by Randall S. Frederick
My university recently assigned Curtis Sittenfeld’s 2005 novel Prep to our Freshman students and, having completed the reading, students seemed mixed in their impressions. Some complained that “nothing happened” while others said the story was immediately relatable, as they had moved away from home and were now living in a boarding situation in on-campus dormitories. Most were visibly shocked, their bodies jerking backward in surprise when I put forward the idea that J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Prep had a great deal in common. To better understand a novel, students have to situate it within a larger context or genre. It is not enough for a reader to say they simply didn’t like a story or even that they found it relatable. To perform the craft of analysis, we must move past the superficial and subjective to a deeper and broader understanding. For Prep, this means seeing it as the product of other school stories and recognizing that the quotidian events of daily life are, in fact, still relevant to readers even when they have not lived the life portrayed in the novel.
Prep is part of a century-long literary tradition, the school story genre. The “school story” is a genre that centers on young adults and adolescents whose lives, we must recognize, are predominantly centered around the educational experience. For most young people, their daily schedule consists of at least 6 hours shared with fellow students followed by homework or tutoring sessions into the evening. Recreational activities like music/band/choir or sports also make up another part of their evening schedule, if only seasonally. It should be no wonder then that stories involving young people involve school. In other forms of entertainment like tv shows – for example, Locke & Key, That’s So Raven, Pretty Little Liars, Lizzie McGuire, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, or Riverdale – audiences are accustomed to school activity. It would seem strange and unsettling if the characters did not have the shared experience of school. Creatively as well as practically, the shared space allows an author or production team to have a central location, a home base, a stage or board to move the pieces of plot around for the story they are telling. In the case of Prep, this is Ault Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts.
When the novel was originally assigned to us by one of our departmental committees, I began discussing it with my girlfriend who attended a boarding school in Connecticut. Repeatedly, she kept asking me to clarify whether the story took place in Massachusetts or Connecticut since so much of the book reminded her of her own experience. Room checks, inherited privilege, rules regarding the opposite sex, dress codes, the emergence of sexual feeling and competition for affection (even temporary), and perpetual pettiness were staples of her experience. However, one of my students this semester also attended a boarding school before coming to college and she insisted that Prep was “nothing like what I saw.” In discussing this, both the student and the girlfriend believed that times had changed, that Sittenfeld’s presentation was very much an accurate reflection of boarding schools for a specific time before so many social movements and political shifts had taken place following September 11, 2001. Prep reflects, then, a time when female students were still encouraged to respect and protect the proverbial “glass ceiling” of society. Contemporary readers, like my recent semester of students, seemed put off by the culturally antiquated implications that Sittenfeld put forward in the novel. However, again, the work fits into a long heritage of respecting traditions and social order. School stories were, after all, most popular in the first half of the 20th Century before the upheavals of the 1960s and revolutions of the 1970s with their various cultural, gendered, racial, social, and political disestablishmentarian movements. Other examples exist outside the Western canon, but most school stories (at least until the 1970s) were set in English boarding schools and presented as well as defined, explained, and supported the order of a pre-Reagan, pre-Mitchell Anglican economy. School stories are almost universally an effort to depict that social order and the actors who seek to protect and perpetuate it, even when various protagonists and antagonists intend to defy, subvert, or show the ironic flaws within the upheld system. Whether written in gendered subgenres (boys schools, girls schools, or the later co-educational), school stories have often focused largely on friendship, honor, responsibility, and loyalty. In this way, they serve as a morality tale under the more palatable and relatable “slice of life” presentation of the form. Young readers who “just didn’t like” Prep did so, when pressed and teased, say that it is because “nothing happened.” They grow frustrated not at the unfamiliarity of the story so much as the broad relatability of it. Other readers, however, in the same way and for the same reasons, find comfort in seeing their banal existence committed to print, reassuring them that the mundane and predictable is still “art” and that the minor slights and challenges of their lives – bullies, secrets, the evolution of friendships, rivalries, and missteps of relationships – are meaningful if not inherently dramatic.
