Stephanie and Nancy are working on papers that we will present as part of a panel entitled “Women, war, and popular writing: learning about war,” at the International Standing Conference on the History of Education to be held in London in July. The conference theme, Education, War and Peace, enables us to consider some different sources for our papers, though the audience for the books we are investigating remains similar to those who read school and college fiction. Both Nancy and Stephanie use the notion of ‘heroic’ female identity discussed by Penny Summerfield in Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives as a lens through which to examine these texts.
In “No Fear of Flying: Captain W.E. Johns and Worrals of the WAAF,” Stephanie will consider the depiction of the central characters Worrals and Frecks and their experiences to determine what ideas about feminism and femininity can be teased out of the texts. Stephanie will explore the cultural creation of a strong female character in the context of the Second World War.
Nancy will use a series of six books set in the Great War that showcase Grace Harlowe, who had been the lead character in a high school and college series. Nancy’s paper will consider how novels featuring familiar characters, transported to a wartime setting, serve as a means of informal instruction for readers revolving around ethical and moral lessons, drawing on the recent memories of wartime experiences.
We have papers upcoming at two conferences. Stephanie wins the prize for traveling the greatest distance to present, as she is off to Brisbane, Australia for the Australia and New Zealand History of Education Conference in December. She will participate in a session called Picture and 1000 Words, offering a paper entitled “‘She reduced the man to horrified silence’: The role of illustration in the girls’ school story.” The title comes from the caption shown here.
This image is the frontispiece to the School at the Chalet, the first in a series of over fifty books written between 1925 and 1970 following the fortunes of a fictional school and its pupils, teachers and alumnae. In this first book Elinor Brent-Dyer introduced the main characters; the sensible Madge, the first headmistress, and her irrepressible younger sister Jo whose journey from schoolgirl into marriage and motherhood is chronicled in the series. The stories were illustrated by Nina K Brisley, a popular contemporary illustrator of children’s books. This image is not self-explanatory and illustrates an incident in the book where Grizel, one of the early pupils at the school, mistakenly asks for ‘heiliges wasser’ (holy water) at the hairdressers instead of ‘heisses wasser’ (hot water), hence the ‘horrified silence’. This rather weak joke, which requires a somewhat laborious explanation, is repeatedly referred back to in the books which follow and was presumably chosen by the author as the commissioned frontispiece to her new book. Why? The main character in the illustration is the hairdresser who never re-appears, while the two main characters languish in the background as typical young 1920s women. The thousand words will reflect on what a detailed analysis of this illustration of a fictional text can offer to a historian of women’s education. In one illustration we can identify how the intersection of gender, age, nation and religion which form the basis of so many of the plots were introduced within a rather unappealing and initially incomprehensible introductory image to a series which has never been out of print.
In addition, Stephanie and Nancy will present “Professionalism in the Ranks: Learning about Teaching and School Leadership in British and American Schoolgirl Stories” at the November History of Education Society conference in Exeter, United Kingdom. This paper considers how schoolgirl stories provided their readers with informal careers advice about teaching and insight into the profession.
Later this month, the project will be represented by Nancy at the seventh biennial conference of the Society for the History of Children and Youth, being held in Nottingham, England. Nancy’s paper, “There are other people to consider besides myself”: Lessons Offered from American and British School and College Fiction, considers how school stories served as a source of informal education about ideal behavior. The paper draws on the Chalet School stories, written by Elinor Brent-Dyer, and the Grace Harlowe series, authored by Jessie Graham Flower. Lessons about character permeated nearly every book in both series.
The fictional school and college settings provided a venue in which the characters enjoyed a certain degree of independence and responsibility. A common feature of the school or college story is the emphasis placed on the institution as a community where loyalty to the community is integral to the educative process. Girls who fail to conform to the rules are expelled, although in most cases expulsion is avoided through a redemptive act and acceptance back into the community. The way the girls govern themselves and ensure unity of purpose demonstrates the informal way in which these fictional accounts could promote particular values, often those that underpin the ideals of citizenship. Teenage readers could learn about such ideals as being a member of a community, a status that required a certain degree of conformity but in search of a common good; about being a good sport and caring for others more than one’s self; and about helping those less fortunate.
Nancy is presenting a paper this weekend at the inaugural conference of The Albert M. Greenfield Digital Center for the History of Women’s Education, being held at Bryn Mawr College. The conference will feature presentations of digital humanities projects and discussions about issues connected with conducting historical research in a digital age. Here is a little taster from Nancy’s paper, which is entitled “What’s it all about, Alfie?: conducting research in a digital age – Sensuality, Serendipity, and Sources.” Please don’t reproduce any of this material without her permission.
