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 significance.

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:

Sims also notes that Angela Brazil, a non-series writer, had few fans left in the 1990s:

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:

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:

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 gothic novel!", 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 and reactionary.

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:


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.

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:

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:


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."


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:

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:


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:

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:


Crucially, the hierarchy includes the girls themselves, in the form of prefects and form captains. Löfgren points out that:

Older girls and women teachers are held up as role models of what girls should become. Löfgren notes that:

On occasion, this role is also be played by a girl of the same age. Judith Rowbotham points out that the Victorian age was:

School fiction provided a similar function for its readers. Auchmuty points out that:


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:

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:


Relationships between girls and women are at the centre of the plots, along with female autonomy. Löfgren points out that:

Löfgren further points out that the new girl, among the central characters of most school stories, functions in a very specific way.

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 century. "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:

And Judith Humphrey points out that:

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 German-occupied countries.

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:

In Brent-Dyer's own life, McClelland notes that:

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.

In terms of the image of the fictional headmistress, Humphrey points out that:

Humphrey adds that" "discipline is only justifiable and bearable in a context of love. It is deeply significant that this is mother love."

Humphrey concludes that:


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.


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:

Similarly, Gill Frith notes that:

And Löfgren writes that:


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.

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:


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:

That threat is crystallised in fear of lesbianism. Auchmuty has located the opposition to the genre in the fact that:

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:

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.

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:

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:

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.

However, as D.W. Harding points out of reading generally:

And Janice Raymond has noted that:

Crucially, Raymond argues that:

Löfgren also points out that, while the heroine and the reader must leave the world of the school story, the genre stresses that:


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:

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:


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:

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:


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:


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:

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 literature.

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.


Genre fiction, of course, is not only denigrated for being popular, but for being formulaic. But Löfgren points out that:


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,

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".)

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 to success.

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

Next: 11. Bibliography
Return to: Virtual Worlds of Girls Index

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