Boarding schools, how we love them. They offer a mixture of freedom and danger so intense writers and film-makers simply can’t resist; for decades we’ve sprinkled them with magic, filled them with ghosts and drenched them in blood.
When I started writing Night School, I was lured to the subject by a visit to a boarding school near where I live. The gothic building surrounded by forest in the middle of nowhere demanded to be written about. I went to a modern school in a big city, so the idea of parents sending their children away to be raised by strangers in a vast mansion in the distant countryside seemed amazing – how could I not be intrigued?
I’ve read boarding school books and watched boarding school films for as long as I can remember. From little princesses to mutants to witches – they have always seemed magical to me.Here are my ten fictional favourites...
10. Cimmeria Academy - The Night School series by CJ Daugherty
A vast, gothic English mansion house set on sprawling grounds surrounded by forest and overlooked by a ruined castle, Cimmeria Academy is an intimidating place.
The school is rich in traditions, most of them based around nocturnal activities. Night croquet, with glowing balls and racquets. Night tennis, with a net made of fairy lights. And Night School – a society of elite students so secret just talking about it can get you expelled. Or worse.
The school’s formal winter and summer balls bring the students and teachers together in designer gowns and tuxedoes to drink Cimmeria champagne and dance until their heads spin… or until someone dies.
At Cimmeria, students call their teachers by their first names, and they study martial arts and lie detection alongside history and maths. Night School members patrol the grounds to keep the school safe from the mysterious Nathaniel who would kill anyone in order to get at the school’s headmistress. It’s a beautiful, exciting and terrifying place to go to school. How brave are you?
9. Miss Minchin’s Boarding School for Girls - A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The first boarding school book I can remember reading, The Little Princess tells the tale of 7-year-old Sara Crewe, the daughter of a sea captain. She’s left at the school in London when her father sails off to seek his fortune. He leaves her in the lap of luxury, with a wardrobe of silk and satin, and a doll that is Sara’s best friend.
But the school’s headmistress is a soulless woman who cares more about money than children. When word arrives that Sara’s father has died and left her penniless, Sara’s world is torn apart. Even as she’s dealing with her grief, the headmistress steals everything she owns for her room and board then forces her to work as a servant.
From them on Sara is beaten and mistreated, but she manages to remain kind and sane. How she survives and triumphs is at the heart of the book. I’m not saying I want to go to this school, necessarily – not until the headmistress retires, anyway. But the book is an adventurous tale of strength and hardship.
8. St Trinian’s by Ronald Searle
This famous fictional girls school filled with saucy young ladies started out as a comic book and later became a series of comedy films so popular it is absolutely impossible you haven’t seen at least one of them.
The first St Trinian’s comic appeared in the early 1940s as a rebellion against the popular boarding school books written by Enid Blyton, where prim girls were taught to behave properly. At St Trinian’s the girls were stroppy and often armed, and their teachers were not much better.
Students died in the early comics… A lot. The drawings showed bodies of those killed in fights or in violent games. The girls who survived drank and smoked, played pranks and gambled. They were brilliant.
In the hugely popular films the girls were less violent and more cheeky – still rebellious but not as murderous, unfortunately. Still, they wear cute uniforms and look adorable, and I just have a soft spot for St Trinnies.
7. The House of Night School - House of Night by PC and Kristin Cast
An English manor house in the Oklahoma desert? Why not. Filled with aspiring young vampires? Oh… what the heck. Sure. I’m in.
When Zoey Redbird, a teenaged vampire, is sent to the House of Night, where all young vampires go while they develop their powers, her life changes in every way. At first she hates the place with its weird nocturnal schedule and its louche students having sex in hallways. But then she finds out she’s got a knack for the whole witchy vampire thing, and before you know it she’s discovering powers she’d never even imagined.
The school, where students learn pagan and Wicca-influenced ceremonies and concoctions, and where students seem to have a huge amount of freedom, appeals to my inner witch. But it’s rather deadly for Zoey and her friends.
This hugely popular series now in its ninth book, is well worth a read.
6. The Sword and Cross - Fallen by Lauren Kate
Hidden in the sultry marshland outside the dark antebellum town of Savannah, Georgia, The Sword and Cross is simply the best reform school ever. The students are interesting and fun, the building is amazing and huge, the grounds are essentially a swamp. The book’s main character, Luce Price, is sent to the school after a fire at her house kills her boyfriend and she is accused of causing it. The problem is she can’t remember what happened, so she can’t defend herself against the allegations.
