There can’t be many people who didn’t love a school story of some kind when they were growing up.
That’s one reason I decided last year to write a new series set in a classic English girls’ boarding school, St Bride’s. My series gives an old premise a new twist: it’s a school story for grown-ups, revolving around the intrigues among the staff, including the headmistress, commonly known as Hairnet, the teaching staff, including newcomer and narrator Gemma Lamb, and the support staff including Max Security, trying to keep everyone safe from harm.
Talking about it among friends, I soon became aware that I was not the only adult to still care passionately about school stories aimed at children.
Among the keepers still on my bookshelf are:
- Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings and Darbyshire series, which I loved for their laugh-out-loud humour
- Classic girls’ boarding school tales, such as the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books
- Richmal Crompton’s “Just William”, whose antics were originally intended for an adult audience
Fascinated to know which school stories some of my author friends most enjoyed, I’ve now decided to start a new monthly blog series in which a guest author shares their favourite. I’m pledging also to read the books they recommend – although I’m sure I’ll already be familiar with some of them. You might like to read along with us.
Jean Gill’s Choice: Anne of Green Gables
Kicking off the series is Jean Gill, who has written a huge array of books across a multitude of genres. Jean is an award-winning writer and photographer who lives in the south of France with two scruffy dogs, a beehive named Endeavour, a Nikon D750 and a man.
Jean’s choice is a book I confess I’d never read before: Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery. First published in 1908, this Canadian novel is now considered a world-class classic for readers of all ages. Over to Jean to describe what makes it so special for her…
Hi Jean, it’s a pleasure to have you as the first ever guest in this new series, and I was captivated by your choice when I read it. Such a beautiful natural world conjured up there, in a stunning corner of rural Canada, and I enjoyed that as much as I did Anne’s blossoming under the care of her adoptive family. How old were you when you first read it, and how often have you read it since?
My aunt, who lived in Canada sent it to me as a Christmas present when I was eight years old. I read it two or three times when a child and revisited it thanks to the recent television series.
How has your perception of the book changed with later readings?
When I was a child, I accepted Anne’s world as it wasn’t so very different from the one I knew in its sexism, physical punishment, demands that children be seen and not heard, that they work to earn their keep and should think themselves lucky if they were adopted after being orphaned. Later on, I was horrified by the adults’ behaviour and by the social norms but still recognised them in the historical context.
What did you particularly like about this book and about the author – and was there anything you disliked?
I love the misfit heroine, a ‘swotty girl’ if ever there was one, who lives and loves with passion, fired by her own imagination, a rule-breaker whenever the rules are wrong. What makes the book timeless is that Anne wins hearts while staying true to herself. The phrase ‘kindred spirits’ stays with me still and, like Anne, I’ve found kindred spirits to treasure, sometimes across the potential divides of age and culture. The development of Anne’s relationship with her new parents is beautiful, without being mawkish, and Montgomery portrays so well the change brought to their suffocating lives by this child.
And who couldn’t love Gilbert Blythe? – competition in the classroom and temptation outside of it, even though Anne knows love is bad for a girl’s high aims in life. That is another element which makes this book amazing for its time – falling in love is not the be-all and end-all for a girl. There is more to life!
The answer’s is probably obvious already, but which character did you identify with?
Anne, without a doubt!
The books that we love when are young often leave a lasting impact on us as we grow up. How did Anne of Green Gables affect you as a child and influence you as an adult?
The criticism ‘too much imagination’ was shown to be ridiculous. Imagination is Anne’s superpower as it was – and I hope still is – mine.
It was one of many books that allowed me to develop a sense of self that did not fit into all those rules about what I was supposed to do and be. Unlike Anne, I had a lot of self-control, and it was very satisfying to lose my temper vicariously through Anne’s fiery responses to life’s injustices. I too suffered from a permanent sense of unfairness, and the way Anne is blamed in school and at home for other people’s wrong-doing or for well-intentioned disasters hit exactly the spot where I felt wounded.
I remember being spanked when I was seven because early one morning I’d let out into the garden a dog we were looking after and he barked. I still don’t understand why (possibly) waking the neighbours was a hitting offence – and we were very rarely spanked, so my father must have felt strongly that this was an act of serious disobedience.
That was very much an Anne-type action and consequence, within a world that made no sense. I still react strongly to the unfairness of Anne being punished for acts of empathy and for rule-breaking.
How did it affect your writing?
I like breaking rules 😊
Anne goes to a small rural school in which all the ages are together in one schoolroom, and her ambition is to become a teacher. How did your own education compare to hers?
Mostly army schools. My father was a soldier, so the longest we stayed in any one place was two years. Sometimes we moved after only six months. I went to one school for only four months, so each time I had to start again, trying to make friends, following a different curriculum. I was taught the Tudors eight times, and at one time shifted for a few months to a school that taught Maths via Cuisenaire rods – all very confusing and lonely. I was told off by teachers for holding my pen wrongly and being too advanced a reader – and for dumb insolence 😊 So inevitably, like Anne, I became a teacher and I like to think I looked out for the misfits.
My older sister went to boarding school, and we’ve compared notes on our very different schooldays. I think Secrets at St Bride’s would make her smile and reminisce!
Were your friends also fans of Anne, or did you feel that this was your own private world?
I don’t remember talking about the world of books in which I spent most of my time, when I was eight but later, from eleven onwards, I definitely shared book recommendations with friends. A friend who met me at eleven remembers us being the only ones allowed to read the top shelf books (Dickens was up there).
Do you think Anne of Green Gables would still resonate with young readers today?
I think so and I’ve found out that Anne is big in Japan! The television series has highlighted the books again and the French translator for my books. Laure Valentin, has translated Anne of Green Gables into French – another example of kindred spirit serendipity!
I like to think that Anne of Green Gables would enjoy Jean Gill’s latest eco-fantasy novel, Queen of the Warrior Bees, in which a teenaged girl who doesn’t fit in with her peers finds her true purpose in working with nature to save their world – by shape-shifting into a bee!
To find out more about Jean Gill and her wide-ranging work as an author and photographer, visit her website: www.jeangill.com.
- Helena Halme on The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren (February)
- Clare Flynn on The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (March)
- Helen Hollick on Riding School stories by Ruby Ferguson (April)
- Madeleine D’Este on The O’Sullivan Twins series by Enid Blyton (May)
- Julie Cordiner on The Chalet School by Elinor Brent-Dyer (June)
- Linda Gillard on Molesworth by Ronald Searle (date tba)
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And if you meantime you’d like to read the first two chapters of Secrets of St Bride’s for free, click here and scroll down to find the opening.