"We shall not forget, whatever happens. Even,"
Ted added with a sudden, wicked grin at Len, "though some of us may
be married women with daughters of our own to become members of the Chalet
It was left to Con to wind up the meeting. "It's our School. We may leave; School will go on, and we shall still belong to it."
Margot jumped on to a nearby chair. "Everyone," she cried. "Up the Chalet School!"
And with one voice they joined in her exclamation, "Up the Chalet School!"
(Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Prefects of the Chalet School, Chambers, 1970, p204)
What, then, is the significance of the British genre of
girls' school stories, and why did it remain popular throughout the twentieth
century? Evidently the genre's popularity cannot be explained by its representations
of the private, single-sex boarding school, since this has been an object
of extreme criticism for much of the second half of the century: "that
institution which is so clearly a product and reflection of bourgeois capitalism,
and a most effective instrument in its perpetuation".
The institution can provoke envy and desire, both for what it offers in
reality and for what it represents in terms of class privilege, but this
cannot explain more than a minority, if any, of the genre's contemporary
readers. Equally, the genre's continuing popularity cannot be explained
by its representations of the reality of girls' school lives, since the
lives of the characters have little to do with contemporary school experiences.
(Although contemporary representations may indeed have been a factor in
the genre's popularity in the past.)
In general, genre fiction develops largely as a result
of demand from readers, following the publication of one or more books
which are met with overwhelming popular acclaim, such as Angela Brazil's
first school story, The Fortunes of Phillipa (1906). Publishers
and authors often attempt to capitalise on consumer demand by isolating
these elements and including them in subsequent texts. It could be argued
that many readers purchase and read genre fiction simply because the books
contain certain characteristic elements, placing more emphasis on these
shared elements than on an individual story or the identity of the author.
Texts then function as an agreed sign system between an author and her
readers: that is to say, each author fulfils certain expectations dictated
by the genre; and in return, readers buy the books because they know that
they will contain certain desired elements. It is these shared elements,
then, which are overwhelmingly important to readers.
Of course, within each book in any genre, only the desired
shared elements stay the same. As Stephen Neale has stressed in writing
about film genres: "If each text within a genre were, literally, the
same, there would simply not be enough difference to generate either meaning
or pleasure. Hence there would be no audience. Difference is absolutely
essential to the economy of genre."
These differences may combine with the shared elements in the genre to
generate different meanings according to which book is being read, so it
should not be assumed that all examples in the genre have the same or equal
At the same time, each of the major authors' work is distinct and characterised by elements which are individual to them. Many readers have an overwhelming preference for the work of one particular author; and it could be argued that each author's work is actually a sub-genre in itself, functioning in different ways to the work of other authors. This argument is strengthened by the fact that the most popular authors among fans in the 1990s are those who have created series, increasing the similarity of one story to another at the same time as increasing the difference between their fictional world and that of other authors. Sue Sims points out that:
The Series Factor . . . allowed Brent-Dyer to create and revel in an entire world which expressed her values and ideals; and to communicate these through the creation of specific characters whom we follow throughout the series. It permits readers to enter this world and experience the characters as their friends."
Sims also notes that Angela Brazil, a non-series writer, had few fans left in the 1990s:
foolish woman, she omitted to create a series. . . I am not, of course, suggesting that non-series girls' school-story writers are not collected . . . But on analysis it will be found that those of us who collect these writers have almost invariably begun with one of the main series writers, and expanded to these lesser known practitioners.
Readers desire, then, to read school stories which provide them with highly similar reading experiences to that of the first book which they have enjoyed. Within series, even as the fictional schoolgirls return to their homes at the end of each term/book, the scene is set for their, and the readers', return to another, similar story. And as series progress, new readers can also relive past terms. Sheila Ray states that:
I have recently come to the conclusion that one of the reasons why the Chalet School books were, and have remained, so popular with succeeding generations of schoolgirls is that it is comparatively easy to find out what other titles exist and in which order they should be read, since the complete list of them is usually included in each book.
In contrast to Brazil's readers, then, Chalet School fans
have easy access to a complete fictional world.
The fact that fans then re-read the stories repeatedly shows that their pleasure does not lie in finding out "what happens next". So what are the elements of the British genre of girls' school stories which provide these desirable reading experiences? Eva Löfgren summarises common features as being:
dormitory feasts, rivalry between houses, nightly climbs
on the roof, adventures out of bounds, etc. . . some, like the prefect
system and the immense importance of games, are originally connected with
the great public school in the Victorian era and later. Other popular motifs
are inherent in the school setting in general: practical jokes on staff
and prefects, essay prizes and scholarships, amateur theatricals and prize
The preference for exciting historical settings for fictional schools, in old abbeys or Elizabethan manor houses, is connected with a range of more extrinsic motifs, not inherent in the world of school but traditionally associated with the school story, some of them even of great importance to the atmosphere as well as for the excitement of the plot: secret passages, dangerous caves, precipitous cliffs overlooking stormy seas, windy moors, hidden treasures, haunted houses, the heiress lost and restored, threatening kidnappers, fortune-telling gypsies.
At least some of these elements can be found in every
example of the genre, and most prominently in Blyton's two series. Löfgren
notes that "Most of these motifs seem strongly reminiscent of the
and this may well be significant.
The frequency with which schools occupy historical settings,
generally in castles or manor houses, provides the fictional schools with
romance and the promise of adventure, while stressing the isolation of
the imaginary world. (Brent-Dyer's alpine Chalet School functions similarly,
of course.) In addition, a school's occupation of historic buildings simultaneously
claims an antiquity for girls' education which it does not in fact possess,
while symbolising the displacement of an older way of life which has occurred
as a result of that education. However, in minor examples of the genre,
the school's home is often the family home of a now-poor heroine, who later
recovers her fortunes, and less often her home, as a result of the action
of her school friends. Here there seems to be a nostalgia for an older
social order which predates the Industrial Revolution, and so the representation
of old buildings generally has often been identified as being snobbish
Even Elsie J. Oxenham's fans, though, believe that the continual representation within her Abbey books of stately homes, and of heroines who marry to become ladies - or even, in the case of Rosamund, a Countess - is motivated by snobbery. Nonetheless, the significance may be more complicated than this. First, there is a strong element of the traditional fairy tale in these representations: heroines marry their handsome princes and so become princesses; in Rosamund's case actually residing in a castle. Oxenham clearly sees men as being the only means by which her heroines can achieve this status, wealth and security: her first Abbey heroine, Joy, inherits her stately home from her grandfather. However, the "princes" themselves play little part in the books, whereas the relationships with other girls and women, and later with daughters, are seen as being overwhelmingly important. In addition, Oxenham may have been consciously reflecting the popular atmosphere of the time in an attempt to please her audience. Margaret Simey, a member of Oxenham's girls' Camp Fire group, recalls that in the 1920s:
There was this post-war take-off by the upper classes, and it was a whole country house life, all that Sackville-West, it was very familiar to us all; we never set foot in it, but we knew it all. It was a constant source of gossip and talk. (archived interview, 1990)
Even when the genre's school buildings and heroines are relentlessly modern, though, schools are largely set in the country or in a seaside or country town, settings which are essentially unaffected by the Industrial Revolution and which echo the pastoral convention of traditional children's books. In a study of Bruce's work, Löfgren argues that the settings of girls' school stories can be divided into three types, all of which have different plot functions.
The school buildings are - to use the symbolic terminology of Northrop Frye - the "city" or the "palace", the place for the struggles and intrigues of the school society. The Green World, the garden, the wood, and the fields, is a symbol of the innocence and integrity of childhood, at the same time of safety and freedom. The Sea, on the other hand, represents the wild and unpredictable side of nature, the dangers and adventures beyond the shelter of wood and field. The Green World lies to a great part inside the secure bounds of the school precincts; the Sea is out of bounds, and every unauthorized transgression is a signal of approaching danger.
