Boarding School Magic
By Josephine WolffJuly 5, 2018
One truism of children’s stories is that it’s important to get the adults out of the way so the children can have adventures. But boarding school stories are set in a world of increased discipline and rules and demerits, not a fairy-tale forest where anything can happen. Yet for an eight- or nine-year-old girl who thrived on structure and hierarchy and strictly enforced rules and schedules (and yes, I was such a child), every part of fictional boarding school life, from the demerits to the lacrosse games to the stern headmistresses, sounded like heaven.
Above all, I relished how no-nonsense and well organized the whole endeavor seemed. While teachers at my incredibly supportive progressive school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, encouraged us to call them by their first names and eschewed traditional homework and tests in favor of more experimental learning activities (weaving! skits! field trips!), at Malory Towers there was no such coddling. In one of my favorite scenes, the first-form teacher Miss Potts tells her class, “I don’t really think I’ve any brainless girls this term […] though I don’t know much about the new girls, of course. If you are brainless and near the bottom, we shan’t blame you, of course — but if you’ve got good brains and are down at the bottom, I shall have a lot to say.” Never in a million years could a teacher have given such a speech to my third-grade class. Perhaps that’s for the best, but there was something irresistible about teachers who were not your friends or your cheerleaders but instead, like Miss Potts, stern, unapologetically judgmental figures who hovered around the edges of a rich universe populated entirely, day and night, by children your own age.
In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962), Anna Wulf’s daughter Janet asks her mother at one point, “Why can’t I go to school?” Anna replies, “But you are at school.” Janet explains: “No, I mean a real school. A boarding-school.” And Anna warns her: “Boarding-schools aren’t at all like that story Ivor was reading to you last night.” Like Janet, I grew up believing that my own schools — which I loved — could never quite measure up to the ideal school experience I had read about in books. Though, of course, Anna is right — the British model of boarding school that Janet and I fantasized about was, in fact, no fairy tale.
Even as a child, I was aware of the darker side of boarding school life thanks to Roald Dahl’s Boy (1984), which chronicles the author’s years at boarding school beginning at the age of nine. Quite unlike the stern yet maternal teachers at Malory Towers, the faculty at Dahl’s first boarding school, St Peter’s, seems altogether villainous, their chief joys apparently laying in administering canings. And yet, as a child who loved order and hierarchy, how could I fail to fall in love with the draconian disciplinary system in place at St Peter’s, evidenced when one of Dahl’s most vindictive teachers, Captain Hardcastle, chastises him for talking during a study hall? As Dahl opines:
Here I must explain the system of Stars and Stripes that we had at St Peter’s. For exceptionally good work, you could be awarded a Quarter-Star, and a red dot was made with crayon beside your name on the notice-board. If you got four Quarter-Stars, a red line was drawn through the four dots indicating that you had completed your Star.
For exceptionally poor work or bad behaviour, you were given a Stripe, and that automatically meant a thrashing from the Headmaster.
Every master had a book of Quarter-Stars and a book of Stripes, and these had to be filled in and signed and torn out exactly like cheques from a cheque book. The Quarter-Stars were pink, the Stripes were a fiendish, blue-green colour.
It’s a system that persists, in slightly less fiendish fashion, in the points competition between the different houses of Hogwarts.
At the age of 13, Dahl left St Peter’s for an even more vicious boarding school, Repton, where the dangers included not just a cruel headmaster but also older boys who hazed younger ones by forcing them to warm cold toilet seats or scrub dorm rooms. “All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely,” he writes in Boy. “I couldn’t get over it. I never have got over it.”
Boarding school beatings also feature prominently in George Orwell’s 1952 essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” At the end, Orwell speculates:
It may be that everything that happened to me at St Cyprian’s could happen in the most “enlightened” school, though perhaps in subtler forms. Of one thing, however, I do feel fairly sure, and that is that boarding schools are worse than day schools. A child has a better chance with the sanctuary of its home near at hand.
But isn’t that also, in part, the great appeal of boarding school — the removal of all that adult detritus, the creation of a little universe populated entirely by children your own age arrayed against an enemy class of grown-ups, the exclusion of people who do not see the world from your perspective or height?
Needless to say, there was no corporal punishment at Malory Towers. Perhaps the closest any teacher ever came to threatening a girl with physical violence was when a problem student named Gwendoline attempted, unsuccessfully, to tattle to Miss Potts about two of her classmates:
Miss Potts looked up. “Are you trying to sneak?” she said. “Or in more polite language, to tell tales? Because if so, don’t try it on me. At the boarding school I went to, Gwendoline, we had a very good punishment for sneaks. All the girls in the sneak’s dormy gave her one good spank with the back of a hairbrush. You may have a lot of interesting things to tell me but it’s no use expecting me to listen. I wonder if the girls here have the same punishment for sneaks. I must ask them.”
