The boarding school novel should be dead. The institution it depicts is elite, insular, and deeply alien to most people. It produces graduates like Mark Zuckerburg and William Randolph Hearst — titans and megalomaniacs. It is a relic of a bygone age, a peculiar fossil. And yet, it is stubbornly elevated in fiction. There is still demand for stories about the struggles of spoiled rich kids and the anachronistic social worlds in which they live.
The school story has been around since the 19th century, when it chronicled the austere, single-sex boarding schools of the U.K., and focused on the pursuit of Christian virtues. In Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, boys become men by vanquishing bullies and triumphing on the cricket pitch. Jane Eyre’s Lowood Institution painted a less sentimental picture, with its freezing dormitory, cruel and unusual punishments, and typhus outbreak. But the hardships sometimes depicted in these books never deterred readers: The school story thrived through the 20th century and experienced a recent revival in the early 21st. As Harry Potter wrapped up his time at the delightfully quirky Hogwarts, John Green released Looking for Alaska, whose Culver Creek school was populated by chain-smoking, bon mot-spewing screw-ups. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep made a splash on the strength of its iconic ribbon-belt cover and its pitch-perfect dialogue.
More than 10 years after this high-water mark of the contemporary boarding school story, we find ourselves living in a drastically different era, a lean time for old-school privilege and all the prejudice it entails. Culturally, we’re at a turning point in how we think about elite institutions, in the midst of debates about whether private education is immoral, an ongoing, massive college admission scandal, and plenty of academic research that suggests the rich cheat more than the rest of us.
Alexander Tilney’s debut novel, The Expectations, out July 16 from Little Brown, glides into this hostile atmosphere perfectly at ease, as if it were channeling the attitude of the school where the novel is set. The Expectations follows Ben and Ahmed, third-form (that is, freshman year) roommates from drastically different backgrounds, who arrive at the fictional St. James School sometime in the ’90s, a simpler time, when “you could go an entire semester without seeing a newscast or hearing commercial radio, and each dorm shared one pay phone in the basement.” The relative isolation of St. James is part of a grand design to avoid corrupting influence, “the distractions and temptations of the city.”
St. James is an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, known for academic excellence and the formation of strong moral backbones. Or is it? You see, St. Paul’s School, the actual New Hampshire boarding school that both Tilney and I attended — on which St. James is clearly based — has had a rough decade. A well-publicized sexual assault trial and a subsequent drubbing in the national media was shortly followed by an inquiry that uncovered decades of abuse — hushed up by administrations more interested in protecting the school’s reputation than preserving the safety and well-being of its students. These real-life incidents lurk in the margins of The Expectations, set in a time before the leadership at St. James has been forced to take any real accountability for the school’s dysfunctional culture.
But PR disasters (as alumni carefully frame them, minimizing the victims of these abuses) are a fact of life for a boarding school in the 21st century. Choate, St. George’s, Exeter, Groton — every little burrow of the old-fashioned elite has had their turn. These schools have always had shameful secrets; they will go on having them, and as long as they do, alumni will grapple with their experiences in writing.
In the ’50s, John Knowles questioned toxic rituals of masculinity at Devon (a thinly veiled Exeter) in A Separate Peace. More recently, Tobias Wolff’s Old School took aim at noblesse oblige and hero worship. Newer nonfiction by St. Paul’s alumni has been openly critical of the school’s culture, like Lorene Cary’s Black Ice, a memoir about her experiences as a woman of color at St. Paul’s in the early ’70s. Chessy Prout, a survivor of sexual assault at St. Paul’s, left the school and wrote a bestselling account of her time there. Sociologist Shamus Khan spent two years on campus researching Privilege, an ethnography that skewered the school’s overconfident image of itself, from a frank indictment of its academic self-regard to a broader and more damning critique of its entitled culture.
The Expectations is an effort to reject the allure of the boarding school atmosphere altogether. At times it takes aim at the web of loyalties, traditions and secrets that support the dysfunction endemic at St. James School. On the other hand, it asks us to invest in the fate of Ben Weeks, the quintessential WASPy New Englander, a squash prodigy.
Ben is an uber-legacy, a descendant of the first pupils who attended St. James. Besides this formidable pedigree, Ben is also given a head start at school by riding the coattails (and wearing the baseball cap) of the suave, socially successful elder brother who preceded him. On paper, Ben’s had every advantage. But Ben’s American fairy tale is missing a crucial element — he isn’t rich. His family’s wealth, once formidable, is almost entirely depleted. Ben’s father has been reduced to sketchy land deals involving hypothetical shopping centers, and he determinedly ignores the tuition bills piling up in the mailbox. The Weeks family of the 1990s is a far cry from the captains of industry further up the family tree.
