“That view of Len’s was the cat’s bath-mat!”
Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Theodora and the Chalet School, p. 196.
Girl’s boarding school fiction is a British institution, with series such as Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School (published between 1925-1970) totalling 59 books and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers (1940s) a more modest six, with both series remaining in print throughout the twentieth century. However, teenage female readers appear no longer to have the facility to engage with texts set in ordinary schools featuring ordinary pupils: those who desire to be, just like their classmates, “real Chalet school girls.” Today, the school, the characters or both must be extraordinary: vampire literature and supernatural romance providing its own ‘brand of heroin’ (Edward Cullen in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, p. 268) for the modern reader, far removed from 1950s fiction both for and about schoolgirls.
Brent-Dyer and Blyton’s books provided examples of girls embracing the institution of school: “Barbara looked out at the view of peaks rising over peaks, and gave a cry of rapture. “Oh, isn’t it marvellous! Oh, I’m so glad I’ve come! This will be school with bells on!” (The Chalet School and Barbara, p. 28). The absence of sexuality and the primary focus on self-identity and ‘healthy’ female relationships is a far cry from the ethos of some of the most popular series today which even – heaven forbid – suggest that “it’s healthy to ditch class now and then,” (Twilight, p. 93.)
This begs the question of whether boarding school fiction has finally, irrevocably, been rendered obsolete, or whether it still contains the scope for enjoyment, albeit from a different perspective to that which its authors may have intended. What can The Chalet School and Malory Towers offer a modern reader of series such as Meyer’s Twilight, Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diaries, to name just a few of the current best-sellers. Do we sneer at the quaintness of characters in a book reprimanding ‘slang’ such as ‘the cat’s bath-mat’; are we bored by something so tame or do we laugh simply because it sounds now, as it did then, funny?
The nature of an established series itself is, both for a 1950s and a contemporary reader, part of its charm: we want to be comforted by a set formula, texts functioning as a sign system because “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” (J. Gosling, Virtual World of Girls.) However, it is not the act of entering into a covert sign system created by an extended series which the modern reader may avoid: it is the particular signs themselves. Series such as Twilight and The Princess Diaries, to take two very different examples, are highly codified too, containing their own stock situations and rhetoric. The contemporary reader selects a text knowing that certain motifs will occur and the text provides.
However, these motifs do not contribute towards a process of assimilation or girls becoming one of the team, as do the dramatic events of schoolgirl fiction which bring about change, literally (several characters meet with unpleasant accidents) and metaphorically, knocking the edges off those with antisocial tendencies. Instead, dramatic situations within modern teenage fiction allow characters to break away from the norm: Bella in Twilight begins as the stereotypical new girl, but rather than gaining more in common with her classmates – desiring to become ‘a real Chalet school girl at last’ – she becomes alienated from them, drawn to ‘blood-lust’ (p. 414) to the extent where she is no longer even a real girl.
The Princess Diaries offers a more realistic depiction of school life, as motifs such as coming of age, gaining maturity and self-identity exist as a broad-sounding board for all school-based fiction. However, despite presenting similar snippets of wisdom to 1950s schoolgirl fiction – “friends like that are more precious than all the tiaras in the world” (Forever Princess) – the fundamental message of these texts, like Twilight, is that life is more than high school, rather than Brent-Dyer and Blyton’s implication that life itself is (or should be) school:
High school sucks. People who say those were the best years of your life – those people are liars… Who wants the best years of their life to be in *high school*? High school is something *everybody* should be ready to lose (Forever Princess.)
This suggests a fundamental disparity in the message that 1950s and 21st century authors provide for young female readers: retro schoolgirl fiction breaks its girls into the fold, whilst modern series encourage readers to find themselves by breaking out.
The works of authors such as Brent-Dyer and Blyton continuously offer the female reader a fictionalised, feminised world which male characters hardly enter. Strong or ‘plucky’ female characters are not dissimilar from modern heroines such as Katniss Everdene of The Hunger Games: Chalet School girls frequently save fellow pupils from natural disasters, and on one memorable occasion (The Chalet School in Exile) beat the flames from dying Nazi pilots with their bare hands. However, these schoolgirls are not in competition but collusion, mentoring one another through a hierarchical system of prefects and teachers: a strong female support network. Each girl knows her place, and does not have to compete against the male or within a phallocentric society, whereas in series such as The Hunger Games, the heroine is remarkable for her success in a male-dominated world. To a certain extent, she is isolated by her femininity. In this way, there is something comforting and accessible in a female-centric boarding school world which encourages girls to be simultaneously individual and part of a non-threatening group that any girl can become part of.
Perhaps what is required of the modern reader when encountering such fiction is a duality of approach. Readers must recognise that is acceptable to be engaged by the narrative whilst at the same time, not forced to repress a smile at the exploits of characters with names such as Yseult Pertwee and Thekla Von Stift. It seems perfectly reasonable that a contemporary reader can raise an eyebrow in disbelief that the most scandalous event in school is the flavouring of jam doughnuts with fish oil, whilst nonetheless enjoying the spectacle.
Therefore, the key is for the modern reader to avoid approaching the text as if it is a historical document, a window into the lives of girls back then. Instead, the texts must be approached as fantasy, in a setting that is only pseudo-real at best: the enclosed and consuming nature of the boarding-school world renders it a unique fictional space, even as its authors demonstrate awareness of contemporary events. In one notable instance the fictional Chalet School relocates to Guernsey for safety, despite the fact that the island was occupied by the Nazis at the time. If this isn’t dismissed as part of fictional license, it is difficult for the reader invest anything in the text.
