Five Novels I’ve Read Set in School

I’m not sure where the idea that school days are the best days of your life came from but it’s one that’s commonly bandied around. My school days were just about OK, quite enjoyable in the sixth form, but if I’d thought they were to be my happiest times I’d have been downcast to put it mildly. Schools make interesting settings for fiction though, particularly boarding ones which, fortunately, mine wasn’t. Here, then, are five novels with a school backdrop, all with links to my reviews.

Cover image for The Following Girls by Louise LeveneSet in a girls’ private school in the ‘70s, Louise Levene’s The Following Girls features the Mandies, the bad girls of the fifth form. Chief rebel, Baker is the daughter of a mother who left when she was three and a miserable father who has somehow persuaded his second wife to be his domestic skivvy despite her full-time job. Stuffed full of pitch-perfect period detail, Levene’s novel will have women of a certain age and education both squirming and cackling in recognition. Baker fires acerbic one-liners like scattershot but beneath her smartarse exterior lies a slurry of adolescent insecurity exacerbated by her carping, moaning father and her well-meaning but emotionally awkward stepmother. It’s a very funny novel – the teachers’ internal monologues are a particular joy – but Levene’s sharpest skill is her ability to signal the pain beneath Baker’s witty rejoinders.

Striking a more serious tone, Rachel Donohue’s Temple House Vanishing explores themes of love, betrayal and jealousy inCover image for The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue a girls’ Catholic boarding school. Twenty-five years after the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Louisa and her art teacher a young journalist decides to write a series of articles about the case, more in an attempt to understand it than solve it. It took me a little while to get into Donohue’s debut but once hooked the mystery of what happened to Louisa and Mr Lavelle nagged at me. Louisa is a convincing character, confident in her intellectual ability yet uncomfortable in this hothouse atmosphere where entitlement runs deep. A little out of my usual literary territory, but an enjoyable read that keeps you guessing before delivering its denouement.

Cover image for Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur JaeggyWritten in 1989 and set in postwar Switzerland, Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline also explores life in a boarding school with all its stifling intensity as an unnamed narrator looks back to when she was almost fourteen. When an elegantly dressed, perfectly behaved new girl arrives, our narrator determinedly monopolizes her. Soon she and Frédérique are the closest of friends until Micheline arrives, brightly vivacious and full of tales of her flirtatious father. Obedience and discipline are the school’s watchwords but love seems nowhere in this austere, pinpoint sharp novella.

Also set in a girls’ boarding school, Magda Szabó’s Abigail was published in her native Hungary one year after Jaeggy’s Cover image for Abigail by Magda Szabonovella, so popular that it’s even been adapted into a rock opera still performed in Budapest. It’s about fifteen-year-old Gina whose officer father sends her away to the other side of the country in 1943 on the eve of the German occupation. At first, she enjoys being feted as a novelty, thinking herself superior to these provincial girls so intent on finding ways around their school’s draconian rules, but when her father suddenly appears, she’s faced with a sobering reality and rises to the occasion. Like Jaeggy, Szabó summons up the claustrophobia of boarding school life vividly. The tiny, tightly controlled world of the school contrasts starkly with the bloody drama unfolding outside its walls.

After four girls’ schools, Pamela Erens’ The Virgins takes us into co-ed territory as Bruce remembers the passion he conceived Cover image for The Virgins by Pamela Erensfor a striking new pupil at his New England prep school full of kids whose parents were bent on a glowing future for their offspring. Shortly after she arrives, Aviva becomes involved with Seung who knows how to bend the rules and how not to get caught. They quickly become a golden couple but is their relationship all that it’s assumed to be? There are a few scenes of clumsy, over excited adolescent intimacy to be got through but Erens gradually draws you in, engaging your sympathy for her characters in a world where everything becomes magnified, all perspective lost amidst the burgeoning sexuality and experimentation. Although we’re prepared for an unhappy ending the final twist is utterly shocking. Not a comfortable read then, but a thoroughly absorbing one.

Any novels set in schools you’d like to add to my list?

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38 thoughts on “Five Novels I’ve Read Set in School”

  1. Nice list. Like ‘temple house vanishing’, ‘Skippy dies’ is set in a Catholic boarding school, this time in Dublin. It’s by Paul Murray, and is a mixture of the comic and the tragic. It’s the one that immediately came to mind but I’m sure there are many others I’ve forgotten.

