Bewitched by boarding schools

MARK STEYN February 26 2007

Bewitched by boarding schools

MARK STEYN February 26 2007

Bewitched by boarding schools


In what’s supposed to be a multiculti world, it all still comes down to toasted crumpets


A friend of mine had a rather unsatisfactory meeting with his publisher the other day, apropos his latest manuscript. “It’s too English,” was the verdict. “Ah, right,” said my pal and was heading back to the old drawing board when he suddenly remembered: “Hang on. What about Harry Potter?”

Good point. And it’s not just Harry. In poor old Hollywood, it’s pretty much the Brit-hit franchises that are keeping the floundering movie business afloat. If I were some bratty all-American moppet, I think I’d be feeling a bit oppressed by cultural imperialism. At school, you’re told it’s a wonderful multiculti world and have to sit through Swahili dirges for Kwanza and all the other Ramadan-a-ding-dongs, and then you get to the multiplex and every multi-billion-dollar kids’ series features English schoolboys, and even when they’re disguised as hobbits or fauns in Narnia they still live on toasted crumpets and elderberry tea and such. It can’t be long before some studio exec starts mulling over a boffo convergence along the lines of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Wardrobe. Indeed, given that the most successful grown-up franchise is also British, I would have skipped Daniel Craig and opted for Harry Potter as the new Bond, with Aslan as M and Bilbo as Q.

Contemplating the rise of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to the top of the hit parade six months ahead of publication, those of us toiling in the literary foothills can only marvel. Who would have thought an English boarding-school story would be the global hit of the 21st century? When you first glance at it, the Potter oeuvre seems an

artful cross-pollination of genre fiction—Upper Fourth at Malory Towers disrupted by the black arts, a standard school setting in which dim trolls rampage through the girls’ bathroom and leave “troll bogeys” over everything. But, on closer inspection, what’s striking is how the series conforms to the traditional impulses of toff-school fiction, “purebloods” condescending to “Muggles” and “mudbloods” in much the same way the snootier chaps did to “scholarship boys” a century ago. Harry is raised by Muggles—Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia—at their home in the bland cul-de-sac of “Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey,” an address of almost parodie snobbery toward the English lower middle class (and accentuated in the audio version by a palpable sneering in Jim Dale’s voice). If you’re wondering where a Scottish welfare mum writing her manuscript on the back of paper napkins in a greasy spoon (or whatever—I always doze off round about the second paragraph of J.K. Rowling profiles) gets off being quite so snotty, well, a contempt for suburbia is one of the few things the proletariat and the gentry agree on. “It is a sad fate to be the child of the urban or suburban middle-classes,” wrote the comic novelist Kingsley Amis, recalling his arrival at Oxford University. “One’s upbringing must be conducted either in several establishments with

several bathrooms or in one with none, if it is to distil any glamour potential.”

North Americans are generally either blissfully unaware of such peculiarly English preoccupations or rightly disdainful of them. Which makes the New World’s embrace of Hogwarts and Privet Drive and all the rest even more remarkable. In part, J. K. Rowling inherited by default. When she sat down to start writing her first Harry Potter, the children’s section at Barnes & Noble and Chapters was full of stuff like Almost a Hero by John Neufeld:

“Ben is convinced his spring vacation has been ruined by his social studies teacher’s assignment—a week’s volunteer service for a community charity. Haunted by something dark in his own past, Ben chooses to work at Sidewalk’s End, a daycare centre for homeless children. When Ben believes he sees Batista, one of the Sidewalk’s End kids, being abused by his mother at a grocery store, he is frustrated by his inability to get the authorities to act to protect the child.”

