As it’s back-to-school week, Ursula Doyle has chosen her five favourite school stories. She has actually cheated by adding some honourable mentions at the end.
Life with Mother Superior, Jane Trahey (1940)
Hilarious memoir of life at a Catholic boarding school in the 1930s, and the author’s friendship with the charismatic, badly-behaved and utterly glamorous Mary Clancy. The parts I remember best are Mother Superior’s sex education class – ‘Never sit on a boy’s lap’ – and Jane and Mary charging their classmates for a tour of the nun’s living quarters. The ending comes as a huge surprise (or it did to me, at 13).
What Katy Did at School, Susan Coolidge (1873)
Katy, now thankfully and miraculously recovered from her terrible accident (What Katy Did), is sent with her sister Clover to Hillsover Academy in New Hampshire, far away from their Midwestern home. Katie’s achievements include founding ‘The Society for the Suppression of Unladylike Conduct’ (the SSUC), and befriending the terrifying Miss Jane. Personal highlight: the Christmas Box chapter.
Frost in May, Antonia White (1933)
A haunting, autobiographical novel about Nanda Grey, the young daughter of a Catholic convert, who is sent to a convent boarding school, The Five Wounds, Lippington (based on The Sacred Heart, Roehampton) to be forged into a true daughter of the Church. Precise, terrifying and unforgettable.
The Cricket Term, Antonia Forest (1974)
All of Antonia Forest’s school stories about the Marlow family are brilliant, but this might be my favourite. The Cricket Term sees Nicky and Lawrie Marlow back at Kingscote for a term of dramas involving cricket, the school play and a scholarship exam. The Kingscote novels are much more realistic and subversive than many boarding-school tales – and in this one, Antonia Forest tackles the death of an unpopular but sympathetically described character with astonishing insight and humanity.
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld (2005)
Lee Fiora, an ordinary girl from small-town Indiana, wins a scholarship to Ault, an exclusive East Coast prep school. Prep is a classic coming-of-age story, with the added ingredients of race, gender and privilege. It is both enormously entertaining and quietly chilling and contains some of the greatest preppy names ever (personal favourite: a girl called Gates).
And honourable mentions for the Chalet School series (Mittagessen!), Malory Towers especially the first one (Darrell slapping Gwendoline in the swimming pool!), St Clare’s (Alma Pudden!), Jennings & Darbishire (Mr Wilkins!) and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.
Join the discussion on Twitter @BlackfriarsBook – and by coincidence, #bookaday’s theme today is also books set in schools.