The unfashionable world of Blyton’s school stories still has much to say about what it means to live an ethical life.
Alan Bennett describes the experience perfectly: you’re halfway through a book by a long-dead stranger, and there it is: an idea or feeling ‘you had thought special and particular to you… set down by someone else … as if a hand has come out and taken yours’. I remember the first time this happened to me. Growing up as a bookish boy in a house with few books, I had learnt to be indiscriminate: the back of the proverbial cereal box, my father’s Soviet manual of civil engineering, or – as on this occasion – whatever my sister had brought home from the school library.
First Term at Malory Towers (1946) opens with an image of its heroine, 12-year-old Darrell Rivers in front of a mirror, pleased at the look of her new school uniform. ‘It’s jolly nice,’ she says to herself, ‘I like it.’ What will her first term at boarding school be like, she wonders. Like something in a school story? Probably not: ‘I expect it won’t be quite the same at Malory Towers.’ Straightaway, Darrell and her creator – the prolific and much-maligned children’s novelist Enid Blyton – own, and promptly disown, their literary inheritance: the British boarding-school novel. Like thousands of other Indian (or Australian or South African or Singaporean) children, I learnt from her books that there was such a place as Britain, that some children there went to boarding schools, and that other people wrote books about them.
The tradition of the boarding-school novel begins, more or less, with Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), that classic of hearty didacticism set in Rugby School when that most eminent of Victorians Thomas Arnold was headmaster. Its author, Thomas Hughes, made no apologies for all the moralism: ‘Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching!’ he said to an imagined critic. Tom Brown has most of the tropes that would come to distinguish the genre he invented: the pre-prepubescent naïf leaving home for the first time; the bully; the climactic cricket match; the intense friendship and the equally intense rivalry; and, in all this, the fate of our young hero’s soul hanging in the balance. Will he choose the way of virtue or vice? Or will he become that awful thing, a prig, a contemptible parody of the good man?
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This article was originally published in Aeon Magazine.