#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.

Considering Women’s History in the Digital World

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?

Publication news

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.

thed20.v042.i01.cover‘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.