Who would have thought teens would still read British girls’ boarding-school stories in the 21stcentury? I suppose this topic came to be because my niece is home from boarding school and I was going through her books. Outside of my small group, though, who’d would want to read about a plucky new girl scoring the winning goal in lacrosse when there are powerful wizards, alluring vampires and enterprising undercover spies out there on the bookshelves, fictitious teenagers saving much more interesting and dangerous worlds?
Well, plenty of readers, it seems, because the British girls’ boarding-school novel made a surprising comeback from 2007, beginning with Sara Lawrence’s High Jinx. Carmen Reid’s St Jude’s series about Gina Peterson and her friends began in 2008 and numbers six books to date. The Saffina Desforges writing team (which included two teenagers) released the entertaining St Mallory’s Forever! earlier this year.
So what are the main differences between the classic British girls’ boarding-school stories of the past and the ones that are being written now?
Boys are in them
Today’s fictional boarding-school girls have relationships. They meet hot boys in town on Saturdays and smuggle them into parties at school. Chastity Maxwell in High Jinx even ‘shags the handyman’ in the sixth-form boarding-house.
They’re not all into boys, of course. Some of them date girls. Today’s fictional lesbian schoolgirls are out and proud – you don’t have to read between the lines as you did with the Chalet School back in the day.
Heroines have issues
They might look and read like chick lit for teenage girls, but contemporary British girls’ boarding-school stories cover some serious issues. What’s it like to have your dad come out as gay or have his business empire suddenly collapse, as happens to Amy in the St Jude’s books. How do you deal with parental pressure to do well at school? How do you handle going to a boarding-school where your mum is one of the teachers? What happens when a jealous rival sends a photo of you partying to your strict Muslim father?
Swearing, smoking, drinking…and careers
OMG! The use of slang was a problem for the teachers at the Chalet School. They’d go nuts if they heard the language of fictional schoolgirls today. Not only that, but the girls sneak out to smoke (and not always cigarettes…) and smuggle booze into the dorm. But for all the partying, the girls have high expectations of themselves. Even the seemingly dizziest ones are serious about becoming a lawyer.
And what’s the same?
Well, it is the boarding-school genre and some things never change. Getting the lead role in the school play remains of vital importance. As does scoring the winning goal for your school on the sports field. Practical jokes still abound too – especially at St Jude’s, where irrepressible Niffy follows in the footsteps of pranksters like Alicia and Bobby from Malory Towers and St Clare’s. The midnight feasts may have gone, but there are plenty of other illicit goings on when the clock strikes twelve…
The most important similarity though is the friendships. Girls like Jinx, Gina and Helen are as loyal to their besties as Darrell, Joey and Dimsie ever were. Living together 24/7 brings them close together; they become family to each other, and support each other through work woes, parental break-up, body image struggles…and, of course, those broken hearts.
There may not be opportunities to learn about potions or surveillance, but there are worse places for teenage characters to spend the best years of their lives.