Long time readers of this blog will be aware of my fondness for Girls Own books – particularly those set in boarding schools. I’m fairly sure that I would have hated boarding school in reality but I love reading about them – particularly the ones set in the first half of the twentieth century. A result of this is that I do love an adult book set in a boarding school and showing the other side of things. So for recommendsday today, here are some adult books set in schools of various types.
Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie
Let’s start with a classic murder mystery. An exclusive girls school is thrown into chaos when an unpopular games mistress is found shot dead in the sports pavilion. This is a Hercule Poirot novel, but he actually only appears very late on in this – which has school politics and international espionage among the options for the motive for the murder. I remember first reading this as an early teenager – around the same time as I was reading all the Girls Own books and being sort of horrified at the idea of a murder at a boarding school. It’s a much later Poirot novel – for all that I didn’t realise that when I first read it and the TV version of it is really quite different because it had to be moved back to the 1930s. Worth’s look if you’ve never read it.
Poison for Teacher by Nancy Spain
It’s only a few weeks since I picked Death Goes on Skis for a Book of the Week, so it’s perhaps a bit naughty to be picking Nancy Spain again, but I think if anything I liked this even more. Miriam and Natasha find themselves undercover at a boarding school to try to work out who is trying to put the school out of business. But while they are there, a teacher is poisoned and it all gets complicated. This has awful children, horrible teachers, seething rivalries – professional and personal – and a staff play that causes nothing but trouble. It’s really, really funny.
Summer Half by Angela Thirkell
Also funny, but without any murders is Angela Thirkell ’s Summer Half, which I still think is one of the funniest of all of her Barsetshire books. It has a serious teacher getting himself engaged to featherbrained girl who is clearly going to cause him nothing but problems and everyone in the book is hoping that he’ll some how manage to escape. Schools – and teaching – has changed a lot since this was written but it’s all still recognisable.
Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
Let’s jump forward to the more recent past. Preplis about a scholarship student at a fancy New England Boarding school. Yes, I wanted to smack some sense into Lee for at least the second half of the book, possibly longer but that may have been because I could see some of the elements of my own character in her – the ones that I try hardest to overcome and she’s making no effort to do so, (or because she doesn’t try and make the most of the opportunity that she made for herself) But this did feel like a very realistic and truthful portrait of what life in a modern (ish) co-ed boarding school might have been like – in the time immediately before computers and mobile communication took over. This was Sittenfeld’s debut, and although I’ve enjoyed other books of hers more (the first or hers I read was Eligible, I’ve read almost all of her backlist and buy the new stuff as it comes out) but if you haven’t read it it’s worth a look.
I recently read Charlotte Mendelson’s Almost English – which is about a scholarship girl at an English country boarding school – which wasn’t for me, but I think others will like it- my problems was around not liking any of the characters enough to go with them while they made stupid decisions all over the place! And to finish I’m going to throw a few mentions in to stuff I’ve written about recently that also fits in here: As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust from Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series, which sees our heroine stuck in a boarding school in Canada. And then there is Murder in the basement which was a BotW six months ago, and so I can’t really write about at length again – yet!