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23 January 2010

The School Story World

The Australian Schoolboy

Australian boys’ school stories depict the Australian schoolboy and the school world. The typical school world as represented in the stories involves lessons, games, extra-curricular activities and amusements; teachers; and the school divisions of houses, forms, classes and dormitories, against which the friendships, rivalries, incidents, dilemmas and excitements are portrayed.

Some boys’ school stories provide more complete images of the school world; The Human Pedagogue contains vignettes dealing with various aspects of the schooling experience such as midnight feasts, sporting matches, outings, going to chapel, and lessons. In The Human Pedagogue Jennings employs the same points system he had implemented in the Junior School at Geelong Grammar, including points for work and athletics, though being awarded colours for ‘The Stew Shield’ was an honour not quite appreciated by the boys. Other school stories contain unique or interesting features. Kookaburra Jack, for example, details the influence of a group or gang of boys led by ‘Kookaburra Jack’, known as the Push, which almost terrorizes the prefects and school in its ability to get rid of undesirable teachers and influence school elections. Other school societies are shown in The Best School of All and The Black Star, but these portray more standard rival societies which wage warfare on each other and do not play an active role in school management. The darker side of school life is also explored in some boys’ school stories. Often the hero has to battle against enemies and frowned-upon activities such as ‘cribbing’. Cribbing is discussed in The Heart of the School and The Human Pedagogue. Bullying reprobates who are unable to reform receive their comeuppance, and expulsions feature in a number of stories including Pip and Andrew and The Human Pedagogue. The ideal Australian schoolboy is shown as a sport who is courageous, straight, honourable, athletic, and a bit of a larrikin. This ideal of a schoolboy who was straight, decent without being priggish, yet fond of a spree or a rag was not distinctively Australian, as these were traits that were also held by fictional British public schoolboys. In The Best School of All, Mr Thompson, the Head of St. Virgil’s, comments on the ideal boy when he announces the result of the Wentworth Scholarship, a scholarship which cannot be ‘swotted’ for:

To obtain it a boy must be judged from the whole tendency of his nature: he must
be a good all-round athlete, a sincere and capable student, and an influence for
good in the school. This is not a case for mediocrity in any shape or from, but
for excellence in every department of school life.

In Kookaburra Jack the School Captain is disliked because he is viewed as being too bookish and not enough of a sport, but he shows his strengths of leadership when he rescues a boy from a flagpole and earns the respect of the whole school. Headmasters in particular could be responsible for the tone of the school. Headmasters are usually portrayed as figures of leadership, just disciplinarians yet respected by the school. The figure of the Head in Pyke’s St. Virgil’s stories, who was based on L. A. Adamson, allows Pyke to expand on the value of public school ethics. The Chief is portrayed as a man deeply devoted to his school. Russell ‘Dreamy’ Howard comments that "he is very sensitive about us living up to his ideals of what a Public School should be" (Pyke, Jack of St. Virgil’s 93). In Max the Sport the Head tells the new boys, "You can only get the best out of the school by giving your best to it - by remembering that you are one of a band of brothers and that ‘what you are the school will be’" (68). Teachers often only play a peripheral role in the school story. The spectrum ranges from difficult, unjust or incompetent teachers, to the valued, typically sporting teachers who play an influential role in their pupils’ lives.

With the importance of ‘playing the game’, sport plays a prominent role in Australian boys’ school stories, as a means of character building, constructing school identity, and creating plot excitement. School sport was divided into inter and intra school competitions such as GPS events and form and house matches. Sports include rowing, football, cricket, athletics, and tennis. Often the schoolboy hero is a member of the school teams, and detailed descriptions of important sporting matches feature heavily in the stories. St. Virgil’s Headmaster stresses the importance of playing the game, "the greatest chance that is given to you boys is to ‘play the game’, not only in the sporting world, but in the ordinary routine of school-life" (Pyke, Max The Sport 68). The idea of school and collective identity is an important part of the public school ethos. At St. Virgil’s the Headmaster favours rowing as a sport because no selfishness is allowed. The individual has to strive for the collective glory of the whole crew. In The Best School of All Smith struggles with the conflicting loyalties between his old school and his new school, St. Virgil’s. In the 1920s and 30s the emphasis some boys’ schools placed on sport and winning was questioned, which is portrayed in some boys’ school stories. In Max The Sport a rival college employs underhand tactics when they use overage players and try to poison one of St. Virgil’s star footballers. Boylan’s Heart of the School shows the transformation of the Catholic boys’ school into a Melbourne public school, culminating in the school winning the football premiership.

