The Claustrophobic Menace of Boarding-School Fiction

Two recent novels cannily use all-girls-campus settings to create worlds that feel women-focused but prove to be the reverse.


The writer Rachel Cusk opens her 2009 essay “Shakespeare’s Daughters” by asking, “Can we … identify something that could be called ‘women’s writing’?” What Cusk seeks is “not simply a literature made by women but one that arises out of, and is shaped by, a set of specifically female conditions.” Why, she asks, don’t more women writers strive to describe the frustrations and limitations of life under patriarchy, which, “being a type of relationship, can never be resolved, only reconfigured”? Why not write “the book of repetition,” with female characters kept in place by social and perhaps biological constraints?

Cusk suggests that male-dominated literary culture may discourage such work. She notes, too, that it is “pleasanter”—more exciting, more fun—to tell stories in which characters and their circumstances change than to write stories of monotony. These concerns have not vanished since 2009, and yet the intervening decade has seen a proliferation of novels that might answer Cusk’s description of women’s writing: Cusk’s own Outline trilogy, Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends. These novels use repetition in two ways: They are cyclical in structure, and they have protagonists prone to mirroring both the people around them and their own past selves. The results are aching portraits of entrapment, and have resonated strongly with readers. Still, by design, they offer little hope. Of course, not all writers aspire to model progress; nor do all readers seek such models. But for some, the pure “book of repetition” may prove less appealing than the hybrid approach two recent novels have taken. Scarlett Thomas’s Oligarchy and Clare Beams’s The Illness Lesson first use a Cusk-like method to depict women’s subjugation, then turn, in their last act, toward change.


Stylistically, the two novels are near opposites. Thomas sets Oligarchy in contemporary England and writes in snappy prose, while Beams locates The Illness Lesson in 1800s Massachusetts and expertly blends 19th-century and modern diction. But both are set at all-girls boarding schools, which prove fertile settings for exploring patriarchal authority. Both books see male headmasters strive to mold and constrain their female students, who are far more interested in imitating one another than in pleasing men. This behavior turns into illnesses that set off identical, frightening feedback loops: The sicker the girls get, the more vulnerable to male predation they become.

In Oligarchy, Thomas’s tenth adult novel, the illness in question is anorexia. The protagonist, Natasha, a Russian plutocrat’s daughter, enrolls at a posh British boarding school where thinness equals social currency. Thomas establishes this dynamic swiftly, using teenage bluntness to maximum effect. (“Your thighs should not touch each other anywhere,” one classmate tells Natasha curtly.) Natasha’s instinct is to associate fatness with power, but seeking acceptance, she acquiesces to her peers’ “secret and weird” starvation diets. Oddly, their headmaster, Dr. Moone, encourages this behavior, accelerating the students’ transformation into, as Natasha puts it, “hungry ghosts.”

Slowly, Thomas turns her characters’ collective diet obsession into a source of warped female solidarity, which makes for a strangely destabilized reading experience. As the girls mirror and control one another, their adolescent cruelty gives way to mutual protectiveness. The point of view begins sliding among them, as if they share one consciousness. These shifts are crucial to the plot’s advancement; through the perspective of one of Natasha’s peers, readers learn that, when alone with his favorite students, Dr. Moone expounds on his “theory of asthenics, where bodies must be lean, breastless, taut.” He is slowly convincing the students—and worse, getting them to convince one another—that physical frailty is a worthy goal.

Oligarchy uses the familiar phenomena of adolescent copycatting and boarding-school insularity to cannily—and eerily—create a world that feels women-focused but proves to be the reverse. Outside fiction, misogyny and thin privilege—to borrow a term popularized by the writer Cora Harrington—have a comparable, if more diffuse, effect. For girls and women, thinness comes with a measure of social acceptance that often serves as an incentive to lose weight, even if that process is arduous, time-consuming, expensive, or dangerous. In Oligarchy, too, bodily control seems to bring the girls closer to power. But more often, it distracts them, or stands in their way.

Oligarchy is deeply concerned with male control of women’s minds and bodies, but it puts the body first. The Illness Lesson takes the opposite approach. For Beams and her protagonist, intellectual life—and, ultimately, intellectual freedom—is paramount. Caroline has spent her whole life as the protégé of her philosopher father, Samuel, and depends on him for affection and purpose. Finding no place for a female thinker in 1800s Massachusetts, she retreats into Samuel’s world. When he decides that they should start an experimental girls’ school, Caroline takes issue with his pedagogical insistence that “the soul does not have a sex,” but caves to her father and teaches his way.

Beams treats her novel’s central relationship as an opportunity to explore the pitfalls of female allegiance to patriarchy. Trained in what Cusk calls “masculine values,” Caroline struggles with female friendship and becomes oddly competitive with her most assertive student, Eliza, around whom the girls begin to unite. Samuel is delighted by his students’ growing harmony, referring to them as “one body,” but Caroline finds their desire to mimic one another threatening.

Almost as one, the girls begin displaying mysterious symptoms: fainting, rashes, physical weakness, a humming hesitance when they talk. Beams never clarifies whether the disease is real, occult, or psychosomatic, but I read it as the last. Regardless of cause, the girls’ symptoms derail the school’s operations, which readers view primarily through Caroline’s eyes. Beams typically delineates her protagonist’s thoughts with analytical clarity, but when it comes to the illness, she lets Caroline slide into murky, recursive thinking. Soon, the reason emerges: Caroline herself has contracted the girls’ disease.

With this development, Beams dooms her protagonist’s loyalty to Samuel, who treats the mysterious disease as simply an inconvenience that “must be addressed before [his] project can continue.” Horribly, his solution is to summon a predatory male doctor and ignore Caroline’s protests against the resulting “cure.” Beams uses Samuel’s willful deafness to make Caroline admit the bitter truth: Her father’s egalitarian ideas are empty. He will never trust a woman’s account of her own experience. The moment she sees this, her devotion to him is replaced by a driving urge to become “clean and empty with newness.” Wanting to exchange her ideas and her experiences completely, she flees her father’s house for a girls’ school run by women, symbolically and literally abandoning patriarchal control.

For Cusk, this departure—and Natasha’s analogous departure from her terrible boarding school—might render The Illness Lesson and Oligarchy irredeemably male “book[s] of change.” Yet both novels rely heavily on characters repeating one another’s behaviors—and, in The Illness Lesson, repeating their own mistakes. This cyclical mirroring serves well to represent what Cusk calls the “eternal and unvarying” nature of female life under patriarchy. But Beams and Thomas also vary the unvarying: Steering their protagonists toward liberation, they seem to suggest that an honest reckoning with misogyny might produce not only solidarity, but also change.