5 top boarding school stories, as picked by Ruth Ware
My new book, The Lying Game, tells the story of four women, now in their thirties, but held together by a terrible mistake they made back when they were at boarding school together. The setting reflects an enduring fascination with boarding schools which probably started when I was about eight and first picked up a copy of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. Even then, I recognised that there was a kind of disconnect between the idyllic world portrayed by Blyton, and my own experience of lots of girls shut up together in a classroom, but school stories have always fascinated me, and writing The Lying Game was a chance to explore that world once more.
Here, to celebrate publication, are a few of my favourite books and films set against a boarding school background…
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
I’ve written about my love of Tey before, so it won’t be any surprise to see this book heading up the list – a murder mystery set in a boarding college that specialises in physical education. Although this is, ultimately, a whodunnit, the murder doesn’t actually take place until a long way into the book, which is both its strength and weakness. The first half of the book isn’t really about detection at all – but rather a long set up for the crime, which may make it a little slow for some readers. However the strength is that as we are absorbed into this closed community, we are slowly confronted with the realisation that not only is one of its members going to be murdered, one of them is going to be the killer too.
Frost in May by Antonia White
This was one of the first truly “grown-up” books I read, along with Claudine at School (another cracking book set in a school, though not a residential one). It’s not a whodunnit or a mystery, but it does have a certain flavour of a psychological thriller, as we follow Nanda’s gradual induction into a strict Catholic boarding school, where the girls mortify themselves by putting salt on their rhubarb instead of sugar, and sleep on their backs, with their hands crossed over their chest, so that if they die in the night they’ll be ready to meet their God. Nanda finds a rich beauty in such all-consuming faith – but all the time, we know that a cataclysm of some kind is coming – the “frost” of the title. The slow reveal is full of tension and sadness.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I’m not 100% sure if this qualifies as it’s set not at a school, but a college, but it definitely has a sort of boarding school flavour to the place, with all the isolation and intensity that residential settings can provide. This isn’t exactly a whodunnit, as we know from the outset who dies and our narrator’s complicity in it. Perhaps it would be better described as a whydunnit. Either way, Tartt’s slow unravelling of the mystery is masterful, and her evocation of the spell of Hampden College is beautifully done.
A different sort of question lies at the heart of this inspired reimagining of Les Liasons dangereuses – will the unspeakable Kathryn and Sebastian succeed in their systematic destruction of the lives of the other students at their exclusive prep school, or will they receive their comeuppance? Reese Witherspoon is luminous as the unsuspecting innocent who wanders into their orbit, but somehow psychopaths are always the most fun characters – both to read and watch – and Sarah Michelle Geller has never been better or badder than in this role.
The Dead Poets’ Society
I can’t pretend that this is remotely crime – although of course it does have a death at the heart of it (if you haven’t seen it, prepare to weep buckets). But it’s one of my favourite boarding school settings, and when I first watched it at around 12 or 13, it was my first introduction to a different kind of school experience. In contrast to Blyton’s wholesome hockey sticks and midnight feasts, The Dead Poets’ Society shows students in rebellion – drinking, smoking, and trying to find out who they are – with their school acting both as a conduit and a constraint for the type of person they want to be. With its arcane rules, cliques and complicated teacher-student relationships, it definitely fed into The Lying Game.