The concept of ‘playing the game’ was advocated beyond the school years, and the First World War was one area where this was emphasised. The impact of the First and Second World Wars on Australian society is reflected in the Australian boys’ school stories of the period. As stated earlier, the First World War had an influence on the growth of boys’ school stories. Authors of the period including Lillian Pyke, Eustace Boylan and R. G. Jennings used the war in their school stories to reinforce public school values and the games ethic, exploiting Australian heroism and the Anzac experience (Crotty 104).

All of Pyke’s boys’ school stories feature the war. In Max the Sport Max enlists in the war despite his mother’s fears. For the schoolboy who had been taught to play the game, the war offered the chance to realise this ideal on a larger scale, and many Australian schoolboys enlisted:

What college boy with sporting blood in his veins would listen for a moment to
such reasoning? What ‘sport’ that had played for the honour of the school could
hear such sophistry without doubling up his fist and strike the bully? What use
all the talk about ‘playing the game’ if it only applied to small things of life
and was not incorporated in the nation’s body politic?

Max pleads with his mother to give him her blessing, asking "have you not trained me from infancy to play the game? Now when the test comes, would you have me fail my country, and would you fail me?" (238). Max’s Headmaster talks of how schoolboys can "win their colours on a wider oval", and offers Max the advice to "‘Play the game’ as you have always played it and England and the school will not forget" (246). The public schools viewed the war as a way of emphasizing Australian and imperial loyalty, and as a vindication of the public school system and the Australian national character (Crotty 89). Schoolboys did not do their duty just by enlisting. In Jack of St. Virgil’s the popular school captain leaves school to look after the family farm when his older brother enlists for war, knowing his duty is to his family.

The war also allowed Australian boys’ school story reprobates the chance to redeem their characters. In The Best School of All ‘Skeeter’ Leighton, who had blackmailed Jack in Jack of St. Virgil’s, enlists in the war and "‘playing the game’ which St. Virgil’s had taught on the field of France, and there made the supreme sacrifice" (9). In Jennings’ The Human Pedagogue, Linacre, the school bounder, finds the words of ‘The Bugles of England’ by J. D. Burns so compelling that he leaves school to enlist. The Human Pedagogue also explores the feelings of schoolboys towards the outbreak of war. When war is declared the whole school congregates in the quadrangle and sings the Marseillaise, "it was the response of an unseeing youth to the clarion call to battle - wild and feverish and in the first impulse of an experience too great to comprehend" (289). In contrast to Pyke’s and Jennings’ stories which emphasise colonial loyalty to England, Boylan’s The Heart of the School is interesting because of the author’s attempts to reconcile the opposing loyalties of public school spirit, which in protestant schools translated to loyalty towards mother England and the British Empire, and Catholicism in Australia (Niall, Australia Through the Looking Glass 162-66). Peter, the schoolboy hero, dies after being wounded in France. On his death bed Peter praises the Scotch College and Wesley boys who had saved him, "Oh! they’ve great hearts, these boys" (392).

The Australian Schoolgirl

The Australian schoolgirl and her school world are explored in the stories. The schooling experiences of boarders and daygirls were different, as boarders lived a highly regulated life in and out of school hours whilst day girls gained some reprieve at home. Australian schoolgirl heroines were often all-round girls, who were bright, sporting and interested in all school matters. Boarding school life followed the friendships, rivalries, dilemmas, incidents, and excitements at school.

