Some of my earliest memories are of stories. As a toddler I loved to have stories told or read to me, and learned many of the lines by heart. I can still remember chanting the immortal words from one favourite over and over again: "with a flip and a flop and a terrible THUD, all of the washing fell down in the MUD!" This oral story-telling tradition continued until I was in my teens. My father was a wonderful storyteller, and had the ability to make up stories in whatever genre my sister and brother and I were reading at the time. My interest in stories told in both words and pictures (he was also a talented draughtsman and cartoonist) was stimulated by his example.

It was my mother, though, who taught me to read and write in the mid-1960s, when I was three or thereabouts. She used a "magic slate" (greaseproof paper over a black background, written on with a wooden stick), and, after teaching me my capitals, she announced that I must learn the "small letters". I gleefully demonstrated that I could write very small capitals indeed, but soon, crestfallen, I was being taught about upper and lower cases. Learning to read quickly followed. My first book was from the "Ladybird" series of primers, and I received it with disgust. In my opinion, books were supposed to be big and fat with lots of pages: this book was small and thin; and, as all of the pages were stuck together, gave me the impression of only containing one page. I ran over the road to let my Great Aunt commiserate with me, and the book opened up in her hands.

I was about six, though, before I discovered the real magic of reading to myself. I was in hospital, a common occurrence during my early life, and had been given a slim volume of "Brer Rabbit" stories (written, I now suspect, by Enid Blyton). Bored by the hospital regime, I started reading them to myself, and the stories flowed and came alive in a never-to-be-forgotten moment. From then on I was hooked, reading the back of the cornflakes packet if nothing else was available. I joined the local library, and before my primary school years were ended had been awarded an Essex County Libraries "good reader" badge and an adult library ticket. I also read my parents' books, trying to avoid detection and censorship by my mother - Hardy's Jude the Obscure is the one which I remember "losing" halfway through with the most regret. I had books, too, of my own. I will always remember my father giving me the first of Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" series, Five on a Treasure Island, when I was ill in bed at home at about the age of eight. I loved its firm white pages, its glossy dustwrapper, its smell . . . I had a terrible headache, but I couldn't stop reading it. I also haunted jumble sales, beginning my habit of collecting secondhand books even then.

Why do I begin here? It is to reassure the reader that, despite the presentation of this work in electronic form, I am a book lover, as are the girls's school story readers who have participated in this research. At the end of the millennium, it seems fitting to look more closely at a genre which has been the most popular reading choice across generations of twentieth-century British girls; and which forefronts that twentieth-century British phenomenon, access to education for girls - particularly so, since this choice has been made despite the disapproval of critics, teachers, librarians and parents, and since girls have chosen to return to the books again and again. It also seems fitting, at the end of a century when literacy in the UK appears to have peaked, and which has been marked by a revolution in communications technologies, to explore the future of writing and reading in an electronic age. But while attempting to demonstrate the benefits of the ebook (a full discussion of the electronic book can be found in The E-Book and the Future of Reading), Virtual Worlds of Girls also celebrates printed books and reading. The pages may be virtual; the means of reading electronic; the story told by images as well as print - but it is still a book (or rather a collection of books) at heart, and books are at its heart.

The Virtual Worlds of Girls hypertext cluster explores the roles which printed stories play in readers' lives: from the development of the psyche and the pleasure given by reading and re-reading; to collecting and owning books and the friendship networks which can result; to the wider historical significance of these phenomena. It also tells some stories of my life: of my own schooldays; and of my experiences as a disabled researcher while carrying out this work. As an artist-academic, I am concerned with the ways in which stories are told and received, the meaning which this generates and the significance which this has for us. Stories mediate between the world of our imagination and the world which we experience externally, and transform these worlds in the process.

A story, whichever medium or media is used to tell it, delivers an idea or a message, makes a point, teaches us a way of looking at the world - it shows us the world virtually, in degrees of representation which range from the apparently faithful to the purely symbolic, with a focus which ranges from narrow to wide, but always saying something about some aspect of the human condition. Just as change must occur within the virtual world of a narrative story in order to satisfy the demands of story structure, so must all stories effect some change, however slight, in the reader/viewer, leaving them with heightened, if often unconscious awareness when they return to real life. The storyteller speaks directly to the unconscious as well as to the imagination, using different techniques which require various levels of physical and creative skills depending on the medium or media being used. They present their story with varying degrees of mastery, which is at its most sublime when the ideas it contains are profound, yet delivered subtly and in a convincing manner. Stories are as close as we come to experiencing a shared, virtual reality.

Next: 5. The History of Girls' School Stories 
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

Dr Ju Gosling aka ju90's ABNORMAL: How Britain became body dysphoric and the key to a cure is available now for just 3.09 for the Kindle or in a limited-edition hardback with full-colour art plates for 20 inc UK postage and packing. Book cover