17 SES 13, Paper Session
This paper discusses the use of girls’ series fiction as a means through which readers were informally educated into the expectations for gendered citizenship between 1925 and 1960. It focuses on the example of a long running series of teenage novels about the Chalet School written by Elinor Brent-Dyer between 1923 and 1970. Acceptance into, and membership of, the school community is not automatic and the ‘new girl’ has to pass certain tests as to her character before she earns the right to call herself a ‘Chaletian’. Being included is presented to the reader as central to the wellbeing both of the individual and to the community of the school as a whole. The discussion is drawn from a wider research project into ‘Fiction, Femininity and Friendship’ in school and college stories for girls in Britain and the USA 1910-1960 that is nearing completion. The research question driving the whole project is the possibility of identifying, through fiction, the prescription for a middle-class femininity that transcends national boundaries in the first half of the twentieth century. In this paper we focus our discussion on the way that one series of girls’ school stories books educated their readers into an understanding of gendered citizenship that ensured their inclusion into contemporary friendship groups and ultimately their wider communities. This is refined into six questions for consideration:
What are the individual characteristics that are seen as valuable to the wellbeing of the community in the series?
What individual characteristics might exclude new girls from membership of the community?
How do these characteristics relate to ideas of female citizenship in the mid 20th century?
How are outsiders ultimately accepted into the group?
How are national characteristics presented to the reader and how are they incorporated into overarching expectations for new girls to conform to community values?
Do these characteristics change as the performance of women’s citizenship in the outside world changes over the course of the series?
The Chalet series of books was written by a British author, Elinor Brent-Dyer who created an international school that was run according to the expectations for an English girls’ boarding school. The paper is therefore framed by theoretical discussion of the nature of women’s citizenship in the mid twentieth century that changed dramatically over the series. When the first Chalet book was published in 1925 women in Britain did not have equal suffrage, the welfare state was still in the future as was the rise in women’s participation in the labour market. By 1970 the books were still in print and a popular Armada series of abridged paperbacks had attracted a new generation of readers, yet the distance between the world of women depicted in the Chalet stories and the readers’ own world was much wider.
Changes in the nature and expectations for women’s citizenship are discussed with reference to feminist theorists such as Carole Pateman who challenged male models that excluded women from full participation in citizenship. Used in relation to an analysis of an individual’s acceptance and inclusion into a fictional school community they highlight the debate between equality and difference feminists that characterised the period immediately after the gaining of female suffrage in the UK.
The use of fiction within history of education is increasingly recognised as a valuable source for exploring the role that informal education played in the construction of girls’ identity in their teenage years. Research into the meaning and use of the popular genre of girls’ school stories has become more sophisticated since Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig’s overview that rather dismissed their formulaic nature. The genre can offer a good example of the interplay between history and culture identified by Toby Watkins. The tension between assumptions of an essential child who becomes the focus for fictions targeted at specific age groups and the child as a product of its environment has been highlighted by David Rudd. Rudd uses a Foucauldian genealogy to make his point that ‘there is no question of the social and economic reality’ of children’s literature and its place in our understanding of the history of childhood, and in this case, girlhood. The wide appeal of the school story suggests that there is an underlying appeal in stories of girls of a similar age to the reader and their performance of friendship. This paper explores the way that the stories provided imaginary scenarios of belonging, exclusion and acceptance into communities of friendship amongst teenage girls who had to negotiate their own imminent entry into the world of women identified by Rosemary Auchmuty. The paper offers examples drawn from a detailed reading of the Chalet series framed within feminist theories of citizenship.
The paper concludes by suggesting that the popular genre of girls’ school stories in the twentieth century acted as a significant form of informal education for their teenage readers. The formulaic nature of the books consistently promoted enactments of femininity that ensured a sense of belonging and inclusion that benefitted both the individual and the community. They provided the reader with a blueprint that might be drawn on in the formation of her own friendship groups, while at the same time preserving the distance that fiction provided from reality and a sense of continuity of women’s role against the background of dramatic social change in the twentieth century.
Rosemary Auchmuty, A World of Women: growing up in the girls’ school story (London: Bettany Press) Elinor Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet (London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd, 1925) Elinor Brent-Dyer, Eustacia Goes to the Chalet School (London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd, 1930) Elinor Brent-Dyer, The Chalet School in Exile (London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd, 1940) Elinor Brent-Dyer, Lavender Laughs in the Chalet School (London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd, 1943) Elinor Brent-Dyer, Trials for the Chalet School (London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Ltd, 1959) Gisela Bock & Susan James, Beyond Equality and Difference: citizenship, feminist politics, female subjectivity (London: Routledge, 1992). Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig, You’re a Brick Angela! A new look at girls’ fiction from 1839-1975, (London, Victor Gollancz, 1976). Gill Frith, ‘The Time of Your Life’ : the meaning of the school story, in Carolyn Steedman, Cathy Urwin & Valerie walkerdine (eds), Language, Gender, and Childhood, (London: Routledge & Kegan paul, 1985). Ruth Lister, Citizenship: feminist perspectives (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). David Rudd, Theorising and theories: the conditions and possibility of children’s literature, in Peter Hunt (ed.) International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, volume 1 (London: Routledge, 2004). Toby Watkins, History and Culture in Peter Hunt (ed.) International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, volume 1 (London: Routledge, 2004).
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