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Dartmouth College Library Bulletin

Notes from the Special Collections

HARRY POTTER AND
THE ENGLISH SCHOOL STORY

PATTI L. HOUGHTON

Harry Potter’s immense popularity has conferred cult status on J. K. Rowling’s novels, and critics have compared them to classic fantasies such as The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia. More perceptive critics have recognized their relationship to another venerable genre: the English school story. Harry’s biggest concern is the evil wizard Voldemort, otherwise known as 'He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,' but Harry must also worry about his classes, his teachers, his team practices, and the rivalry between his house, Gryffindor, and its arch-rival, Slytherin. Substitute rugby for Quidditch and Greek and Latin for Defense Against the Dark Arts and Transfiguration, and Hogwarts becomes a school at which Tom Brown would feel at home.

What are the basic elements of the English school story? The setting is a school for boys or girls, modeled on the great public schools, Rugby, Harrow, and Eton. The hero or heroine is usually a new student who feels like an outsider at school. The new student may be a 'scholarship kid' who attended a despised 'village school' rather than a preparatory school or may be a wealthy and privileged child who seems to be 'stuck up.' Sometimes the new student is an orphan or comes from an unhappy home. The new student may also be from Scotland. The writer of this article does not know why coming from Scotland posed such a problem; she can only report its common occurrence in the books she has read.

The arrival of the hero or heroine at school is often complicated in some way. For instance, a teacher or relative, who is supposed to explain the traditions of the school, is prevented from meeting the new student. As a result, the new student inadvertently breaks a school rule upon arrival, a mistake that causes a chain of misunderstandings as the story progresses. In some cases, the new student gets off on the wrong foot with house- or study-mates, but in most cases he or she is popular, possessing superior talent, usually athletic, and an open, honorable nature that earns the immediate admiration of nearly everyone at the school and the devoted loyalty of one best friend. In these cases, however, the new student is viewed with suspicion or dislike by at least one teacher. This teacher’s mistrust becomes a serious problem when the new student must maintain a secret to protect a friend or dependent. Keeping the secret gives the new student the appearance of acting against the best interests of the school when in fact he or she is trying to save the school from a threatened danger.

Sports, such as swimming, cross-country running, tennis, field hockey (for girls), cricket (for both boys and girls), and rugby, play an important role in the development of the plot; competition for prize papers or academic honors usually plays a lesser role. House rivalries and rivalries between the hero or heroine and another student are critical. Often an element of mystery or suspense is present.

The crisis of the plot most often occurs when the hero or heroine becomes dangerously ill, usually as the result of saving the life of another student. At this time all misunderstandings are resolved, and the true worth of the hero or heroine is made clear. Occasionally the hero or heroine is an older student whose status at the school has apparently changed, due to an alteration in the family’s fortunes or the threat of expulsion, but the plot generally follows the same pattern. Showing the development of a sense of moral responsibility for the self and others is the goal of the story, whether the author’s style is broadly comic or earnest and sincere.

Readers of the Friends of The Dartmouth Library Newsletter will remember the 1993 bequest of Edward P. Sine 1951, who presented over 6,000 English illustrated books to the College.[1] Mr. Sine was primarily interested in the art of book illustration, and one of his favorite illustrators, H. M. Brock, was well known for his lively depiction of schoolboys and sporting events. The Sine Collection, a rich repository for many types of mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century English literature, contains numerous examples of the sort of English school story we wish to examine here. Thomas Hughes, Frederic William Farrar, Desmond Coke, Talbot Baines Reed, Jeffrey Havilton, and Gunby Hadath are well represented among the writers for boys, while Angela Brazil, Bessie Marchant, May Wynne, Winifred Darch, L. T. Meade, Florence Gunby Hadath, and other writers for girls are present in equal numbers.

