#6Degrees of Separation October 2022

Always a little late to the party, i.e. first Monday rather than first Saturday of the month, but always a pleasure to take part in the Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. We all start with the same book and then link it, one by one, to six other books to form a chain. There are no limits to our imagination as we use the links!

This month the starting point is Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. There was quite a buzz about this book when it first came out and it was filmed as well, although I haven’t seen the adaptation. Originally a little sceptical about the book (the blurb did not do it any favours), I was actually impressed after reading it: the unreliable narrator is done so unobtrusively well. It is set in a school and I’ve decided that this month I will stick to books set in schools or universities, because I always enjoy them (having been both a teacher and a university lecturer at various points in my life).

The first book in the chain is very similar in premise: an angry schoolteacher narrator who feels invisible, undervalued, frustrated – and is beguiled by the parents of one her pupils – by their lifestyle, their artistic freedom, their background. The book is The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud and I kept wanting to quote whole chunks from it (there is something about artistic frustration there, which is not so much present in Notes on a Scandal).

Speaking of unfilfilled teachers who nevertheless believe themselves to be always right, god-like and create their own set of favourites, the best example of that is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, set in pre-WW2 Edinburgh.

Very similar premise again, this time with a male teacher wanting to ‘open the eyes, ears and hearts’ of his students, this time through poetry, is the play Dead Poets’ Society by Tom Schulman, based on the very successful film starring Robin Williams as the charismatic teacher, for which Schulman had written wrote the original script (which won an Oscar).

Literature nerd though I am, I thought the premise of the film was overblown and elitist, and that is how I feel about The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which so many people love but which I found annoying, pretentious and almost unreadable.

Despite its age (more than 150 years old) and its moralising tone, Tom Brown’s Schooldays by Thomas Hughes is an excellent (and sadly not at all outdated) description of elite public schools in England (in this case, Rugby), with its brutal bullying, opaque rituals and privileged idiots.

A far more appealing private school is the Chalet School (which starts off in the 1920s and relocates from Austria to the Channel Islands to Wales and finally Switzerland over the course of many decades). The series numbered 59 books in total, but my favourite is perhaps the first one I ever read (not the first in the series) The Princess of the Chalet School by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. Perhaps because I thought Princess Elisaveta of Belsornia could have come from a small country somewhere in the Balkans that I could relate to?

No books in translation this time – which is a bit of a shame. I think the school (especially boarding school) genre is more popular in the UK than elsewhere (a legacy of all those colonialists sending their offspring to be educated back in the good old motherland, perhaps?), but there are some good school stories from other countries too, so perhaps I will dedicate my next post to that.

In the meantime, we have gone from London to Cambridge, Mass., Edinburgh to Vermont (twice!), Rugby and Tyrol. Where will your six degrees of literary links take you this month?

25 thoughts on “#6Degrees of Separation October 2022”

  1. That’s a good range of books here Marina. I liked Notes on a Scandal and the film. The Prime of Jean Brodie too was a double winner. Tom Brown’s Schooldays, well that’s going back a bit. I read lots from those times, and Talbot Baines Read comes to mind. Stalky and Co. by Rudyard Kipling is a great collection of boys school stories televised in the early 80s. Thanks for reminding me.

    1. I kept hearing about the Angela Brazill books about girls’ boarding schools (which heavily influenced Enid Blyton), but I never managed to find them – maybe a little too old-fashioned even for my old-fashioned libraries abroad.

      1. I remember reading the Katy books by Susan Coolidge, including What Katy did at School. Very inclusive, me

  2. I would have built my chain with books set in schools but I’d done that recently in a Top Ten Tuesday post. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was in that list too. I enjoyed your chain – as for Tom Brown’s Schooldays I think I’ve read it but I do know I read some of my father’s books set in boys’ boarding schools, so I may be thinking of them rather than the Tom Brown book!

    1. I read it a VERY long time ago and remember was quite enchanted when I met an audio technician working for a TV crew who had gone to Rugby. I had so many questions about the book and he seemed so tired of it.

  3. This is a really well-done chain, Marina Sofia. I have to admit to liking the school theme, as I’ve spent my life in one sort of school or another. And it’s funny how the same book that some people rave about leaves a person cold. That’s happened to me, too.

    1. There’s a special joy in seeing the often nonsensical world of universities, in particular, being exposed in literature, isn’t there? Just like I enjoyed the mini-series The Chair with Sandra Oh.

  4. I don’t know the Claire Messud at all, and I think maybe I should. You’re right. You can unearth a rich seam of school stories in anglophone literature. This is a beautifully put together chain.

    1. I’ve read a couple of other books by Claire Messud after reading this one, and they didn’t quite come up to this level, but I really liked The Woman Upstairs.

  5. Lovely chain this month. I like your school theme! I know I read some of the Chalet School books as a child, but I can’t remember which ones. I wasn’t really a fan of The Secret History either – I enjoyed the first half, but lost interest somewhere in the middle.

  6. I enjoyed Notes on a Scandal too, and loved the film though I’m biased – the wonderful Judi can do no wrong in my eyes. I’ve even read a couple of your other choices this month, unusually! Miss Jean Brodie of course, in her prime, and The Secret History, which I did love at the time but now think that was mostly because of getting caught up in the hype. I’ve found her other books pretty pretentious, so I don’t think I’ll be rushing to re-read it any time soon.

    1. Pretentious, yes, that is exactly it. I might have enjoyed Secret History when I was myself a pretentious 18 year old, but since I read it in my 30s or 40s, it just didn’t work for me.

  7. I’m not surprised that several people had a link to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie! It does fit a bit. But you’re the only one who also thought of Dead Poet’s Society – I’ve only seen the film, though. Nice chain!

      1. Actually, no. The book came out in 2005 as These Foolish Things, and the film in 2011. They re-released the book after the film, using the title of the film to market it better.

  8. Reblogged this on Letters from Athens and commented:
    Bookworm alert: I don’t know if you have come across this blog, written by the delightful Marina Sofia, but it always contains interesting tidbits. This post is about books set in schools and universities. I had read these, and others with the same setting, what’s not to like about it? A quick google search brought up an amazing number of such books—if anyone’s interested, I might do a post with a selection.

  9. Hi, loved these books—I’m re-blogging the post. I did a quick search and it’s amazing how many writers set their books in schools and universities…

  10. Nice idea for the topic, Marina. I love books about schools. I found it quite interesting what you said about The Secret History. I haven’t read it, yet, and maybe I push it further down my wishlist now. So, thanks for that.

    And thanks for visiting my Six Degrees of Separation which took me from Notes on a Scandal by Zoë Heller to Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.

  11. Neat chain!
    Good to know your thoughts on The Secret History. I have hesitated trying it, I guess I can safely put it away from my horizon.
    UK boarding school: I think right away of Never Let Me Go.!

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