Storybook Schools: representations of schools and schooling in British children’s fiction 1820-1880

  • Judith Bainbridge

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    The study is organised around five themes which were central to nineteenth-century educational debate, and which I have chosen for discussion because they are addressed recurrently in both fictional and extra-literary texts. The selected themes relate to the contribution of domestic education to the moral and spiritual formation of the individual child, the characteristics of the school as a community and socialisation within it, health, sickness and physical education, the content of the curriculum, and preparation for adult roles. In the first chapter I establish the literary, educational and social context for the research. Beginning with a consideration of Fielding’s The Governess; or, Little Female Academy as a paradigm for the school story, I go on to show how nineteenth-century writers adopted and adapted this model both to teach and entertain child readers, and to interpret and interrogate the changing educational scene. After outlining the principal contexts of schooling for both boys and girls, I conclude the chapter by defining the ideals of gender which determined educational practice, and which underpin my entire thesis. I follow this with five chapters, each showing how fiction and non-fiction address one of the aspects of contemporary theory and practice identified above. Chapter Two centres on the debate concerning the merits of domestic education as opposed to formal schooling. I draw chiefly on fictional and theoretical texts by Elizabeth Sewell and Harriet Martineau to examine representations of home and school as both complementary and conflicting sites for spiritual and moral education. Chapter Three considers the organisation of education in more detail. It examines contrasting models of formal schooling delineated in a range of fictional and non-fictional texts, and explores ways in which stories both endorse and challenge ideals of the girls’ school as a surrogate family, and the boy’s school as a ‘little world’ reflecting the gendered roles, relationships and responsibilities characteristic of wider society. In exploring the concept of the school as community and its contribution to the socialisation of the individual, this chapter also highlights the negative influences of institutional schooling as expressed in abusive power structures. In Chapter Four I discuss conflicting attitudes towards the body, contrasting the growing emphasis on physical education and the growth of the cult of games with the idealisation of the invalid and the widespread neglect of provision for health. Chapter Five centres on the debate about the content and delivery of the different curricula offered to boys and to girls, and on opinion relating to the impact of formal teaching and learning on the definition and reinforcement of gender roles. It gives particular consideration to Farrar’s critique of the classical curriculum in both fictional and non-fictional texts, and to the growing debate about the content of girls’ education in an era when young women were increasingly expected to support themselves financially. Chapter Six extends this discussion by examining more closely the representation of the school as a place of social, mental, moral and spiritual preparation for adult life. It identifies different expressions of the Victorian ideology of work in both fiction and non-fiction, and explores ways in which selected stories portray the transition of young people from school to university, vocational training, and employment or, in the case of many girls, to the responsibilities of marriage and family life. Ideals of femininity and masculinity are central to the representation and discussion of schooling throughout the period under consideration, and, as indicated above, I shall give closer consideration to the relationship between gender and education in Chapter 1. Consequently, I have organised each chapter to allow for the separate discussion of fictional texts for boys and those for girls in order to reflect the very different educational experiences and opportunities available to the two sexes, as well as to demonstrate the capacity of fiction to interrogate conventional gender boundaries. As my research questions indicate, my chief interest in considering each of these aspects of schooling has been to investigate and clarify the relationship between fiction and its historical context. My title is inspired by Christine Chaundler’s The Story-Book School (1931), a text which juxtaposes the protagonist’s actual experience of boarding school life with the apparently fanciful ideas she has imbibed from reading. Ultimately she finds that fiction proves closer to the truth than expected, leading the writer to conclude, ‘The things that happen in story-book schools are sometimes founded on fact, it seemed’ (95). I intend to show that the same may be said of the corpus of much earlier texts which form the focus of this study.
    Date of Award2015
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Roehampton
    SupervisorGillian Lathe (Supervisor) & Laura Peters (Supervisor)

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