The twentieth-century school story really kicked off with Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1906) and the Greyfriars School tales by Charles Hamilton (‘Frank Richards’) in the 1908 weekly boys’ paper, the Magnet. These authors hit upon the formula for the genre’s lasting appeal: boarding-schools were set up as the world in microcosm, but with mothers and fathers tidied niftily away. In these fictional single-sex schools, despite the ostensible authority of the teaching staff, juveniles came into their own as initiators and organisers. Rivalries, sporting achievements and friendships flourished, and the quickly established theme of putting down bullies has survived as a mainstay of the genre for nearly a century.
Angela Brazil achieved her ends with ‘jinky’ girlish slang and jargon, ‘spiffing’ stunts and a near obsession with games and sports. Frank Richards was successful because he didn’t ‘write down’ to child readers, or moralize: he dispensed with the Victorian stereotyped ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ and managed to make his colourful, larger-than-life (literally in Billy Bunter’s case) characterizations believable.
A school story paper for girls
The pattern was echoed and embroidered over several decades by Brazil/Richards imitators, both in hardback novels and in the weekly and monthly story-papers (not to be confused with comics). For boys there were the Magnet, Gem and Boys’ Friend, mainly from the Richards’ pen, and the more staid Boys’ Own Paper, Chums and The Captain. When it became obvious that girls as well as boys were avidly devouring the Magnet, its publishers, the Amalgamated Press, decided to launch the first girls’ school story paper, School Friend, in 1919.
Despite the fact that he was already producing a 20,000-word boys’ story each week for both Magnet and Gem, Frank Richards was asked to write the first stories for the School Friend and as ‘Hilda Richards’ he set up Cliff House school featuring feminized variants of the Greyfriars heroes, Harry Wharton & Co., with Bessie Bunter taking on her brother’s comic relief role. Other authors then took over the girls’ paper stories with such success that, in the 1920s and ’30s, the Schoolgirls’ Own, the Schoolgirls’ Weekly, Girls’ Crystal and Schoolgirl came into being and flourished. Intriguingly, these extremely addictive papers were written, edited and illustrated almost entirely by men, using feminine pseudonyms. This was because R T Eves, the editor-in-chief of these papers, maintained that women writers were all potential mothers and thus too protective of their girl readers, and unable to put their juvenile heroines into really challenging or dangerous adventures. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this argument, the fact remains that these male authors produced a long-lasting string of simplistically feminist role-models – teenagers who were vigorously active in their own interests and who adroitly got the better of pompous adults and assertive boys.
The ‘Big Four’
In parallel with the story papers, a talented clutch of women authors developed the genre in hardbacks. The most celebrated of these were Elsie Jeanette Oxenham (mainly popular for her stories set against a picturesque old Abbey and featuring the Camp Fire Movement, May Queen rituals and country dance), Elinor Brent-Dyer (creator of the Chalet School books) and Dorita Fairlie Bruce (whose most famous school stories featured dauntless but realistic and likeable girls such as the long-running Dimsie Maitland).
With Brazil, these formed the Big Four, who presided over a burgeoning genre in which the offerings of hordes of lesser authors ranged from the commonplace to the exotic or idiotic (the thrilling disclosure of the heroine’s past abduction by an eagle, for example).
By the early 1940s, the major school story writers were still carrying on, though perhaps with diminishing appeal. Angela Brazil, indeed, went on doing her dogged best to keep up the spiffing tone for which she was celebrated, even in the challenging period of the Second World War: ‘Well, hurrah for the jolly old set. We’re all to be evacs!’ Brazil’s ‘evacs’, despatched with their gas masks and hockey sticks to one picturesque locality after another (moated granges, Scottish lochs), still find it necessary to buck up a dull lesson by sticking jujubes on the necks of girls sitting in the row in front of them, and routine predicaments are described without reference to the international situation.
Elsie Oxenham and Dorita Fairlie Bruce took a holiday from school during this period (though Oxenham, in fact, had always been as much a girls’-adventure as a school-story writer). Bruce plunged some of her schoolgirl heroines – now grown-up – into wartime exploits, returning to the school theme with the opening book of her Sally trilogy, Sally Scatterbrain, in 1956. The output of Elinor Brent-Dyer, on the other hand, remained predominantly school-based, with only the occasional adventure or ‘career’ departure from the long-running Chalet School saga.
It is, of course, the cumulative effect of this series that has ensured the prominence and resilience of this author whose initial brainwave – establishing a tri-lingual international boarding school in the Austrian Tyrol – paid off in terms of reader loyalty and narrative drive. By the time we reach Prefects of the Chalet School (1970), the excitements of floods, thunderstorms, kidnapped princesses, snow drifts, puzzles over the naming of dormitories, and green dyes falling on people’s heads had perhaps gone on for too long. However Brent-Dyer had been one of the very first children’s writers to speak out in her stories against the perniciousness of the Nazi regime. The Chalet School was evacuated first to Guernsey, and later to Wales, and the series rises to a creditable adroitness.
At the same time, with the characters being allowed to grow up, the children, god-children and what-have-you of early Chalet girls have to find a place within an expanding network, and this can cause a headache for the novice reader: ‘Emmie and Joanna are still in Germany… Karl… Jem… Wanda’s little Emmie… is Emmie Joanna after both of them… Jo… Robin… Simone… Miss Linton, once the head girl of the school… Bride Bettany… Nancy Chester… Julie, the Ozanne twins…’, and so on, and on.