In the school world, the Head Girl is an important figure who maintains the discipline and tone of the schools. In Sheila the Prefect, Beryl Lindsay is Head Girl and has a reputation for "justice tempered with mercy which made her a much loved head" (9). A strong, yet fair and just nature were good qualities of leadership. At Ellaroo College in Lowanna, the Head Girl is called ‘Warden’ and the role comes with many privileges and much prestige. In the Winterton series the girls vote for the School Captain, but with a difference to normal elections. Each girl makes an oath to vote for the most Christian girls for the prefecture. This is shown in Wendy Moves Up when the girls elect Wendy Murphy as Head Girl. But despite the girl’s pledge, the Head is so concerned about the calibre of girls elected she installs a new girl as prefect in Wendy in Charge, which leads to a revolt amongst the Fifth Formers. In Margaret’s Decision the school powers decide to abandon the normal tradition of seniors voting for the Captain and other posts; instead the Head chooses the most Christian girls.

There are no specific Australian Girl Guide school stories like the British stories by authors such as Ethel Talbot and Mrs A C Osborn Hann. One of the few mentions of guides is in The Lone Guide at Merfield, when guides are established at Merfield after Mary’s heroic acts and sterling qualities as a guide impress the whole school. The madcap was a popular figure in British girls’ school stories, and she also makes an appearance in Australian school stories. In all four of Constance Mackness’ school stories the heroine is a madcap, or as the title specifies, a ‘pickle’ or a ‘clown’. In The Glad School Mackness states that she decided to put a scapegrace and a madcap as her two chief characters in her story instead of the ordinary true girls who were in reality the backbone of the school, which "prides itself on scholarship and sport, and even more on the sterling character of its typical girl-products" (The Glad School np). She did this because she was writing a tale to amuse and please, not to present a history of the school in minutiae. Schoolgirl friendships feature prominently in Australian girls’ school stories, with their rivalries, quarrels and passionate friendships. In Ellice of Ainslie Ellice’s loyalty and friendship help reform a girl. Castleden Dove’s Lowanna and its depiction of the friendship between Lowanna and Joan is described by H. M. Saxby as the "closest analysis of schoolgirl friendship in the fiction" apart from that of Evelyn and Laura in Henry Handel Richardson’s adult school story, The Getting of Wisdom (Offered to Children 308).

Sport also features in Australian girls’ school stories but it occupies a less vigorous role than it does in the boys’ school stories. Organised sport and sporting competitions were introduced despite initial Victorian concern for women playing vigorous masculine sports. In Australia girls began to play sports at schools from the 1880s, and from the 1900s sporting competitions were organised for interschool sport. In Sydney, the Girls’ School Tennis Association was formed in 1902, in Melbourne, the Girls’ Schools’ Hockey Association was formed in 1905 (Sherington 52 & 104). Similar structures were established in other regions. Schoolgirls often played tennis and netball, with some playing cricket, rowing, hockey and swimming. In Sheila at Happy Hills, despite Riverview College being the oldest girls’ school in Victoria, sport has only been recently introduced, as "even old-fashioned mistresses must move with the times and now tennis, hockey and baseball were played by the Riverview girls" (8). There are no Australian equivalents of British author Ethel Talbot’s games-filled school stories.1 Even in Potter’s school stories, despite her school’s adoption of English public school values, sport does not play a very prominent role. Perhaps for Potter religion plays the role of sport in moral character building. In Sheila the Prefect a group of ‘swots and duffers’ make a plan to play sport as generally only team members get a chance to play and they want the benefit of "health and exercise" (33). They decide to play baseball rounders as it "develops concentration, observation, memory, judgement, quickness, accuracy, and moral qualities" (35). Sheila coaches them secretly, and the Duffers shine when it is discovered that a visiting group of girls from Chatsford School play baseball rounders, and the Riverview team draw with their more experienced rivals.

1 See The New Centre-Forward; The Girls of the Rookery School, etc.


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