despite representations of education elsewhere
in British popular culture, new books are still being added to the genre
of girls' school stories. For example: in the 1970s Anne Digby began her
Trebizon series, set in a modern girls' private boarding school, with new
books being published into the 1990s; and in the early 1990s Jean Ure began
her Peter High series, set in a modern girls' state day school. The genre
remains a popular form of reading for British girls, across boundaries
of both race and class, and despite the fact that reading generally has
declined in popularity among children and teenagers (see 9. The Fans
of Girls' School Stories, 1990s Girl Fans for details).
It is also, to a lesser extent, popular among women: from the mid-1980s
onwards no fewer than six fan clubs were established in the UK for adult
women fans, all with international memberships; and there are parallel
organisations in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa (see 9. The
Fans of Girls' School Stories, 1990s Women Fans for details.)
Since 1996, fans have also established their own email discussion groups
and web sites.
Other, distorted images of the schoolgirl remain common
in wider British popular culture. Parodic images of the schoolgirl and
the girls' school story continue to be prominent (see 8. The Parodies
of Girls' School Stories for details).
The slang use of "fabulous", invented by Elinor M.Brent-Dyer
in her Chalet School series, has permeated the national consciousness with
Jennifer Saunders' BBC comedy series Absolutely Fabulous (with Dawn
French, Jennifer Saunders also regularly writes and performs instantly
recognisable sketches set in girls' boarding schools). Pornography and
prostitution, too, draw heavily on the schoolgirl image. In fact, the image
of the schoolgirl is frequently associated with that of the British woman;
the Conservative MP Virginia Bottomley was often caricatured in the media
as a "head girl" in the early 1990s.
No such parallel exists for boys' school stories, however,
despite the girls' genre being compared extremely unfavourably to the boys'
books by the critics throughout the twentieth century, and the homo-erotic
associations of boys' boarding school life. Yet, in contrast to women,
school background remains important throughout British men's lives (judging
by television representations, the image of the male Conservative MP as
schoolboy would in fact be far more apt). "School feeds adult feeling
of all kinds . . . It is connected with a person's sense of the kind of
man he is, the kind of background he has or admits to, the niche he expects
to occupy in the world or would like his children to have."
Yet the genre of girls' school stories has been regarded
as unworthy of academic study until recently, despite the fact that the
boys' books have consistently received attention. No doubt the key reason
is the fact that it is popular fiction, produced by women, for girls. Foster
and Simons note that: "Modern critical theory has come relatively
late to children's literature, in particular that written for girls."
With the strength of Cultural Studies and Media Studies within the academy
today, it is easy to forget that only in the last quarter of the twentieth
century was popular fiction or "low culture" deemed worthy of
serious study. Even then, women authors are, of course, still taken far
less seriously than men in every field of literary studies.
Similarly, literature produced for children has always
been viewed as being less important than that produced for adults.
Gaye Tuchman has found that, in nineteenth-century publishing houses, manuscripts
were ranked in the descending order of "high prestige", "men's
specialities", "mixed specialities" and "women's specialities",
with children's books falling into the latter category..
Frank Eyre points out that: "Writers of children's books still achieve
little recognition in any but their highly specialised professional circle,
and writers about children's books are still regarded, consciously
or unconsciously, as a kind of sub-species of critic - doing a secondary
task from which the most successful of them may one day hope to be promoted
to more responsible work."
And, as Peter Hunt describes, children's books generally have been regarded
as being "not a fit subject for academic study".
In fact, the study of childhood in general has been seen as invalid; there
is no place in the academy for Children's Studies, despite the fact that,
as Hunt points out: "It can be argued that [children] belong, in effect,
to a different culture - possibly an anti- or counter-culture".
Critics of children's books are therefore under pressure
to prove the "literary" value of their subject, and the very
fact that children's popular fiction is commercial fiction
makes it suspect. Jacqueline Rose points out that: "The association
of money and childhood is not a comfortable one. Money is impure. . . It
is contaminated by association and exchange. Not so childhood."
And since the majority of all types of critic are male, they have been
unable to understand the resonance which the genre has for the majority
of British girls and women. For whatever reason, both the critics and the
male parodists have ensured that the genre's weaknesses and supposed weaknesses
are better known than the actual stories. Meanwhile feminists assumed until
recently that all of the messages contained within earlier books for girls
- synonymous with a female authorship - must be negative ones. As a result,
whereas the study of women writing romance fiction has rightly been regarded
as worthy by feminists,
this is largely because it has been perceived as relevant to women's lives
today. Girls' school stories, in contrast, have generally been perceived
as irrelevant and their popularity an embarrassing anomaly.
Clearly, though, the continuing importance of the genre's role in British society, as well as its historical position, means that it merits closer examination. In general, Hunt points out that:
Children's books have, and have had, great social and
educational influence; they are important both politically and commercially.
From a historical point of view, children's books are a valuable contribution to social, literary and bibliographical history; from a contemporary point of view, they are vital to literacy and culture . . . in popular culture terms, they are central.
Hunt also points out that, worldwide, the study of children's literature is now a widely accepted research activity.
In the USA and Australia, especially, there are many programmes in children's literature and major research libraries. Carolyn Field's Special Collections in Children's Literature lists 267 collections; Tessa Chester's Sources of Information about Children's Books lists 157 specialist collections (including the 200,000-volume Opie collection in the Bodleian). There are specialist journals and societies, including the International Research Society for Children's Literature, a major European centre at the Internationale Jugendbibliotek in Munich, and national children's book centres in Germany, Sweden, Australia, Wales and elsewhere. Children's literature is an accepted division of the activities of the Modern Language Association of America.
With regard to the study of girls' school stories in particular,
girls and women have few cultural spaces to call their own and few images
of themselves, and it is important to reclaim and to re-evaluate them.
As Maggie Humm points out: "A feminist re-vision makes a historical,
cultural and psychic examination of women's cultural past, and creates
a women's history."
It is equally important to look at the ways in which the genre has been
opposed and ridiculed by the critics and the parodists, the reasons why
this took place, and why nonetheless there has been a continuing readership
which has ensured the genre's survival until at least the end of the twentieth
century. And in a society where literacy has never been more important
and yet reading is declining, a greater understanding of how and why the
genre has given pleasure in the twentieth century should be helpful in
determining how to encourage young people - boys particularly, since they
read the least - to continue to read in the twenty-first.
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