To this end, the school story serves as a palliative. Especially as the genre moves out of the middle of the Twentieth Century, the form recedes into other genres and is now almost forgotten. The traditional school story declined after World War II not because it was out of style, but because of the institution of public education which increasingly provided educational opportunities for plebians and the children of plebians. As the genre reflected state-run coeducational schools, the themes began to reflect the diversity of individuals and socio-economic difference within Western populations, such as Sittenfeld’s depiction of Lee, a student from a middle-class family at Ault on scholarship or the comparative poverty of the Weasley family in Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Readers of Rowling’s works will inevitably ask how it is that the Weasley family resides at a comparative disadvantage (for example, Ron’s inability to buy candy and treats on the Hogwarts Express contrasted to Harry’s abundance by way of inherited wealth) to the rest of the wizarding world. Additionally, readers will notice the recurring issue with “Mudbloods” within the wizarding community and even the confusion Hermione Granger’s disclosure of her parent’s work as dentists is met with confusion and even shame. Indeed, class, wealth and privilege are just some of the challenges reflected in the school story coming out of the middle of the century together with racial conflict, family life, sexuality, mental health, and drug usage.
Historically, The Governess or The Little Female Academy (1749) by Sarah Fielding is considered the first boarding school story and a significant work of 18th Century children’s literature. The Governess is a morality tale offering instruction on behavior with each of the nine girls, in turn, relating her story individually in the same way that Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (a story with which most readers of Western literature would presumably already be familiar) offer their stories in turn with short transitions between each traveler. Each story offers a self-contained lesson with little connection to the outside world of local agrarian life. The girls are encouraged to live together with a sense of community and collective responsibility and to be especially explicit on these lessons, the preface of the work explains that the following “sheets” or pages are intended to show young readers that “Pride, Stubbornness, Malice, Envy, and, in short, all manner of Wickedness, is the greatest Folley we can be possessed of”; in counterpoint, “Certainly, Love and Affection for each other make the Happiest of all Societies.” The story takes place over ten days, not including some initial background information, and an epilogue. On each day, except for the first, all or part of a text is read aloud to the students by Miss Jenny Peace, the oldest student at the school at fourteen. A modern reader will surely note the way each of the “angels” at the school are described; Jenny’s “whole person was the most agreeable that can be imagined” and while there may be prettier girls in the group, her schoolmates “eyes were a direct contradiction to their tongues, by being continually fixed on Miss Jenny.” Each girl is physically described, followed by their life story, which are written so as to appear to have been spoken by each respective girl. Each session or episode is capped by an appearance from Mrs. Teachum, the titular governess or headmistress who explains the lesson that should be taken from each experience. Much emphasis is given to the importance of reading and reflecting on the reading since the stories seem to be based largely upon the Lockean educational ideal of avoiding learning as work or a job to instead present it as something to be enjoyed. To this end, Fielding employs the use of fairy tales as well as everyday occurrences (receiving a letter, meeting strangers, touring fancy houses) to educate her pupils toward a living life full of happiness. The Governess, as a seminal work, presents what would later become the standard aspects of the boarding school story, perpetuating the same core lessons and becoming the formula that Fielding’s contemporaries and those who would inherit the genre in the 19th Century would follow for similar success, as children were only then emerging as a market for publishers. Most children’s literature of that century, as a result, sought to instill morality if not piety through instructional manuals and to “reclaim” the wastefulness of the novel which too often dealt with concerns outside of social order like romance or veiled accusations against the ruling class.
