Girls' school and college friendships in twentieth-century British fiction
This study examines in detail a variety of adolescent female friendships in twentieth-century British novels, written for both the 'adult' and 'juvenile' reading public, a distinction which I argue is arbitrary, since the relationship between the two is an exceptionally close one. Scholars discussing adolescence this century have tended to ignore the experience of girls, or to reinforce patriarchal stereotypes by presenting girls in marginal and reactionary roles. Until recently, even feminist discourse on friendship has been inclined to focus on adult relationships, or to examine girls in relation to boys. Identifying these tendencies, I explore fiction set in girls' schools and colleges to determine how novelists saw this significant relationship. Girls' schools and colleges represented a significant cultural space for girls and young women to learn to value female companionship. Although most discourse on girls’ school friendships has focused on the 'crush' relationship, I was interested in determining to what extent writers valued 'ordinary' friendships, as an area of life over which girls, earlier this century, were able to exert some autonomy. The girls' school story is the obvious fictional space to celebrate adolescent female friendship in all its complexity. As a genre it has been consistently devalued by critics (perhaps partly because of the very accessibility of the schoolgirl as a cultural image) despite enjoying enduring popularity among readers of all ages, and inspiring several notable novelists to adopt its conventions for their own works, as demonstrated in this study. My approach to the texts discussed here involves a close reading of the text against an awareness of the cultural conditions in which it was produced. As I show, failure to take into account these cultural conditions can lead to misunderstanding the novels and the relationships depicted therein. This study, drawing on a wide variety of texts produced between 1909 and 1990, shows clearly that the novelists concerned were influenced to varying extents by the prevailing ideologies of their times. These ideologies often determine the importance they accord female friendship, the form it takes, and the language they use to discuss it.