Six of the best: School stories that aren’t just for kids

From The Chalet School and Malory Towers to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, school stories are a childhood staple and some of us never quite lose our taste for them. Here is a selection of my favourite school stories that were not meant for kids at all.

Claudine a l’Ecole by Colette (1900): in French or in the glorious 1957 translation by my favourite writer Antonia White (see below). Set in a day school in rural France, it’s a bit naughty and utterly addictive. Originally published under her husband’s name but now credited to Colette herself. You have seen the film so now try the novel. If you haven’t seen the Colette film, do – Belle Epoque perfection!

Frost In May by Antonia White (1933) : A semi-autobiographical novel set in a Convent School; haunting and beautiful. Middle class Catholic convert Nanda is sent to a school with the Catholic aristocracy and struggles to navigate this new world. Just so you know, the villain of the real story was Antonia White’s father not the Nuns, something White did not find out until adulthood. The whole four novel sequence was serialised by the BBC in the 1982 and sadly never repeated. I wonder if they taped over it? Frost in May was the first novel published by Virago.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961): More Catholicism and a splash of Fascism as the charismatic Miss Brodie breaks the rules at the staid Marcia Blaine School. The ITV series, available on DVD, with Geraldine McEwan in 1978 is my favourite Brodie but Lia Williams did an excellent job at the Donmar Theatre in London last year whilst the film role won Maggie Smith an Oscar in 1969.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson (pen name of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) (1910):  Poor, gauche country girl Laura Tweedle Rambotham heads to a school full of rich girls in Melbourne and faces an impossible task to fit in. Good book but I far preferred the 1977 film.

Picnic at Hanging Rock by  Joan Lindsay (1967): Fey tale of Australian school girls at boarding school, some of whom vanish on a picnic. Peter Weir’s 1975 film is unforgettable and the novel is worth a read. The final chapter was deleted from the original publication and has now been issued separately, providing a slightly disappointing explanation to the mystery. It is all fiction but the story feels real.

Finally, a two-for-one as neither of these is actually a full school story, although there are great school scenes: My Brilliant Friend-Elena Ferrante (2012) – A mesmerising tale of an intense friendship between two girls in impoverished Naples. The appropriately brilliant TV version is on Sky and is so good that after 10 minutes you won’t notice the subtitles!

The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien (1960) –  Irish friends this time. The novel caused shock waves in conservative Ireland when it was published, because of the sexual content. Fine film from 1983, if you can track it down.


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