On the first day at the school, which is not unlike an ornate prison with its narrow hallways and cell-like rooms, Luce meets a handsome, dark-haired boy named Daniel and feels strangely drawn to him. Before you know it, the students are fighting among the gravestones in the school cemetery (I love a school with its own cemetery – you just know it’ll all kick off), fighting in the beautifully described swimming pool with its stained glass and gothic stone carvings, and dueling in the library.
It turns out Luce and Daniel are ancient lovers, tied together through history by their angelic past. The other students find themselves in peril as an angelic war breaks out all around them.
Click next for the Top 5 >>
5. Welton Academy - Dead Poet's Society
This would be my dream school if I were an American boy in the 1950s. Hidden away in the hills of Vermont in New England, Welton Academy looks gorgeous; its sharp spires jut up into the grey-blue sky, wreathed in ethereal fog that rises out of the forest like smoke… It’s just… Sigh. Beautiful.
In the film, a creative English teacher (Robin Williams, I know but STILL) comes to the school and shakes up its staid, old-fashioned teaching with his vaguely hippy, rock’n’roll but still intellectual style. He wants to show them the spirit of the writers behind the poetry they read. To inspire them to feel rather than memorise.
It has Robert Sean Leonard AND Ethan Hawke – both young and rosy-cheeked. Their new teacher takes them out into the fields, opening their minds. The scene where he has them rip out the introduction to their literature books is a personal favourite. I hate introductions.
By the end, you’re in love with the school, and the boys and the teacher, and even when it all goes wrong you just know they’ll all end up dancing naked at Woodstock in a few years. Hooray!
4. St Vladimir's Academy - Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
Hidden in the mountains of Montana, St Vladimir’s Academy educates vampire teenagers in a carefully controlled environment. In particular, it educates Dhampirs and Moroi. Moroi are the elite vampires – tall and slim, they are a kind of pampered royalty. Dhampirs are the worker bees – they will protect the Moroi and help keep the vampire world safe and hidden from the eyes of humans.
As the book starts, Rose, a Dhampir, and Lissa, a Moroi princess, have escaped from the school. They’ve been living among humans for two years. When they’re caught, they’re returned to a school fraught with danger – from inside and out. Out in the world are Strigoi, the most dangerous of all the vampires, who want to kill Moroi and Dhampirs. Inside, is palace intrigue and murder. And lessons.
All the vampire students must attend intense classes in complex subjects ranging from advanced calculus to combat techniques.
The school – set on a sprawling forested campus where students sleep by day and attend class at night, is protected by charmed wards that hide it from humans and keep it safe from Strigoi. It seems like a brilliant place to cut class.
3. X Mansion - The X-Men
Its official name is the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, and it’s home to mutant students whose mutations give them super strength. The gigantic mansion has wings and hidden nooks, secret rooms, sub-basements and mad hyper-modern technology. What’s not to like?
It’s also the headquarters to the X Corporation, and it is where the young people with genetic mutations that make them hugely dangerous learn how to control their powers. They must also take normal classes at the same time, of course, so they study survival, hand-to-hand combat, history, telekinetics and physics.
In the early comics, Professor Xavier recruits Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl, Beat and Angel. Later came Wolverine, Storm and the rest. They are known as X-Men, because their DNA contains an extra gene (the X-gene) that gives them their power.
As boarding schools go, one with lots of secrets where you can study telekinesis sounds pretty awesome to me.
2. Hampden College - The Secret History by Donna Tartt
This book – one of my favourite books ever – is set at a small, very expensive, liberal arts school in the mountains of Vermont. The school’s campus is made up of clusters of classical white buildings with tall columns. Set against the dark green forests, it feels like a jewel of a place.
The story follows the exploits of Richard, a new scholarship student from California. He’s a stranger to the world of the wealthy and reckless students around him. At first he’s dazzled by Hampden, but soon he discovers the darkness at its heart.
When he falls in with a clique of intellectual students obsessed with ancient Greek literature, he’s over his head, surrounded by mentally unstable but devastatingly charming students.
The book manages to be both bizarre and utterly alluring. By the end, even after horrible things happen, we still want to go to that school.
1. Hogwarts - Harry Potter by JK Rowling
Really, the mother of all boarding schools, Hogwarts is the place where we all wish we’d gone. Staircases that move, portraits that talk, kids who fly on brooms, witches, warlocks, magic wands, butterbeer, sorting hats, crazy teachers, wise headmasters…
It sounds like paradise to me.
When Harry is sent to Hogwarts after his foster family abuses him, he discovers a world of magic and mystery beyond our collective imagination. He fits in at last, and that’s one thing we all look for at a school – to feel at home.
I believe this is simply the best fictional boarding school ever created.
So what do you think? Are there any boarding school books you would add to C J's list?
Legacy, the second book in the Night School series is out in January - you can find more info on C J Daughterty's books here.