Why Boarding School Fiction Feels Comfortably Familiar

  • Why Boarding School Fiction Feels Comfortably Familiar

Author Chris Priestley on why we feel at home at Hogwarts

My most recent book, Maudlin Towers, is set in a grim and grimy Gothic boarding school in the Lake District. But like many writers who have used boarding schools as a setting, I have no personal experience of this type of setting. My father was in the army when I was a boy, and so we travelled around a fair bit – mostly in the UK, but we also spent a few wonderful years in Gibraltar. I had been to five schools before I eventually went to secondary school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

But although I had no direct experience of boarding schools, they played a big part in my boyish imagination. Because, as with most children, the most exciting things that happened in my childhood didn’t happen to me at all – they happened to the characters I was reading about in books and comics and watching on television and in films. These children – these fictional (and usually far more posh) children – almost always went to boarding school. They either had their adventures there, or even more often, when they came home from school for the holidays. This concept of ‘coming home’ for the holidays was alien to me, but fascinating because of it.

Strangely familiar

Boarding schools intrigued those of us who did not go. Imagine sleeping in your school – especially a creepy old school like the ones in so many stories. Imagine being with your friends 24/7. Imagine not being able to get away from bullies – and teachers (the horror!). Whether I was reading Winker Watson in the Dandy, or watching Billy Bunter or Tom Brown’s Schooldays on television, that world of gowns and mortarboards, tuck shops and dorms was very familiar to me, even if it had very little to do with my own experience living on army camps or council estates and attending state schools.

School settings allow children to be thrown together, with the resulting friendships and conflicts – much as a workplace setting does for adult stories. But a boarding school goes one better – it goes on 24/7. And why not take it one step further? Why not exaggerate that sense of selection, separation and difference? What if the children at the school were special in some way, and what if, instead of learning maths and history, they were learning magic?

Now, as soon as I mention magic, most people’s minds will go straight to Hogwarts and Harry Potter, not surprisingly given the massive success that series has enjoyed, both as books and films. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has become the default setting for magical schools. But it wasn’t the first school for the extraordinary of course. I was reading about the students at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters – later to become the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning – in Marvel comics years before JK Rowling came onto the scene. Although it wasn’t a school for magic, it was a school for the supernaturally gifted. It was a school, and refuge, for mutants with incredible powers. Professor Xavier’s students would become the X-Men, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s comic book series seems really ahead of its time now, with its themes of diversity, acceptance and celebration of difference. It also – like so much superhero fiction – plays to that desire to be more than we are. That desire is especially strong in the young, I think. It certainly was with me. It still is, actually.

Fiction archetype

The precursor to Hogwarts in children’s fiction that is most often mentioned is Miss Cackle’s Academy, the school in Jill Murphy’s hugely popular Worst Witch series, featuring the adventures of Mildred Hubble. But the brilliant Ursula Le Guin also used this idea of a special school in the wonderful A Wizard of Earthsea. It features a school for magicians on the island of Roke – one of hundreds of islands in the fascinating archipelago that features in the lovely map at the start of the book. Harry Potter does seem to share some of the darkness of Earthsea.

Rowling’s school is co-educational, of course, but apart from that nod to modernity it is almost period set. It is firmly in the world of traditional boarding school tales. It is as much about friendship as about magic – which is at the heart of its success. It sidesteps bothersome issues like mobile phones by having a world where such things do not exist – although that does conjure up the oddness of Muggles being able to Facetime while wizards standing around waiting for handwritten notes delivered by owls. Hogwarts felt new and also like it had always been there. It felt familiar. The Gothic boarding school has become an archetype of children’s fiction – it has entered our collective imagination.

And even though I didn’t board, the grammar school I went to in Newcastle had many of the features of a public school in miniature – the red brick Victorian Gothic; the little cloistered quad; a vestibule outside the bay-windowed headmaster’s office; the sports field and the cricket pavilion; the four houses we were divided into, each with a different coloured tie; the prescriptive rules about what could and could not be worn; prefects with their enamel badges; head boys; cricket; rugby. Gowns were still worn by some staff.

But the biggest influences on me for Maudlin Towers School for the Not Particularly Bright Sons of the Not Especially Wealthy were St Trinian’s and St Custard’s. Ronald Searle’s anarchic drawings of schoolchildren (and their schools) were as much of an influence as the wonderful writing of Geoffrey Willans in the Molesworth books. The idea for Maudlin Towers was first and foremost a visual one. I knew that I wanted to write stories set in the world of a Gothic pile and everything else followed on from that. All I had to do then – as always – was to think of a good story to go with it.

About the author

Chris Priestley is the author of Maudlin Towers: Curse of the Werewolf

Pie Corbett