More generally, the isolation of the school within the
country provides a reason for the external world not to intrude, as well
as the reflecting the traditional equation between the nature of women
and the natural world. Nature, in fact, is prominent in many examples of
the genre, as girls go on walks, runs and travels, both official and illicit,
and have adventures in the countryside, and Gillian Freeman notes of Brazil
that: "There is no book of Angela's in which 'nature' does not have
an integrated part."
Within the world of the school, the heroines' adventures are not dangerous, although they may appear to be. Brent-Dyer includes many descriptions of adventures which end in near-disaster, but the fact that they do not acts to reassure the reader that the imaginary world is a safe one. As with animated cartoons, characters will always bounce back, and only by knowing this can the intended child reader relax and enjoy the description of the danger (only very minor characters die, and then seldom in front of the reader). Adventures within the world of the girls' school story are also morally safe. In the introduction to Blyton's privately published Complete List of Books (1950), Blyton writes that:
my public, bless them, feel in my books a sense of security, an anchor, a sure knowledge that right is right, and that such things as courage and kindness deserve to be emulated. Naturally the morals or ethics are intrinsic to the story - and therein lies their true power.
This, of course, also reflects the pastoral convention of children's books, where no one is so bad that they are incapable of reform. At the same time, the representation of conflict and unkindness prior to its resolution provides excitement for the reader. But the authorial voice is always present, promoting moral, intellectual and feminine values which might well be opposite to those of its readers in the external world. For example, in real schools hard-working girls might be reviled by their classmates as swots, while rebels are admired and pretty girls adored, but the authorial voice ensures that in the world of the story, "right is right". (The effect which this authorial voice has on its readers outside of the context of the story cannot, of course, be quantified.) The stories are also safe in that issues are never left unsolved at the end. For example, Löfgren points out that:
Bruce had a strong preference for the slightly old-fashioned closely knit plot, where no loose ends are allowed to lie about in the end, to a more modern "open" form of novel. There is present in all her stories the invisible hand of Providence, resolving every misunderstanding, clearing every innocent suspect, rewarding the loyal and the true, punishing the villain and the fool, and subsequently bringing about the reconciliation of enemies.
Readers familiar with the genre, then, know the rules
will ensure that characters will not be severely punished for any transgressions
(although they can bring about their own punishment through disobedience);
that good will triumph over evil; and that the equilibrium will have been
restored by the end of the story, generally with girls returning to their
homes and families in the way in which readers return to their external
lives. (These elements, of course, are characteristic of the classic plot
structure used today in many Hollywood films.) Experienced readers know
that they can enjoy the stories without coming face-to-face with difficult
and disturbing issues. This may be particularly comforting to pre-adolescent
readers, the genre's target audience, who are at a point in life when the
uncertainties of adult life are becoming clear, yet they remain children
and so are powerless to affect it.
In this context, characters frequently take part in adventures where they have the opportunity to act as heroines, although they are as often saved by men or teachers who may symbolise idealised parents. In addition, daring rescues by girls (generally from burning sanatoria) allow them to prove themselves, both to the girl whom they rescue and to the school community as a whole. This may be a way for girls to prove that they have "good stuff in them", despite previously behaving badly, or that they are true to their friends despite, for example, being unjustly accused by them. Whether "bad" or "good", girls are frequently able to assimilate into the world of the school community only as a result of those adventures. Löfgren points out that: "Shared danger, often combined with life-saving is a frequent and intrinsic motif in the school story, and the safest way to reconciliation and renewal of friendship."
Life-saving - from water or fire - has a very special significance in the school story; it is never a coincidence, no mere element of adventure and suspension, but always an integrated part, a key note, of the conflict of human relations. The important thing is not the nature of the danger nor how it comes about, but who saves the life of whom. In a school story hardly anybody ever saves the life of a friend from whom she has not previously been estranged. She would rather save her worst enemy. The principal function of life-saving is as an instrument for redress, reconciliation, and rehabilitation. A former villainess makes amends through an heroic deed, an outcast from the school community proves her worth. Two estranged friends make up their differences in the face of shared dangers, or the wronged girl saves the life of her worst persecutor.
From the beginning of the genre, near-death experiences,
including serious illness, also provide vehicles for girls to change character.
Sally Mitchell points out of books for girls published between 1880-1915
that: "in dozens of novels and stories, infirmity intervenes as a
gendering event between rebellious girlhood and feminized womanhood."
However, for most of the twentieth century, and most notably of all in
Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series, illness functions instead as the means
by which girls become part of the school community and "real Chalet
School girls"; girls who are never passive or victimised. Since the
experienced reader knows this, she is never really concerned for the life
of the heroine, nor is she disappointed by the heroine's recovery.
Along with the excitement of adventures, humour is prominent in the genre. Girls play jokes and tricks on each other and on the staff; make funny mistakes; and generally the world of the school is seen to be great fun. Sport is another theme, giving rise to the popular "jolly hockey sticks" image of the genre. Descriptions of matches allow girls to become heroines and presumably acted as wish-fulfilments for readers: in minor examples of the genre, new girls frequently learn to play hockey within a few weeks; and end the term by saving the match for the school. Both in fiction and reality, playing for the school was the most highly prized contribution which a girl could make towards her community. Löfgren points out that:
Team games play an important role in the British school story as a valuable narrative device, an opportunity for the heroine to prove herself, but even more as an analogy of the greater issue of the state of things in the school or the house, an almost symbolic field for the intrigues and rivalries of school politics. On the games field the character of a girl is tested, whether as a member of the team or as captain of a team. In this sphere, as in the case of the prefect system, the adult games mistress or coach stays in the background offering a greater scope and influence to the games captain.
In contrast to the 1990s, where girls' and women's sport is seldom represented within popular culture, the detailed descriptions of sport provided the first schoolgirl readers with representations of their own sporting activities. Rosemary Auchmuty notes that:
What seems conventional - even reactionary - now, was radical then in contrast to the Victorian girl's almost complete lack of physical freedom and her attenuated sense of self-worth. The achievements of sporting heroines showed that girls could be as "good" as boys both in their performance on the games field and also in their personal qualities. Support for the team also encouraged feelings of identification with a community of women.
In terms of stock characters, Irish girls, foreign girls and "madcaps" allow the author to introduce and celebrate qualities of femininity which they could not be seen to condone in British girls. Meanwhile scholarship girls are used to stress that all members of the school community are equal (although prior to the Second World War, most of them conveniently turn to be "ladies"). The authors appeared to have been quite sincere in their democratic beliefs, at least in theory. Angela Brazil wrote of her own schooldays that:
One thing for which I always stood up was fair play and equality. School, in my opinion, was a commonwealth where all were entitled to equal chances, and any suspicion of favouritism, especially of awarding popularity to a girl on the basis of her father's wealth instead of her own claims, invariably aroused my strongest antagonism. What a girl was at home mattered nothing, in my estimation; it was the school aspect of her that counted, and at that valuation I insisted she should be taken.
Belonging to the school community is always shown as being of overwhelming importance within the genre. This community is a world on its own; Löfgren notes that:
The school community is a state with its own laws and its own hierarchies. There is the general hierarchy, recognized in each school, of headmistress, teachers, head girl, prefects, seniors, middle school, and juniors. The domestic staff are not included in this academic hierarchy, not to mention the menservants out in the garden, but Matron is on equal footing with the teaching staff and generally holds a position of importance between headmistress and teachers. This hierarchy is often further complicated by the existence of a house system, necessitating housemistresses, heads of houses and house prefects.
Crucially, the hierarchy includes the girls themselves, in the form of prefects and form captains. Löfgren points out that:
In real life the prefect system may stand for tyranny, but in the school story it is the principal means of interaction between different age groups of pupils, for better or for worse. Its real significance in fiction . . . is far more complex than either mere hero-worshipping or plain bullying. It means that the world of school has become not only a world of women but a community of girls. Prefects may normally be appointed by headmistress and teachers, but they represent a kind of self-government.
