I never really got into boarding school stories when I was a girl. There were books and comic strips galore but it didn’t really appeal. I know this means I missed out on a whole bunch of well-loved books – Chalet School, Malory Towers, (Harry Potter had not happened yet) – but although I read lots of wish-fulfilment stories about ponies and skating and ballet and theatre, boarding school was NOT something I pined for. Apart from the midnight feasts.
Living away from home and family? And at school 24/7? Not for me.
I was the kid who came home for lunch all through infant and junior school. My house was only 4 minutes’ quick walk away, and the idea of staying to school dinners horrified me. In fact, I did have to stay on one occasion when my mother was doing something mysterious in London for the day, and my worst fears were confirmed. Furry cucumber, boiled potatoes with black bits in, bright pink tinned meat. Boys chomping everything and delighting to chew with their mouths open. Scary dinner ladies looming over me. Never again!
My actual experience of boarding school is limited to two things. One was aged 12, a trip with my Sunday School where we lodged in a girls’ boarding school in Somerset for a fortnight during the holidays. We had midnight feasts – great fun – but the other food was a trial (plastic white bread, yukky margarine, no butter), so were big shared dormitories, semi-public bathrooms, and so many people to cope with all the time!
The second experience was in my mid-teens, when a friend had a Saturday morning job in the kitchen of a boys’ boarding school. I was going to stay with her for the weekend and met up with her (unofficially) at the school, where the lunch prep was going on in steamy, sweaty chaos. Somehow I got involved in working the massive automatic potato-peeling machine. All I can say is, it never happened to the Four Marys.
Yet one of my favourite classic stories, A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, is set in a boarding school, of sorts. No uniforms, rival houses, or hockey matches: it is more like the kind of establishment Jane Austen would have known a century before, where a small number of girls lived almost as family, doing lessons and learning accomplishments in the schoolmistress’s home. After a reversal of fortune, our heroine, Sara Crewe, goes from cosseted favourite pupil to unpaid and hungry teaching assistant and skivvy. I read it again recently and the story was still entrancing.
So what have I been missing all these years?
Can you suggest any other school stories I might like?
I’m a fussy eater, like my own space, and never got picked for teams. Which fictional boarding school might I ever fit in at?