There is something about the smell of dust in the archives that represents research. Learning to negotiate the physical space of the archives is a rite of passage for historians and remains an essential part of “what we do.” I am sure that all of us remember our early experiences doing archival research–the mysterious soft lighting, the smell of old paper, the gloves required to examine photographs, and yes, the dust of elderly pages– all of our senses engaged in the process of research. There is a certain sensual allure to the archives and we can hardly deny the attractions of archival research.
Yet there are negative features as well–the distances we must travel to access materials and the costs of getting there, the restrictions that must be imposed on handling rare materials, not having the requisite pencil for note taking, the inaccessibility of key sources, the limited hours. All of obstacles to research frustrate the historian, and the increasing availability of digital collections certainly helps to reduce some of the challenges inherent in research. Does utility trump sensuality? Does working with digital sources change the way we interact with them?
So, how do we go about “doing” history in this digital age? History traces continuity and change over time, and our digital world contributes to both these aspects of the field. Clearly access to terabytes and terabytes of resources offers the opportunity to conduct research in different ways and possibly on a different scale. But the process of research continues – as I have drilled into my students for many years, HISTORY IS AN EVIDENCE BASED DISCIPLINE. Whatever turn our research interests take – the biographical turn, the affective turn, the transnational turn, to name but a few – we rely on evidence to make our arguments. The process of digitizing archives has broadened our ability to access and use a much wider range of sources, from the comfort of office or home. But, with all these gains, do we not lose something of what drew us to history in the first place – unfolding a letter with the greatest of care, turning the pages of a diary unread since its author closed its pages, finding a photograph that perfectly illustrates a key point of our argument? What is the effect of quicker access to more?
Stephanie has two articles being published. The first, ‘Just a book in a library? The Sybil Campbell Library Collection fostering international friendship amongst graduate women’, will appear soon in History of Education and can be viewed online. The second, ‘Boarding School Fictions: schoolgirls’ own communities of learning’, is forthcoming in the Women’s History Review. Carry on reading for the abstracts of each article.
‘Just a book in a library?’: In 1927 the British Federation of University Women (BFUW) established Crosby Hall in London as a hall of residence for women graduates from overseas. The Federation aimed to foster international understanding and peace at a time of social and political turmoil. Accessions to the library at the Hall were on a somewhat ad hoc basis and provide an intriguing historical source. Crosby Hall was sold, but the much loved library travelled first to Bloomsbury and ultimately to the Special Collections of a university. This article discusses the sensory power of a book collection for the historian drawing on recent reflections on the affective turn in history of education. Is it more than the sum of its parts? Does the collection hold more meaning if held separately rather than integrated onto the general shelves? What are the possibilities inherent in research on rather than in a collection such as this?
‘Boarding School Fictions:’ This article explores the fictional world of the schoolgirl annual in the interwar period and the significance of the imagined girls’-only spaces for their intended readership. The article takes the year 1929, the year of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and focuses on two annuals designed for the 12–15 market: School Friend and Schoolgirls’ Own. The annual compendium of stories, a very British invention, drew on characters whose adventures were followed in the weekly schoolgirl comics and was published at Christmas, a time when there was little personal space available as families gathered together. The imaginary world of boarding schools such as Cliff House or Morcove offered readers an escape from the hierarchy of family life and expectations of girls’ participation in the home. Using the background of Woolf’s feminist polemic and a framework informed by the theoretical framing of space by feminist geographer Linda McDowell, the article teases out the meaning of the multilayered nature of stories created by men with no experience of single-sex girls’ school, writing as women.
Nancy has just recently completed collecting reading copies of the entire run of the Chalet School books. I am steadily working my way through the series, which numbered fifty eight books total. Elinor Brent-Dyer published the first book, The School at the Chalet, in 1925. The last of the series, Prefects of the Chalet School, appeared in 1970, the year following the author’s death. I have nineteen books to go and am already sad knowing that the series will end. Yet there is a certain timeless quality to the books and their characters that enables the reader to return to them, as one does to a conversation with old friends.
Collecting the series has been challenging, as I have sought reading copies rather than pristine first editions. I have bought only editions published by Chambers, Brent-Dyer’s original publisher, or by Girls Gone By Publishers, a wonderful firm that produces lovely reprints of several series books. Acquiring the books has also been made possible by used booksellers who make their inventory available online.
I have yet to pick a favorite book and want to reserve judgment till I have finished the series. So, watch this space!
Nancy heads off soon to present a paper entitled “Creating a Transnational Family: The Early Books of the Chalet School Series” at the annual Women’s History Network conference in Cardiff. This paper considers how the experience of being a Chalet School student transcended individual and national characters and blended the girls into a transnational community. It focuses on the first five books of the Chalet School series: The School at the Chalet, Jo of the Chalet School, The Princess of the Chalet School, The Head Girl of the Chalet School, and The Rivals of the Chalet School. This cover is one of my favorites, as it features Jo and Rufus, the St. Bernard she rescued as a puppy.