Described as “Malory Towers for grown-ups” by Sophie Kinsella, bestselling author Jenny Colgan’s first two books about a modern-day boarding school first appeared six years ago under the pseudonym Jane Beaton. At the time of publication, despite the internet’s inability to keep secrets, there was very little to link Colgan with Beaton, though she referred to the series in later interviews, as a kind of failed but much-beloved experiment.
Now The Little School by the Sea is back, with both Class and Rules having been re-released this summer under Colgan’s name, and with more books in the pipeline. Colgan admits there’s a cringe factor to seeing the books in print again: “I wrote them in about 2008 when I, and, to be fair, just about the rest of the country had a massive crush on David Tennant as Doctor Who, so [the love interest] basically is him. I have to fess up to the horrible fact that it even uses his real name. Writers do this kind of thing all the time by the way, it’s not just me being weird.”
But the initial reason for using a pen-name had nothing to do with embarrassment and everything to do with potential conflicts with another series. Colgan had just begun the very successful Cupcake Café series (beginning with Meet Me At The Cupcake Café) and her publishers didn’t want to detract attention from it. The pen-name came from her married name, Beaton, and a fondness for the name Jane – “I just prefer Jane to Jenny, always have. It’s such a simple, pretty name. I remember when Emma Thompson had her daughter and hadn’t chosen a name and joked that she’d be called jane.com and I always thought that was prettier than the name she eventually chose, something modern and hippyish” (she opted for Gaia, in case anyone’s wondering).
Colgan has also written sci-fi – including Doctor Who novels – under the names Jenny T Colgan and JT Colgan (“the T stands for TARDIS, I don’t actually have a middle name”). Using alternative variations on her name makes it clearer what kind of book a reader is getting, but she feels it’s less important now, with a wider range of her work available, that such a distinction is made.
So the re-release of the Jane Beaton books under her name isn’t a threat to her “brand”; on the contrary, these are the books that have “inspired quite passionate devotion. People get genuinely cross with me wanting to know what happens with Maggie and David. What really pushed us over the edge to rerelease is that my publishers got a letter from a woman asking if Jane Beaton had died, as she’d been following the obituaries and hadn’t spotted her!”
For lovers of fictional boarding schools, the series is an absolute delight, focusing on a new teacher, Maggie, at a posh school, and the various trials and tribulations of the students she teaches and her fellow staff members. The voice echoes Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil, those veterans of girls’ school stories, among others.
What school stories did Colgan read in her own childhood? “I read everything growing up. I loved Anne Digby [the Trebizon series], the Chalet School, Frost in May\ [Antonia White], all of them. Malory Towers has a very very classic structure, but they’re all brilliant. I went to a really bog-standard comp and just used to dream of going to school somewhere fun and exciting. I also loved Harry Potter and Prep \ [Curtis Sittenfeld], latterly.”
Beginning to write the books also offered up more insights into the structure of the school story: “I loved the rhythm of the school terms and the year; Christmas and exams give you highlights, then everyone has to part in the end. Narratively speaking, it’s a gift.” She enjoyed looking at the intertwined nature of the staff and student stories: “having been both a teen and a grown up, I can generally see both sides of an argument!” And the romantic entanglements – especially the burgeoning relationship between Maggie and the (as we know now) Tennant-inspired David, a teacher at the nearby boys’ school – were also a joy. “Teachers fall in love all the time,” Colgan observes, “as you can tell from the amount who are married to one another, and they’re often very young, although it doesn’t seem like that to you as a self-involved teenager of course. So I enjoyed writing that very much.”
The books may be read as affectionate parodies of traditional boarding school stories but they also serve as a critique of those tales; the first two novels offer up sharp observations on race and class, topics that tend to be handled clumsily or glossed-over in older stories. “The world has moved on, thankfully,” Colgan notes, adding that she’ll be exploring same-sex relationships in the next book.
When I ask about her favourite character I expect it to be Maggie, or the stern headmistress with a dark past, but it turns out to be one of the students, despite this being an adult series. For Colgan, scholarship girl Simone (whose then-unusual surname, Kardashian, has been changed in the reprints) is her alter-ego: “I came from a very normal background and when I went to a posh university it was like moving to a different country. I didn’t understand the rules of people with money at all and I felt extremely awkward. So Simone is my peep in to what it looked like to me, the first time I met people who’d actually been to boarding school.”
Beaton/Colgan’s series is not quite gritty realism, but nor is it a romanticised ideal of boarding school life. Maggie’s struggles in the job touch on class and female self-esteem, while her students present a wide range of dilemmas for her to deal with. Simone is uncertain of her place, while Fliss is eminently confident but yearning to escape. How can a young Scottish woman still figuring out her own place in the world offer guidance to these girls?
School stories are at their heart about coming of age, figuring out who you are and what kind of person you want to become – honourable, brave, hard-working, a “good sport”. In a world where “adolescence” has expanded past the teen years, twentysomething Maggie is a timely example of a school story heroine who, unlike her predecessors, sits on the teacher’s side of the desk – still coming of age and trying to find her place in a microcosm of society.
Claire Hennessy is a writer, editor and creative facilitator in Dublin