Older girls and women teachers are held up as role models of what girls should become. Löfgren notes that:
Normally in a school story the older girl plays the part of Mentor to the younger; she is the initiator into the wisdom of school life and into life as a whole. The junior is normally a new girl - perhaps a "girl who is different". She is either rebellious or misunderstood, with difficulties in adapting to school life and being accepted among her own generation, when the senior takes her in hand.
On occasion, this role is also be played by a girl of the same age. Judith Rowbotham points out that the Victorian age was:
an age of hero-worship, biographies of the good and the great men and women appeared in enormous numbers during this period. The problem was that few families or neighbourhoods provided much in the way of available objects for adoration or emulation in this respect. A good school, however, could provide such role models for girls in much the same way it could for boys.
School fiction provided a similar function for its readers. Auchmuty points out that:
There is good reason to believe that the presentation of adults in girls' school stories is more important than that of girls because it offers truly alternative role models for readers. Girls cannot usually choose whether or not to go to boarding school and live like their storybook heroines, but they may have some choice about their future careers and lifestyles. By depicting adult women outside marriage in an attractive light, school story writers may provide an alternative vision for girl readers. Girls may learn that not only is it possible to find fulfilment in careers but that spinsterhood does not necessarily leave a woman in an emotional vacuum; she may find not only companionship in the women around her, but also love.
It is probable, too, that the representation of teachers also functions as a fantasy representation of motherhood, unburdened by the demands of husbands and sons. Tania Modleski notes that:
while real mothers . . . are in short supply in female fiction, one encounters no lack of mother substitutes . . . This substitution, one might speculate, provides a means by which ambivalence towards the mother can be worked through while it simultaneously prevents the mother/daughter relationship from being confronted too openly.
This may even explain part of the attraction of the genre for women readers. Janice Radway, in her study of women reading romance fiction, found that they:
apparently felt an intense need to be nurtured and cared for and that despite their universal claim to being happily married (a claim I did not doubt), that need was not being met adequately in their day to day existence . . . not even the activity of mothering could satisfy that lack or desire for the mother, at least for some women.
Relationships between girls and women are at the centre of the plots, along with female autonomy. Löfgren points out that:
Leadership and friendship are two of the most central themes - perhaps the central themes - of most school stories ever since Sarah Fielding's The Governess in 1749. These two themes are what essentially forms the Utopian character of the girls' boarding school as a female community: girls as the rulers of their own school society, and girls' friendship for each other. Those are the intrinsic themes of human relations and character building inside the school community as opposed to the extrinsic themes of adventure and mystery. One represents the collective, social level, school as a small society, the model of the greater society without, the relations of the individual and society; the other is concerned with relations on a more private level, the close friendship of two girls . . . an analogy not necessarily to be interpreted in lesbian terms.
Löfgren further points out that the new girl, among the central characters of most school stories, functions in a very specific way.
The first ambitions of the new girl are partly to be accepted
and integrated into the world of school, partly to find a special friend
or at least a close friendship group. The means to both these ends may
be - as in a fairy tale - a treasure hunt - perhaps symbolic - or a daring
deed, but she may just as well prove herself in a less dramatic way. .
Initiation is a good model for comedy in its aspect of integration into a new society. The general rule that a new girl must make herself inconspicuous until recognized by the leaders of her age group is a mild variety, but there are also more formal ordeals like the ritual of singing on the first night, a literal manifestation of the principle that nobody will be accepted who has not shown how she can contribute to the community. All the tribulations of a new girl are initiation rites, from the slightest misunderstandings to serious persecution, which is why the reader knows from the start that she will always triumph in the end. Everybody must find her own niche, which explains the idiosyncrasies of many characters in school stories that would otherwise make them appear almost like caricatures.
The reader, identifying with the new girl, is similarly
initiated into the world of the school. Löfgren points out that: "Initiation
of young people in many cultures implies not only a short ceremony of the
'symbolic death' type, but often a shorter or longer period of separation
from their families and seclusion together with a group of the same age
. . . for instruction in the lore and the practical knowledge of the tribe
in preparation for adult life."
The weight which initiation ceremonies are given within the genre make
it clear that this period of seclusion - shared in fantasy with the reader
- is when the most important lessons of life are learned. It is also interesting
that girls are initiated, and, if necessary, socialised by other girls,
since traditional constructs of femininity show girls' influence instead
as socialising boys.
From another point of view, successful initiation into
the school community satisfies the desire to conform which is characteristic
of children. For adults, conforming to accepted social norms of behaviour
is perceived to be essential to prevent social unrest. However, following
the Second World War, attitudes became complicated by the realisation that
to conform too closely and unthinkingly could give rise to fascism, while
individualistic values were propagated by capitalism. In addition to the
fact that "bourgeois" values predominate within the genre, the
promotion of conforming within the genre has therefore been one reason
for critical disapproval, particularly among socialists.
The promotion of Christianity is another element which
is characteristic of the genre. Helen McClelland points out that: "A
religious element was considered an almost obligatory ingredient of pre-war
schoolgirl fiction; and all the best-known writers in the genre had their
own ways of bringing religion into their stories."
However, it is important to note that the authors' "own ways"
were by no means conventional. Brazil, though an avowed Christian, devotes
far more references in her books to pre-Christian Celtic religions and
folk beliefs, where female imagery was much more central. Readers are presented
with a great deal of information on everything from the religious beliefs
of the British prior to the introduction of Christianity to the faery legends
of Cornwall. Descriptions of school prayers and church services, meanwhile,
are largely absent from her stories.
Similarly, although Löfgren points out that: "A
deep religiosity stamped the life of Dorita Fairlie Bruce, and her Christian
faith underlines the atmosphere of everything that she was ever to write
. . . [but] there are few explicit allusions in her school stories".
Löfgren draws attention to the prominence of references to prehistoric
religions within Bruce's work;
and to links with witchcraft in Dimsie Grows Up, when Dimsie abandons
her medical studies as a result of her father's death to take up the women's
healing tradition of herbalism, using a herb garden which was begun by
her foremother, a woman who was nearly drowned as a witch in the seventeenth
"Dimsie becomes the true incarnation, if not physically, of her ancestress
when she revives both the Garden of Healing and the tradition of healing."
Oxenham's characters occasionally attend Church, and there
are some extended religious passages within some of her later stories.
However, the significance of the ruined Abbey at the centre of the stories'
setting lies in its romance and background for the Abbey girls' activities
and adventures rather than in its religious history. It is significant
that, as well as displacing the men who had previously inherited the family
property, the girls have replaced the monks, with the character Rachel
eventually becoming the "Abbey Guardian", complete with monk's
robe. Meanwhile the girls slowly uncover the story of Ambrose, a lay brother
who helped to preserve the Abbey after the Reformation. Rather than following
celibacy and God, his life is characterised by his hopeless love for Jehane
- the main Abbey girls at the time being Joan, Joy and Jen. The rituals
which are prominent in the stories are those of folk dancing, in particular
the crowning of the annual May Queen whom the schoolgirls elect from among
themselves. The history of this ceremony lies in pagan celebrations of
Beltane, the beginning of summer, and the twining of the may pole with
ribbons represented the engulfment of the penis by the vagina; an active
image of female sexuality. The May Queen originally represented the goddess,
and this is even made explicit when the minor character Betty tells Joy:
"I suppose you know you're the goddess of the whole village?"
(The Abbey Girls Play Up,Collins, 1930, p193)
Brent-Dyer's books are the most conventionally Christian in content of the five main authors, but again they are unusual, since the Chalet School accepts both Catholic and Protestant girls (it should also be noted here that the Catholic Church is characterised by feminine symbolism, including praying to female saints and to Mary the Mother). McClelland points out that:
there is a tendency today to forget that the active, even
violent expression of sectarian prejudice has not always been confined
to Northern Ireland.
