Head back to the classroom with our pick of the best books set in schools.
September means back to school! For those of you no longer a part of the education system why not read some of these A+ grade novels, and reminisce about PE in your knickers and your crush on Boy George (that was just me then?).
Cat’s Eye—Margaret Atwood
Cat’s Eye follows artist Elaine through 40 years of her life. Atwood’s novel explores her formative years and suggests that they were key in shaping her older, more confident and creative self. Without a mother figure, Elaine struggled to fit in with the girls at school. She was unfeminine and had no idea how to dress.
As a reader we see there is something wonderful and free-spirited about the young Elaine. The other characters, alas, only see her inability to fit in. Through taunts and bullying, they cajole her and force her to prescribe to their standards of femaleness.
How Elaine deals with this through adolescence and adulthood is well worth checking out. And although not autobiographical, there is a distinct similarity between Atwood and Elaine. Both the author and protagonist’s fathers are entomologists! Fact!
Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s novel is split into three parts, the first set in a dystopian boarding school of the future. The novel begins after its narrator/protagonist’s death. She begins a rather unreliable story about her life, and that of her friends at Hailsham School. I say she is fundamentally unreliable because she reliably informs us in the first sentence that she is dead. If a narrator is dead you ask, how can she narrate? You see, unreliable.
Kathy and her boyfriend Tommy are donors, bred to be on standby in case their organs are needed for transplant into someone else. Ishiguro’s use of an average life, of teenage friendships and romance and of a strange normality in an unnatural life, question the morality of his dystopian civilization. They challenge the opinion that one individual is worth more than another.
It is, as his books so often are, brilliant and thought-provoking.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—Muriel Spark
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie has everything a school-days novel should have. Girls stumbling through puberty, friendships and cliques, love triangles and intrigue and, of course, incitement to fascism.
Miss ‘in her prime’ Jean Brodie is a delicious character who collects a select group of six 10-year-old girls, and identifies them as the ‘Brodie Set’. Brodie’s favourites are specially educated, and party to the teacher’s secrets despite being barely teenagers. Brodie utilises and abuses this power of influence—the girls desire to be grown-up and like Miss Brodie—to promote her own misguided political opinions.
Spark’s novel is, like Atwood’s, confirmation that the formative school years significantly shape the adult life. The book fascinates as it reveals how Brodie’s Set move into adulthood and eventually turn on their manipulator.
Harry Potter series—J. K. Rowling
It would be churlish at best to write a list of the best school fiction without paying homage to the master. Anyone who reads a Potter book surely wants to go to a magical boarding school even if death and mortal peril lurk around every corner.
Hogwarts is the best school for witchcraft and wizardry, and this is because it is fundamentally a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who your parents are, or that you live in a cupboard under the stairs, you will be educated, to the best of your ability (even if you are a snivelling Malfoy). That’s the joy of Rowling’s books. They make you want to go to school, they make you want to read.
Oh, and they fill you with delight because you just realised that werewolf Remus Lupin’s name links to Remus, founder of Rome raised by a wolf, and Lupin, from the word ‘lupine’ meaning resembling a wolf, and rapacious. It is an education in itself.
The Year of the Gadfly—Jennifer Miller
Mariana Academy trains the elite. It is a school for the privileged and the excellent and nothing can, or will be allowed, to sully the honour of the Academy’s name.
Miller’s novel is full of intrigue and secret societies, on a grander and more impressive scale than Miss Brodie’s. Mariana has a vigilante group, The Prisom’s Party, who mete out a perverted justice; taking control not only of the other students but also taking revenge on teachers for any misdemeanour.
Like all other unsavoury and law-making entities, they are supported by a distasteful and corrupt media who scheme and blackmail. Protagonist Iris, who is a proper journalist, wants to expose the coercion and corruption. Will she succeed, or will the devilish media take sinister means to get rid of her?
Brontë’s novel examines Victorian class structures, gender and education, all the while re-working her earlier novel, The Governess, which was a loosely veiled autobiography. The main character, Lucy Snowe (or is it Brontë?), leaves England to pursue a life teaching on the continent.
Without friends and family, she is preyed upon and manipulated by the school’s owner Madame Beck and the studiously sharp Monsieur Paul. Unable to make friends with the teachers, Lucy becomes friends with an English student, but the girl quickly overshadows Lucy in looks, achievements, confidence and love.
Brontë’s power lies in narrating the psychology of unassuming young women so adeptly, and Lucy Snowe is no different. Her frantic awakening during an electrical storm is surely one of the most wonderful and profound pieces of writing in the Victorian period.
The Governess, or the Little Female Academy—Sarah Fielding
While from our modern perspective the narrative seems more simplistic and less devilishly exciting than Gadfly, Mrs Teachum’s school is jolly interesting indeed. The novel centres on nine girls and their life stories, which have been carefully notated by Mrs Teachum’s assistant Jenny.
How very interesting (yawn), you might say, but this novel does some nice things with John Locke’s philosophy of experience. The girl’s reflections on life and school are delightful and unlike some of the characters on this list, they seem to take enjoyment from learning, each other, and the company of their wise and personable educators.