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  • Crosswriting the School Story
  • Kenneth Kidd (bio)
Regendering the School Story: Sassy Sissies and Tattling Tomboys, by Beverly Lyon Clark. New York: Garland, 1996.

Forget Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857). Better yet, remember it differently, as the hypercanonical school story that, although still underappreciated, "warped not just the earlier but also the later history of the genre" (12). That larger history is Clark's subject, and she pursues an interesting line of inquiry that sets her project quite apart from earlier studies such as Isabel Quigly's The Heirs of Tom Brown and P. W. Musgrave's From Brown to Bunter. Noting the traditional inattention to both girls' stories and gender itself, Clark explores less canonical "crossgendered" school stories, written for boys by women and for girls by men. Authors of such stories, she argues, are doubly removed by age and gender from the conventions of the genre and are more likely to stray from them. Although crossgendering takes center stage, Clark also shows how school stories are written along and across generational, national, religious, class, and racial lines. Divided into three major sections, Clark's investigation of authorial identification and remove is quite engaging, as much a contribution to gender studies and literary historiography as a reassessment of this misunderstood genre.

The introduction situates Hughes's Tom Brown as both a "watershed" (11) and an unfortunate primal scene. What Huck Finn is to the American boy book, Tom Brown is to the British boys' school story, and although Clark doesn't quite make this claim, I suspect that critical accounts of the school story also tend to imitate Tom Brown itself, just as early scholarship on Huck Finn echoes as much as analyzes Twain's literary strategies. In any case, the five chapters in part 1 defamiliarize the Hughes legacy by examining crossgendered school stories predating Tom Brown penned by British and American writers alike, among them Richard Johnson, Charles Lamb, Jacob Abbott, Dorothy Kilner, Maria Edgeworth, Emily J. May, and Mary Martha Sherwood. [End Page 215] At the same time, Clark shows that overcanonization can be a form of scholarly neglect. Clark alternates chapters that survey a posse of writers with chapters devoted to a few representative figures. She draws from an impressive range of texts, and her local readings are as fascinating as her larger revisionist claims.

I found chapter 3 particularly instructive, a reading of Dorothy Kilner's First Going to School; or, The Story of Tom Brown, and His Sisters (1804); this was the first tale of Tom Brown, at once playful and didactic. Only "precariously a school story," Kilner's novel is less preoccupied with gender-bending than with animal-human "interface" (53). Young Tom is likened to a "stuck pig," a "little lamb," and a horse. Tom's father composes animal fables starring the family's calf, sow, and rabbits, and at the book's end, cousin Peter describes a prank featuring a sow and her pigs cross-dressed as a headmaster and his boys. Clark links this "cross-species crossdressing" (55) with the aims and anxieties of education and other civilizing projects.

In the fourth chapter Clark elaborates on one of her central emphases, the trope of "talebearing"—telling and not telling tales—in both crossgendered fiction and crossgendered commentary like her own. Typically, talebearing has taken a critical back seat to those other master tropes of schoolboy fiction, insurrection and fagging. She discovers that some women writers are less likely to condemn tattling than their male counterparts, "calling into question the cosmetic unities of subsequent male authors" and even hinting "at the deviousness of all authors who tell tales about telling tales" (84). As she remarks in the introduction, school stories foreground both peer codes of loyalty and the teacher-student struggle, offering a useful glimpse into "the intersections of literature and pedagogy and the politics of schooling" (10).

The five chapters in part 2 attend to tales that appeared during the "heyday of the canonical story" but are hardly Tom Brown clones. In this cluster Clark outlines how women writers in particular revised the school story by crossing gender with race and ethnicity (chapters 6 and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-3374
Print ISSN
0092-8208
Pages
pp. 215-218
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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