. . . the whole concept of Elinor's Chalet School, with its high proportion of Roman Catholic girls associating happily and on equal terms with Protestants, must have seemed revolutionary to schoolgirl readers of the time.
And Judith Humphrey points out that:
while in our own secular philosophical climate tolerance is a virtue, it is frequently seen in church circles as lack of conviction and a tendency to condone sin. To write in this way in such a climate argues a robust courage which is far from sentimental, and the outworking of the religious beliefs of Brent-Dyer's character is accomplished in terms of a rigorous analysis of faith which never shrinks from the difficult areas.
Brent-Dyer is particularly unusual in including the defence
of a Jewish man against Nazi persecution in Exile for the Chalet School
(1940). Her two heroines, Joey and the Robin, play a leading role but cannot
prevent his death - during the Second World War, Brent-Dyer broke her own
rules to underline the reality of the international situation. Ray points
out that, although there were some school stories which included refugee
schoolgirls who had escaped from Nazi Germany to England, Brent-Dyer's
book was unique in the way in which it described what was happening in
In general, Brent-Dyer's religious ethics were paralleled by her attitude towards other nationalities. Many of the Chalet School girls are from other European countries than Britain, as well as from the then British colonies. Although it was not uncommon for real English schools to be based in the Alps during this period, this mix of nationalities would have been highly unusual in reality. Ray points out that Brent-Dyer:
does not display the British chauvinism so typical of many of her contemporaries. There is never any suggestion that British girls are more honest or more brave than girls of other nationalities. Non-British teachers are not mocked or teased; the first Deputy Head, later to become Head, of the Chalet School is a French woman, and the various French Mademoiselles are never the figures of fun that they are in most girls' school stories. The Chalet girls do not make fun of accents or misunderstandings of the languages. Elinor Brent-Dyer's attitudes are very different from Elsie Oxenham's attitudes . . . and from Angela Brazil's.
In Brent-Dyer's own life, McClelland notes that:
Elinor unquestionably aimed to foster in her school the ideals of religious tolerance and international friendship that have become familiar in the pages of the Chalet School books. A former pupil who is Jewish was particularly struck by this.
However, Ray also points out that Brent-Dyer seems never
to have questioned attitudes towards skin colour in the same way,
although she briefly includes a (Christian) Kashmiri girl character, Lilamani,
in Lavender Laughs at the Chalet School (1943).
Even when the religious content of the genre is conventional, though, Humphrey argues that the representation of religious authority within girls' school stories is subversive simply because it is female.
Heads of schools in this country have traditionally enjoyed almost complete power and autonomy within their own domain. They can thus hardly avoid symbolising an ultimate authority, and while this is in itself an unusual enough position for a woman, it is further extended by the fact that temporal authority was seen very specifically as mirroring and representing the authority of God, to whom all earthly authorities were finally accountable.
In terms of the image of the fictional headmistress, Humphrey points out that:
The vast majority of fictional headmistresses are extremely
impressive women . . . They combine absolute authority with large measures
of understanding and loving-kindness and are, almost without exception,
both adored and fervently respected by their pupils . . .
Justice, with its implication of totally predictable right, goes hand in hand with dependability, and headmistresses are almost always bastions of serenity, reliability and security. . .
The implication of justice inevitably implies punishment, and few indeed are the Headmistresses who cannot reduce a schoolful of unruly girls to subjection by a mere glance from their chilly blue eyes.
Humphrey adds that" "discipline is only justifiable and bearable in a context of love. It is deeply significant that this is mother love."
Ultimately this supreme authority finds its natural expression
in quite specific images of divinity. Elinor Brent-Dyer's Miss Annersley
is referred to by her pupils as "the Abbess" . . .
Angela Brazil's Miss Cavendish rules St Chad's from a sanctum which bears a remarkable resemblance to a cathedral . . . The theme is continued even in Joanna Lloyd's much more light-hearted books, where the girls most sacrilegiously use the name of their Headmistress, Miss Atherton, as an oath in startling phrases like, "Did she, by Atherton", and "Good Atherton! What was Catherine doing now?"
Humphrey concludes that:
The work of many authors . . . goes far beyond their conscious intentions to provide images of omnipotent women which were, had they been heeded, deeply subversive of traditional theology. Because school stories are "only" children's books, and "only" girls' books at that, they were not heeded, and were left to make their impact, however subliminal, on the consciousness of their readers.
Blyton, however, made little reference to religion in
her books at all; not for her girls the "croc" to church followed
by a "quiet" Sunday. It can therefore be concluded that, while
religious content is characteristic of the genre, it is not central to
readers' enjoyment of the books. It is significant, however, that many
of the 1990s women fans are Christians, since, as has been shown, spiritual
representations within the genre vary widely from representations within
organised religion. It is also interesting to note that, prior to the twentieth
century, the widespread denial of girls' right to education in Christian
countries was partly due to the Old Testament myth that Eve's desire for
knowledge resulted in banishment from Paradise.
There are some characteristics of the genre, though, which are common to all girls' school stories, of which analysis reveals at least twenty-five.
1) The stories are set within girls' schools, generally
boarding-schools. although day-schools are also used.
2) The stories take place within a short period of time, typically a school term or year.
3) The outside world is seldom alluded to during the story.
4) Characters' lives outside the world of the school are seldom important.
5) Parents are largely absent from the story; and family relationships are seldom important within it.
6) Men in general are largely absent from the story, although they hold more power than women in the world outside of the school.
7) Relationships with boys are either absent from the story, or are represented as being less important than girls' relationships with each other. Where boys are present in the story, they are brothers or surrogate brothers.
8) Women and girls hold all the positions of power within the school.
9) Justice within the world of the school is always done.
10) Girls organise autonomously, and are active rather than passive.
11) Girls have free will, and are encouraged to think for themselves and to exercise self-discipline rather than having discipline imposed upon them.
12) Headmistresses, teachers and older girls act as role models.
13) Girls' relationships with each other are very important.
14) Girls can trust each other.
15) Moral character is viewed as being more important than birth, class or wealth.
16) Tidiness and cleanliness are viewed as being more important than looks, and vanity is discouraged.
17) Girls are encouraged to be fit and strong.
18) Girls are encouraged to eat and to enjoy their food; eating is never problematised.
19) Puberty is not alluded to.
20) Girls are encouraged to aim for careers, and many go on to higher education. Motherhood and domesticity as an alternative future is given less weight.
21) There is no single protagonist, even when the title of the book suggests otherwise.
22) The majority of books are written in the third person, and the reader is seldom asked to identify only with one character.
23) Instead, the community is the focus of the books.
24) The overwhelming majority of characters are ordinary rather than exceptional; anyone can be "a real Chalet School girl".
25) The implied reader is a girl.
The genre, then, is set in closed communities of girls
and single women - virgins - who control their world themselves. This control
is always just, and is imposed without force or coercion and with the cooperation
of the girls themselves. The school world is highly desirable, exciting
and great fun. Relationships with other girls and women are overwhelmingly
important, and are shown to be potentially extremely rewarding and emotionally
rich. The construct of girlhood is different from the external world: girls
are as good as boys, and can even, on occasion, be geniuses; "feminine"
qualities are frowned upon; girls can be as active, fit and strong as boys;
and eating is celebrated and is never problematic.
Puberty never takes place within the world of the story
- if biology is destiny, then biology is altered accordingly. This must
be comforting for many girl readers, who are at an age where menstruation,
adolescence and sexuality appear threatening to their sense of self. Then,
when characters leave the world of the school, they are encouraged to aim
for higher education and careers; marriage and motherhood is not presented
as the only option in life. In the meantime, the outside world of families,
boys and men is irrelevant, as are outside relationships. The community
rather than any individual is the focus of the stories, and any girl can
join it. And, of course, the world is safe; whatever danger may threaten
it, there is always a happy ending. In Blyton's work, in particular, analysis
shows that the entire plots are driven by these messages.
