Archive for ‘school story’

September 12, 2011

L.T. Meade, A Modern Tomboy

I cheated a bit over this month’s Kindle Magazine column. The book I discuss in it is one I’ve mentioned on this blog before – but while the last post (which was more quote than commentary) focused on the incredible levels of homoeroticism in the book, this one looks at a couple of other aspects of this very odd book.



It is startling sometimes to realise suddenly how far removed the cultural values of old books are from your own. It’s even more startling to realise how far removed they can be from the cultural values of their own times.

On the surface of it, L.T Meade’s  A Modern Tomboy is a conventional story for girls. Mrs Merriman decides to start a school for girls in order to support her husband, who is a scholar working on a Great Work. Daughter Lucy is jealous, particularly since one of the new girls, Rosamund, is attractive as well as being a born leader. Rosamund befriends Irene Ashleigh, a rich girl who is so spoiled that she is uncontrollable. Rosamund’s influence and the advent of a saintly younger girl play major roles in Irene’s reform.

Thus far we have the school, the pretty, headstrong but basically nice school girl who is the heroine and the wild, antisocial girl who must be taught to fit into society. All seems to be proceeding as you’d expect it to.

But A Modern Tomboy is neither a traditional school story nor a moral tale. As far as I can tell, it appears to be about how charisma is the most important thing in the world, and how those who have it will always get their own way. That, and romance among young girls.

The school story has something of a history with homoeroticism. In part this is a natural result of any stories about people of one sex all cooped up together (rumours about monasteries and nunneries exist for similar reasons), but early authors in the genre did not exactly help things (Angela Brazil infamously – and apparently innocently – called one of her schoolgirl characters Lesbia). The first half of this book is filled with romantic declarations; people breaking into other people’s rooms to get into bed with them, and claiming that they cannot live without them.

But it is the second part of the book that is particularly baffling.

If this book has a heroine it is probably Rosamund. Meade makes sure that we know this character is bossy and used to getting her own way, but she is forgiven much for how attractive she is. Irene is even more beautiful and charismatic, and so characters she has physically injured or threatened with death find it easy to forgive her. Her beauty also causes the infatuation of Agnes Frost, the younger sister of Iren e’s governess. Miss Frost can only watch in alarm as her sister is seduced away, and as her own complicity in the whole thing is bought off with the promise of the good education for her siblings. The text tells us that “[i]t is a curious fact that there are some weak but loving people who are not loved in return”, stating this as obvious fact rather than as a problem that needs fixing.

And this, I think, is what makes A Modern Tomboy so unusual – where most children’s stories of the period moralise, it takes for granted the unfairness of the world, treating it as something so obvious that it needn’t even be commented upon. 


All this, plus everyone in the book being kind of terrible. Were I looking for this sort of cynical realism in fiction I wouldn’t have expected to find it in an early-twentieth century school story writer, but there you go. A Modern Tomboy is available on Project Gutenberg here.
May 1, 2011

Jo Walton, Among Others

I mentioned recently that my reading this year had become focused on books about books. One of the reasons (probably the biggest) for this is that I read Jo Walton’s Among Others a couple of months ago. A short review of it appeared here, in yesterday’s Indian Express.

A version of that piece below:


Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo. But that doesn’t matter.

A teenaged girl with friends among the fairies fights her mother, a powerful and evil witch. Though she triumphs and saves the world, she loses her sister and receives a permanent injury.
But this is not the story of Among Others. When Walton’s book opens, what might in other stories be considered the main action of the plot has already taken place. Mori Phelps has already escaped her mother and faced her sister’s death. She must now find her place among others – her English father’s family (Mori is Welsh) and the girls at her boarding school. Sexual awakening, an increased understanding of gender dynamics and the perils of family are all things she must learn to negotiate.