The Mysterious Something by Margaret H. Ironside will serve as a typical example. The heroine is Diana Beresford, a lively member of the Upper Fifth at Rexborough. Diana is in danger of being expelled. During the previous term she got into trouble for keeping a dog named Hannibal in the Hockey Pavilion. When she returns to school after vacation, she gets into more trouble for being late for roll call and for refusing to give a reason for her tardiness. As punishment, Miss Warwick, the unpopular head of the house where Diana lives, removes her from the cricket team, of which Diana is the captain and star player. In sympathy, her teammates organize a strike, even though Diana protests against an action that would disgrace the school. Miss Warwick believes that Diana organized the strike herself, but the headmistress and a new teacher named Miss Howard believe that Diana, with her straightforward, honest, and spirited character, is an influence for good, despite her reputation for slacking in her classwork and getting into mischief. The students do not know that Rexborough is in danger of being closed because its chief sponsor, an eccentric peer named Lady Gwendoline Fraser, has withdrawn her support; Lady Gwendoline has come to believe that public schools are bad for girls. At the same time the headmistress exacts a promise from Diana to reform.

In addition to her difficulties with her teachers, Diana has another reason for being unusually quiet and serious. Diana’s family is in modest circumstances, and her father, who has lost a great deal of money in unlucky speculation, cannot afford to keep her at Rexborough after the end of this term. Diana suddenly realizes how much Rexborough means to her. She discloses nothing of this to her friends, who are puzzled by her uncharacteristic behavior, but she does confide in her best friend, Primrose Dalkeith, who suggests that Diana enter the contest for the Upper School scholarship. Although she has never applied herself to her studies-one of the reasons she is in danger of being expelled-Diana is a talented student whose teachers believe in her ability to succeed. Miss Howard is especially supportive of Primrose’s plan.

Subsequent events appear to imperil that plan. Tired of being good, Diana decides to break bounds in order to investigate a haunted house where Primrose sees her speaking to a ghostly woman accompanied by an equally ghostly dog. Within a few days Diana is in the most serious trouble of her academic career. When a midnight noise awakens everyone in Miss Warwick’s house, the girls discover that someone has broken into Miss Howard’s study, flung her revolving bookcase out the window, and stolen a copy of the scholarship exam questions from her desk. Soon they learn that Diana was in Miss Howard’s study the night of the burglary, and Diana’s arch-rival for the scholarship, Daisy Arnold, is telling everyone that Diana stole the questions in order to cheat. Once again, Diana refuses to account for her actions, and circumstances look black against her when she stands first after the preliminary exam.

The heroines of the girls’ stories find just as many ways to get into trouble as the heroes
of the boys’ stories. From Margaret Ironside, The Mysterious Something (1925).

Matters reach a crisis when the School House catches on fire, and Diana is seriously injured while rescuing a fellow student, the daughter of a prominent Labour leader and Lady Gwendoline’s granddaughter. While Diana’s life hangs in the balance, her classmates learn the truth behind her peculiar actions. She was late returning to school after vacation, because she had promised an elderly taxicab driver that she would always take his cab and could not bear to hurt his feelings, even at the risk of missing roll call. On the way, she stopped to rescue Lady Gwendoline’s dog from being hit by a train. She did not tell her friends about the cab driver or the dog, because she disliked having a fuss made over her. Lady Gwendoline, dressed entirely in white, was the ghostly lady whom Primrose saw speaking to Diana; unfortunately for the school, Lady Gwendoline was under the impression that Diana was not a Rexborough student. Diana was in Miss Howard’s study the night of the apparent break-in, but she was there to retrieve a younger classmate’s exercise book, which contained a caricature of a Miss Warwick that would have gotten the artist into trouble; while there, Diana accidentally knocked over the revolving bookcase, causing the crash that awakened the residents. The scholarship exam questions were not stolen, but taken by another teacher, who was called away by a family emergency before she could tell anyone she had them.

In the end Diana wins the scholarship that enables her to stay at Rexborough and with it the position of head girl. Because of Diana’s heroic rescue of Lady Gwendoline’s granddaughter, Rexborough has regained the financial support of that erratic peer. The eponymous 'mysterious something' refers not to the mysterious events that appeared to surround the school, but to the ineffable quality of the public school student, a reference to a speech given by J. M. Barrie. One of Diana’s friends, Pam Lister, describes this quality as 'sticking up for one another-not giving people away-a decent reserve-believing in your school-in working well and playing hard,'[2] a quality Diana exemplifies in full.

The hero of the English school story always has at least one loyal friend and often two.
From Desmond Coke, Youth, Youth....! (1919).

