Saturday, January 4, 2014

“For the Sake of the School”: The History of the Girls’ School Story

Frontispiece of The Governess (1749):
The girls have their
covetous eyes on the apples
A few months ago, Routledge published a six-volume anthology set of girls’ school stories that I prepared with Kristine Moruzi. The books aims to represent the history of the genre from 1749 to 1929, by setting some of the most notable and popular examples alongside lesser known, but interesting or unusual stories. We also wanted to show that girls’ school stories were not purely a British phenomenon, even though some people have argued that American stories don’t quite fit the British model and despite Australian novels being almost entirely ignored.

We began with an extract from Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which is usually accepted as the first girls’ school story. It’s painfully didactic to the modern reader, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it to the end of the novel. I just did not care that the girls were selfish in each wanting to take the largest apple out of a pile offered by a kind teacher. Frankly, they seemed quite deprived and they'd no doubt worked up a hunger learning all about their character flaws.

Nevertheless, Fielding is writing in a period in which the moral value of children’s literature was a crucial consideration. The Governess was published more than a century before Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which is rightfully described as a watershed moment in the history of school stories. Yet the critical emphasis upon Tom Brown, rather than an earlier girls' example like The Governess, also reveals the way in which boys’ school stories have overshadowed girls' books.

Education itself was a different beast in the eighteenth century. Only a small proportion of girls had the benefit of education at home with a governess or at an expensive boarding school. And the education they received was vastly different to that of boys, with a focus on womanly accomplishments like painting and embroidery.

As a result, school stories in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not radical in their attitudes towards women’s education, but encouraged religious faith and moral values such as honesty. During the nineteenth century, the quantity of amusement and humour in girls’ school stories increased, generating fun-loving character types such as the “madcap”. Yet didacticism, particularly with respect to honourable behaviour, remained important.

The genre flourished after major shifts in girls’ and women’s education, notably the beginning of formalised girls’ schooling in the 1850s, the foundation of women’s colleges in the 1860s, and the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which introduced state-funded education for all children up to the age of 12. It is no surprise that the golden age of the girls’ school story begins in the 1880s, a time in which more British girls than ever before are literate and the experience of schooling has become an almost universal one.

A later edition of Meade's 1886 novel
It is from this point onward that the celebratory “world of girls” (as L.T. Meade titled her novel of 1886) defines the girls’ school story. Protagonists are now adventurous, heroic and athletic, with sports firmly embedded in rhetoric about every girl striving for the sake of the school. As the stories reproduced in the anthology show, plots varied from girls uncovering a German spy (“Vic and the Refugee” (1916) and an untameable Irish girl who knocks a boy out with a punch (Meade’s Wild Kitty [1897]) to more traditional examples of feminine self sacrifice, as in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Six to Sixteen (1875)  in which two girls nurse their sick friend each evening.

Many British writers of girls’ school stories were prolific, which helps to explain their marginalisation and denigration. Once series set in the same girls’ school became common in the early twentieth century, a number of writers could be counted on to produce a new title almost every year; this meant that a girl could continue to follow her favourite characters as she grew up. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s the Chalet School is the most exceptional case, with more than 60 books in the series published between 1925 and 1970.
Empire Annual (1909)

If you scour second-hand stalls at markets or fairs, you’ll inevitably find girls’ annuals among the piles of books.  Annuals were evidently massively popular and a key way in which many girls read school stories, yet there is little record of their circulation figures, or even precise years of publication in some cases. As we note in the anthology, some annuals were circulated around the British Empire, sometimes with a different cover for the Australian and Canadian markets.

The ready availability of British school novels and annuals around the empire  meant that locally authored school fiction was comparatively uncommon. We uncovered only a handful of Canadian girls’ school stories, for instance. (American stories would have also been readily available in Canada.)

Louise Mack's Teens (1897)
Yet Australia has a significant school story tradition beginning just before the turn of the twentieth century with Margaret Parker’s For the Sake of a Friend (1896) and Louise Mack’s Teens: A Story of Australian Schoolgirls (1897). Australian authored school series, however, did not emerge as in Britain and the United States.

Jessie Graham Flower [Josephine Chase] wrote
several US school and college series.
This title is from 1911. 
Uniquely, many American series followed girls from high school through to their college years. Josephine Chase’s Grace Harlowe books, for example, include “The High School Girls Series” (four books published in 1910 and 1911) and “The College Girls Series” (seven volumes published between 1914 and 1917). The publishers of these American series commonly released several books in the one year—four of the Grace Harlowe college books were published in 1914— indicating an aim to capitalise on interest quickly before girl readers grew up, rather than spreading out volumes at yearly intervals and building an enduring following.

The United States also produced a greater amount of women’s college fiction, which became popular from the 1890s, as an increasing number of women began attending university. Britain only produced a small number of college novels in comparison, and by the 1920s, when women university students had become unexceptional, the genre faded while the school story continued to capture girls’ interest.

Though the concept of girls receiving a formal education had once been controversial, the school story genre is fairly consistently apolitical across the period we explored. We included a few examples of stories that discussed women’s suffrage and careers, but largely the girls’ school story champions the concept of girls learning without emphasising what might happen to them once their school years have drawn to a close. In this way, as Sally Mitchell points out, the girls’ boarding school story in its most popular manifestation between 1880 and 1930 is often more of an escapist fantasy than any kind of mirror of the real lives of actual historical schoolgirls.