On Boarding School Stories

Why do grown-ups read children’s books? It’s a thought that crosses my mind in the wake of huge publishing successes in crossover markets like Harry Potter and the Twilight books. Together they have encouraged and sustained the phenomenon that is the YA novel, not something that existed in my young adulthood, when the shelves of the library held a few copies of Catcher in the Rye and Judy Blume’s novels about puberty. And it’s not really a genre I read now. Of course when my son was little I read lots and lots of children’s books to him, and enjoyed them very much in a faintly vicarious way. A few years ago, I read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and thought it was a stunning novel, one of the most powerful reads I had come across at the time, so I have only warm, fuzzy feelings about YA, which is where I think a lot of the exciting, experimental writing was going for a while. But it’s just not a genre that I would normally pick up.

Then last week, wanting something comforting and easy to read, I remembered I’d been given a copy of Autumn Term by Antonia Forest, which is a favourite comfort read of a good friend of mine. I also recalled that I had a copy of Eva Ibbotson’s The Dragonfly Pool, which I’d swapped with my son when he was given it for Christmas (it being a tad young and girly for him). Thinking they would make a good comparison, I read them both.

Autumn Term is a classic boarding school story about Nick and Lawrie Marlowe, 12-year-old girl twins who are following their illustrious older sisters (all four of them) to Kingscote school. This is the first taste of conventional education for the twins who have been plagued with childhood illnesses like measles and mumps to such a degree that they’ve not been able to attend school (which seems extraordinary, but then the book was published in 1948). They have a lot of catching up to do, given that all their sisters have distinguished themselves at lessons or sport or Guides. They are fed up of being the useless ones and determined to make their mark, only of course, the harder they try to be outstanding, the more disastrous the consequences. The Dragonfly Pool has an altogether different feel. Tally has received a scholarship to the unconventional Delderton Hall, a progressive school where lessons are eccentric and discipline is minimal.  At first, Tally is heartbroken to leave her happy family, but the Second World War is looming and her father is determined she should be safe in Devon. However, after watching a newsreel at the cinema about the small European principality of Bergania, Tally develops a craving to visit the country, one she has the opportunity to satisfy by convincing her schoolmates to put together a folkdance for the upcoming international festival there. Bergania turns out to be a deeply troubled kingdom, menaced by the approach of Hitler, and Tally and her friends are soon swept up in an adventure as they try to smuggle the crown prince to safety.

So, the boarding school offers a separate world, free from parents and their endless injunctions in which children can test their mettle, not to mention the rule-bound systems that dominate society. Autumn Term is very much in this mould, as the twins break the rules both deliberately and inadvertently, issues of trust and betrayal are proved to be paramount in friendships, and awkward, hostile or intimidating people have to be negotiated. The Dragonfly Pool has something different in mind, as boarding school becomes a liberating environment in which Tally can exercise her considerable powers of leadership and enterprise, as well as fulfil her personal destiny. The rules of school, simple as they are, are counterpointed to the collapsing society around them, and children are shown to have the faith in one another that the adults are in danger of losing altogether. A historically real world is peopled in this novel by a pantomime cast, with evil villains and uppity princesses and heroic heroines.

I must confess that I enjoyed Autumn Term as an easy and engaging read, but found The Dragonfly Pool to be, well, annoying. I realise this is the wrong way round. I ought to have found Autumn Term conservative and non-PC, and The Dragonfly Pool exciting and moving. But Autumn Term felt real in a way that the Eva Ibbotson (and I apologise to the enormous legion of Ibbotson fans across the internet) was not. Nick and Lawrie were ordinary children, hopeful, flawed, naive, proud. They suffered severe disappointments over silly clubs and difficult lessons, they got to see their family in a different light and when the plot relented and gave them a degree of success in the end of term play, it felt triumphant in its small-scale way. In The Dragonfly Pool, the marvellous Tally got up my nose with her fearless and heroic ways, the family of Prince Karil were cardboard caricatures and the adventures the children had were thoroughly implausible. It all felt a bit… Disney-fied.