These issues – adolescence, finding a place in the world, learning to engage with others, recognising how the world works, dealing with loss – all seem far removed from the world of epic battles between good and evil. Walton based aspects of Among Others on events from her own life, and it reads as an authentic account of growing up. What makes it unusual is that Mori’s engagement with the world around her comes through books.
Often these are specific books. At the beginning of the book a character expects her own experience with fairy magic to be similar to The Lord of the Rings. When Mori contemplates going to boarding school she wonders if it will be like the novels of Angela Brazil (it is not). A realisation that her parents have read and discussed some of the same books as her is an early recognition of them as real people. Mori’s gradual realisation of how the sexes are treated differently comes through the way female authors are discussed in her book club, and a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Among Others is written for people who read; often references are not explained, but assume the knowledge of the reader. Mori joins a science fiction book club (in a nod to Vonnegut she calls this her “karass”) and has a series of discussions about books. Her views on sexual morality come from Robert Heinlein, then Samuel Delany, and she assumes that James Tiptree Jr. is a man. All of this will delight a reader who grew up in the genre – the book is full of these little shibboleths put there to remind a certain sort of reader of a certain shared cultural experience. Often the emotional impact is massive if you know what is happening; when, towards the end of the book, Walton quotes directly from Tolkien (“Huorns will help”) it is overwhelming.
More than just the books, Among Others is clearly a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy reading community as a whole. But a more general love of reading keeps this accessible to even a person who does not pick up on all of Walton’s references, or share her experiences with science fiction fandom. You don’t need to have read Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 to understand that not having finished a good book seems a perfectly adequate reason to stay alive.
Despite all of the book discussions (Among Others is a book about books before it is anything else) the epic fantasy plot does continue in the background. Mori’s mother is a constant, lurking threat that surfaces from time to time, trying to break into her new life. If her frequent intrusions seem a bit incidental, this is because they are. Though there is a showdown at the end, it is never really the focus of the book; real living happens in the gaps that big narratives leave, and in the long stretches before and after the main plot, and this too is a comment on literature. (Subtly done but very present is another quest – to save the elms of the world from Dutch Elm disease. Saving trees: Tolkien would have approved.)


Walton was also kind enough to answer a few questions I had. I’ll be putting that short interview on the blog as well.
January 6, 2011

Talbot Baines Reed, The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s

My regular column about out of copyright books, for Kindle magazine (whose decision for this issue to do a huge Assange-glorifying story without mentioning the charges against him is one I’m not too pleased with). I cheated a bit – The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s is one of the books I covered in my thesis and so pontificating about its relationship to the genre was all too easy. Still.


It is generally believed that the first school-story was Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I’m not sure I agree. Origin stories for genres are tricky. Genres don’t just spring fully formed as from the head of some writer or the other – tropes from books get used and reused until they coagulate into a particular form.

If there is such a thing as the first book in a genre, perhaps it ought to be the first book that knows it is being written within a genre. By that argument a strong contender for the first real school-story is Talbot Baines Reed’s The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, published in 1881.

Before Baines Reed, a young reader in England might have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the story of how young Tom grows up and becomes a credit to Rugby school. It’s sometimes preachy, but it has its moments. This hypothetical reader might also read Dean Farrar’s Eric, which tells of the prolonged downfall of a sinning schoolboy. It would be terribly depressing were it not so heavy-handed. A few decades later Kipling’s Stalky & Co. would mock the book for its ridiculous sentimentality. With The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, things changed.

The book tells the story of the Greenfield brothers at St. Dominic’s school. Stephen, the younger brother, is a new student. Oliver is in the fifth form of the title, and is taciturn, honourable, and a good sportsman (the stuff literary heroes are made of). As Stephen negotiates the difficulties of public school life for the first time, Oliver finds himself falsely accused of wrongdoing and shunned by his classmates. Meanwhile, led by the magnificent Anthony Pembury, the members of the fifth have created a wall magazine in which they mock the doings of the sixth form.

