Hannah Kate

poet, short story writer and editor based in Manchester

School’s Out! Some of my Favourite Literary Schools

As the end of term is fast approaching, and this year’s GCSEs come to an end, I thought it would be good to take a look at some of the best schools in literature on Hannah’s Bookshelf (well, my brother thought it would be a good idea – the theme for this week’s show was actually his suggestion). So, Saturday 8th July was the School’s Out! edition of Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM. You can listen to the show on the player below, but (as promised) here are details of the books I featured. Let me know in the comments if you agree with my selections, or if you have any other recommendations!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, Spark’s novel tells the story of the eponymous teacher, and of the six young girls in the ‘Brodie Set’. Miss Brodie is a woman in her ‘prime’, and she identifies ten-year-old Eunice, Sandy, Mary, Rose, Jenny and Monica as the ‘elite’, pupils she will take under her wing and educate about the wonders of art history, classical studies… and fascism. She teaches her girls about her personal life, tells them about her travels, and confides in them about her love life. When the girls progress to senior school, Miss Brodie remains a significant influence in their lives, and they continue to visit her and experience her unusual views on educating girls. Of course, we’re warned from that start that things will unravel, and early flash forward tells us that one of the Brodie Set will eventually betray their teacher and destroy her career… but which will it be?

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was adapted into a film in 1969, with Maggie Smith getting the Best Actress Oscar for her wonderful portrayal of Miss Brodie.

The Rotters’ Club by Jonathan Coe (2001)

Coe’s novel follows a group of classmates at school in Birmingham in the 1970s. It’s been described as Dickensian in scope, as it features tons of intertwining plotlines and a dazzling cast of minor characters. Although the book shifts between the perspective of the classmates, the main protagonist is Ben Trotter, and it is his circle of friends, family and acquaintances that we’re following. Ben’s dad works at British Leyland. His best friend is Philip Chase, whose dad is a bus driver. There’s also Doug Anderton (whose dad is the shop steward at the British Leyland plant) and Steve Richards (who is the only black student at their school). Life is complicated and messy – and very 70s – in The Rotters’ Club, and while the boys plan out their future careers (as writers, as prog-rockers, as athletes), the world around them often threatens to overshadow them. It’s a coming-of-age novel, but it’s more than just the coming-of-age of an individual character – the book ends on the day of the General Election that brought Margaret Thatcher to power.

The Rotters’ Club was adapted for TV in 2005 by Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, and it starred Geoffrey Breton, Nicholas Shaw and Rasmus Hardiker. There was also a Radio 4 adaptation in 2003, which had David Tennant as Bill Anderton, and Frank Skinner as Sam Trotter (amongst other well-known names). In 2004, Coe wrote a sequel, The Closed Circle, which revists the characters a couple of decades later.

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite (1959)

Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel is set in the East End of London. Ricky Braithwaite is an engineer from British Guyana. Despite having served in the RAF during WWII, he is unable to find work in Britain after being demobbed due to the colour of his skin. Eventually, he is able to secure a low-paying teaching position at Greenslade School, where is given charge of the oldest (and worst behaved) pupils in the school. After the kids do everything they can to discourage and demoralize Braithwaite, their teacher introduces a radical new approach to the classroom – he will treat them like adults, and in return they will treat him with respect. Braithwaite begins to get through to his charges, introducing them to museums and art galleries, but also taking a more pastoral role as well. Of course, the spectre of race is never far away (this is London in the 1950s) – and some have criticised the book for its almost utopian navigation of some of the societal problems faced by its narrator – but this is book that has a clear and unequivocal moral message about the importance of respect, dignity and honest communication.

To Sir, With Love was adapted into a film in 1967, with Sidney Poitier playing Mark Thackeray (the film version of Braithwaite). The setting was updated to the ‘Swinging Sixties’, and it also saw both Lulu and Patricia Routledge making their film debuts.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)

What list of famous fictional schools would be complete without the classic novel about a young boy who attends a school for wizards, eh? Le Guin’s book tells the story of a boy nicknamed Sparrowhawk, who is taught how to use his potential magic powers by his aunt, and is then apprenticed to a great mage (who names him ‘Ged’). Ged is sent to attend wizardry school on a neighbouring island, where he is admired by his classmates and teachers alike. There is one boy, Jasper, who is rather jealous of Ged, which leads to the two of them facing off in a duel. And when a spell goes awry, Ged must also contend with the appearance of a terrifying shadow creature (who cannot be named), which attacks him and scars his face. Ged must use everything he has learned to find out the true nature of the shadow creature and its connection to him.

Le Guin’s Earthsea is a world that appeared in eight short stories and five novels (A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu and The Other Wind). It is a pre-industrial group of islands inhabited by humans and dragons, which exists in a fragile but desirable balance. As with much of Le Guin’s fiction, the Earthsea novels often explore what happens when this delicate balance is upset.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839)

Nicholas Nickleby was Dickens’s third novel, originally published as a serial in 1838-39. It follows the story of the eponymous protagonist, a young man who has to look after his mother and sister after the unexpected death (and bankruptcy) of his father. When his unpleasant uncle fails to offer assistance, Nicholas takes a job as an assistant at Dotheboys Hall School in Yorkshire, which is run by the brutal and tyrannical Wackford Squeers. If you think The Rotters’ Club was Dickensian, this is the real deal – there is an almost bewildering array of characters, a number of settings, and Nicholas’s life has twists and turns galore. But for the purposes of today’s show, it was Dotheboys Hall that interested me. The school, as Nicholas discovers, is a scam: Squeers takes in the unwanted children of wealthy families, and then neglects and mistreats them while pocketing the money he was given for their care and education. Squeers is a typically Dickensian villain – larger than life and utterly self-serving – but he is matched by the near-psychopathic cruelty of Mrs Squeers.

Dickens always claimed that Wackford Squeers was a composite character, with elements drawn from a number of schoolmasters the writer encountered during a tour of Yorkshire. However, critics have seen some rather close parallels with a particular man, William Shaw, who ran boarding schools in Bowes and was sued by parents for the neglect of their sons. Shaw’s great-great-grandson has suggested that, while his ancestor may well have been the model for Squeers, Dickens sensationalized and misrepresented the facts of his career.

Carrie by Stephen King (1974)

And so to my final book… what list of fictional schools would be complete without a tale of mean girls getting their comeuppance (and the obligatory weekly mention of Stephen King, of course)? Carrie was King’s first published novel, though it was actually the fourth one that he wrote. Set in the town of Chamberlain, Maine, the book uses newspaper clippings, articles, letters and reports to weave together the terrifying story of the town’s destruction. The protagonist is Carrie White, a sixteen year old who lives with her widowed mother Margaret, who is a fundamentalist Christian. The book begins with an iconic episode – Carrie’s period starts while she is showering after PE class. As her mother hasn’t explained menstruation, Carrie is terrified. Her classmates laugh and pelt her with sanitary products, much to the distaste and annoyance of their teacher Miss Desjardin. And then a lightbulb shatters over Miss Desjardin’s head… King’s novel is both a horror novel about a disturbed young woman with telekinetic powers, and a story about a misfit girl trying to cope with the perils and cruelties of high schools. One thing you can be sure of, though, is that it’s not going to end well.

Carrie was adapted into a film in 1976, starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. There was also a film sequel in 1999: The Rage: Carrie 2 (but I don’t recommend it).

To hear more about these books, and my reasons for choosing them, you can listen to Hannah’s Bookshelf – School’s Out! Edition here:


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