After that summary, would you want to read the book? Would you want to read any book, ever? Yet the trade mags couldn’t have been happier. Neufeld, cooed Booklist, “still knows his audience... Ben is much more than a mouthpiece for social issues.” Somewhere in the Valhalla of children’s heroes, Tom and Huck are roaring their heads off. At the risk of getting my kids kicked out of their own school, I have to say a distressingly overwhelm-

ing proportion of the books they do in class are drawn from the Almost a Hero end of things—plonkingly worthy tales constructed around dread phrases like “daycare centre for homeless children.” The dreary prioritizing of “relevance” shrivels a child’s horizon. If you read The Wizard ofOz or Treasure Island or even Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, you will not have done most of the things you’re reading about, nor will you ever: you will not be befriended by a talking lion, you will not be kidnapped by scurvy pirates, you will not be orphaned and raised either on a farm on Prince Edward Island or by your grandfather and his goats in the Swiss Alps. But this lack of “relevance” did not prevent generations of boys and girls from “relating” to these stories. Obviously, Almost a Hero is also escapist-most children are not homeless and abused—but its escapism is reductive.

In that sense, Hogwarts is merely the globalized heir to Greyff iars (school of Billy Bunter, the “Fat Owl of the Remove,” in the boys’ comic The Magnet) and Cliff House (school of his sister Bessie Bunter in the girls’ comic The School Friend) a hundred years ago. As Lord Northcliffe and other British press magnates well understood, there’s a vast market for the boarding-school world far beyond those who actually attend them. In his famous essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” George Orwell argued that elite school stories had a special appeal for those who attended less illustrious private schools—i.e., their popularity arose from a kind of social insecurity. (As the chap at the teacher recruitment agency in Evelyn Waugh’s Decline And Fall says: “We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School and School.”) But that doesn’t account for their mass appeal in the tuppenny papers. Rather, as J. K. Rowling is only the latest to demonstrate, boarding school is the perfect structure for almost any narrative: it enables you to create a self-contained world free of parents, with its own codes and conventions, yet

constrained in both place (a world that ends at the school grounds) and time (a three-term year instantly divides your story into the perfect three-act play).

That’s one reason non-children’s authors enjoy appropriating the form: the English wag Lord Berners wrote a parody called The Girls ofRadcliffHall, an allusion to Radclyffe Hall, the author of a gloomily overwrought prototype lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness. The “girls” in Berners’ school were all prominent British homosexuals and their “pashes” were a bit more intense than the average fourth-former’s for her new French mistress, but otherwise he wrote it in a passable imitation of the then queen of the genre, Angela Brazil, and published it under the name “Adela Quebec.” You could easily do the same for the G8 or the Liberal leadership race or almost anything you care to mention. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix chanced to come out within a week of Hillary Clinton’s autobiography, so just for a giggle I did a column recasting the latter as the former—Billy Clinter and the Chamber of Semen: after encountering Moaning Monica, an intern who haunts the anteroom and has the rare power ofParcelmouth, Billy realizes he spinched while he was apparating, which had never happened before, etc. The “jolly hockey sticks” slang of Miss Brazil—“What a blossomy idea!”, “Oh, isn’t it piggy!’’—yields to new lingo, but the form is indestructible.

I mentioned earlier the idea of Harry Potter as James Bond. But, as it happens, that’s now been done:

“ ‘You, boy!’ barked a voice and the boy looked round.

“A man stood there glaring at him... ‘What’s your name, boy?’

“ ‘Bond, James Bond.’

“ ‘James Bond—sir!

“ ‘Yes. Sorry, sir...’

“ ‘Do you know who I am, Mister Bond?’ he said coldly.

‘“I’m afraid not, sir. I just arrived.’

“ ‘I am Mister Codrose. Your housemaster.’ ” Thus poor James on his first day at Eton in SilverFin, the first novel in Charlie Higson’s “Young Bond” series. In You Only Live Twice, Ian Fleming mentions that Bond was removed from Eton after an, ah, incident with one of the maids, and subsequently attended Fettes in Scotland (alma mater of Tony Blair, Canada’s General de Chastelain, and arty actress Tilda Swinton of Narnia). Whether Mr. Higson will recreate the domestic encounter for his young readers remains to be seen, but it’s testament to the enduring versatility of the form. Harry Potter may be in his final year, but for the school-story genre the end-of-term bell never rings. M