I do not mean to be unkind to Eva Ibbotson, who is a recognised children’s author. It’s not that her book is bad, not at all; it is just that Autumn Term is much more to my taste. And the reason is down to the difference in moral universes that the stories present. Autumn Term is about longing to be wonderful and clever and distinguished and dealing with the recognition that life rarely accords us such glittering prizes. The Dragonfly Pool is about the reader identifying with the heroine, Tally, and enjoying the fantasy of being marvellous and clever and distinguished. Both novels, then, are dealing with that profound and inextinguishable human desire to be someone special, to do admirable things, and to have excitement in our lives. Eva Ibbotson offers the fantasy of living that dream. Antonia Fraser offers the comforting reassurance that not getting the dream isn’t so bad after all. For myself, I prefer reality every time, although this would not be everyone’s choice. But the return to childhood reading puts us back in the place before reality has bitten into the imagination, and gives us the chance to pretend that all kinds of achievement are still within our grasp in a world that has yet to reveal itself as both random and indifferent. The prospect is bound to be comforting.

27 thoughts on “On Boarding School Stories

  1. I loved boarding school stories when I was a kid. My school library (which was all there was) had a lot of old books, I’m guessing that were donated, and so I grew up on Edwardian and pre WWII stories. That one sounds just like the ones I read, and in fact I might even have read it. I wonder if my kids would like it just as much.

    • I read all the Enid Blytons and a lot of the Chalet School Girls! They were so comforting and adventurous all at once. You should definitely try one on your girls and see what they think – I’d love to know!

  2. Funny, because so much “YA” fiction was extremely depressing and stuff I just didn’t really like when I studied it in library school (The Chocolate War always springs to mind. I feel so sorry for sensitive kids being forced to read that one for school), I equate YA with disagreeable, which is really quite unfair, because there are plenty of fabulous YA authors and books out there. Still, I’d read all the award-winning and highly-recommend books and find myself, “Being a teen is depressing and dramatic enough. Couldn’t we have more funny books and more books that offer hope to kids?” Now, Autumn Term, on the other hand, sounds like it would’ve been right up my alley as a teenager and probably still right up my alley.

    • Oh I know what you mean! There is definitely a subset of issue-driven teenage fiction that is as dark and melancholy as your average teenager’s mind. And one wonders what image they get of the world (although I suppose they are alerted to outside causes, which perhaps wouldn’t have done me harm in my youth. Although on reflection it was philosophical ideas that really moved me). I’d love to know what you think of autumn term. Definitely a cozy and charming read.

  3. I read Antonia Forest midway through a diet of the Chalet School and Dimsie novels, all rather more excitable and Dragonfly Poolish. I can’t remember that much about it except that it was a surprise that nobody had to be rescued from a near-death situation, but a very pleasant surprise. I suspect that AF’s novels are the only ones that would really hold up to an adult rereading.

    It’s interesting that the boarding school situation still appeals, when so few of us attend such schools any more. I wonder why that might be? There’s the attraction of a whole little world, subject to its own rules, and something about the child societies within boarding schools which are more intense than those in day schools I think. But I don’t know.

    • There’s a book by Rosemary Auchmuty called A World of Girls that is all about the boarding school novel. It is, apparently, a very British phenomenon. Seeing as I grew up in Britain, I assumed every country had boarding school books! I think the idea is to combine a very safe and protected realm with the possibility of adventure and self-definition. At the time when they were most popular, women only really had romance as a culturally valid realm of adventure, so the boarding school became an alternative space in which heroines could prosper. Well, I think that’s roughly the idea! I laughed at your comment about near-death experiences; I know just what you mean!

  4. I am conscious of missing so many good books by not reading young adult litterature. It would be fun to revisit some childhood favourites too – Jennings and Darbyshire by Anthony Buckeridge was a series I read every one of of I think – to great delight. Interesting article.

    • Tom, I read the Jennings and Darbyshire books with my son when he was young and he loved them. And so did I! They have stood the test of time so well and the writing is as fresh and funny as it was when they first came out. It’s just hard to find the time to fit all the reading in, isn’t it!

