Back To School

As the nights draw in and we enter the last week of August, in her latest series on Book Themes for The Substantive, Joanne Sheppard writes on school in literature.

September’s nearly upon us, bringing falling leaves, shorter days and  Keats’ ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ – but more importantly, endless ‘Back To School’ promotions in the shops and, despite being 36, an almost primeval urge to buy smart new black leather lace-ups and a new pencil case. I can only assume that spending thirteen years of my life at school has left an indelible impression on me, and I don’t think I’m alone: in the world of literature, stories about school are by no means confined to the children’s section of the library.

The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe is set in 1970s Birmingham as Ben Trotter and his friends stumble through grammar school, forming a band that morphs from prog to punk, making inept attempts to form relationships with girls and editing the school newspaper. To a degree, The Rotters’ Club is a coming-of-age narrative about a group of teenage friends, but it’s much more than that, and Coe avoids the cosy retro-nostalgia trap. Ben’s schooldays are set to the backdrop of strikes, IRA attacks and mounting racial tensions as the microcosm of his grammar school mirrors 70s society. The sequel to The Rotters’ Club, The Closed Circle, catches up with Ben and his friends as adults, but even then, there’s still a strong sense that their days as schoolboys shaped the men they’ve become.

It’s almost impossible to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, about a girl’s ultimately unsuccessful struggle to fit in at her elite American boarding school, without wanting to grab the narrator by the shoulders and shake her. Lee Fiora has begged her parents to allow her to leave the mid-west to take up a scholarship at Ault, an expensive private prep school, despite their misgivings. Spurred on by a glossy brochure full of historic buildings, lacrosse and floppy-haired boys in Ralph Lauren sweaters, Lee dreams of escaping her lower-middle-class roots and forging herself a new life surrounded by rich, glamorous, academically-gifted companions in leafy New England. Needless to say, when she finds herself surrounded by over-privileged snobs with names like Aspeth and Gates, the reality is nothing like she has imagined and she realises – almost immediately – that she has made a terrible mistake. And yet, through a combination of stubbornness and sheer embarrassment, she decides to remain.

Lee’s decisions are repeatedly poor, frequently cowardly and even morally reprehensible – in other words, much like those of a real teenager. Watching Lee make all the same mistakes you know you’d probably have made in her position is infuriating and even agonising at times – and all the more so because Sittenfeld has taken the refreshing decision not to pepper the novel with life-changing moments or high drama: this is one of the few novels in which practically none of the characters seem to learn or change, and yet, it’s still satisfying. When a much happier Lee reminisces about her prep-school crush Cross Sugarman and her college friends burst out laughing and say ‘What sort of a person is named Cross Sugarman?’ we remember that however traumatic your schooldays are, real life, in general, will turn out pretty much OK once you’ve left them behind. The endless cringeworthy, excruciating embarrassments and disappointments at the hands of life’s Cross Sugarmans eventually mean nothing.

In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark takes what should in theory be a lightly comic character in a relatively innocent setting – a spinster schoolmistress at a genteel girl’s high school in 1930s Edinburgh – and creates something strangely unsettling. The charismatic Miss Brodie, selecting girls who from the age of ten onwards will become her special clique, the ‘crème de la crème’, is revealed to be increasingly manipulative, instructing her girls not just in her personal loves of art and the classics, but also in the support of fascism. By the time the Brodie set are in their late teens, she’s sent one of them to fight for Franco in the Spanish Civil War and is grooming another for a sexual relationship with a married father of six. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is darkly funny throughout – and if you’ve seen the film, you will only be able to picture Maggie Smith in the title role – but as Miss Jean Brodie wreaks her own prim brand of havoc, it’s hard not to come away with exactly the opposite view that we get from Prep – in other words, that schooldays really can have a devastating impact on adult lives.

The polar opposite of Miss Jean Brodie, is Mr Chipping, the much-loved schoolmaster in James Hilton’s unabashedly sentimental Goodbye Mr Chips. A young Victorian boarding schoolmaster at the beginning of the book, Mr Chipping dies just as the Nazis have come to power in Germany, and his career of course spans the First World War, during which he emerges from retirement to fill the role of teachers snatched from the cosy life of a schoolmaster to fight in the trenches and is horrified by the loss of many of his young colleagues and former students – including a German master who fought on the enemy’s side, and whose name he insists on including in a list of the school’s fallen.

Goodbye Mr Chips is a gentle celebration not just of those teachers who truly do inspire, but of that very British archetype of the thoroughly decent chap who believes in fairness, honour and friendship. There’s much about the novel that does seem dated, but most of us are lucky enough to who have had that one, particular teacher who simply stood out from the crowd and whose lessons went far beyond the purely academic. Mr Chips is one of those teachers, and for that he is rightfully celebrated.

More school reads

Blubber by Judy Blume – Blume is famous for her disarmingly frank and often comic tales of American teen angst as suburban high schoolers battle through puberty, relationships and parental divorce. Blubber, though, is the somewhat darker tale of an overweight class misfit relentlessly bullied at school, made all the more uncomfortable by being narrated by one of the girl’s tormentors. Despite this, it’s easy to see how the narrator has slipped into the trap of ‘joining in’, and we can still sympathise deeply when she finds that the tables have turned.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes – probably the most famous school novel of all time, Tom Brown’s Schooldays seems faintly ludicrous today simply because its characters and setting have been so often imitated that they now read like a parody of themselves. Still worth reading though, even if it’s impossible to erase that photo of Cameron and Osborne in the Bullingdon Club as you’re doing so.

The Liar by Stephen Fry – extremely funny and occasionally shocking, The Liar is primarily about a boy at a minor public school whose life is suddenly turned upside-down by his startling love for a fellow pupil. Adrian is adept at all forms of deception, but it’s an act of truth-telling (an article he writes about sexual activity at boys’ boarding schools) that sees him expelled, only to return to school life as a teacher and find some sort of peace after a troubled youth.

Joanne Sheppard

The Substantive Columnist Mel Gomes’ e-book Glory Nights: From Wankdorf to Wembley’ is now available to download from Amazon and Smashwords. New, independent writing on popular culture, it is being backed by The Substantive.