17 August 2016

Matilda

Miss Trunchbull is the headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, attended by Matilda Wormwood and her friends. A former Olympic hammer-thrower with a hatred of children, Dahl describes her as ‘a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike’.

Thankfully, clever, brave, book-loving and mischievous Matilda has unusual gifts which are recognised by kindly teacher Miss Honey. The pair become firm friends and it’s Miss Honey’s own story that leads Matilda to an incredible discovery about the true power of her brain.

Nicholas Nickleby

Childhood in Dickens is often a bleak affair. But his fictionalisation of the real-life horrors documented during a visit to various Yorkshire boarding schools, in the form of Dotheboys Hall, is surely the grimmest. The school promises much in terms of education  – everything from algebra to astronomy, orthography and all languages living and dead – but the wards, entrusted to the one-eyed sadist Wackford Squeers and his wife, are starved and repeatedly beaten, learning little more than that life is nasty, brutish and short. 

Lucky Jim

Comic set-pieces, booze-fuelled disasters, madrigal-singing and the most brutally accurate depiction of a hangover in English literature. There’s little to match Amis’s skewering of artifice and pretension as Jim Dixon muddles his way through life at a provincial red-brick university in the Midlands.

Giving further education everywhere a bad name, reluctant medieval history lecturer Jim argues the case strongly for not saddling oneself with a mountain of student debt, as he tries to avoid impending unemployment at the hands of the odious Professor Welch.

The Worst Witch

Jill Murphy first started writing about Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches when she was at her own school, aged 15. The series features the titular worst witch, Mildred Hubble, as she tries to master magic. Hampered by her cat, Tabby, who isn’t the right colour and who refuses to take up the traditional position on the end of the broomstick, Mildred is constantly distracted from becoming the perfect student.

Between the wrath of Miss Hardbroom and the support of benevolent, and mostly understanding, headmistress Miss Cackle, Mildred endures, thanks to her knack of snatching triumph from the jaws of defeat. 

Jane Eyre

If you’re an orphan sent to a charity school for girls, you can be fairly sure that your schooldays aren’t going to be the best days of your life. Lowood Institution features cold rooms, poor meals, and thin clothing, courtesy of Mr Brocklehurst. Despite the loss of her stoic best friend, Helen, to tuberculosis, conditions eventually improve for Jane at Lowood. After six years as a student, she stays on for a further two as a teacher, before striking out on her own as a governess, heading for Thornfield Hall – and Edward Rochester.

Skippy Dies

Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010, Skippy Dies is set in a Catholic Dublin boarding school, Seabrook College for Boys.

The school attempts to instill values of honour, duty and compassion in its pupils – something that is clearly lost on drug-dealing Carl, who is not so much a school bully as a psychotic criminal in training. The cast also includes a beautiful supply teacher, history teacher Howard the Coward, and overweight genius Ruprecht Van Doren.

Murray has created a tragi-comedy of epic sweep, expertly capturing the heartache and elation, joy and anxieties of being a teenager.

Molesworth

Nigel Molesworth, with a fabulously carefree attitude to spelling, grammar and both work and play, careens through prep skool at mercurial speed. ‘The curse of St Custard’s’ provides numerous tips on avoiding ‘cads, oiks, goody-goodies, bulies, snekes and new bugs (CHIZ)’. Plus ‘kanes’, ‘foopball’ and clouds-and-sky-botherer Fotherington-Thomas, whilst mainly accompanied by his ‘grate friend’ Peason. 

The brilliant depiction of the cabbage-and-carbolic boys’ schools of the 1950s is brought joyously to life by Ronald Searle’s glorious cartoons. Being a small boy, as any fule kno, should be explosive fun. And Molesworth can still lay claim to be topp at it.

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