Learning not to tell on her classmates was one of many lessons Gwendoline had to learn during her time at Malory Towers, as the school gradually transformed her from a petty, vain, spoiled child into a kinder, gentler, more altruistic young woman. And Gwendoline was not alone in having to grasp many hard, moral lessons (though she certainly had more to learn than most!). The main protagonist of the Malory Towers books, Darrell Rivers, journeyed from first-former to head girl over the course of the series and, along the way, learned to control her temper. In First Term at Malory Towers (1946), after the not-yet-reformed Gwendoline ducked a classmate underwater, terrifying her, Darrell was so infuriated by the bullying that she slapped Gwendoline — and then immediately repented and apologized. Returning to the books as an adult, I’m struck by how hard Blyton drives home her moral lessons. After Darrell’s outburst, for instance:
She felt sorry she had slapped Gwendoline now. That was the worst of having such a hot temper. You did things all in a hurry, without thinking, and then, when your temper had gone, you were terribly ashamed, and couldn’t manage to feel better until you had gone to say you were sorry to the person you had hurt, and whom you still disliked heartily.
I don’t remember the books being so heavy-handed on my first (and second … and 500th) readings of them as a child, but these sorts of passages are sprinkled liberally throughout the series to remind readers that we all have failings we need to work on. Take, for instance, Darrell’s classmate Alicia, who, along with the rest of the class, discovers she has wrongly accused Darrell of destroying a classmate’s beautiful new pen (it will perhaps not surprise you to learn that the real culprit was, in fact, Gwendoline). Blyton describes the ensuing scene:
One by one the girls begged Darrell’s pardon. Alicia was a little stiff about it, for she felt really ashamed of the hard words she had said. But then, Alicia was hard. She had a good many lessons to learn before she could lose her hardness and gain in sympathy and understanding of others.
For Dahl and Orwell, boarding school was an ordeal to be survived; for the girls of Malory Towers, it was a place to grow up into mature, upstanding, ethical women who had mastered their faults. Books about girls’ schools generally feature less cruelty and outright violence than do those about boys’ schools. Dahl’s and Orwell’s real-life experiences are echoed in fictional schools like Dickens’s Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby (1838–’39). The closest equivalent for girls might be Lowood, the abusive school Jane Eyre attends, where the student body is ravaged by a typhus epidemic. Even Lowood is reformed into a “truly useful and noble institution” after the epidemic draws attention to its problems, and Jane thrives there, rising to the exalted position of “first girl of the first class” — a fate not so dissimilar to Darrell’s at Malory Towers!
The harsher boarding schools of literature have a certain appeal all their own, since even the most miserable school experiences ultimately work out for the best. For instance, at Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Girls, in A Little Princess, Sara Crewe is reduced to the rank of servant after the greedy headmistress believes her family has lost its fortune. By the end of the book, however, Sara is richer and happier than ever. Similarly, the Rugby School for boys featured in Thomas Hughes’s 1857 novel Tom Brown’s School Days is rife with corporal punishment and bullying — as well as lessons on the importance of not snitching on the classmates who bullied you — but ultimately serves its students well.
My favorite boys’ boarding school in fiction is Canadian author Gordon Korman’s Macdonald Hall. In the eponymous series, Macdonald Hall is overseen by a stern but kind headmaster, Mr. Sturgeon (a.k.a. “The Fish”), who would not be out of place at Malory Towers — that is, if men were permitted on staff — and who is constantly trying to rein in the antics of his boisterous charges, led by best friends Bruno Walton and Boots O’Neal. This pair undertakes projects such as simulating earthquakes to scare off a new assistant principal, setting the world record for the largest tin-can pyramid, and dumping Fizz-All stomach medicine into a rival school’s swimming pool. Macdonald Hall also has a sister school across the street, Miss Scrimmage’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, but unlike Malory Towers, Miss Scrimmage’s is a disorganized mess. I harbored no fantasies of attending Miss Scrimmage’s, but Macdonald Hall was right up my alley, complete with arcane disciplinary systems centered primarily around dishwashing and essay-writing (but no corporal punishment), rigorous academics, and an upstanding headmaster who clearly cared deeply for all of his students, even the most troublesome.
But Macdonald Hall did not fundamentally alter students’ characters or teach them to master their shortcomings. Where the Malory Towers books portray a set of girls gradually achieving greater self-awareness, maturity, and self-control, the Macdonald Hall books feature a group of boys who, again and again, in book after book, display the same reckless disregard for rules and restrictions — usually to triumphant ends. In their defense, the boys’ antics are usually motivated by their all-consuming devotion to their friends.