What is striking here are the differences between the world of girls' school stories and the world as girls experienced it externally throughout the history of the genre. Auchmuty concludes that:
School stories portray what I have called . . . A World of Girls. This is a world where authority figures as well as colleagues and comrades are female, where the action is carried on by girls and women, and decisions made by them. Girls and women rise to the challenges presented by ideals such as honour, loyalty and the team spirit. Women's emotional and social energies are directed towards other women, and women's friendships are seen as positive, not destructive or competitive, and sufficient unto themselves. School stories offer female readers positive role models to set against a reality which is often restrictive or hostile to them.
Similarly, Gill Frith notes that:
In a world of girls, to be female is normal, and not a problem. To be assertive, physically active, daring, ambitious, is not a source of tension. In the absence of boys, girls "break bounds", have adventures, transgress rules, catch spies. There is no taboo on public speech: in innumerable school stories, girls hold and address a tense, packed meeting. The ructures and rewards of romance are replaced with the ructions and rewards of friendship, and pop stars by idealised Head Girls. "Pretence" and "pretension" are questionable; mysteries are unravelled, codes broken, secret passages explored, disguises penetrated. "Tricks" played on teachers replace "tricks" of make-up; in place of diets, there are midnight feasts. Away from the family, girls are free; domestic tasks are invisibly performed. Clothes and appearance are of little significance in the unchanging world of the school, and to be beautiful is not an advantage. . . The institutions within the school - clubs, teams, magazines - are initiated, organised and controlled by the girls themselves.
And Löfgren writes that:
The traditional British boarding school story for girls
is more than mythical; it is a female Utopia . . . This Utopian atmosphere,
not any difference of thematics or subject matters, is what principally
makes it different from the corresponding boys' story, and this is the
reason, too, why it has retained its popularity far longer. . .
The world of the boarding school story in British girls' fiction in the first half of the 20th C is an Amazonian community where all the principal roles are played by women and girls. Artemis and Athena are here the ruling deities rather than Aphrodite or Hera. Men are only admitted into this all-female society for menial duties as gardeners and boot boys, or as visiting outsiders.
It must be assumed that the readers themselves desired to have access to these alternative models of reality in their imaginary life. After all, it seems unlikely that publishers themselves had any motive other than the profit which could be made from the readers. Certainly publishers recognised what was necessary within the content to attract readers. For example, Mitchell points out that school stories in girls' papers at the beginning of the twentieth century, aimed at working-class readers, always featured middle-class girls' boarding schools, never day schools or elementary schools.
The only reasonable answer is that boarding-school stories filled some need; they satisfied girls' emotions and made them crave more and more of the same. (If they had not, a marketer as savvy as Harmsworth would have printed something else.)
Perhaps it is surprising that the genre was ever published, since the genre characteristics self-evidently undermine heterosexual norms of female behaviour, while the publishing industry was overwhelmingly controlled by men. However, as Terry Lovell points out:
Commodity-culture has no . . . binding sanctions outside its own capacity to please those who are in a position to consume. While the wants which "commodities of the fancy" stimulate and address are developed in the course of the emergence of the socialized individual human being, and are therefore not independent of the society and culture within which that socialization occurs, it does not follow that they can be addressed with impunity nor that individual and collective attempts to satisfy them are necessarily "conducive to good order".
But it must also be assumed that it is the alternative models of reality propagated within the genre which are responsible for so much male critical hostility and ridicule, since they challenge the entire basis of the heterosexual construct where women are only fulfiled by becoming wives and mothers and by defining themselves primarily in relation to these roles. Mitchell concludes that:
Fiction that moves readers forward - that can perhaps even move an entire cultural group of readers forward - creates new emotional satisfactions by giving shape to formless longings or providing new images to satisfy inner drives. Truly effective images and narratives work on the unconscious and absorb intense affective charges. The college and school and career stories that combined the manly rituals of team, house, ambition, and work with a happy circle of supportive friends who satisfy a girl's needs for caring and love ultimately threaten the patriarchy.
That threat is crystallised in fear of lesbianism. Auchmuty has located the opposition to the genre in the fact that:
Because schoolgirl stories are fundamentally about female
strength and bonding, they provide an interesting example of a phenomenon
which was at first tolerated and even encouraged, but which came to be
seen as a threat of such magnitude it had to be exterminated. . .
during the period when the schoolgirl story flourished, lesbianism was progressively redefined. From a deviant sexuality caused by abnormal genetic or social development it was extended to encompass all intimate relationships between women, whether explicitly sexual or not (in which case they were categorised as "latent" or "unconscious"). This was represented as a newly discovered scientific fact, not the man-made invention that it was. A new equation sank into the public mind: close friendships between women = lesbianism = sexual perversion.
Löfgren records that the fear of too much physical intimacy among girls characterised Victorian attitudes towards girls' schooling and school stories, while Penny Tinkler records that:
Following the First World War there was considerable concern
that girls were rejecting marriage, domesticity and maternity, and there
were also fears that girls were seeking to be independent of men in both
economic and sexual terms. . .
Indeed what is particularly striking about the interwar years is the naturalisation of heterosexuality and attacks on women, whether celibate or lesbians, who did not marry. . .
Throughout the interwar years the term "homosexual" was bandied around and used extremely loosely to refer to any woman who refused or could not get married, or who exhibited independence . . . or who did not passively submit and enjoy sexual intercourse with a man, preferably her husband. Basically all those women who were labelled "homosexual" were regarded as posing a threat to heterosexuality, the family and male domination. Hence feminists, spinsters, "bachelor-girls", "man-haters" and lesbians were all encompassed under the same umbrella. The sexual behaviour of single professional women, especially teachers, came under close scrutiny.
Auchmuty records how the content of Oxenham's books in particular reflects changing attitudes towards women's friendships and the growth of overt censorship in Britain over the first half of the twentieth century.
To dip into . . . early volumes is to be transported into
a world where women's love for women is openly and unselfconsciously avowed
on almost every page. . .
The 1930s brought a change. . . The focus was now very much more domestic . . . Elsie Oxenham and her sister-writers must have realised that the behaviour of their characters was now open to "misinterpretation". . .
From this point on there is an ever declining ration of expressed love between women, and the books make much more of a feature of heterosexual romance, marriage and motherhood. . .
If the early Abbey books were about women's friendships, the later ones are about marriage pure and simple. . .
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s a handful of Abbey books were reprinted in cheap condensed editions. Oxenham's often tautologous prose can take a bit of blue-pencilling, but it is significant that the portions excised were frequently the passionate and to post-Freudian eyes sexually suggestive scenes between women.
Auchmuty concludes that: "The destruction of the
schoolgirl story is a major piece of evidence for the imposition of compulsory
heterosexuality in twentieth-century Britain";
and Tinkler adds that: "The form and content of popular girls' magazines
offers further evidence of this and the often convoluted negotiations through
which this was achieved."
Auchmuty's work provides a full analysis of the representation
of relationships within the genre and so I will not repeat it here, but
it is interesting in addition to look more closely at the representation
of femininity itself. Girls who are traditionally "femme" - who
wear all but the plainest jewellery, who have elaborate hairstyles and
who hate games, such as Blyton's Angela and Gwendoline - are portrayed
as being highly undesirable. "Normal", "good" girls
are those who keep themselves clean and smart but who otherwise care little
for their appearance, who play games, who work hard and who are ambitious;
many of these have gender-ambiguous names, such as Brent-Dyer's Jo and
Blyton's Darrell. Meanwhile overtly butch girls or tomboys, such as Brent-Dyer's
Tom and Blyton's Bill, are perfectly acceptable too, and are unchanged
by leaving school: Tom goes on to work with boys in the East End of London;
while Bill intends to run a riding school with her schoolfriend Clarissa.