Diana shares many of the characteristics of the heroes and heroines of the English school story. She is not a new student at Rexborough, but her father’s loss of money changes her from a girl who was ready to engage in every sort of mischievous scrape to one who has a more serious outlook on school life. She is an outstanding athlete, but until she is forced to apply herself, an indifferent scholar. She is brave in the face of danger but easily embarrassed by being the center of attention. Her family background is modest, but her innate sense of honor wins her the fidelity of her friends, to whom she is equally loyal, and a position of leadership at her school. Readers of the Bulletin who would like to meet more heroes and heroines like Diana are welcome to visit the Rauner Library Reading Room, where the Special Collections staff will be glad to perform the introductions.

How does Harry Potter measure up? A quick reading of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, shows us that he measures up very well indeed. Harry has been brought up by his aunt and uncle, who are Muggles, not Wizards, a fact that earns him the derision of his fellow student and arch-rival, Draco Malfoy, the scion of an old wizarding family. Because of his Muggle upbringing, Harry is completely unacquainted with Hogwarts’s customs, such as shopping for his wand and schoolbooks in Diagon Alley or catching the Hogwarts Express at invisible platform nine and three-quarters. Despite his apparently humble background, Harry is the son of the famous wizards Lily and James Potter; as the only survivor of their encounter with the evil wizard Voldemort, Harry finds, when he arrives at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, that he is already something of a celebrity. His fame is not an advantage, however, as he must struggle with his studies and with the enmity of one of his teachers, Professor Snape. Despite these difficulties, Harry enjoys school, discovering that he is an excellent Quidditch player and enjoying, for the first time in his life, the fun of getting into scrapes with his housemates. He earns the loyalty of his friends by standing up for less fortunate students, such as the accident-prone Neville Longbottom, and by rescuing Hermione Granger, who has had reason to dislike him, from a troll. With the help of the studious Hermione and the chess-playing skills of his best friend, Ron Weasley, he manages to prevent the corrupt Professor Quirrell from getting his hands on the Sorcerer’s Stone, saving not only Hogwarts but the entire wizarding world from Voldemort’s wicked machinations.

When Harry, embarrassed by her praise as he is about to enter the chamber where the Sorcerer’s Stone is hidden, repudiates Hermione’s claim that he is a great wizard, she unconsciously echoes Pam’s description of Diana:

'Books! And cleverness!' [Hermione scoffed.] 'There are more important things-friendship and bravery and - oh Harry - be careful!'[3]

We can see that Harry does indeed have a great deal in common with Diana Beresford and the other heroes and heroines of the English school story, and that his adventure shares many of the characteristics of the school story genre, but Harry has one important asset that Diana lacks: magic. Is there another English school story in which magic is a crucial element?

The answer is a resounding yes. Vice Versa, or, a Lesson for Fathers is a fantasy novel set in an English school for boys. Written by F. Anstey, it is 'based on magic; thus fantasy enters for the first and (as far as I know) only time this very solid genre.'[4] Isabel Quigly, who devotes an entire chapter of her book, The Heirs of Tom Brown, to it, continues:

In fact, within the fantastic framework, it is one of the most realistic of the school stories, realistic in tone and spirit, and, one feels, in physical detail; realistic above all in taking the lid off the familiar preconceptions about school life and boy nature.[5]

F. Anstey was the pseudonym of Thomas Anstey Guthrie. Born in London in 1856, Anstey was the son of a tailor. He studied law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and was called to the Bar in 1881. He left in 1882, when the success of Vice Versa allowed him to make writing his career. He became a member of the staff of Punch and wrote a number of other fantasy novels, for both children and adults, but none was as popular as his first. 'Considered to be one of the most entertaining school stories ever written,'[6] Vice Versa first appeared in 1882, and 'it has never been out of print since its publication.'[7] It is even the basis for a 1988 Hollywood movie of same title, starring Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold. Mr. Sine’s copy is the edition published as one of Newnes’ Sixpenny Copyright Novels, with a cover illustration by H. M. Brock.