Easy though it is to fall in love with Bruno and Boots, they definitely get away with a lot more than Darrell, Alicia, and Gwendoline. The boys are always rewarded for their attempts to operate just outside the rules. At the end of Go Jump in the Pool! (1979), after their successful effort to raise $25,000 for a school swimming pool, the Fish tells them: “I am afraid that this experience may have taught you boys that you can do absolutely anything to achieve what you are after. Life is not like that. There are rules.” Unlike Darrell’s temper or Alicia’s hardness or Gwendoline’s vanity, Bruno’s and Boots’s shortcomings are celebrated in the Macdonald Hall chronicles as just boys being boys.
Boys, it seems, get to have more fun at boarding school (at least when they’re not being caned), though the differences between the two series may also be due at least in part to the eras in which they were published. The first Malory Towers book came out in 1946, while the first Macdonald Hall book, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall, was published in 1978. But the Malory Towers books, with their 1940s morality and standards of ladylike behavior, remain in print and continue to be popular with modern audiences of young girls. When I wandered into a bookstore in London last year, I learned that a whole new set of additional Malory Towers books, beyond Blyton’s original six, have been generated by other authors to keep up with reader demand.
One of the surprises of the Harry Potter phenomenon is that modern-day children all over the world are susceptible to the romance of a British boarding school. Part of J. K. Rowling’s genius lies in how she grafted her wizarding world onto the domain of boarding school, juxtaposing everyday events — demerits, exams, homework, sports — with spells and potions: Hogwarts students swapped out midnight feasts for midnight battles with trolls. I didn’t need the additional enticement of Rowling’s magical world to make me fall in love with boarding school — I had already fallen for Malory Towers — but I suspect that the magical world did, in its way, need the boarding school structure to capture the hearts of so many millions of children.
Boarding school has an apparently timeless appeal as a setting for young adult novels. It can serve as both a familiar, reassuring world — perhaps the world that some children grow up expecting to inhabit — and also as an exotic child-centered fantasy. Boarding school stories teach lessons, explicit and implicit, about how to be good, get the most out of school, forge friendships, master yourself, cause the right amount of mischief, form a home out of a dorm room and a group of children and teachers, and go about the complicated process of growing up when everyone around you is barely more of an adult than you are. To Orwell, that kind of home was a more brutal, less welcoming place than the family home other children could return to each evening — and he may well have been right. Much of the romance of boarding school lies in the fictionalized accounts of places like Malory Towers, Macdonald Hall, and Hogwarts, rather than their real-life counterparts like St Peter’s, Repton, and St Cyprian’s. But those fictional schools have a powerful pull on children’s imaginations, perhaps especially children who have a certain predilection for structure, order, and rules.
Boarding school stories draw on some fundamentally conservative element in children’s natures — a desire for more rules and a life not governed by adult exigencies, a world where progress is measured in good marks and the dream of being head girl. In The Golden Notebook, Anna eventually realizes that Janet’s desire to attend boarding school is, in some sense, her daughter’s form of rebellion against Anna’s own unconventional life choices:
Anna said: “Janet, do you realize how different it will be from anything you’ve ever known? It means going for walks in crocodiles, like soldiers, and looking like everyone else, and doing things regularly at certain times. If you’re not careful you’re going to come out of it like a processed pea, just like everyone else.” “Yes, I know,” said the thirteen-year-old, smiling. The smile said: I know you hate all that, but why should I?
I read Harry Potter devotedly, but for me the fantasy will always be Malory Towers: not flying brooms or dueling wizards, but starched uniforms, restrained praise from Miss Potts, and fierce competition for the position of head girl. I never attended boarding school — I never even seriously lobbied my parents to send me — though I did eventually trade in my very progressive elementary school for an ever-so-slightly less progressive girls’ school in Boston. We did not wear uniforms or have midnight feasts, but we did have detention and play lacrosse, and there was a stern but kindly headmistress; in some ways, it was probably about as close as a person could get to Malory Towers in Massachusetts in the early 2000s. And I loved it there — just as Darrell loved Malory Towers, and Bruno and Boots loved Macdonald Hall, and Harry and Ron and Hermione loved Hogwarts. For children who really love the environment of learning, boarding school has a special appeal — the notion that school can be a whole world, a world you never have to leave or come home from but can instead live in all day and all night long.
Josephine Wolff is assistant professor of public policy and computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology. Her writing has appeared in Slate, The Atlantic, the New Republic, and Scientific American.
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