The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The School Story  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Although Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays was the most important school story of the nineteenth century, it was not the first. Schools were used as story frameworks or settings in Evaldus Gallus’ Pueriles Confabulatiunculae (1584), Sarah Fielding’s The Governess (1749), and Goody Two-Shoes (1765). The first set of stories about school life was Dorothy Kilner’s Village School (1795), but these, and the school stories which followed them in the first half of the nineteenth century, were didactic, focusing on teaching virtue to children. Tom Brown’s Schooldays is generally seen as the novel which began children’s literature’s transition from didactic literature to more realistic and entertainment-oriented literature–from literature written to children to literature written for children.

Although Tom Brown’s Schooldays is essentially a conservative book, it is in certain ways subversive. The novel’s perspective is Tom’s, and the morals which the novel privileges are Tom’s, and while Tom adopts the views of Doctor Arnold by the end of the story Tom is also loyal to the other students–more so than he is loyal to the adult teachers. Peer solidarity, rather than adherence to adult morality, becomes the supreme virtue, an idea which both empowered children and undermined adult authority, although the novels were careful to establish the fact that mature children realized that adult authority was worth agreeing with.

Tom Brown’s Schooldays established the basic format for the majority of the school stories published until the start of World War Two: An ordinary boy arrives at school. He is enthusiastic about sports and gains acceptance with the other boys through his performance on the field and through serving them. He rises through the ranks of the other students and becomes accomplished at sports, winning contests for the school. The story’s emphasis is on sports and the student’s social life; academics are of secondary or tertiary importance. Competition is balanced with the desirability of group harmony and fitting in. Eventually the student comes into hostile contact with other students (bullies) or with teachers (he is accused of cheating on a test). The student triumphs over his opponents or proves his innocence. The novel ends with the student reflecting nostalgically about his time at school, either as an adult or as he is about to graduate.

Between the publication of Tom Brown’s Schooldays and the 1880 appearance of Talbot Baines Reed’s “The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s,” there were three types of school stories: the didactic, of which Tom Brown’s Schooldays and F.W. Farrar’s dreary Eric, or Little by Little (1858) were the most prominent examples; the farcical, which usually appeared in the penny dreadfuls and story papers (the Jack Harkaway Adventures were the archetype for the 1870s story paper school story); and stories which attempted to combine the two, such as the Reverend H.C. Adams’ Schoolboy Honour (1861) and Ascott Hope’s Oudendale (1865).

Reed’s “The Fifth Form,” which appeared in The Boy’s Own Paper in 1880-1, began the second wave of school stories. Reed’s was the most successful attempt at combining the moralistic and the farcical, and he did so while avoiding the didacticism of his predecessors. Moral behavior was stressed but religion was de-emphasized, and the importance of athletic competition was heightened. Some school stories still described life at school as an ordeal (see: Vice Versâ), and occasionally the brutality of the Flashman’s torture of Tom Brown would reappear, as in Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (1899), but most stories maintained a much lighter tone. The serious events of earlier school stories, including the deaths or descent into alcoholism of students, was replaced by milder injuries and temporary rascality. The stories continued to adopt the perspective of the student and to endorse the codes of children rather than adults. The students’ code became a more extreme form of its 1860s/1870s predecessor: working hard on schoolwork was to be avoided, but working hard at athletics was a necessity; a stiff upper lip was the only manly form of behavior; boys from the lower classes were inferior to boys from the middle and upper classes; English boys were superior to foreign boys; and so on.

The school story for girls was a much later creation. The first true school story for girls was A World of Girls (1886) by L.T. Meade, and the genre would only reach its Golden Age in the twentieth century with the works of Angela Brazil.

The situation in America was different. There were far fewer boarding schools in America and much less mystique was attached to them by students or adults. Nineteenth century American children’s literature tended to reject school, either through open resistance to it or by focusing on the child’s life outside of school. Stories of open resistance put children into opposition with adults in works such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Stories which focused on the child’s life outside of school often focused on the family, in the work of authors like Louisa May Alcott. Much more popular with American children was the travelogue series, including Oliver Optic’s Young America Abroad series (1866-1869, 1871-1877), Thomas Wallace Knox’s Boy Travelers series (1879-1894), and Elizabeth Champney’s Three Vassar Girls series (1883-1892). The American school story only became popular in the twentieth century in the sports dime novels (see: The Frank Merriwell Adventures).

At the start of the twentieth century the school story split into elite and non-elite strands. The elite strand were serious stories which questioned the assumptions of the genre and raised controversial issues, including the presence of homosexuality in the schools. These stories were far less popular than the school stories of the non-elite strand, which appeared in story papers and featured characters like Charles Hamilton’s gluttonous schoolboy Billy Bunter and Nelson Lee during his headmaster phase (see: The Nelson Lee Mysteries). These stories usually followed the same rough template: well-meaning but proud/mischievous/misbehaving children defy their evil classmates/uncomprehending and often stupid teachers and headmasters and get involved in adventures, whether mild (Will the plucky lads of Academy X beat the vile bounders of School Y in the next game of cricket/rugger/football?) or dangerous (“Good heavens, schoolmaster, those look like the tracks of a giant opium fiend!”).

For Further Research

Beverly Lyon Clark, Regendering the School Story. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Robert J. Kirkpatrick, The Encyclopaedia of Boys’ School Stories. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2000.