While I often deny the word “guilty” in relation to pleasures, I admit the phrase has its attractions and, yes, usefulness. A guilty pleasure has a little subversive thrill embedded, and is often something enjoyed when we feel we “should” be doing something else. That feeling of “should” could come from an awareness that we are procrastinating, but just as often I’m sure it comes from the idea that we could be spending our time on something with greater seriousness. One of my teachers and friends, the wonderful fiction and non-fiction writer Sugi Ganeshananthan, once said, “Guilt is a useless emotion. You should dispense with it.” I’ve treasured that as much as possible, and I’m sure it has greatly cut down on the amount of guilt I feel, though not eliminated it altogether. I feel guilt about not getting things done immediately (usually when I am juggling too many things at once) but not about enjoying non-canonical reading or watching television or seeing the latest dance movie, no matter how terrible. The mind needs rest too! (Writer friends Kodi Scheer, Miriam Lawrence and I spent a lot of time talking about television when I lived in Michigan, and I learned a lot—about culture, and about writing—from those discussions.)
I know that many writers have their guilty pleasure genres. Dorothy Porter used to talk about her love of detective fiction—how much she must have loved being able to bring that out in her verse novel in that genre, The Monkey’s Mask! And how much she must have enjoyed that book’s great success! Another friend and mentor, poet A. Van Jordan is a huge fan of comic books and graphic novels, a love that shows up in his poetry at times.
For me it’s not so much a genre as a milieu that I can’t bypass: the boarding school. I’m pleased to say I’m not the only person I know who has a great love of boarding school books (to my delight, when I mentioned these books to my father, he went to the bookshelves and brought back Rudyard Kipling’s Stalkey and Co., a favourite of his own from childhood) though I’m often greeted with a somewhat mystified expression when I mention my addiction—and with the question, “Did you go to boarding school or something?” (No, I did not.)
Boarding school books cover a lot of ground, it turns out. There’s fiction—both for children and adult, both popular and literary—memoir, history… even sociology! I am fond of the Malory Towers and St Clare’s and adore the Naughtiest Girl books by Enid Blyton for their endless rounds of midnight feasts, classroom pranks and little scrapes, and I love the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer which leaves readers flabbergasted every time the girls leave for any kind of outdoor adventure without a rope—sure they can all speak three or more languages, but do they never learn common sense?—but these books are not the be-all-and-end-all of the “genre.”
I read the Enid Blyton boarding school books through my childhood. The Naughtiest Girl is a Monitor was a particular favourite. The tempestuous Elizabeth is fierce in her anger, and goes all in when she makes a decision, but of course, in time, is shown to be a “brick,” and a brick with the courage to admit when she was wrong. The Chalet Series I only discovered in early adulthood, and of the sixty-something books published I would only have read a quarter. (Many are not easy to get hold of.) However it was two books written for adults that made me realise my fascination with, and the possibilities of, the subject matter. The first is by the Swiss-Italian author Fleur Jaeggy I Beati Anni del Castigo. In English the title of this work (translated by the wonderful translator, novelist and essayist Tim Parks) is given as Sweet Days of Discipline—yes, this title has caused many raised eyebrows when I bring the book up, just like Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage provokes all manner of jokes. This is a slim novel or a novella, a book that has haunted me since I first read it a decade ago. It is one of those books I see so rarely on bookshop shelves that every time I come across it I buy it, and press it upon friends. Jaeggy writes of her adolescent girl characters with the kind of knife-sharp tenderness that at times, contradictorily, borders on disdain. She captures the particular romance of intense friendships between young women with unsettling coolness, and the entrapment of the boarding school setting heightens the feeling of claustrophobic obsession. Discovering this book led me to seek out her other work: reading her I sometimes feel as I do when looking on the great photographs of Diane Arbus (though, I hasten to add, with Arbus disdain is never present.) I have muddled my way through some of the Italian, too, but generally rely on the crispness of Parks’s rendering. (For all that I can, with plenty of time, understand what I’m reading, my Italian is not yet strong enough to fully understand the cool quality of Jaeggy’s cadence in the language.)
The other book that confirmed my addiction was a memoir by the novelist Paul Watkins, Stand Before Your God. An American whose schooling took place in the UK first at the Dragon School, then at Eton, this memoir is a fascinating study of finding individuality in a setting that is so often associated with extreme conformity. In particular, in the final third of the book, Watkins gives a sense of his path towards becoming a writer—he wrote his first novel Night Over Day Over Night at the age of sixteen. (The book was published when Watkins was in his twenties.) Aside from this, the memoir turns so many of the familiar scenes from childhood school stories on their heads, revealing with great humour the abjection experienced by many boarders. While Watkins writes with humour, that same abjection is one of the drives behind the violent climax in Lindsay Anderson’s bleak boarding school film If… Both Jaeggy’s and Watkins’s books are gems, and Anderson’s film is rightly considered a classic.
While the boarding school book stretches in many different directions, the discovery of individual identity is almost always present. In fact, there is naturally an arc of the bildungsroman embedded in the majority of these stories. (Coming through boarding school is also part of the bildungsroman of classics such as Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield.) The formation of selfhood is a topic that endlessly fascinates us, as we ourselves forge identity, stumbling along the way. (In fact, surely our readerly love of the bildungsroman is linked to the enduring popularity of biography, right?) The true bildungsroman must move beyond the school story as the subject reaches adulthood and emerges out of trial-and-error adolescence, and the fact that the boarding school book stays put in teenagehood (unless focussed on the teachers, such as another classic, Goodbye Mr Chips) will meet with resistance among many who don’t want to revisit that period of life—but for me, both its pain and its giddy frivolities find expression in this odd subset of books, and so I’ll stick with them.