Book Recommendations, Please

I know the people who regularly visit this blog are widely read, highly intelligent and have excellent taste, so could you please recommend me some books? But not just any books. I am looking for some very specific books – namely, books set in England, preferably London, in the 1950s or early 1960s, about middle-class or upper-class schoolgirls. The books can be novels, memoirs, biographies, autobiographies (or chapters of biographies or autobiographies) – I don’t mind, as long as they centre on the lives of schoolgirls and the author really knows what he (or preferably, she) is writing about. To be even more demanding, I’d prefer to read about girls at day schools, rather than boarding schools. A 1950s or 1960s version of A Long Way From Verona or The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, set in London, would be perfect.

Here are some of the books I’ve recently read, or re-read, that didn’t quite meet my requirements:

An Education, a memoir by Lynn Barber, included some chapters describing how Lynn, a bright but naïve schoolgirl, was courted by a much older con man who convinced her (and her parents) that she should leave school and marry him. It was also made into an excellent film, written by Nick Hornby and starring Carey Mulligan.

Girlitude: A Portrait of the 50s and 60s, a memoir by Emma Tennant, looked promising, but wasn’t really about her life as a child. It’s about how the author, a spoilt, rich member of the aristocracy, drifted through the fifties and sixties, picking up and discarding husbands, lovers, friends and houses, dumping her child on her long-suffering parents, and occasionally deigning to work for a few months at a time at some fashion magazine or other (the jobs arranged for her by her family, as she’d left school at fifteen and had no qualifications or apparent skills).

I also read, or re-read, a few Noel Streatfeild children’s books, including the ‘Shoes’ novels (Apple Bough/Traveling Shoes remains my favourite), Caldicott Place (which was okay) and Gemma (which was dreadful). Then I read some grown-up novels by Elizabeth Jane Howard, All Change and Love All, as well as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, which included schoolgirls as minor characters.

Any other suggestions, readers? Has anyone read the World’s End series by Monica Dickens or any of Mary Treadgold‘s children’s books, and would you recommend them? My only other proviso is that I’d prefer the books to be readily available. (For example, I’ve been intrigued by reviews of Antonia Forest‘s Marlow books for a while, but they’re in copyright yet out-of-print, and the last time I went online looking for a second-hand paperback copy of End of Term, it was listed for SIX HUNDRED DOLLARS, which is beyond my book-buying budget.) Thanks, everyone!

12 thoughts on “Book Recommendations, Please”

  1. Anjelica Huston’s memoir A Story Lately Told has a few snippets of her life as a schoolgirl in London (not many, but perhaps worth reading–and the entire book is phenomenal). As well, the first book of A.S. Byatt’s Frederica Quartet, The Virgin in the Garden discusses Frederica’s life as a schoolgirl (albeit in Yorkshire and not in London). The entire book series deals very closely with life in England (and especially London in the last two books) in the 1950s/1960s and might be of some interest!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Both those recommendations sound intriguing and I’ve added them to my list. (I’d forgotten Anjelica Huston grew up in the UK, and even if there isn’t much about London, I’m sure her life story is fascinating – she’s been in some of my favourite films!)

  2. I have read lots from this era but they have always tended to be leaning towards trash or counterculture. There are quite a few bonkbustery books that have 60s childhood/content – am thinking of Lace by Shirley Conran (although they are in finishing school but there are some great chapters about Kings Rd, Biba etc etc) Snap Happy (can’t even remember who it’s by) – The Passion Flower Motel by Rosalind Erskine (pulp) – Have you read much of Nell Dunn? Barbara Hulanecki’s autobiography, Twiggy’s and I’m thinking about The Music Upstairs by Shena Mackay. And all those kitchen sinky numbers like the L-shaped room …I will think more on this … I am v. excited to think you are writing about this era (and frankly jealous!)

    1. I don’t mind trash! Thanks, Simmone. You’ve given me an excuse to check out Shirley Conran, who I’ve never read before. (I think Jilly Cooper also wrote some books about girls – I’ll have to check when they were set. But maybe they were 1970s, rather than 1960s.) Thanks for all the other suggestions, too, they sound very helpful. I’m getting the impression that life in the early 1960s was very different to the late 1960s, so the counterculture stuff may be not as relevant to my research needs (but still fascinating to read about).

  3. As an Antonia Forest fan from way back, I can only second that recommendation! Though I share your pain about the difficulty of getting hold of them. (And if you think the ‘school’ books are bad, try tracking down the ‘home’ novels in the series, they are even rarer). Autumn Term is fairly readily available, though it was published in 1948 so too early for you? (But I urge you to get it anyway :-))

    Antonia White’s Frost in May would be too early… The only other possibilities that spring to mind, though tangential, are ballet school books like the Drina series or Lorna Hills ‘Wells’ books (not very highbrow, and occasionally cringeworthy, but they might have have useful period detail?)

    Hm, I’m surprised I can’t think of more! Was it because the Chalet School et al were so dominant in this period that they crowded out more thoughtful, nuanced school stories? Interesting!

    1. Thank you, Kate! I will see if I can find an affordable copy of Autumn Term. My usually reliable library has no Forest books whatsoever! I’m just hoping some publisher negotiates with whoever owns the Forest copyright and re-issues all the books – there seems to be a lot of demand for them. Thanks also for the other recommendations.

      There are tons of pre-war schoolgirl series, but not many post-war ones that were actually set in the 1950s or 1960s. I wonder if that was because American series like Nancy Drew became more prominent during that era.

  4. I love John Verney’s books particulary Friday’s Tunnel and February’s Road. They are a great spoofy well written series with shaggy illustrations and I still read them when I need a lift. Actually, Sophie’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of February’s!

  5. Michelle, I’m afraid I can’t help you very much, as I am American and
    stories about English schoolgirls don’t travel here very often. But the
    reference book Encyclopaedia of School Stories ( one volume for girls
    and one for boys) is worth checking out.
    And I have recently read Michelle Magorian’s latest, Impossible! It
    is set in London in the last few months of 1959, in part at a simply
    dreadful stage school. Our heroine, Josie, has working-class parents
    but her schoolmates are mostly middle-ish. Her family as a whole is
    migratory class-wise. Brother Ralph spent the war living with a vicar
    and attending a grammar school, and Auntie Win (Major, WRAC) has
    contracted what her brother-in-law calls officeritis and now sounds
    posh. Magorian was born in1948 and her picture of what girls were
    up to in 1959 feels real. Her other books are set during or just after
    the war and would be of less immediate use to you- but they are good
    as well.

    1. Thank you, Megan, that reference book sounds very helpful and so does the new Michelle Magorian book! I’ll have to see if I can track down copies of them here.

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