Being single or living with another woman is portrayed as being a perfectly
acceptable alternative to married life for a woman.
While Brazil and Oxenham forefront girls' love or passion
for each other, the later authors take pains to disassociate themselves
from this. Bruce's girls found an "Anti-Soppist League"; Brent-Dyer's
girls similarly distinguish between "healthy" and "unhealthy"
relationships; and Blyton, who associates "the crush" with false
friendship - choosing a friend because of appearance or money - makes it
clear that only weak characters like Gwendoline and Alison suffer from
this. However, the relationships themselves remain overwhelmingly important;
it is the expression of those relationships which the authors later
delineate as being good or bad. So an over-dependent and/or infatuated
relationship between girls is equated with traditional, passive constructs
of femininity as well as with being bad, while close but independent relationships
between girls are equated with non-traditional, active constructs of femininity
as well as with being good. This can simply be read as the privileging
of a more butch femininity, then, as well as teaching valuable lessons
about all real-life relationships.
However, when authors do depict their heroines as adults,
the vast majority go on to marry, whereupon they give up their jobs and
have children. This reflected contemporary heterosexual images - even if,
in reality, many women continued to work, with terms and conditions downgraded
because this was not regarded as being part of their role. Married or not,
though, husbands are seldom present in the stories and remain largely irrelevant.
Meanwhile the heroines' female friendships remain as important as before,
with Bruce's Dimsie and Brent-Dyer's Joey living surrounded by their female
friends, their husbands conveniently working long hours as doctors. And
what fan can doubt that, in their old age, the "girls" would
have lived together once more, the widowed and single alike?
Nor do women's personalities change when they marry -
except, perhaps, Brent-Dyer's founding headmistress Madge Russell, who
is displaced from the series by her sister Joey rather than by marriage.
Rather, marriage provides women with the home and income of their own which
authors could not quite believe that the majority could gain any other
way. (In the case of Oxenham's Rosamund, through marriage her own son will
also take over the castle which her cousin owns and which her young stepbrother
is set to inherit.) And despite many descriptions within the genre of female
characters' deep feelings for each other, descriptions of meetings with
future husbands do not reveal characters falling in love so much as meeting
men whom they feel they can care about enough to live with and have children.
Married women characters always have children, and it
is for this above all else that husbands are useful. Indeed, Oxenham's
Joy marries a husband who does not even return from their honeymoon; he
does, however, leave her pregnant with twin daughters. It is significant
here that Joy is the only heroine who already possesses her own (stately)
home and money as well as two adopted teenage "daughters"; her
husband has nothing further to offer her than a child of her own, and his
continuing to live would mean Joy leaving her home to move in with him.
(Jen's subsequent marriage to Joy's brother-in-law then connects the two
women as "sisters" and provides Jen with her own stately home.)
Even Brent-Dyer's Phoebe Peters, who adopts a baby, is only able to do
so because her husband has treated her arthritis and so made this possible.
Most heroines, meanwhile, are as fertile as goddesses, with many of Oxenham's
heroines giving birth to twins and Brent-Dyer's Joey ending with eleven
children, including triplets and two sets of twins.
Heterosexual constructs of femininity, then, are far from being represented unproblematically in the form of adult characters, the majority of whom, in any case, are single women. And the idealised family always remains the community of girls and women represented in the school itself. This is not to argue, though, that the genre operates as a fantasy of lesbianism for its readers. Auchmuty states that:
Where psychoanalytic theory focuses on sexuality, I prefer
to focus on love - that emotion we all thought we understood until sophisticates
told us it represented unconscious (and in this case, forbidden) desires
we never knew we had . . . love is a natural human emotion, and most women,
whatever our chosen sexual identity, have loved other women. I am sure
that this would be true of all of us if we hadn't been told all
our lives that the love of men was paramount above all other loyalties.
What school stories show us is that this truth - that women can and do love other women - was easier to speak in earlier eras in particular literary genres than it is today or in other literary genres.
However, the genre stresses that girls and women are equally
as important as boys and men: that girls and women do not need boys and
men in order to be fulfiled; that they can be equally fulfiled on their
own; that if they do have a relationship, one with a girl or woman can
be as satisfying as one with a boy or a man (sexuality also being absent
from representations of heterosexual relationships); and that dependent
relationships are bad. Given these challenges to heterosexual norms, it
is plausible, then, to claim the genre as being queer.
For the intended readers of girls' school stories - girls
- the genre is read at a time when they are becoming separated from the
female world of the home and the infant school, but have not yet come into
contact with an adult, male world. This is a time when to some extent girls
occupy a separate social space (although this space is far more circumscribed
in the 1990s than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century). The
world of the school story then provides an easily accessible, virtual girls'
world, which can be entered simply by picking up a book, wherever the reader
is physically - at home, on a bus, or even (as I certainly did myself)
during lessons. This reading is at the same time a private experience and
one which is shared with other girls; in later life, for fans the mythical
world of the school story replaces the common school background which men
so often network around.
The censorship of this reading, whether directly or by coercion, has generally been presented as being for girls' "own good", supposedly reflecting a patriarchal, paternal concern for their well-being (see 7. The Critics of Girls' School Stories for further details). This disguises the fascistic nature of censorship; the censorship of ideas which challenge the established order. The use of parody has also been extremely effective as a disguised form of censorship, since we are all socialised to fear ridicule. Perhaps it is not surprising that disguised censorship has effectively been extended to the study of the genre, with it widely regarded as "not being a fit subject for academic study" - I have yet to meet anyone, including myself, who was able to obtain funding for research into girls' school stories, and only in the 1970s was it first accepted as a thesis topic. The fact that the genre has been censored is indisputable in the face of the evidence; the only question which remains is the extent to which this was conscious, particularly given that many women were involved in enforcing censorship in their roles as mothers, teachers, librarians and, to a lesser extent, as critics. Nicholas Tucker points out that:
there has always been a type of Puritan objection to the idea of too much undemanding enjoyment in the lives of the young, whether in literature or elsewhere. Children, it is sometimes argued, must learn that life is not all pleasure. Any situation, therefore, that allows them to luxuriate in unthinking, infantile enjoyment for lengthy periods, with no accompanying hint of self-improvement or education, can make some critics very uneasy. For one thing, they themselves as adults may long since have suppressed their own unbridled infantile fantasies. The spectacle of children still enjoying the same things, therefore, unchecked or actually encouraged by other, possibly renegade adults, may cause not only uneasiness but even perhaps a type of unconscious envy.
Whether conscious or not, though, the strength of this
censorship serves to underline the power of the genre, as well as highlighting
the resistance to censorship which has characterised British girls' reading
of the genre throughout the twentieth century.
What effects, then, does the genre have on its readers? Frith has concluded that, far from being subversive, the genre serves to reinforce traditional constructs of femininity.
Located in an impossible time - the age of puberty in
which puberty never happens - and an impossible place - the fantastic dream
of a school which has no relationship with the world beyond it - the school
story offers its young reader the possibility of resolving the contradictions
in her life without ever needing to confront them directly.
. . . The "time of her life" which the schoolgirl heroine enjoys, the time of puberty-and-not-puberty, can never be realised by the reader; asked to recognise that the stories cannot be good because they are not realistic, she may come to accept that the desires they allow her to express - for fun, freedom, friendship and a life unconstrained by gender difference - are also "unreal".
However, as D.W. Harding points out of reading generally:
What, after all, is the alternative to defining and expressing our unattained and perhaps unattainable desires? It is to acquiesce in the deprivation and submit to the belief that with our personality or in our circumstances we ought not even to desire such things; and to forfeit the right to the desire is even worse than to be denied the satisfaction.
And Janice Raymond has noted that:
The possibilities of female friendship are founded on
vision. . .