  5. You really must read Robertson Davies’ “The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks,” which is actually a collection of short pieces he wrote as his curmudgeonly alter ego, and which gives an astonishing and hilarious portrait of Canadian life in the 1940s and ’50s. Anyway, one of the pieces is about this type of story…the girls’ boarding-school tale. I think he must have been referring to “Dragonfly Pool” or something much like it, as the whole concept appears to have gotten up his nose as well. He alludes to the plucky heroine’s trials overcoming the social prejudice of well-bred young ladies with names such as Bubbles, Giggles, and Foibles, all of whom have a near-sexual attraction to both their horses and to their noble Papa, square-chinned and stalwart at An Unnamed Front.

    • I am determined to get to Robertson Davies in 2012 – he’s been on the list for too long, and I am very intrigued. Oh I did laugh at the thought of a heroine named Foibles, and the father-worship is very strong in The Dragonfly Pool. Only in this instance he is a doctor who selflessly ministers to the poor and is constantly exhausted because they all clamour for his help. Plus he has no money because he does it all for charity. You can see where this is going. Someone like RD would have a field day.

  6. I just finished reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, her Newbery Medal award children novel. Other than the main characters are children, the concepts and content are beyond me! Einstein’s theory of relativity, higher maths, physics, cell biology, and all the Star Trek science… plus, you have quotes from Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, The Bible, and numerous allusions and symbolism. A YA novel? Where do you draw the line? Why did I pick it up? It’s been on my shelf for decades, my son had read it when he was growing up, but I still haven’t. So I think it’s about time I read it, children’s book or not, albeit I seldom read YA books.

    • I adored “A Wrinkle In Time” as a child. I still get goose pimples thinking about it. I wonder if it would still affect me so powerfully if I read it as an adult.

      • Ruthiella,

        I really enjoy reading it, and couldn’t help but wonder how children would have understood the concepts and all the allusions and symbols. Also, I’ve appreciated the characterization. It makes me want to go on and read the other two books in the Trilogy.

    • Oh I read A Wrinkle in Time with my son several years ago now and I loved it. I think it has to be in a separate category really, for extraordinary books. I reviewed it at the time and remember starting with a quote from Madeleine L’Engle in which she said that when she had an idea that was too difficult for adults, she wrote a children’s book. Isn’t that great?

      Ruthiella – I would say definitely go for it again. I loved it when I read it and thought the ideas in it were amazing.

  7. I enjoyed this post a great deal. Yes, why do we like to read YA and children’s books? I don’t know but I do like it. I loved the one Meg Rosoff I’ve read and two years ago one of my favourite books was Tom’s Midnight Garden. I don’t really think the label is always justified, it certainly isn’t in Meg Rosoff’s case.
    I have never read one of the children’s books by Ibbotson but some of her novels for adults that I found very satisfying. Maybe they didn’t work well read just so close one after the other?
    In any case I have to look up Antonia Forest.

    • Caroline – I really think you probably hit the nail on the head there, and it was reading the novels back to back that did for poor Eva Ibbotson. But then I am really picky about how fantasy is used in novels. I’m a fan of magic realism, for instance, but implausible plot developments drive me nuts. I completely agree that a really good children’s book can transcend its genre and offer something to everyone who reads it. I don’t think I’ve ever read Tom’s Midnight Garden. I will have to give it a go.

  8. YA novels today are so different than when we were kids I hardly recognize them sometimes not to mention that there are so many more of them. I thought your comparison of the two books was interesting, the reality v. fanatsy. It’s hard to read fantasy books intended for children as an adult because for the most part we know things don’t turn out like that. But for kids, it’s good that there are both kinds of books. Dream big but also know that it isn’t the end of the world if those dreams turn out differently than imagined.

  9. These references are totally unknown to me. How old do you need to be to read them. (I think of my children, not of myself, obviously)

    Caroline had to explain me what YA meant when she reviewed a YA book. We don’t have that category in France.

