THE ENGLISH HABIT of sending its young away to school is interesting historically and has been a boon to fiction from Thackeray to Enid Blyton. Most children still love a "boarding-school book" and "home for the holidays" still casts a curious, race-memory spell.
Lately, however -- only the rich and the extremely deprived now go away -- the genre has waned, so that it is interesting to find running away there are still Becky Sharps, even perhaps Jane Eyres very much alive and certainly kicking.
Jane Rackham, at an old-fashioned -- or so it seemed to me -- expensive girl's boarding school, is eldest of six, the rest comfortably at home with father, a literary critic, and mother, who's much taken up with childbirth. Jane hears she is not wanted home at half-term (yet another new baby) and is invited by friend Audrey to visit her trendy London family instead. Audrey's neurotic and appalling mother -- nicknamed Lucrezia Borgia by son-in-law Gary -- is so rude to Jane that Audrey is shamed and back at school the friendship breaks down. Jane, rejected all round, telephones kind Gary, weeping. They meet, near the school, and he finds her in his arms.
But Gary rejects her too. She roars off in his car. There is an accident, undiscovered but to Jane hideous. She is filled with guilt, the need to confess and expiate. In the following struggle she reaches an important decision, and the friendship with Audrey is restored and strengthened and she grows up.
I think the most painful and compulsive book will be devoured hungrily by girls who will passionately identify with Jane, whether they know anything about boarding schools and the English upper-middle classes or not, for it deals with an almost universal adolescent plight -- being treated like a child when you are nothing of the sort. It is a very fierce book -- the author has chosen to state facts as crudely as if she were hereself still 15, but this does not mean that the book is crude. It is serious and should be read seriously by teachers not once but twice and by teachers at boarding schools three times. This is not necessarily to rub their noses in how awful they can seem from the other side of the desk -- heaven knows, they have plenty to put up with -- but to remind them how hellish it all seemed sometimes and that maybe they could suggest to their students now and then that adolescence passes. I suspect that American teachers are better at this than old-fashioned English schoolmistresses anyway.
the robbers is a different and much steadier tale, interesting in that it too touches the neglected English upper-middle class while ranging over the rest of the English social scene as well. "All his life," it begins, "Philip had lived in a castle" -- with Granny, a general's widow, the castle a grace-and-favor residence granted by the royal family. Philip is moved unwillingly to London, where absentee father (another busy journalist) has remarried. He is sent to the tough local state school, where he makes friends with an interesting child, Darcy, whose brother gets himself into prison, whose kind stepmother is black, and who leads Philip into a life of crime. Dickensian stuff.
Philip, who had arrived with tender sensibilities -- his chief recreation had been wandering with Granny on the beach looking for stones -- is soon defending Darcy in the playground with a broken bottle and "So help me God, I'll cut you to red and white ribbons." But the police are kind -- kinder than Philip's father, who threatens boarding school as punishment. Then Granny descends ("What's this about boarding school? . . . You always were a bully, Henry!"). She is enormously loving but not at all soft with Philip ("Well, you should have known, shouldn't you?") and there is a most intricate, interesting ending.
This wise, good book -- exciting, short, fast, witty, sane -- has much more obviously horrific things in it than running away : crime, violence, punishment -- but it leaves a real taste of hope and happiness.