At one and the same time, vision means "the exercise of the ordinary faculty of sight" and "something which is apparently seen by other than ordinary sight". . . Or, how do women live in the world as men have defined it while creating the world as women imagine it could be?
Men have established the patterns of language and meaning in which acceptance of the present state of affairs is known as "realistic" and efforts to create a more feminist or woman-defined world are pejoratively called "utopian". Thus, women who emphasize the necessity of vision are vulnerable to charges of distracting other women's attention away from the real problems of women's oppression and to accusations of romantic simplification or sentimentalizing. . .
Feminist "maturity" seems to mean putting away the ideals of an earlier feminist "adolescence", including the very language of a woman-centred future.
Crucially, Raymond argues that:
it is not possible for women to be free, nor to be realistic about the state of female existence in a man-made world, nor to struggle against those forces that are waged against us all, nor to win, if we do not have a vision of female friendship - if women do not come to realize how profound are the possibilities of being for each other as well as how deeply men have hidden these possibilities from us.
Löfgren also points out that, while the heroine and the reader must leave the world of the school story, the genre stresses that:
the world of the school as such lives on for ever, only gradually changing with the years. Even when each successive generation of girls leave this female Utopia, they return, via a women's college, to teach in another - sometimes the same - girls' school. And those who leave the world of the school for good often keep up the tradition by sending back not only their younger sisters and cousins but their daughters and granddaughters as well.
Perhaps one reason for Frith's reading of the genre is
that her research is based almost entirely on studies of Blyton's "St
Clare's" and "Malory Towers" series. While these series
crystallise the genre conventions, they contain little else: no detailed
descriptions of settings; no detailed delineations of characters; and no
separate representations of adult life. Instead they are filmic in the
extreme, with the difference being that a great deal is left to the reader's
imagination. Since Blyton's series are also written in a deliberately childish,
easily accessible language and are aimed at a younger audience than other
examples of the genre, it is unsurprising that older girls and women generally
find that the books have little to offer them (despite Blyton's continuing
popularity with girl readers, her school stories have few adult fans).
It is, of course, important to remember that the genre has always contained mixed messages. Of the nineteenth-century stories, Kimberley Reynolds points out that:
The rapid changes in girls' lives gave rise to a literature which encouraged its readers to believe that they could move with the times and could modify their behaviour without departing from traditional expectations . . . these reformed rebels not only revitalised the domestic angel in books for girls, but in the process, created an audience which colluded in its own containment and a reader who reacted against change, adhering to - or even reverting to - her place in the home and a moral ambience based on feminine idealism.
It is also important to remember that girls themselves read differently; as do girls and women; that many girls have not identified with girls' school stories; and that messages may well have been received differently according to the historical period in which they were read. Shirley Foster and Judy Simons point out that:
Textual elements which today may appear to indicate a particular reaction to contemporary ideologies will have had different meanings for the audience of the time: even "coded" messages are inseparable from the context which produces them.
How do class considerations affect readings? There is
a widespread belief that the representations of class in girls' school
stories reinforce traditional divisions, and surprise is often expressed
at the fact that the genre has always had a devoted working-class readership.
However, the twentieth century in Britain was characterised by class mobility,
particularly marked in the blurring of boundaries between the working classes
and the middle classes whose lives were overwhelmingly represented in the
genre. Women, whose class is generally defined by that of their husband,
were particularly mobile, and were quick to forget class loyalties in their
voting patterns. It can be argued that, far from the genre being used to
teach its readers to respect middle-class people, it taught contemporary
readers instead how to become middle class themselves with the representation
of middle-class lives, norms and values. (The genre also presented its
readers with the idea of education being the path to liberation and self-improvement.)
Of course, if true, this represents a loss, and in particular
a devaluing of working-class culture. However, working-class culture, particularly
working-class women's culture, while rich, is not powerful. Throughout
the twentieth century, working-class women in Britain have had the poorest
jobs, the lowest pay, the worst housing, nutrition and medical care, and,
crucially, the worst education. Their children are criminalised, and when
their relationships break down, they are stigmatised as feckless single
mothers. If access to education has for a long time been seen as the key
to gaining middle-class privileges; access to a fictional education was
as close as many girls could come. It may also be, then, that in the earlier
part of the century at least, the genre functioned to empower its readers
socially as well as in other ways.
Clearly, readings and motives for reading also differ according to the age of the reader. Auchmuty claims that 1990s women readers: "do not need to read school stories to escape; they do it to identify with this aspect of their world view." Here, however, I believe that she protests too much. Part of the pleasure for women in reading the genre lies in escaping for a short time from the pressures of, not only their domestic role, but also their careers, relationships, financial worries and the uncertainty and danger of the external world, into the structured world of imaginary girlhood, where anyone can be a "real Chalet School girl". Returning to girlhood, too, is to return to a point in life where anything seemed possible, and it may be this aspect in particular which inspires the woman reader when she returns to her external life. As R.L. Gregory points out:
There is surely a deep biological reason for the importance of fiction: that it states and considers alternative possible realities - allowing escape from the prison of current fact. There is more to this than the pleasures of "escapism": for it is only by considering what might be that we can change effectively what is, or predict what is likely to be. Fiction has the immense biological significance of allowing behaviour to follow plans removed from, though related sometimes in subtle ways to, worldly events. Fiction frees the nervous system from the tyranny of reflexes triggered by events, so that we respond not merely to what happens, but also to what might happen. "Brain fiction" thus frees us somewhat from the world of physics, though actions are limited by the restraints of physiological processes and anatomical structures. Fiction in art . . . gives - in forms to be shared - the essential need of all intelligent organisms: alternative views and courses of possible action.
And in fact, the alternative world of the girls' school story has seemed both possible and desirable to its writers and readers. Blyton recorded that:
Sometimes you write to me and say: "I am to go to
boarding-school soon, and my mother says that if Malory Towers is real,
she will send me there. Do say it is real. I badly want to go.
And I wish I could say it was "real" and that you could go there, and meet the girls you read of in the stories.
In the past, the study of British popular fiction has generally been obstructed by debates about whether the subject under discussion has any "literary" merit; the hallmark of quality in the second half of the twentieth century. In that debate, the central questions are: is a story written in a language characterised by a rich vocabulary; does it have fully rounded characters; represent "real-life" uncertainties and difficulties; and, for children, offer a guide to life? Another question, which is taken for granted but not stated overtly, is, can the story be appreciated only by a discerning audience, or is it accessible to all? "Literature" is defined as stories which cannot be appreciated by any but an elite few: "literature" should be difficult to read and hard to understand; it should not provide instantly accessible, enjoyable reading for the masses. In general, as C.S. Lewis wrote:
Those forms of literature in which Story exists merely as a means to something else - for example, the novel of manners where the story is there for the sake of the characters, or the criticism of social conditions - have had full justice done to them; but those forms in which everything else is there for the sake of the story have been given little serious attention. Not only have they been despised, as if they were fit only for children, but even the kind of pleasure they give has, in my opinion, been misunderstood.
Yet the study of stories should be central to the study of any "literature", whether fiction or non-fiction. Assessing the skill of a story-teller will always be a valid activity, but this needs to be set firmly in the context of the type of story being studied. Assessing a story by how well its characters are realised is pointless if the function of those characters within the plot is largely symbolic. Jacqueline Rose points out that:
If children's fiction builds an image of the child inside
the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book,
the one who does not come so easily within its grasp.
There is, in one sense, no body of literature which rests so openly on an acknowledged difference, a rupture almost, between writer and addressee. Children's fiction sets up the child as an outside to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child in.
The function of the child character, then, is not to represent
a "real child", but to draw one into the world of the story.
