On the topic of schoolgirls and WW2

A very brief summary of part of my new book ( now on lulu.com and amazon.fr) I wrote for the 4th Bristol Conference « Twentieth-Century Schoolgirls and their books » , for my English readers 20180109_114417

Schoolgirls during WW2- When fiction goes to war

During and just after WW2, the bulk of children’s fiction in Great Britain was still located in a dream world of boarding schools, ponies, and seaside holidays. Some school stories writers, such as  Elinor M. Brent-Dyer (The Chalet School in Exile, 1940, The Chalet School at War…), Dorita Fairlie Bruce (Toby at Tibbs Cross, 1943) or Angela Brazil (Five Jolly Schoolgirls, 1941) had used the war more or less in their novels, but it remained exceptional.

The horrors of the war were still too fresh to be considered suitable for children’s fiction. Most of the novels ignored the political and social realities, whether past or present. Soon, however, people began to realise that the world had changed. In England, the 1944 Education Act created a new school system, the school leaving age rose to 15, and then to 16. Television began to appear in the homes – by 1971, 91 per cent of households owned a set.

Even as early as December 1940, the Times Literary Supplement announced the arrival of a new kind of fiction for the young female readers: “Now, however, that perilous days are the portion of every child as well as every grown man and woman in this country, we may be grateful for the poise and self-assurance of the young whose courage and alertness of mind are reflected in the books which our publishers this Christmas offer for schoolgirl reading. Initiative, coolness, and a grasp of present-day problems – all these are to be found in the books that a decade ago would have dealt with Fourth Form intrigue or hockey team rivalries.”[1] It seems that the TLS critic was rather glad that the girl readers wouldn’t be considered as “spineless jellyfishes” anymore …

Thirty-five years later, the TLS bewails the realism of the 1970s children’s fiction: “The Victorian writer knew how to cope with death (he made it into a grand scene) and mental illness (he romanticized it as brain fever) and class (he didn’t give it a second thought); other difficult areas such as sex and adult relationships he pretended didn’t exist, certainly so far as the young ones were concerned. Then, with the horrors of war and the relief of peace, even death became unmentionable, and almost everything was taboo for the « real-life » writer who was forced instead to concentrate on such everyday aspects of life as riding, sailing and school. Inevitably the pendulum has swung back, and the past fifteen years has seen a turgid wave of problem books, bombarding children with facts on abortion, menstruation, racism, mental and physical handicaps, divorce, adolescent hang-ups, violence, religion and so forth. No area has remained sacred; but style, imagination and storytelling have too often been sacrificed to the golden calf of truth”[2]

Among this “turgid wave”, the books on WW2 – the conflict which has generated the largest number of children books, especially during and after the 1970s.

I The rising tide – children in Mainland Europe

What was it like growing up Jewish in Europe in the 1930s ? The first Jewish children to suffer from Nazism were the German, followed by those who lived in Nazi- occupied or allied countries like Poland, France or Italy for instance. The Nazis defined Jewishness not in terms of religion but in terms of race – from their birth, children were “condemned” to belong to the “Jewish race”. Actually, some of them discovered they were Jewish only because they and their families became targets for the Nazis. For instance, Eva, the young protagonist of Edith Baer’s A Frost in the Night only realises at school that she is different « A girl […] had asked Eva “what she was”, katholisch or evangelisch ? While Eva stood in confusion, trying to decide between the two unfamiliar words, Ella had ordered her to tell the girl that she was judeisch – and that she was never to forget it again. […] Ella had unaccountably bent down to her, straightened the bow of her middy blouse, and explained that Catholic and Lutheran children went to church on their holidays and Jews went to synagogue on theirs; and that there was nothing to be ashamed about being different –only about not wanting to tell it. […] “You didn’t know- you’re too little.” […]

It seemed odd, now, that there had ever been a time when Eva had not known she was jüdisch – and what it meant to be Jewish. It meant Frau Hauff saying ‘the likes of her”, and Anton hiding his eyes behind the pitcher; it meant the children in the shed drawing back to form an almost palpable wall between them and her.”

(the rest of the article here : https://drive.google.com/open?id=1xupATpJHZ3gfEU2PXZRlg5WkaJ2bzxeD

[1] http://users.netmatters.co.uk/ju90/194.htm

[2] Ibid.

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