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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Victorian Schoolrooms: Childhood and Education in Nineteenth-Century Fiction
  • Kimberley Reynolds (bio)
Elizabeth Gargano . Reading Victorian Schoolrooms: Childhood and Education in Nineteenth-Century Fiction. New York and London: Routledge, 2008.

When I attended my small-town high school in Connecticut in the 1970s we sang, on formal occasions, a most incongruous school song. Beginning with a Latin salutation to the school itself, it quickly defaulted to [End Page 249] English lines of praise for the school's "hallowed halls" and "ivy-covered walls." I have it on good authority that not so much as a tendril of ivy ever broached those cinder-block walls, and the kind of vaulted ceilings and panelled rooms evoked were entirely the product of the lively imagination of a music teacher sometime earlier in the century. This improbable vision of a venerable institution towering over the Connecticut Turnpike came to mind while I was reading Elizabeth Gargano's account of the debates between nineteenth-century British school planners and architects about the physical environment most likely to prove conducive to learning. The composer of my school anthem clearly came down on the side of those who, like Matthew Arnold, believed that the characteristics of Gothic architecture, with its high ceilings, gables, lofty windows, and associations with ancient universities, public schools, churches, and cathedrals, created the best ambience in which to promote scholarship and liberal attitudes. They were opposed by those, among them E. R. Robson, the official architect of the London school board and author of the influential School Architecture (1874), who favored modern, utilitarian designs predicated on the need to control large numbers of pupils efficiently.

Gargano is careful to point out that although the movement in Britain in the nineteenth century toward standardization and functionality is reviled in the novels she discusses—for this is primarily a study of the fictional treatment of school spaces—the aims of planners like Robson in creating national schools were to rectify the poor physical conditions in which most school children found themselves. By establishing building codes, monitoring schoolmasters' conduct, and eventually providing free education they were trying to replace inadequate buildings that harbored and spread contagion, abolish harsh regimes and punishments, which were damaging to bodies and minds, and counter attitudes that sought to reconcile the children of the poor to their station in life.

The two strongly held and opposed views about school buildings and adjacent spaces in Victorian society are not equally reflected in the sample of novels discussed in this volume; if a child must be sent to school, the writers advise, let it be one with good architectural features. Overall, however, school comes out badly in Gargano's chosen texts that, it should be noted, are all drawn from the mid-nineteenth century rather than Victorian fiction more generally as implied by the title. The novels discussed undoubtedly favor the domestic space over the institutional as she claims. The works discussed are familiar to anyone who has worked in this area: beginning with Frankenstein (1816), it encompasses the main novels by Dickens in which schools feature—Nicholas Nickleby (1838–39), David Copperfield (1849–50), and Hard Times (1854)—and in the section on illness [End Page 250] at school, gives pride of place to Jane Eyre (1847). Periodically these mainstream novels are compared with works that are now firmly placed in the canon of school stories: The Crofton Boys (1841), Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857), and Eric (1858) among them.

Although some very different views of school spaces would have emerged if Gargano had opened up her sample to the whole Victorian Edwardian period—think of the fusion of home and school in the girls' colleges depicted by L. T. Meade, for instance, where kettles perpetually sing merrily on the hob in the girls' rooms, or the fashion for turrets, towers, and walled enclosures begun by Angela Brazil—she does a fine job of identifying and describing formative policies and practices, and showing how these were critiqued, lambasted, and even ridiculed in some mid-century novels. She presents this as a contest between institutional and domestic spheres "as writers and the reading public grappled with the questions of who...


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