It wasn’t only Angela Brazil’s anachronistic exuberance, or increasingly convoluted connections prevailing among second-generation Chalet pupils, that might have seemed slightly at odds with the streamlined spirit of the mid-twentieth century. The whole genre (for boys and for girls) was losing out to variations of the ‘holiday adventure’, and taking on a tinge of the passé for some young readers. Enid Blyton, who was soon to become enormously popular for her mixed-sex holiday adventure stories, produced The Naughtiest Girl in the School in 1940, and this series, as well as her St Clare’s and Malory Towers books, perpetuated the Brazil tradition of sport, rivalries and larkiness throughout the next six decades. For boys, Anthony Buckeridge began to write the Jennings stories, which have proved as long-lasting as Blyton’s school series.
A risible adjunct?
In certain circles, girls’ school fiction had always been regarded as a risible adjunct of mainstream literature (when it was noticed at all). However, just as the ‘high jinks’ aspect of the school story was beginning to seem outdated, along came a handful of more-or-less inspiriting authors to ginger up the genre. Among them were the playful Nancy Breary, the resolute but slightly sobersided Phyllis Matthewman, and an urbane New Zealander, Clare Mallory.
Though it took her a year or two to get into her stride, Nancy Breary never fell into the error of taking herself or her creations too seriously or, on the other hand, opting for the silliness on which some authors fell back. She kept hold of an adult knowingness which enhances her stories rather than undermining their scope for merriment. Her great theme is friendship, often between a bewitching senior and the self-doubting heroine who can’t believe she’s been singled out for the honour. Stock standbys of the genre such as spy- and burglar-catching, and missing wills are not part of her repertoire. Sheer flair and inventiveness carry her through.
Phyllis Matthewman is not so amusing, but, like Breary, she has a knack of holding the attention, with her workmanlike plots involving oddball schoolgirls chafing at the bit. ‘She went across to the motor-cycle, climbed into the saddle and started the engine… What the inhabitants of Redmere would say when they saw a schoolgirl in the well-known Priory uniform driving a large monkey through the streets of their town she did not pause to consider.’ Matthewman also has a good line in languid seniors, such as Vivian in the Priory series, who pull their socks up following a sudden insight into their shortcomings – although none is as dashing as Cara St Aubrey in Clare Mallory’s Juliet Overseas (1948), in which a newcomer from New Zealand sets about rallying a slack House in an English school, and learns a bit about English irony and understatement in the process. Mallory is one of those rare authors who can make even the depiction of a sporting event seem fascinating to the non-athletic reader. All her ten children’s novels (including a couple of non-school stories) are of a high quality, but she was among the last wave of traditional school-story writers.
The TV age
By the late 1950s it had become obvious that the genre was in need of regeneration. All the between-the-wars school story papers had suffered instant demise when Hitler’s armies over-ran Norway (our main source of pulp paper) in 1940, and these were never revived. In the ’50s Girl and Eagle were launched but they and their successor papers specialized in picture-strip adventures. With the establishment of the TV age, children found pictorial images easier to assimilate than text stories. Also the social scene had changed. With the decline of Empire, far fewer girls and boys were being sent by parents in far-flung places to England for boarding-school education: and single-sex day-schools were also being phased out in favour of mixed-sex comprehensives.
In the late 1940s Geoffrey Trease reflected these breaks with tradition in his Black Banner series, skilfully introducing outdoor and mystery adventure into day-school settings, involving both boys and girls. A spate of similar day-school stories followed, eventually climaxing in Bernard Ashley’s tales for younger readers, in the Phil Redmond/Robert Leeson Grange Hill books, which were spin-offs from the 1970s TV programmes, and in Gene Kemp’s zanily compelling and feminist The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. At the same time, Blyton, Antonia Forest and Anne Digby, with her Trebizon books, managed to keep the girls’ school genre alive, though for new books on the boys’ front Jennings was virtually the sole survivor.
As everyone knows, the advent of Harry Potter has recently revitalised interest in the school setting, even if the glamour of Hogwarts has more to do with magic than traditional elements of the genre. (In fact, school and magical elements had been combined some time before J K Rowling’s saga appeared, for example in Jill Murphy’s popular The Worst Witch (1974) and Terence Blacker’s exuberant Ms Wiz books which began in 1989 and now, with some 16 titles, are still going strong.
One-off novels with a school setting such as Graham Gardner’s 2003 day-school story, Inventing Elliot, which brilliantly tackles the problem of bullying, perhaps typifies the school story which is likely to appeal to 21st-century children. However when we discuss changes in literary taste and fashion, we should reflect that Frank Richards’ Greyfriars stories, in one or another format, have already remained available for almost a hundred years, and we are now seeing a truly astounding flow of reprints of classic girls’ stories by Elsie Jeanette Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce and Elinor Brent-Dyer, which apparently are being bought not only by nostalgic adults but by today’s schoolgirls.
You’re a Brick, Angela! by Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig and Chin Up, Chest Out, Jemima! by Mary Cadogan have recently been reprinted by Girls Gone By Publishers of 4 Rock Terrace, Coleford, Bath BA3 5NF.
Illustrations taken from Chin Up, Chest Out, Jemima!