Such, Such Were the Joys

June 4, 2008 | 15 books mentioned 12 2 min read

I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.

Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. A Prayer for Owen Meany and lots of other John Irving is very boarding school-esque.

    Catcher in the Rye! Holden doing his post-boarding school wandering.

  2. Also…

    The film "if…" by the great British director Lindsay Anderson from a script by David Sherwin and John Howlett is a very powerful, occasionally surreal, "English boarding school" story, whose protagonists, led by a young Malcolm McDowell (pre-Clockwork Orange, pre-O Lucky Man), stand-in for the revolutionary tide of the late 60s.

  3. Dude, I forgot "Taps"! (speaking of revolution and actors pre- their famous roles) And also "Outside Providence". Good movie.

  4. I would add R. F. Delderfield's To Serve Them All My Days, both in print and video.

  5. Odd that "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles didn't make this list. It's one of the leading lights of the prep school novel genre.

    John B.

  6. i second the motion for wolff's 'old school,' but where oh where is donna tartt's masterpiece, 'the secret history'?

  7. I feel like I talk about The Secret History all the time, but maybe that's not true. It's great. And you're right that it fits, though I was, sort of, excluding college stories, for not fully determined reasons.

  8. Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays is an incredible book. I read it in conjunction with John Addington Symond's Memoirs, which remained unpublished until 1984. It tells a very different of schoolboy life in England's prestigious boarding schools.

    Good catch on the Ledger-Levitt connection. I was thinking the same thing when watching (and re-watching) Brick.

  9. Emily, this is the first Millions blog I've read by of yours. I love it. I agree with your connection of A Separate Peace, that was a great book and one I often forgotten. -Lucia

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