A time-honored way for a writer of school stories to achieve an appropriate distance from the social elite who populate these books is to follow the fortunes of a scholarship student. Ben’s uncertain status is a form of this conceit. In theory, it should make him more sympathetic. And it’s true that’s it’s a bit harder to sneer at Ben, when he avoids trips into town, feels guilty about throwing up on his roommate’s nice towels, and is continually checking his bank account.
The threat of (relative) penury alienates Ben from his own privilege. His escapades, from sneaking out of his dorm, to smoking weed, or even ogling his crush are all filtered through Ben’s extreme self-consciousness. He is most comfortable on the squash court, the place where the unspoken and nebulous social codes of St. James are temporarily replaced by a system he understands and in which he excels. Price, the imperious and inscrutable team coach, talks serenely to Ben of murdering his opponents: “You can kill, can’t you? Right now they’re just dying for you, so it’s hard for me to tell... Can you go there and kill him?” Squash is simple for Ben, an instinctual superiority over which he needn’t feel guilty.
Despite Ben’s money woes, he still possesses the kind of soft social power money can’t buy, and lords it over his roommate Ahmed, a doughy, awkward Emirati boy who comes from new money. Both boys have high hopes for their time at St. James. A St. James education is meant to grant legitimacy to Ahmed’s wealth, a charming patina over a fortune made selling cigarettes. Ahmed wants to absorb the habits and manners of midcentury Anglicans, an illusory spirit of understated elegance he believes Ben embodies. Ben, meanwhile, is desperate to preserve his family’s legacy, to somehow stall a social and financial decline a hundred years in the making. Both boys, I regret to report, end up disappointed. Ahmed makes the wrong kind of friends and gets involved with drugs. Ben, after being violently hazed by the wrestling team (who covet Ben for his slender frame), is exiled from the squash court.
The confined space of campus is a moral proving ground that represents the world in miniature, complete with its heroes and tyrants, laws and outlaw
The hazing, substance abuse, and toxic social relations common at boarding schools can become, through the lens of time, benign or even fond memories — one trope of the genre Tilney has thoroughly resisted. I’m nauseated when Ben does too many shots drinking with sixth formers, and flush with anger thinking of Ahmed’s forced haircut, rituals of hardship meant to indoctrinate them that alienate them instead. Though Tilney lacks Sittenfeld’s exhaustive social eye, The Expectations is less focused on crafting a juicy story of the upbringing of the rich than it is a meditation on the difference between the values elite institutions profess and those they practice.
Ben’s admittance to St. James, which he views as the culmination of his life to date, distinctly underwhelms him. But that’s good news, in a way, because it frees the reader from the difficulty of following a narrator who loves boarding school uncritically, a “legend” like his older brother Teddy. Ben’s faltering attempts to both enjoy himself and develop a moral backbone could veer easily into saccharine territory, but Tilney takes care to show us that Ben, though skeptical of the social mores that dominate the school, is desperately trying to find his place among them. This is the book’s best effort at capturing the ethos of being an Old Boy in a new age, the wry balancing act many elites find themselves performing in a culture that alternately disdains and covets the kind of exclusivity that boarding school most strongly embodies.
That the boarding school bildungsroman survives as a genre at all may seem unlikely in our current cultural moment. But like the Pequod or the monastery in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose the confined space of campus is a moral proving ground that represents the world in miniature, complete with its heroes and tyrants, laws and outlaws. It’s a setting free from pesky parental contact, a playground for stoners, oddballs and wunderkinds; most of all it serves as an early introduction to the thorny problems of adult life, with none of its graver burdens. By setting the story entirely in Ben and Ahmed’s third form year, for example, before they kiss girls or find themselves in a position to take social advantage of their status as upperclassmen, Tilney has avoided more difficult issues of sex and power, exactly the kind of cultural problems that plague schools like St. James.
While the protagonists of these books sniff at the hypocrises and rituals of prep school life, there is, inevitably, a whiff of romance and danger that lingers from the bad old days. Still, Tilney has done his best to sour some romantic tropes of the school story. The book is in part an insistence on the complicity of the people trapped in social structures they feel too small to challenge, but it is also a hope that beyond the codified loyalties and old-fashioned values at work in boarding schools there is still something special and worth experiencing. We protect the places that nurtured us, no matter how deserving they might be. Whether St. James deserves to flourish is probably too big a question for Ben; after all, he is only a third former. But if he had a few more years to consider his time at St. James, he might wonder whether its progressive values are only a pleasing veneer, laid with many painstaking coats over a rotted structure.