The genre of girls' school stories arose in parallel with the provision of secondary education for British girls, from the late nineteenth century onwards. 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 in 1896.

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 and Benenden; 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."

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:


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:

Margaret Simey, who was born in 1906 and became a pupil at St Paul's girls' public school in London, recalls that:


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:

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:

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:


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."

Girls' books, too, had already been assigned the low status that would continue to mark them throughout the next century. Reynolds records that:

But Mitchell stresses that, at the same time, the new genre of the school story created:

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:

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:

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:

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:

Reynolds adds that:

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 for details).

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."

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:

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 adults.

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 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 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 books.

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 School series 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:

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:

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:


This was a period where up to one in four women remained unmarried, and Löfgren notes that:

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 Disease.

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:

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.

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.

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:

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 Chaundler. 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 market. 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:

Hunt also points out that, worldwide, the study of children's literature is now a widely accepted research activity.


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.

Next: 6. The World of the Chalet School
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