I’m a sucker for school stories. Real school stories. The old-fashioned type. The ones with the improbable coincidences, long-lost heirs and hidden treasures. I don’t mind how ridiculous they get, or how corny, or how unlikely—I just love them.
I started with St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Easy reads—I still come back to them when I’m ill. And what eight-year-old girl doesn’t think ‘Darrell Rivers’ is the most wonderful name she’s ever come across?
Then I moved on to the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. And that…well, it’s more like a cult than a series. There are over sixty full-length novels, for a start, with surely over twenty fill-ins by fan authors detailing any terms missed out over the course of the thirty or so years spanned by the series. And most of the fill-ins match EBD’s style pretty impressively, too. I’ve read every single one of the books…three times.
The Chalet School has its own magazine, run by Girls Gone By Publishers, and my mother has written a few articles for it, over the years. I expect I’ll get involved with that someday, too.
I’ve been to Pertisau in Austria, twice, in fact, where the Chalet School was first begun. (I’ll do plenty more posts on the Chalet School and its circuit of Europe, so I won’t go into detail now.) My background and header images (actually, it’s the same photo) were taken a mile or two West of Pertisau. Three years on, it’s still my favourite place in the world.
The Chalet fans have even coined the expression ‘EBD-isms’, which relates to all the (many) inconsistencies across the books. Yes; this does aggravate my sense of balance—but it’s such a feat to write a series of over sixty (with other books on the side), I think I can forgive EBD.
Plus…one of the Chalet books was set in my homeplace. Many of the details may be inaccurate, but I feel almost as if that book was a personal compliment, since so few people have even heard of where I live.
And then there’s Dimsie and Springdale by Dorita Fairlie Bruce, both of which I love to bits, and St Ursula’s, and… (I expect I’ll do review posts at some point.)
Many of the people whom I’ve attempted, over the years, to infect with my enthusiasm for school stories, found them embarrassing and patronising. Which is true, to some extent. There’s the language to get past, and the improbability of the plotlines, and the complete lack of modern romantic overture would put off most teenagers these days.
Of course, there are some which aren’t at all like that. The girls might ejaculate ‘top-hole!’ or ‘simply marvellous!’ every time you turn a page, but there are a few truly genuine stories which depict girls from fifty years ago in such a way that we can relate to them.
Recently I reread Evelyn Finds Herself by Josephine Elder, which is considered by some to be the ultimate girls’ story. And yes, as I was reading I found myself marvelling at how well-done the characters were, and how quickly I found myself hurting with Evelyn as Elizabeth began to drift away from her…(sorry, spoilers). It is just the same girls as today, and many of the same issues; but in a different time, when a certain manner of things was accepted, and others about which today we wouldn’t think twice were vehemently discouraged.
And besides that, there’s something so simplistically innocent about these books that really appeals to the dreamer in me. There’s very little elaborate imagery or unnecessary depth, and after a while so many things become cliché, but when I find a really well-written school story, I love it second to none. (Or maybe it’s just the nostalgia…)
How does this impact my own writing? Before I turned ten I wrote school stories—exclusively. I still have books and books of long-hand manuscript—perhaps ten or fifteen novellas set in boarding schools. Of course, that wasn’t so good for my writing.
But it was good for me, myself. Goodness, I think I’d probably be rather more of a ‘typical teenager’ if I hadn’t been so obsessed with the Chalet School from such an early age. You may laugh, but it influenced my way of life—taught me to ‘play the game’, about honour and friendship and how to get along with all sorts of people. Perhaps it even turned me into a ‘prude’, for years scorning romance and make-up and all those things which weren’t considered ‘decent’. But I don’t mind that. I believe it’s all helped me, really.
After Year 5 I did make an effort to get away from my own cliché, and turned out a surprising number of novellas with themes ranging from theatrical direction to athletic instruction. I knew nothing about either at the time, it must be said. But I did know about school stories…
And it certainly hasn’t been lost on me. The novel I’ve been working on is set in a boarding school. I wouldn’t say it was a ‘school story’, despite its setting, and it does have rather more modern and mature themes than those I used to read, but it’s useful to use the model of a setting so deeply ingrained in my brain I could apply it anywhere.
And dialogue! I can’t believe I nearly forgot to mention it. As soon as I begin reading school stories again, my dialogue starts oozing out my ears, it’s so eager to get out. My characters’ voices just seem to come alive again. And, you know, that never happens to me with any other genre.
I could go on about school stories for a very long time, as you may have gathered. I’ll cut it short tonight, however, since I’ve made my confession, and warned you as to the likely content of some of my posts and certainly reviews, if I choose to do any.
By the way, I’m relatively ignorant of how modern boarding schools work. Ah, to realise one of my favourite genres is set far in the past…
But I think it’s the same with every author. We each have a genre we keep coming back to, because, for whatever reason, it stimulates the writer inside us, and reminds us who we really are.
(I can feel brain stirrings upon the subject of ‘for whatever reason’, but I’ll save that for another post.)