This story has two heroes: Dick Bultitude and his father Paul. Dick is unhappy at his school, Crichton House, one of the small, privately-owned academies that served as alternatives to the great public schools; in fact, Dick would like to transfer to Harrow, where his friend Jolland is going at the end of the term. Dick is also unhappy at home, because his father, a widower, is a cold, pompous, obstinate man who does not get along with his own children. The story begins when Dick is getting ready to return to school after the Christmas holiday, and his father is taking the opportunity to read him a lecture about the unsatisfactory report sent home by the headmaster, Dr. Grimstone; Dick must apply himself to his studies�that old bugbear of so many school story heroes and heroines�and he must refrain from leading his friends into scrapes. When Dick asks him for some pocket money, his father is far from generous, and when he tries to explain why he is unhappy at his 'beastly' school, his father refuses to listen. Mr. Bultitude falls upon the time-worn argument of age against youth:

'Now you know, it’s no use to cry like that,' he began. 'It’s-ah, the usual thing for boys at school . . . to go about fancying they’re very ill-used, and miserable, and all the rest of it, just as if people in my position had their sons educated out of spite! It’s one of those petty troubles all boys have to go through. And you mark my words, my boy, when they go out into the world, and have real trials to put up with, and grow middle- aged men, like me, why, they see what fools they’ve been, Dick; they see what fools they’ve been. All the-hum, the innocent games and delights of boyhood, and that sort of thing, you know-come back to them-and then they look back to those hours passed at school as the happiest, aye, the very happiest time of their life!'[8]

Dick, of course, is not convinced. Mr. Bultitude continues:

'Perhaps you will believe me . . . when I tell you, old as I am and as much as you envy me, I only wish, at this very moment, I could be a boy again, like you. Going back to school wouldn’t make me unhappy, I can tell you.'[9]

Unfortunately for him, Mr. Bultitude happens to be fingering the Garud� Stone, a souvenir of India sent home by Mr. Bultitude’s ne’er-do-well brother-in-law. In an instant Mr. Bultitude discovers that the Garuda Stone has an unsuspected, magical power: the power to grant one wish. He finds that he has been transformed into the expressed object of his envy, a fourteen-year-old boy who looks exactly like his son. Immediately realizing what has happened, Dick seizes the Stone and makes his own wish to be turned into his father.

From now on, it is Mr. Bultitude who claims the position of school story hero, as he is packed off to Crichton House by his own son, and it is Mr. Bultitude who must encounter the usual series of mishaps and misunderstandings. Mr. Bultitude feels like an outsider when he arrives at Crichton House, because he is one, a grown-up in a boys’ world. His arrival at school is complicated, because he tries to speak 'man-to-man' to Dr. Grimstone, hoping to explain his situation, and thus earning Dr. Grimstone’s ill will for what the headmaster considers an impudence. Realizing how impossible it is to explain that he has been transformed by magic, Mr. Bultitude finds that he must keep his true identity a secret, but his want of openness makes him look bad to his teachers and classmates. In this story, like all other school stories, sports play an important part, but it is Mr. Bultitude’s ineptitude, not an athlete’s natural prowess, that attracts the attention of the other boys. There is also the required rivalry with another student, the head boy Tipper, but this convention is turned on its head as well: Mr. Bultitude, behaving exactly as a pompous, middle-aged man would act, refuses to fight fair. By repudiating the schoolboys’ code of honor, Mr. Bultitude appears to be a prig to Dick’s classmates, who cannot understand why their friend has changed so much.

Anstey was writing a comic novel, but he depicted Mr. Bultitude’s complete unhappiness at school with real empathy. Mr. Bultitude’s bilious reaction to the bad food, his wretchedness in the cold, barren bedroom, his dread of the Headmaster, who can reduce him to feeling exactly like the boy he appears to be, and his fear of the other boys, who do not hesitate to express their hostility toward him with fists or wet towels, are all described convincingly. Mr. Bultitude’s misery is compounded by the complete lack of privacy that is an ordinary part of public school life; he is never alone for a single moment:

Boys, [Anstey] seems to be saying, are made to bear what no adult would tolerate for a moment, and not just made to bear it but told they are enjoying it, told that never again will they find themselves as happy.[10]

Anstey was able to draw the unpleasant details of school life far more realistically than most other writers of the school story genre; his delineation of Mr. Bultitude’s loneliness is a compelling reminder of the loneliness every reader has once felt at school, during the time of life when every unhappiness is intensified by the reader’s youth. But Vice Versa is not an unhappy story; the magical element mitigates what might otherwise have been a story of unvaried woe. And it is the magical element that allows Anstey to write the story at all. How better to convince the reader that Mr. Bultitude has come to understand his son’s point of view than by placing him right in his son’s shoes! It is the gritty realism of the details that makes the story so believable.