As many as 100 school stories are published between 1749 and 1857, though this is perhaps a wide net since more popular stories like Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son (1848) and David Copperfield (1850) are often included in the list because they include school story elements. It is 1857 that Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes is published, which is unquestionably the most famous of such stories and unifies disparate elements into a cohesive genre that, as with Sarah Fielding, would produce many imitations such as F.W. Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School (1858), H.C. Adams’ Schoolboy Honour, a Tale of Halminster College (1861), and A.R. Hope’s Stories of Whitminster (1873). The popularity of the genre can be attributed to the passage of British Parliament’s 1870 Education Act. We see in the writings of each of these authors a stiff divide in class, where most children were abused and neglected while an exceptional few were allowed to study. The school story, until the late 19th Century, remained concerned with lucky wards and privileged children which allowed a familiar pattern across all novels involving the elements of a school story. According to Parliament,
Matters began to move forward, however, in 1869 when the recently formed National Education League began its campaign for free, compulsory and non-religious education for all children. The views expressed by industrialists that mass education was vital to the nation’s ability to maintain its lead in manufacture carried considerable weight in Parliament. A Bill which met many, but not all, of the League’s wishes was drafted and introduced by W. E. Forster, and quickly passed. The 1870 Education Act stands as the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education in Britain. Most importantly, it demonstrated a commitment to provision on a national scale. The Act allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged, but established a system of ‘school boards’ to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. Unlike the voluntary schools, religious teaching in the board schools was to be ‘non-denominational’. A separate Act extended similar provisions to Scotland in 1872 (“1870 Education Act”).
It should be noted, however, that while Parliament’s 1870 Education Act allowed for public education, it did not make education compulsory. Many children, as in America well into the 20th Century, remained a forgotten workforce and subject to indebtedness with their parents or custodians.
The issue of making education compulsory for children had not been settled by the Act. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour. In 1880 a further Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten, though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82 per cent. Many children worked outside school hours – in 1901 the figure was put at 300,000 – and truancy was a major problem due to the fact that parents could not afford to give up income earned by their children. Fees were also payable until a change in the law in 1891. Further legislation in 1893 extended the age of compulsory attendance to 11, and in 1899 to 12 (ibid).
In the decade following the passage of the 1870 Education Act, publishers began advertising novels specifically to children who were now entering school and negotiating the experience as a collective generation for the first time. It created new categories for publishing almost overnight. Boys magazines, a new end of publishing, often included school stories. In particular, The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s by Talbot Baines Reed was serialized from 1881 to 1882 and later collected as a complete volume in 1887 where it was reprinted so many times that it had sold 750,000 copies by 1907. Peter Hunt and Dennis Butts record a growing market for girls’ school stories as well.
There had been an increase in female schooling from the 1850s, augmented by the 1870 Education Act. L. T. Meade, who also wrote historical novels and was a magazine editor, become the most popular writer of girls’ school stories in the final decade of the nineteenth century. Her stories focused on upper class pupils at boarding schools who learned to earn trust by making mistakes, they had little focus on sports and were primarily interested in friendships and loyalty. They remained largely rooted in Victorian values and preparing girls to be proper wives and mothers. (149)
Here, we might pause before entering the 20th Century and note the difference in how genders were segregated. An observant student of gender studies will notice a contrast between prescriptive and descriptive presentations of the educational experience. While school stories directed at boys were descriptive, focusing on fun and sporting rivalry, literature directed toward girls was prescriptive for the purposes of sustaining women as the moral exemplars and light of the domestic sphere, the paragons of virtue and right living, defined by their virtuous choices and aspirations toward marriage and motherhood. This was to become a defining characteristic of all publishing directed toward women until the middle of the century. Most literature for girls at the turn of the twentieth century focused on the value of self-sacrifice, moral virtues, dignity and aspiring to find a proper position in societal order. This was to a large extent changed by the publication of Angela Brazil’s girl’s school stories in the early 20th Century, namely The Nicest Girl in School (1910) which featured energetic characters who challenged authority, played pranks and lived in their own youthful world in which adult concerns were sidelined. Coeducation remained rare in boarding school stories and in contrast to Brazil’s stories would be Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl in the School (1940) series, set in an exceptionally progressive coeducational school. Readers will of course quickly notice from Blyton’s work that the main character, Elizabeth Allen, is a spoiled girl who is sent to a boarding school called Whyteleafe to correct her behavior. Elizabeth is determined to misbehave so that she will be expelled, but she is surprised to find that the children run the school through weekly community meetings and that her behavior will be judged by her peers. It is a portrayal of children’s restorative justice based on Summerhill School, founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. Summerhill presents itself as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and where everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill’s principle “Freedom, not Licence.” This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend. It is an example of both democratic education and alternative education. In contrast to Summerhill, coeducational schools for all British schoolchildren were funded by the public purse and, accordingly, critics, librarians and educational specialists became interested in creating a more modern curriculum and tended to see stories of this type as outdated and irrelevant.
