I started this post with a kind of self-deprecating book-deprecating disclaimer sort of sentence but I’m not ashamed of the books I read, not on the internet. Girls’ Own boarding school fiction is not exactly high literature but neither is 99% of what I read and my limited experience of high literature is that I don’t like it.
I started, as I suspect a lot of people did, with Enid Blyton. I devoured the Malory Towers series, read some of the Naughtiest Girl series and read a couple of the St Clare’s books. I recently re-read Malory Towers and have mixed feelings. People are absolutely right when they say Gwendoline was given no chance whatsoever and sure, she’s not a sympathetic character but if someone – anyone – had given her so much as a kind word back in her first term, maybe she might have been. Also, once you start counting, you realise that the form numbers don’t add up. There are ten girls per tower per form, except that by fifth form, there are fifteen. Whatever becomes of Emily, Violet, Ruth or Daphne?
Then there’s a perennial favourite, Back Home by Michelle Magorian, which is one I turn to incredibly often when you consider it’s so depressing. It’s about an evacuee who returns from spending WWII in the States, back to a mother she barely remembers, a brother she’s never met and a father who is the absolute epitome of The Patriarchy, and is promptly shipped off to a boarding school where she’s hated primarily for appearing American. Increasingly I sympathise with Peggy rather than Rusty – Peggy has been working during the war and has discovered skills and independence she never knew with her husband and it’s all supposed to be packed tidily away when he tries to reclaim his place.
And then there’s the Chalet School. I discovered that relatively late and read most of the series in whatever order I could get my hands on the books. Amongst other things, that means I frequently have no idea which frequent call-backs refer to things in previous books and which to things off-page, people appear and disappear seemingly at random and it doesn’t help that a book can star one character who then is never seen again (*cough*Lavender*cough*). This series doesn’t really have a Gwen – pretty much everyone settles into the role of Proper Chalet Girl by the end of their first term but some of the cliquishness is horrifying (The Gang, I’m looking at you) and some girls remain perpetually on the edge of things, while nightmares like Jack Lambert take starring roles. Chalet School books are mostly short enough that I can read them in a single bath, which is why I tend to burn through them for weeks on end.
And then recently there have been the Trebizon books. I own a few; the rest I read from the library as a kid and have only recently rediscovered. Where did Cliff come from? Why is Rebecca suddenly a tennis champion? Why does Joss keep coming and going? Why is everyone in Court House? I mean, I can see why – the people Rebecca interacts with most are going to be in her class and because of the way the houses work, that means they’re in her house too and likewise, the older girls she runs into are mostly in her house. The fact that 99% of the hockey team is in Court House is an actual serious plot point. But Rebecca befriends some of the juniors from Juniper who inevitably end up in Court when they reach their third year and the girls Sue knows from the music school are all in Court and so on. Trebizon is very different from the other books – these are set in the 70s or 80s. The girls have Walkmans and there’s a phone in the boarding house and they have boyfriends and go to town for coffee and surf in the bay but that’s all just frills. It’s still a story of girls living in a boarding school, with a main character who’s interested in writing and naturally brilliant at sport. Rebecca Mason is Darrell Rivers for a new generation, but without the violent temper.
Why does it appeal? I suppose there’s the idea of the freedom and community of living with your closest friends during one of the most formative periods of your life. Who hasn’t read some of these books and wished they could go to boarding school? There’s a huge element of this being a female community (despite the Trebizon boyfriends and the Chalet doctors), where women and girls are in charge of everything. There’s the fact that the books are mostly short. They’re fun, even once you’re old enough to realise it would not all be ginger beer and midnight feasts and tricks played on the French mistress. Actually, I look at Trebizon in particular and wonder how so many of the girls can do so badly academically when it’s acknowledged that this is an expensive school and one of the best – and in two years, a girl can plummet from the top set to the bottom one? One of the brightest girls in the year can completely fail three GCSEs? When you’re paying this much for an education, I’d expect good results or else.
In short – in short, it’s 11pm and I’m tempted to pick up Back Home again tomorrow.