As a school-story fan it’s fascinating to see how much Baines Reed borrows from his major predecessors. The long descriptions of sports matches, the ragging of new boys, the idealized headmaster are all there. The downward spiraling of the real culprit is the sort of thing Farrar might write – though Baines Reed’s characters are allowed the possibility of redemption, rather than prolonged, gloomy deaths. But equally it’s interesting to see how closely the book corresponds to the pattern that most later school stories would follow.

Most importantly, it’s fun. Like most of Baines Reed’s work, The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s was published in The Boy’s Own Paper. The good end happily, the bad are punished and the reader learns a Valuable Moral Lesson, but considering the tenor of a lot of his contemporary children’s writers, Baines Reed did a good job of not shoving that aspect of it down his young readers’ throats. It’s easier to see this book as a forerunner to the Frank Richards or Enid Blyton school stories than it is to imagine Tom Brown’s Schooldays in that role.

Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement of all was the inclusion of Anthony Pembury; sharp, funny, and no good at sports. Characters like this do not usually pop up in the school story, but one rather like Pembury appeared in 1909 in a school story titled Mike. The character’s name was Psmith, and the author was a young man named P.G Wodehouse.


December 6, 2010

Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster

On Saturday I read David Nicholls’ comic novel, Starter for Ten. It’s set in the 80s, and is about Brian, a young man who is earnest, lower middle class and a University Challenge fan. He gets into university (Englit) and makes it onto the University Challenge team. He also falls rather stupidly in love.

Nicholls is capable of being really funny. This, a few pages into the novel, was one of the passages that had me giggling and made me want to continue with it:
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a slave to the fickle vagaries of fashion. It’s not that I’m anti-fashion, it’s just that of all the major youth movements I’ve lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University Challenge, then there’s not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement.

A few pages later a character is described as “carbuncular”. I was sold.
However, I think I’m just not cut out for comic novels where the protagonist (particularly a first-person protagonist)’s cluelessness is the butt of most of the humour. This was my major problem with Sidin Vadukut’s Dork, when I read it earlier this year. As with Robin Verghese, I spent most of the novel being irritated by Brian’s various idiocies. Even when he is being treated horribly by the woman he is supposedly in love with I’m hard pressed to sympathise – serves him right for being shallow and uninteresting. It’s a pity; as I said above, Nicholls is incredibly funny.
My other problem with the book is that there is not enough University Challenge in it. Quiz shows in general are things that make me happy, but UC is just special. The BBC does not broadcast it in India and this is something that makes me miserable on a regular basis. (I’ve tried asking friends in the UK to record each season for me. They refused to believe I meant it.) I could have dispensed with a good portion of the actual plot of the book if it were replaced with people answering questions.
Starter for Ten was made into a movie, Starter for 10, a few years ago. I have never seen this movie. But it has Rebecca Hall in it (and also Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock; this will become important) and is therefore presumably worth my time.
Another movie that involves education and a quiz show is St. Trinian’s. I’m not entirely sure how to excuse my love for this film – I’m inclined to think that anything that brings together Ronald Searle, delinquent schoolgirls, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Everett in drag cannot be a bad thing. I own all the older St Trinian’s films and they are a constant source of joy to me.
In St. Trinian’s a team of schoolgirls competes in a quiz show called School Challenge so that they can get into the National Gallery for nefarious purposes. Stephen Fry is the quizmaster of School Challenge, and he is excellent. Fry does, of course, have a long history with the quiz show.
Fry is soon to appear in the role of Mycroft Holmes in the sequel to last year’s Sherlock Holmes.
In Starter for 10 the quizmaster (Bamber Gascoigne) is played by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss plays Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock (the Cumberbatch version).
I’m not sure that this says anything profound about the character or about quizmasters in general – unless it’s that the sort of actors who look like they could play men who like a sedentary lifestyle and a lot of information also look like they could play men who like knowing things (and often also like a sedentary lifestyle). But it’s a nice little coincidence. It’s obvious that Mycroft Holmes would be the perfect TV quizmaster – if he could bestir himself to show up at the studio.