Adults in School Stories

With this post, we begin a series of excerpts from conference papers — a snippet here or there to provide the flavor of our work.

A variety of adults appear in schoolgirl stories and many float through the plot with little to do.  Parents often hover in the background – in British boarding school novels, parents turn up at half term, some jolly, some embarrassing.  In both British and American stories, weak parents beget troublesome daughters and girls who “swanked” come from ostentatious families;  flawed parents meant girls who did not conform to schoolgirl society and had either to be brought into the fold or sent away from the tightly knit world of school. 

At times, absent parents become central to the plot, such as the mystery that surrounds GraceCoverDimsie’s missing mother.  In the American stories, parents may play a larger role, since the schoolgirls live at home.  American parents frequently host lavish parties and often serve as moral beacons for their daughters.  For example, we learn that, in a moment of crisis, “Grace had thought of consulting her mother, her best and wisest counselor at times, but Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe had gone on a long drive to the home of Mrs. Harlowe’s mother … “ (Jessie Graham Flower, Grace Harlowe’s Plebe Year at High School (1910), 103).  The absence of Grace’s mother forces Grace to think through the proper course of action to undertake to rescue her friend Anne, who had been kidnapped by her father, an itinerant actor.  The contrast made between the steadiness of Grace’s parents, who function as a moral compass, and the untrustworthiness of Anne’s father, who is constantly on the move and demanding money from Anne (who has none to spare), allows the reader to understand what sort of conduct separates right from wrong.

From Nancy G Rosoff, “Children and Adults in American and British Schoolgirl Fiction,” presented at the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association annual conference, Philadelphia, PA, November 2011


Upcoming Conferences

It’s going to be a busy fall for the Transnational Femininities project, as we will be doing presentations in Budapest, Hungary; Liverpool, England; and Wellington, New Zealand.

Let’s start with the last one first, as Stephanie has been invited to give the keynote address at the  Australian & New Zealand History of Education Society conference to be held in December, whose theme is Intersecting and Contested Histories of Education. She will be discussing the project and our research on school and college stories written for teenage girls in the US and the UK.

In September, Stephanie travels to Budapest for the ECER 2015 conference: “Education and Transition. Contributions from Educational Research”.  Her paper, ‘“Truth is Stranger than Fiction”.Reflections on the Use of Fiction as Historical Evidence for History of Education’ considers the use of fictional as historical sources. You can read the abstract here.

chalet1GraceCoverIn November both members of the team (Stephanie and Nancy)  will travel to Liverpool for the UK History of Education Society‘s annual meeting. Their paper, ‘Materialities: Covers and Illustrations in British and American School and College Stories’, will consider how covers and illustrations engaged readers, drew attention to particular moments in the plot, and identified key characters in the stories.

#histedmonth — using teen fictions as historical sources

As members of the UK History of Education Society, we are participating in a project to raise awareness of the history of education across social media platforms — #histedmonth.  You can read more about the project on the History of Education Society blog.

This project uses novels that feature school and college settings and that were written for a primarily teenage and female audience. We use these books as a means to try to understand the process and effects of informal education, education that takes place outside of schools and through multiple mediums. Readers of school and college novels could learn about ideal behavior for girls and adults, often from a gendered perspective.  They learned what school might be like and learned about character traits to be emulated, such as loyalty, caring for others, honor, and, that schoolgirl standard, pluck. These qualities and lessons emerged through reading the books and engaging with their characters.

In addition to being an enjoyable avenue of research, these teenage fictions offer important insight into what readers could gain from their perusal of these stories.

Back to School

As the back to school specials start popping up in shops, our thoughts turn to the novels in which the central characters begin their schooldays.  The following excerpts from a paper Nancy and Stephanie presented at the sixth biennial meeting of the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth give a sense of those early schooldays.[1]

In our chosen books, the first days of school serve to introduce readers to the cast of characters they will come to know in these series of schoolgirl stories.  Right from the start, readers learn about the character of the key figures in the stories, of those who will fit the schoolgirl mold and of those who will reinforce the principles of right and justice by their violation of them.  The creation of these schoolgirl societies establishes the conventions of school life, revealing how these little commonwealths will be governed by their citizens and what role, whether large or small, adult authority will play in this governance. Girls’ awareness that they entering a community whose educational purpose went beyond the academic is reflected by our young heroines who ‘keep wondering what school will be like’.[2]

Marj In one of the American novels, Marjorie Dean moves to a new town just before the start of her first year of high school.  Before the school year begins, she undertakes a reconnaissance mission of her new school and ponders how she will fit into the already established group of girls. “She was not afraid to plunge into her new school life, but deep down in her heart she felt some little misgiving.  What if the new girls proved to be neither likeable nor companionable?  What if she liked them but they didn’t like her?”[3] Marjorie had observed a group of her new classmates before starting school and met them soon after she had registered for classes.  On her first day of school, Marjorie is asked a question by Muriel Harding that will prove crucial to her finding a place among her classmates:  “‘By the way, do you play basketball?’.”[4]  Marjorie’s affirmative answer earns her invitation to the tryouts for the class team that will be held later in the week.  While Marjorie meets with her new English teacher, who had conveniently been the best friend in college of Marjorie’s former teacher, Muriel sizes up Marjorie and delineates her attributes – fashion sense, class, athletic prowess, and social connections all work together to establish Marjorie’s place in her new school.

chalet1The first days depicted in Eleanor Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet are not only the first days for new pupils, but also for the school itself.  Madge Bettany founds the school and populates the student body with her younger sister and a girl from their hometown as well as several students from the Austrian town in which the school was to be located.  When the school opens, its first group of pupils includes the two English girls and six more from local families.  The Austrian girls demonstrated familiarity with the conventions of British school stories, as all of the girls wondered who might be named Head Girl.  “’Ah yes; I have read of the Head Girl in your English school-stories,’ replied Gisela pleasantly. ’And also Prefects’.”[5]  Through their reading they were quite clear what school would be like.


[1] Nancy G. Rosoff and Stephanie Spencer, “‘I keep wondering what school will be like’:  The Depiction of Early Schooldays in British and American School Stories,” Sixth Biennial Conference, Society for the History of Children and Youth, New York, NY, June 2011.

[2] Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Dimsie Goes to School (London:  Oxford University Press, 1932), 2 [this edition is part of an omnibus collection of the first three books in this series; the original Dimsie Goes to School was published in 1921 as The Senior Prefect, with the title changed to Dimsie Goes to School in 1925].

[3] Pauline Lester, Marjorie Dean High School Freshman (New York:  A.L. Burt, 1917), 19.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Elinor M Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet ( London: Chambers,  3rd reprint 1937, fp 1925),  60.

Women, war, and popular writing: learning about war

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.Worrals of the WAAF1

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.

Overseas-204x300Nancy 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.

International Conferences on the Horizon

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 school-at-chalet-frontispiece-croppedcharacters; 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.



Lessons from British and American School Fiction

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.

head2The 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.