The writer of this article will not give away the entanglements of the plot or the conclusion of the story: she hopes that readers of the Bulletin will come into Special Collections to find out for themselves! She can only assure them Mr. Bultitude’s problems, as well as those of his son Dick, are happily resolved.

In Vice Versa we have a novel in which the characteristics of the school story genre are present, though often turned upside down, as well as the elements of fantasy that do not appear again until J. K. Rowling’s first book was published in 1997.

The English school story enjoyed its greatest popularity from the middle of the nineteenth century until the beginning of the twentieth, when the First World War altered forever the way of life recorded on its pages. The girls’ stories survived until the middle of the twentieth century, because the girls’ schools were established at a later date. During its heyday, the school story might be formulaic and predictable, but it offered a satisfying experience to its readers, equally believable to children who attended public schools and those who wished to. We don’t need to wonder why J. K. Rowling revived such an eminently entertaining genre with her Harry Potter novels. Like Anstey, she uses the background of school life to anchor the story to an experience readers can find credible; she wants us to understand that while the story is amusing, its subject is serious and worthy of our attention. By making Hogwarts itself a place of fantasy, however, Rowling situates her story outside the constraints of the present. Diana Beresford, Mr. Bultitude, and the other heroes and heroines of the earlier school stories are clearly products of their times; Harry and his friends have achieved the timeless appeal of Bilbo Baggins or Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy, on their way to Narnia by way of the wardrobe door

Now we can ask, what is the biggest difference between Hogwarts and the other fictional schools described between the pages of the English school story books? Hogwarts is co-ed!

Further Reading:

Avery, Gillian. Childhood’s Pattern: A Study of the Heroes and Heroines of Children’s Fiction 1770-1950. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.

Burrage, A. Harcourt. The Idol of Saint Montcree: A School Story of Mystery, Humour, and Sport. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, [n.d.]. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.

Cleaver, Hylton. The Harley First XI. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1920. Illustrations by C. E. Brock.

Coke, Desmond. The House Prefect. London: Henry Frowde; Hodder & Stoughton, 1906. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.

Coke, Desmond. Youth, Youth....! London : Chapman and Hall, 1919. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.

Darch, Winifred. Heather at the High School. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1924. Illustrations by C. E. Brock.

Hadath, Gunby. The Fattest Head in the Fifth: A Public School Story. London: Collins Clear-Type Press, [n.d.]. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.

Hadath, Gunby. Happy-Go-Lucky: A Public School Story. London: Collins, 1939. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.

Hayes, Nancy. Peg Runs Away to School. London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, [1928]. Illustrations by C. E. Brock.

Kelly, C. M. The Brocks: A Family of Cambridge Artists and Illustrators. London: Charles Skilton, 1975.

Meade, L. T. Betty Vivian. London: W. & R. Chambers, 1909. Illustrations by A. S. Boyd.

Moore, Dorothea. Head of the Lower School. London: Nisbet & Co. [1920]. Illustrations by C. E. Brock.

Mowbray, John. The Black Sheep of the School. London: Cassell & Co., 1926. Illustrations by H. M. Brock.


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[1] Roland Adams, 'Educator's Work Pays Dartmouth Unforeseen Dividends,' Friends of The Dartmouth Library Newsletter, No. 21 (October 1993), 1-2. See also A Permanent Tribute: A Keepsake on the Occasion of the Two-Millionth Acqusition, Dartmouth College Library, May 7, 1994 ([Hanover: Dartmouth College Library, 1994]).

[2] Margaret H. Ironside, The Mysterious Something (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, [1925]), 256.

[3] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Scholastic Press, 1998), 287.

[4] Isabel Quigly, The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story (London: Chatto and Windus, 1982), 100.

[5] Quigly, Heirs, 102.

[6] W. O. G. Lots and D. J. Adley, The Men Behind Boys’ Fiction (London: Howard Baker, 1970), 165.

[7] Brian Doyle, comp., The Who’s Who of Children’s Literature (London: Hugh Evelyn, 1968), 9.

[8] F. Anstey, Vice Versa, or, a Lesson to Fathers (London: George Newnes, Limited, [n.d.]), 17.

[9] Anstey, Vice Versa, 17.

[10] Quigly, Heirs, 103.

Last Updated: 5/3/12