Those who pick up Naughtiest Girl in School for historical rather than prurient interest will see that boarding schools were beginning to be depicted as a location of punishment or the need for polish, rather than a societal marker of status. This would surely, coming out of World War II, support the idea that public education was for good children and a normal part of progress and stability compared to boarding schools which had, by the middle of the century, begun to contract for financial reasons as a result of economic recession and World War II. Boarding schools in the public imagination were increasingly becoming locations of military preparation (for boys) or finishing schools (for young women). By the latter half of the 20th Century, coeducational boarding schools were mysterious and often the stage for children’s fantasy literature, which J. K. Rowling so famously capitalized on with her Harry Potter series.
Sittenfeld, unlike Rowling, presents a small world foreign only to those who have not attended a boarding school. In the classes to which this novel has been assigned, the refrain of public education students is that they don’t understand it and general confusion persists as to what a boarding school is – whether it is a punitive method of education or exclusively for military preparation. Students seem genuinely surprised to find that issues like the odd behavior of roommates and constant fear of theft, violation of boundaries, longing for home, and the emergence of relational and sexual entanglements are universal whether one attends the day schools of both public and private education, parochial and charter schools, military academies, preparatory and boarding schools.
Claire Cornwall writes that “although it is not made clear what year the novel begins, it is thought that Lee’s experience is some time during the 1980s” because of the “floral bedspreads, floral dresses with lace collars and dangly earrings being all the rage for the female student” rather than the shocking and dangerous boarding school environment reported on from the following decade through the early Aughts. Carlos Sanchez, reporting for The Washington Post in February of 1990, notes that boarding schools had become hotbeds for illicit and often illegal behaviors.
The headmasters at seven of the Washington area’s most prestigious private schools have written a letter to the parents of all students warning them that students are regularly throwing large, unsupervised parties where “excessive drinking and sexual license are common.” In what the headmasters called a rare joint effort, the letters… asked parents to step up supervision of their children to prevent them from attending or throwing weekend parties that are open to almost anyone and where alcohol is easily available.
The letter was written jointly “to give it more impact,” said Malcolm Coates, headmaster at Landon School in Bethesda. “The fact that seven schools decided it was enough of a problem to address it is significant.” Individual schools have confronted the issue before. At the beginning of the school year, for example, Georgetown Preparatory School in Rockville held a conference with parents to discuss the problem of unsupervised parties and similar activities. One solution, a parent said, was the creation of parent groups to open up communication among parents and lines of information about where their children are, what they are doing and with whom. The headmasters said they believe that on most weekends there is at least one large party, sometimes with several hundred students in attendance. “It would be hard to devise a better recipe for disaster than a social scene that includes the anonymity provided by an ‘open party’ with no adult supervision, considerable amounts of alcohol, and teenage hormones which encourage sexual or violent behavior.”
The mystery of boarding school, then, seems to fade away almost entirely when students and readers realize there is a rather expansive commonly shared experience that could potentially allow us to find commonality and agreement instead of focusing on the cultural, sexual, political, and gendered differences so often divide us. In this, I come back to both my girlfriend and student’s expressions as much as my own that Sittenfeld’s Prep is different only in specific details, not necessarily in the broad depiction of the scholastic experience.
“The 1870 Education Act” UK Parliament. https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/school/overview/1870educationact/
Cornwall, Claire. “Prep Background” Gradesaver. https://www.gradesaver.com/prep
Fielding, Sarah. The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy. Ed. Candace Ward. Peterborough: Broadview Editions, 2005.
Hunt, Peter and Dennis Butts. Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Sanchez, Carlos. “Area Headmasters Warn Parents of Student Parties” The Washington Post. 24 Feb. 1990, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/1990/02/04/area-headmasters-warn-parents-of-student-parties/06927fdb-a9fb-4a1c-89bb-8b004e21825e/
“School Story” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_story