The reader also has to accept certain stock motifs, incredible as they may seem, “any exposure to chills, rain, drafts, mud or cold water is fairly certain to leave the victim in the grip of a life-threatening disease if they’re not immediately put into a hot bath and then into bed with two hot water bottles,” (www.TvTropes.org) and Brent-Dyer’s girls are subject to an alarmingly high incidence of fires, landslides, floods, snowstorms, and kidnappings which are always engineered to allow a newcomer or badly behaved individual to ‘win through’ (see J. Gosling, Virtual World of Girls.)
Of course, no one can separate themselves completely from their own culture and for the modern reader one of the best features of boarding school fiction is that the behaviours it depicts cannot always translate to anything equivocal in their lives. Instead of rendering the texts irrelevant, this creates moments of comedy gold, as experienced when reading of the punishments rained down on the unfortunate individuals who laughed during carol practise:
The school marched out, leaving the three sinners very sorry for themselves. They were sorrier still before Miss Burnett had done with them. She told them exactly what she thought of their manners and did it in her most unpleasant voice. The twins were weeping and Lesley on the verge of tears. Finally, she condemned them all to writing apologies to the singing master, to spending their precious evening time in hemming dusters for Matron in their form room, and to losing two conduct marks each (Three go to the Chalet School, p.156).
It is near-impossible to suppress a smile at what inevitably seems to a contemporary teenager more than a slight overreaction, as do the histrionic reactions of certain characters:
‘B-but it was me!-hurp-hurp!-it was!’ Margaret wept loudly, her words so mixed up with her sobs that none of the girls could make head or tail of what she was saying and even the Head, with all her experience, could gather only a little here and there. ‘I-I s-saw Miss A-andrews-hurp!-p-put the snake-hurp-hurp!-snake into the d-drawer and I never-hurp!-said anything-hurp-hurp!-even when the rest b-blamed Jack-hurp!-for it!-hurp-hurp-hurp! Wah-hah-hah!’ (as cited on Tvtropes.)
There is more than a touch of the hyperbolic tongue-in-cheek about such examples, suggesting that the author keeps her characters in line, as the fictional mistresses do the girls, by gently poking fun at their foibles, whether it be vanity, arrogance, a penchant for smuggling bread in one’s pockets, or, in this case, the nature of the genre itself. With fifty-nine books to her name, Brent-Dyer may not always be ‘playing it straight:’ at times, she demonstrates a subtle self-aware humour, and at others, the reader simply has to accept the earnestness of the genre: “up rose a roar from Tom Gay of “Well bowled, Daisy! Oh, jolly well bowled! Yell up, you chaps!”
Another striking or untranslatable difference is the absence of sexualisation in the boarding school fiction. Not only are male characters almost entirely absent, but heterosexual desire is never alluded to. Girls idolise other girls: “Daisy, with her fresh, pink and white face, well-groomed fair hair in its thick pigtail, and jolly grin, was just the kind of girl to appeal to any Junior’s imagination,”and the author’s draw a line between due reverence and inappropriate “crushes” which are firmly quashed as “silly.” From the outset, it appears that such restrained and unrepresentative texts do not allow girls to identify with the pains of growing up and puberty, as in modern series:
“The fact is, I love him. He’s the boy I want and one day he’ll be MINE,” (Meg Cabot, Princess in Training.)
Or appealing to their readers by titillating stirrings of sexuality: ‘and then his cold, marble lips pressed very softly against mine’ (Twilight, p. 282.)
Modern fiction for girls addresses its reader through a process of identification, playing out the emotions and issues of their readers in a fictional space. However, for the contemporary reader, the innocent, Utopian world of the fictional boarding school offers a form of escapism through its omission of certain aspects of what it means to be a teenage girl. Schoolgirls in 1950s texts define their feelings in relation to themselves and contemporaries and offer the reader a space in which to contemplate dynamics of a different sort than unrequited love or an attachment to the living dead:
As we all need some sort of ideal as soon as we can think for ourselves, its right that girls should be able to find that ideal among themselves (Brent-Dyer.)
Finally, the modern reader has much to dissuade them from opening an archaic schoolgirl story: the overwhelmingly jolly cover alone may do the job, or the initial wince-inducing descriptions of each individual girl, from her ‘thick pigtails’ to ‘cornflower-blue eyes.’ However, in the absence of sexual references, another phenomenon can be identified. Gosling highlights an “overtly-erotic reference … to girls’ school stories themselves,” as one wayward madcap is diagnosed as having “indulged in an orgy of school-stories,” (Jo Returns to the Chalet School, p. 45). In this way, sexual desire is refigured into a desire for the genre itself: characters do not wish to break away because they would rather aim to win the prize”given to the girl who most fulfils the ideal the pupils of the Chalet School always have held before them.” Their core desire and purpose – to be a better example of what they already are – creates a self-perpetuating eagerness which can, at times, brush off on even the most cynical of modern readers.
Gosling, J. Virtual World of Girls: An Ebook about girl power, girls’ school stories and the future of reading in an electronic age, 1998.
Löfgren, E. Schoolmates of the Long-Ago: Motifs and Archetypes in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s Boarding School Stories (Stockholm: Symposium Graduale, 1993.)
Sims, S. “The Series Factor”, in Auchmuty, Rosemary, and Gosling, Ju [eds.], The Chalet School Revisited (London: Bettany Press, 1994.)