Similarly, assessing a story by how closely it appears to deal with "real
life" issues can only be valid if it is realised that representations
of these issues may be dealt with solely on a symbolic or "anti-realist"
level; in addition, it must be understood that "realistic" details
may simply be included to enhance the reality of the fictional world for
the reader. And to assess a story by how it explicitly deals with and gives
guidance on contemporary social behaviour and values is to return to the
didactic fiction which has characterised so much of the history of children's
Meanwhile, to denigrate a story because it has mass appeal is a social rather than an artistic judgement. C.S. Lewis made another, famous comment about children's books which is often quoted in short as justification for defining girls' school stories as being "bad": "No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty." This quote is generally taken to mean that children should read only "classics" which fulfil "literary" criteria and which can therefore be enjoyed even more by adults (until recently, it was believed that women did not read school stories, but in any case, the mostly male critics certainly have not). Extracting a longer quote, though, makes it clear that Lewis was in fact writing in favour of popular, comforting stories.
It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one's adult enjoyment of what are called "children's books". I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty - except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for creme de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.
Genre fiction, of course, is not only denigrated for being popular, but for being formulaic. But Löfgren points out that:
The aestheticism of originality and of true realism has long been the only one acceptable for serious literature in the Western world. But we must remember that formulas have been the established aestheticism for perhaps the greatest part of the history of human literary creativity. All traditional oral literature from all cultures - and most likely from all times - have been formulaic, from American Indian myths to our own European legends and fairy tales. . . The medieval romance is just as formulaic as the fairy tale, while the extremely strict rules of the French Classicism in the 17th and 18th centuries created a highly formulaic literature.
Perhaps a story can best be assessed by its power to represent
- however "unrealistically" - issues which are important to its
audience, and to move that audience to respond. Clearly, the twentieth-century
readers of girls' school stories did not go on to incite an actual revolution.
But neither did they return to pre-twentieth century roles. Despite the
power of the "back to the home" movements which followed the
First and Second World Wars, women went on to the divorce courts, the Equal
Pay Act, "Second Wave" feminism and growing political power.
Their gains, of course, were limited, and in theory they had the power
to have gained much more. But many feminists have shown that the actual
oppression of women within the home, often enforced by violence or by the
threat of violence, is severely restricting, as are lack of equal opportunities
from birth, while the politics of the twentieth century have generally
mitigated against collective action. Do women, as Frith suggests, abandon
the values of girls' school stories when we realise that they are not "real",
or do we instead try to recreate them in our own lives? It is worth noting
here that the 1990s women fans are not "dull daydreamers", but
women who are active in many walks of life and who are generally "women-centred".
The facts that, with the help of new communication technologies, women
fans have recreated the friendship networks represented in the genre in
real life (see (9: II. 1990s Women Fans
for details), and display similar attitudes to disability to those represented
in the genre (see My Experiences During the Fan Research
for details), also provide evidence of the genre's effects on its readers.
Perhaps one reason why women have been among the genre's
critics is not just due to Modleski"s "internalised double standard",
but also because it disappoints us. Why did Brent-Dyer's Joey not stay
single, as she vowed to do as a teenager, and go on to win the Orange Prize
for fiction; rather than ending as a wife with eleven children and numerous
wards, writing in the despised genre of girls' school stories? Why did
we never see Bruce's Erica fulfil her teenage ambition of becoming an MP,
rather than becoming only an MP's secretary before marrying his son? And
why did Bruce's Dimsie never complete her medical studies and end instead
as a mother and doctor's wife, albeit practising the women's healing discipline
of herbalism? As did our heroines, so did many of the readers. If only
they had got further, so, surely, should we have done?
Such disappointment admits the power of stories while
refusing to admit the humanity of their creators; forgetting that both
the creators and the readers of the world of girls' school stories were
limited by their imaginations and by their external experiences of the
world. It is to overlook the fact that no more powerful or girl-centred
stories existed at the time. It is to ignore the fact that, in the second
half of the century, more "realistic" girls' stories with "better"
messages singularly failed to engage the imagination of their readers.
It is to fail to recognise the achievements which the genre and girls'
access to education represented. And it is to ignore the fact that, rather
than competing in a man's world on men's terms, the characters' lives instead
revolve around a girl- and woman-centred world. The stories may be escapist,
but girls go on to have careers, and to be fulfiled as single women or
to negotiate heterosexual marriage to forefront their own lives and their
female friendships. The world of the story is safe, certainly, but only
then can the ideas within it become acceptable to the readers.
As I stated in the Foreword to this hypertext cluster,
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.
What, then, are the ideas or lessons which are presented
to the female reader's unconscious in the genre of girls' school stories,
and why do they appeal so strongly to both girls and women? (A woman's
identity, of course, still contains the girl whom she once was within it,
and in a world where women are still often treated as being child-like,
is perhaps more affected by this aspect than is a man's - "Even when
I'm an old lady with white hair, telling all my great-great nieces and
nephews all about my wicked deeds, I'll never count myself as anything
but a Chalet School girl".)
Girls can do anything which boys can do - play sport, succeed academically, go on to higher education and/or to have careers, speak in public (and for the first readers, go to school). Even at the end of the century girls must still feel doubts about this, however unconsciously, and so the stories reassure their reader and reinforce her sense of self.
Girls can succeed without their parents. This is likely to assuage fears about growing up as well as anxieties about coping with loss at the age when girls first read the books.
Girls can build successful relationships with other girls (although over-dependence and infatuation is wrong). In real life, other girls are more often presented as competition and relationships are often hard to negotiate, so this must be an intensely reassuring message.
Girls are people in their own right, irrespective of their relationships with other girls, with their families and with boys. In real life, girls' identities are often defined in terms of these relationships, so the stories again reinforce their reader's sense of self.
It's more important to focus on being a girl than on relationships with families and with boys; this also reinforces the reader's sense of self.
Girls can survive adolescence successfully to become fulfilled women in their own right. This is also likely to assuage fears about growing up.
Women have other options as well as marriage. This is likely to assuage fears about being able to find a husband as well as reassuring queer readers.
All girls are equal, regardless of family background; this must be appealing to most readers as well as teaching a social lesson.
You must learn to fit into the community and to obey the law. This is a social lesson which is all the more effective because of the appeal of many of the other ideas in the stories.
You can learn to fit into the community and to obey the law. This assuages readers' fears and thus encourages the process in real life.
Education is the key to success. This is another social lesson, and one which is not widespread in British culture, particularly working-class culture. It must have been particularly important to the genre's first readers.
Given these ideas or lessons, the genre can certainly
be claimed as being feminist, queer, and important in both social and literary
terms. It is also an outstanding example of what is now described as "girl
power" British culture.
At the end of the twentieth century, there is still no
other genre to rival the school story for British girls, who have few cultural
spaces left. Meanwhile, throughout the world many girls are becoming schoolgirls
for the first time, or have yet to obtain access to education at all. As
we reach the next millennium, girls' most pressing need for new written
texts is not for "literature", nor for lessons disguised as "good"
books, but for stories which will provide them with both comfort
and inspiration, and, crucially in a world where literacy has never been
more important, which will encourage them to read. This latter aspect is
the written story's most empowering quality of all and one which must enhance
the girls' school story reader's educational achievement, particularly
as it is combined with the idea that education is important and the key
In conclusion, the ideas or lessons contained within the
genre of girls' school stories are still as important and as relevant now
as they were at the beginning of the century, and continue to appeal on
a global scale. They are also, perhaps, as threatening to the male unconscious
as they were then, and if so, new stories containing these ideas are likely
to continue to face the same marginalisation and ridicule in the twenty-first
century that the genre of girls' school stories has faced in the twentieth
century. But books are also a commodity, even when free at the point of
use, and the twentieth century has taught us that capitalism is likely
to prevail if publishers recognise their opportunity. However, if it is
possible to tell new stories which empower girls at the same time as assuaging
boys' fears about the implications of this and about themselves, then girl
and women readers at the end of the next century would have no need to
resort to the twentieth-century genre of girls' school stories or their
twenty-first century equivalent for comfort. And that is personally what
I really, really want.
Ju Gosling, 1998
|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.|