[Yes, I’ve still got them]
Oh, it was rousing stuff: midnight feasts in the dorm; false accusations of theft; physical fights at times (once Gwendolyn had to put cold cream on her legs after a ringing slap). There were talent shows with casting calamities, pranks that ended in the sanatorium, literal cliffhangers like when Mary-Lou took the shortcut home in a storm and dangled from a gorse bush for hours. And there were crushes and betrayals; divas and doormats; triumphs and disasters to spare.
There was also hilarious snobbery: the cook’s son was never as brave or even as tall as the pampered madams who attended the school. There was the same casual xenophobia shading into racism that you find in a lot of British fiction from between the wars (Have you looked at Dorothy L Sayers lately?). There was no anti-Semitism . . . but only because there were no Jewish people.
All of that went over my head at the time. And I’m not going to beat myself up about it now. I just loved them. And because of them I loved the Jean Estoril stories about Drina Adams at ballet school in London, which were much more open to the wonders of the world.
[These weren’t even mine originally: my pal Catherine grew out of them and I nipped in.]
I’m sure some of the unprecedented number of grown-ups reading the Harry Potter books were reacting to the first school stories they’d come across since adulthood descended and spoiled everything. [Sidebar: it’s hard to imagine yourself back there now. The Hunger Games and Twilight have made crossover fiction so unremarkable, but I read The Philosopher’s Stone by sneaking into my flatmate’s daughter’s room at night after she’d fallen asleep and pinching her copy]. I know it wasn’t just the school that sent Harry Potter into publishing orbit, but I can’t be the only one who was sorry Book 7 didn’t go to Hogwarts, right?
Now I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which I adore) spoke to me because of the school, even though it was a very peculiar school with such exotic things as . . . lockers and . . . home rooms (and, I suppose, vampires).
[The clothes were always the scariest thing]
And then there’s Glee and Friday Night Lights and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Katherine Howe’s Conversion. I can’t think of a school-set book I haven’t enjoyed. Truly, if Stephen King had taken 11/22/63 in another direction, deciding Jake was going to stay put in the present and teach English for eight hundred and forty two pages, I’d still have read it.
When I took my own 1920s detective to a girl’s boarding school in A Bothersome Number of Corpses, I’d never had so much fun (and I’ve had a lot of fun with that character: I’m talking circuses and hat-shops here). And when I found a boarding school muscling into the first draft of The Child Garden I knew I was writing page after page of stuff that would never make it into the final version. I don’t think I’ve ever come out of a second draft with more dead darlings than this time. I had lesson plans, blueprints for the layout of the classrooms and dorms, I had a prospectus statement from the headmistress . . . it’s all gone. I’m proud of what’s left. I don’t always say that but I am actually quite proud of The Child Garden.
Enid Blyton would drop dead, foaming at the mouth, mind you.
WHAT CHILDHOOD READS DO YOU GO BACK TO? OR WHAT NEW LOVES HAVE YOU FOUND? Tell us or leave a comment for Catriona. on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win an advanced review e-book copy of THE CHILD GARDEN! (US entrants only, please.)