Rosemary Auchmuty A World of Girls (1992)
The other day I was trying to remember who was expelled from the Chalet School (the setting for a series of books by Elinor Brent-Dyer). The books themselves are packed away but this book was on the shelf. It didn't give me the answer (thank you Google: Thekla von Stift; crime: being too German), but as I dipped into it again I remembered how interesting I had found my previous read.
Auchmuty examines the elaborate school environments created by Elsie J. Oxenham (the 'Abbey' books), Dorita Fairlie Bruce ('Dimsie'), Elinor M. Brent Dyer ('Chalet School') and Enid Blyton ('St Clares'; 'Malory Towers') and discusses the types of recurring patterns that mark out girls' school stories from the 1920s to the 1960s. Examples of these include 'The Schoolgirl Code', the importance of 'games', the prefect system, types of heroines, the significance of school-girl friendships, role models, the rejection of social distinctions and preparation for adulthood. These books, one finds, offer girls a form of affirmation of the right way to live. There is also an interesting section on the 'sexology' of girls' school stories: crushes, spinster teachers and tomboys. Of Miss Peters in the Malory Towers books ('tall, mannish, with very soft hair and a deep voice'):
The girls liked her, but sometimes they wished she would not treat them as though they were boys. She had a hearty laugh, and a hearty manner.
Our knowing parody is never far from lines such as these:
"So there grew up a real understanding between the form mistress and Bill [aka Wilhelmina], delightful to them both." (Third Year at Malory Towers)
As Auchmuty notes, the 'problem' of spinster teachers - sexual failures or sexual dangers? - plays out in the subtexts of these books, but we should also bear in mind that the majority of teachers were women in the era 1921-1931, with the censuses for those years indicating further that 85% of female teachers were unmarried. This is a reflection, too, on a bar on married women as teachers.
A World of Girls is filled with much well-chosen material taken from the school stories, and from academic writings on girls' education and feminist topics. Auchmuty's observations are always pertinent and well expressed. This is an intriguing and amusing read and will make you want to go read those school stories again.
If you liked this... I'm going to add her book A World of Women: Growing Up in the Girls' School Story to my wish-list.