  2. I was wondering if you’d choose Abigail – and you did. I can’t recall any other school stories. I loved my schooldays, but this genre is not my favourite. Phew! No additions to the TBR today then!

  3. When I think of schools or boarding schools as settings, it’s the Blytons that first come to mind, and of course, Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons; a recent read by Eva Ibbotson, The Dragonfly Pool was partially set in a progressive and quite Bohemian school.

    Interesting to see a book by Pamela Erens on your list. I’ve never read any fiction by her but enjoyed her essay on Middlemarch. The Tempe House Vanishing certainly piques my interest, as does the Fleur Jaeggy (the third of her books I’ve seen recommended/on a list in the recentish past)

    1. Thanks for the recommendations, Mallika. I devoured Malory Towers when I was a child. Not quite so keen on the St Claire’s series but read them all anyway. The Jaeggy is excellent – a short, although not easy, read. She does seem to be a bloggers’ favourite.

  4. I love school set novels. I have read Sweet Days of Discipline and quite liked it, but I absolutely loved Abigail.

    I would add some backlisted titles to the list.
    Frost in May by Antonia White
    I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam
    South Riding by Winifred Holtby (although the school isn’t the main part of plot)
    War Among Ladies by Eleanor Scott (on my books of the year list)
    Charlotte Fairlie by D E Stevenson
    The Honours Board by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

    There must be others my mind has gone blank.

  5. Classic mysteries come to mind:
    “Miss Pym Disposes” – Josephine Tey
    “Cat Among the Pigeons” – Agatha Christie
    “Poison for Teacher” – Nancy Spain
    Then of course there’s Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and “The Secret Place” by Tana French.
    But that’s just for mystery starters. “Never let me Go” – Kazuo Ishiguro
    and “The Chocolate War “- Robert Cormier
    And all the Hogwarts of course.
    And now I’ve just thought of “Mr Chips: and “The Loom of Youth: – oh dear!

  6. Did anyone else love the Melling books by Margaret Biggs? She wrote the first when she was 20 & set out to write in a more up to date setting than Blyton etc.
    Girls Gone By have republished them all & although I think they may be out of print they are still available online & highly recommended:)

    1. Ah – never heard of the Melling books: sounds like an author to investigate. No one seems to have mentioned the Antonia Forest Marlowe books (some of which were set in a boarding school). I read them over and over as a teen. They were also repubilshed by Girls Gone By although I think most are out of print again now.

  7. A few more for your collection:
    Villette – Charlotte Bronte
    A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. LeGuin
    A Murder of Quality – John le Carré
    Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
    The River King – Alice Hoffman
    The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks – E. Lockhart (YA)
    And I’ll stop there, but was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at a boarding school?

  8. The Dimsie books by Dorita Fairlie Bruce were my introduction to boarding schools – sadly not easy to get hold of these days. And there was a series about a school called Cliff House, starring Susan and Cissie – I’ve forgotten the author I fear, but I loved the books! For adults, I’ll add the classic Picnic at Hanging Rock.

  9. This got me scratching my head. The first one I could think of was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then I remembered I’d recently bought Miss Pym Disposes. Though that’s a college. There’s also Cat Among the Pigeons.

  10. Very much looking forward to Szabo’s Abigail, which I hope to read later this year. (My aim of reading at least one book a month by a women in translation worked well for me last year, so hopefully the same will hold true in 2023.)

    As others have suggested, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie immediately springs mind here – as does the Richard Yates novel, A Good School. It’s probably his most autobiographical novel, really good on the anxieties of adolescence in a boarding school environment. Surprisingly poignant in fact.

    1. I hope you enjoy Abigail when you get to it, Jacqui. The Spark has been a popular recommendation but I’d not come across A Good School. I’ll look out for it. Your description brings to mind Tobias Wolff’s Old School which I enjoyed very much.

  11. College books in a 6 Degrees post and now school books here! What a bonanza! I’ve heard of Abigail, but not the others. I hope I can find some of these. FYI–my favorite is To Serve Them All My Days by RF Delderfield

  12. I’d recommend the Antonia Forest Marlowe family books. Four are set in boarding school, and the others at home and elsewhere. Most are out of print now but when I found one unexpectedly, I went past my stop on the bus reading it!

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