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Rooted in the elite boarding school (“public school”) culture of Victorian England, the school story is a branch of children’s literature that flourished in the latter half of the nineteenth century and has evolved and persisted in the century-and-a-half since Thomas Hughes published Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). As Jenny Holt points out in the first chapter of her study of this genre, Victorian boys’ school stories such as Hughes’s and F. W. Farrar’s equally popular Eric: Or, Little By Little (1858) remained in print well into the twentieth century, when they were supplemented by stories (often more comic or more formulaic) aimed specifically at working- and lower-middle-class readers, such as Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter series, and at middle- and upper-class girls, as in the series by the popular and prolific writers Angela Brazil and Enid Blyton. With all these variations included, the English school story has demonstrated not only temporal but also geographical reach. I can remember (as an American elementary school student) being fascinated by the jolly-hockey-sticks universe of Blyton’s Mallory Towers and Saint Clare’s series in freshly published paperbacks as late as the 1970s, while postcolonial authors from the Trinidadian CLR James to the Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga have reflected on the complexity of encountering these stories’ celebrations of English liberty as young subjects of English imperial regimes.

In Public School Literature, Holt surveys a range of Victorian school stories, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which redirected earlier, didactic tales by female authors such as Maria Edgeworth and Harriet Martineau toward a more ambivalent, male-authored exploration of masculine development, to Kipling’s Stalky & Co (1899), which veers close to an outright rejection of adult masculinity and the establishment it supports. Across this period, as Holt demonstrates, “public school stories . . . grew out of an incredibly complex mixture of motivations, and often had multiple, contradictory aims” (23), including nostalgia (most of the authors of public school stories were themselves public school graduates), ambitions for reform (of practices and traditions such as flogging, fisticuffs, and “fagging,” the practice of requiring younger students to wait upon the eldest), and skepticism about the educability and morality of adolescent boys. In her first, introductory, chapter, Holt discusses the development of the then-new concept of adolescence as a distinct and formative life-stage, in definitions of which religious, physiological, psychological and political models and concerns contended. For Holt, it is the representation of political ideology that forms the most significant thread of the public school story, which purported to portray the adolescence—which is to say, the formative conditions—of the nation’s governing class. The aim of her project is to analyze public school novels as models or allegories for the civic participation of the future leaders who are their adolescent protagonists.

As Holt points out, “far from displaying a unitary view of youth and its place in society the public school genre is fraught with a whole array of political contradictions, many of them resulting from conflicting attitudes towards the role of young people as emergent citizens” (17). Her study attempts to capture the range of these conflicting attitudes in an equally broad range of public school stories. The second chapter, on Tom Brown’s Schooldays, presents by far the most optimistic vision of adolescent male development, in what is (perhaps not coincidentally) still the best-known of Holt’s examples. Though the novel portrays routine bullying, schoolboy rebellion, and oppressively narrow standards of masculinity, Hughes’s narrative suggests that “boy and nation [can] develop together” toward an ideal of (paternalistically administered) social justice (82). By contrast, the following chapter discusses F. W. Farrar’s equally popular novel Eric, or Little by Little which ends with the death of a troubled protagonist who attends a school that “only exists to show the boy what evil is” (100). Even in his more “constructive” (100) representations of education, Farrar (a supporter of liberal education, sometime headmaster of Marlborough College and ultimately Dean of Canterbury) focuses not on political or civic development but on aesthetics and sensibility, “aim[ing] to create a feeling citizen rather than a political citizen” (106).

After these two relatively focused chapters, Holt’s narrative becomes more compendious and occasionally scattered in its attempt to indicate the range of Victorian discussions of moral propensities and potential for civic engagement of male youth and to connect those discussions to the public school genre. Her fourth chapter surveys debates over corporal punishment and the responses to them in public school stories, concluding that while novelists often opposed the imposition of corporal punishment, such opposition was fractured by class interest. In school stories aimed at upper-class readers, “questioning the power relationships behind disciplinary structures at school was a major step on the road to autonomy.” Texts aimed at lower-middle- and working-class readers, on the other hand, “sought to control young people by persuasion rather than violence [and] were reactionary in presenting politically inactive role models” (156). The fifth chapter traces the growth of broadly eugenicist ideas, moving from Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism in the 1860s to fears of “degeneracy” and the “National Efficiency” movement that arose at the end of the century. Holt connects these concerns, sometimes tenuously, to representations of homoerotic community in public school novels. She concludes with a glance at the genre’s development during and immediately after the First World War, at which point, she suggests, “the political and pedagogical confidence of [school story] writers was so shaken that it is often hard to identify any coherent message at all” (209). The genre loses what Holt calls “its potential to be a force for creating active citizens”; acknowledging J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter as the descendant of Tom Brown, Holt regrets that “[the series] takes the schoolboy protagonist out of the real world entirely, seeking supernatural, rather than rational, answers to problems” (233).

I am not persuaded that Rowling’s recourse to magic over realism in fact marks such a distinction from her Victorian forbears as Holt suggests here. It is a challenge for Holt’s analysis of public school literature as modeling “civic education” that for most of the century, public school curricula were neither intellectually ambitious nor socially engaged, and most of the authors she discusses are extremely wary of having boys think about politics at all, let alone appear as “active citizens.” As she acknowledges in discussing fin-de-siècle concerns about degeneracy, “although the rhetoric and rationale had changed, adults were in the same state of panic regarding adolescence as they had been through the [nineteenth] century” (169). That panic, whether rooted in conceptions of original sin or biological degeneration, generally led the novelists she discusses to immure their adolescent boys in fictional worlds that seem to be half Eden, half Lord of the Flies. Especially in the aggregate, these are claustrophobic narratives, pervaded by violence, distrust of intellect, and gender anxiety. For all Holt’s attention to the contemporary debates over discipline, adolescent development, and citizenship, she cannot always bring these novels into more than metaphorical contact with the social and political changes more vividly evoked in narratives of youthful development by authors of less elite education and greater literary ambition, from Charles Dickens and the Brontës at the beginning of the period to George Eliot and Thomas Hardy toward its end.

Current literary and cinematic fictions, from Harry Potter to the Twilight series and the television show “Gossip Girls,” offer ample evidence that the physical and social power of upper-crust adolescence retains its ability to fascinate and to threaten. Public School Literature provides a thorough account of the literary development of that fascination in Victorian England.