    The boarding school stories are really British. I was amazed to discover in Muriel Spark’s Prime of Miss Jean Brodie that the houses like in Harry Potter existed in real life.

    The only books I remember that could be labelled YA are “E=mc², mon amour” by Patrick Cauvin and “Des cornichons au chocolat” by Stéphanie. (I discovered recently that it’s a pen name for Philippe Labro)

    • That’s really interesting to think that France doesn’t have the YA genre. The two books I read would really be aimed at 9-12 year olds, seeing that the heroines are all 12 and children generally like to read ‘up’, which is to say to read about protagonists on the next stage of life to the one they are at. I didn’t realise until I was reading around for this post that the boarding school story is so British – I thought lots of countries had them (and Swiss finishing schools, for instance, used to crop in a certain period of literature as The Place for young ladies to be sent!). Also, I had no idea tht Philippe Labro wrote under a different name, how about that?

      • It was a well-kept secret, probably because it’s such a “girly” story. Some writers do that, they write under different names.
        I’ll have a look at these writers for my daughter, she’s 10. She asked for Matilda by Roald Dahl.

        We have here a good collection, Folio Cadet, which publishes easy texts from great writers. I found Giono, Prévert, Le Clézio for example.

        PS: And of course, we have Le petit Nicolas. So funny.

  10. I re-read my Just William books about, oh, once a month, and I’ve enjoyed them more as an adult than as a child, when I read them solely for the plot. I now read for Crompton’s skill at world-building, and her prose, and with an appreciation for the uniqueness of her creation (amongst other reasons), and now, as the mother of a son, I get a lot of pleasure from identifying with with William’s long-suffering parents🙂 So some of it is about labeling, I think–the children’s books that adults read are perhaps books about children (and childhood) rather than books meant only for children?

    • I completely agree that Richmal Crompton is a wonderful writer. Her Just William books were my son’s favourites across his childhood and if he can’t sleep he still puts an audio book on to help him drift off. We used to listen to them a lot on long car journeys and they really were fantastically well plotted and characterised. The stories always held so much and were so satisfying. I like what you say about there being books about children and childhood that everyone can relate to – you’re onto something there.

      • Oh, that’s very strange. That’s exactly what I did, with the audiobooks and such. I’d play them all the time before bed, to the point that I got to know so much about everything in that world. Were they the Martin Jarvis recordings?
        I think Crompton must have been paid by penknife companies to advertise though, because I ended up getting a strong desire to own one from her stories, to my parents frustration.

  11. I have 10 year old twin girls and they loved the Chalet school books. I will get the AF book for them, I think they would enjoy it. In a recent conversation with a teacher, she commented that comprehension and understanding of character were harder to teach now at school, as so many children are now reading ‘plot-driven’ books where the characters are so typecast, known in my family as pop-corn books.

    • Dona – oh I do think they would like it and it is very well-done in terms of characterisation. I notice that so much on television, in the cinema and in books these days is heavily dependent on masses of plot (to the extent that in tv dramas you almost get one plot point per shot, which I find exhausting to watch). I think I need that term pop-corn books and will use it from now on!

  12. I read one of Antonia Forest’s books — not this one — and liked it a lot, but I haven’t been able to get hold of any of her others. I suppose they are very out of print? However, I am also fond of Eva Ibbotson. It’s perfectly true what you say, the characters are pantomime characters, but not any more so than a lot of the other books I read as a child. Eva Ibbotson’s books feel not complicated but comfortable and soothing. That may not have been what she was aiming for, but it’s definitely something I want in my books now and then.

  13. There is quite the variety these days in children’s/YA lit, isn’t there? I read Emily’s comment with interest as I recall some of the books I read–strangely…post apocalyptic stuff (coming off the 80s cold war I guess), or books about teens who were runaways or became pregnant, and lots of Judy Blume. Maybe that’s what happens when you don’t have any guidance like me. Now there is just about everything you can imagine! I think I’d like the Forest book. I would like to read Eva Ibbotson, but this particular book you write about doesn’t appeal to me either. I think she has some other books that are more geared towards adults almost but are now marketed for the YA audience.

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