Happy new academic year! September still feels much more like a new year to me than January, especially because autumn is wonderful and January is dismal. I shan’t rehearse the resolutions I’ve made (I am always making resolutions), but in honour of the new academic year, here are my five favourite books about schools.
Villette – Charlotte Brontë
One of my favourite books of all, anyway. Villette is such a weird little novel and the school in it is even weirder, all claustrophobic jealousies and neurotic competition. The portrayal of the headmistress Madame Beck, and spoiled pupil Ginevra Fanshawe bears out what Angela Carter wrote about Charlotte Brontë: that one of the most pleasing things about her is that she can sometimes be gloriously bitchy.
Autumn term – Antonia Forest
If you only read one middle class, mid twentieth century girls’ school story, choose one by Antonia Forest, who is massively more talented than any of the other school story writers. She’s very good at the awkwardnesses and petty worries of teenage friendships. Autumn term is very funny too; Forest writes some very good sarcastic lady teachers.
Claudine à l’école – Colette
This is most fun for the central character, the fifteen-year-old Claudine, revelling in her last year as Queen Bee in her tiny village school. She is one of those characters who would be unbearable to know – so malicious! so full of herself! – but is tremendously enjoyable to read: clear-eyed and smart and funny, with no time for hypocrisy and stupidity.
Frost in May – Antonia White
I’ve never been religious, but if I were to incline that way, Frost in May would work quite well as an antidote, I think. A lot of novels about schools are about the tension and claustrophobia of shutting up a lot of young women together; Antonia White adds strict Catholicism and some very scary nuns to this scenario. Reading Frost in May feels a bit like going slightly mad: you follow Nanda White’s initial revulsion at the cruelty of the environment, then her abject attempts to believe and conform, and finally her rebellion.
Mike and Psmith – PG Wodehouse
Someone recently produced a list of the sexiest men in British literature. It’s a pretty disappointing list, all things considered, but the omission that most appalled me and my sister was that of the unflappable, inimitable Psmith, definitely one of the most attractive literary heroes (certainly more attractive than Jerry Cruncher). Better still, he’s a socialist, if an unorthodox one:
“You won’t mind my calling you Comrade, will you? I’ve just become a socialist. It’s a great scheme. You ought to be one. You work for the equal distribution of property, and start by collaring all you can and sitting on it.”
Mike and Psmith is the first novel in which he appears, and has the extra virtue of being full of thrilling cricket matches. (Reading cricket matches in novels might be quite a specialist pleasure, I admit. Antonia Forest provides some good literary cricket matches too.)
Other excellent novels about schools I could also have mentioned: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and fall; Jane Gardam’s Bilgewater; RF Delderfield’s To serve them all my days; and dozens of children’s books, of course; and if you don’t follow @reelmolesworth on Twitter, you should.
Suggestions in the comments for ones I’ve missed?