restricted access Learning to Be Modern Girls: Winifred Darch's School Stories
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Learning to Be Modern Girls:
Winifred Darch’s School Stories

Of all of the twentieth-century school story authors, Winifred Darch is perhaps the one most concerned with the democratic possibilities of schooling for girls. More than many writers in the genre, she wrote about state-funded schools and their role in the continuing democratization of social institutions. She was also interested in school as a workplace for women. Darch's books connect conversations about teachers and education policy with representations of schoolgirls. As a career teacher herself, she was aware that professional "educationists"—librarians and theorists as well as school administrators and teachers—played a role (or at least attempted to) in the success or failure of school story writers.

As with other examples of the genre, her books—published by Oxford University Press's juvenile division—targeted girl readers. Some books seem to be pitched to a young teenage or preteen audience. However, equally important is the possibility of an actual readership that included adults. Rosemary Auchmuty and other scholars have documented the "astounding popularity" of the genre with adult readers as well as children ("Origins" 148); the several international, intergenerational fan clubs organized around authors in the genre are proof of that. Similarly, Joseph McAleer has written about the intergenerational "cross-over" readership with regard to a related genre: girls' story papers (31; also see Tinkler). Consideration of Darch's prolific output in the context of a crossover readership illustrates her complex negotiation of the politics of professionalism, workplace justice, institutional authority, and the training of "modern girls."

The critical fate of Darch's most popular contemporary school story writers has been well-documented by feminist scholars, most notably Rosemary Auchmuty (1992, 1999, 2000). Even bestselling school story fiction was often marginalized by the school establishment it represented [End Page 1] (librarians, head teachers, and teachers). Believing that these novels lacked artistic merit, literary critics also complained that they were out of touch socially, retrograde, and nostalgic for an insular world of class privilege for the daughters of the middle and upper-middle classes. However, the girls' school story genre continues to support an active fan culture and readership across categories of age, class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences. New understandings of the importance of readers and the complex ways in which they make use of texts—insights that came from cultural studies, feminism, and children's literature studies—obviate or at least bracket aside such questions of literary value and social correctness. This "rise of the reader" in criticism has been crucial to interdisciplinary study of cultural production intended for children.

Darch stands in a place of distinction among the most well-known, and many other school story authors for two reasons. First, she wrote about the new girls' high schools that were created after the 1902 Education Act and that expanded in the first third of the twentieth century (Summerfield, Mitchell).1 Second, she wrote several main characters who were scholarship recipients. Typically, needy students appeared as minor characters in fiction by other school story authors. Darch's more democratic subjects and settings distinguish her from many of the leading figures in the genre.

"We Are the School": The New High Schools for Girls

As Sheila Ray and others have observed, most girls' school stories written in the first half of the twentieth century centered on representations of boarding schools—an environment that did not reflect the education experience of most readers and writers. A prime example of this bias toward representations of an atypically elite education experience might be Elinor Brent-Dyer's sixty-two-book-strong Chalet School series, which ran from 1925 to 1970.2 The fantasy of class privilege that Brent-Dyer's books arguably offer does not, of course, mean that other aspects of the novels lack political and social valence. Many fan-critics have provided sympathetic contextual readings of these books, as with Brent-Dyer's popular series, which remains in print and still supports international fan clubs (Mackie-Hunter; McClelland). Not only Brent-Dyer's books, of course, are set in elite institutional environments. The boarding school setting is so central to the...