This August, I managed to go to two cons in a week: Nine Worlds in London, and Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. Both were fantastic, with really interesting content and meeting old friends and making new ones. As someone who is quite introverted, I do love spending time in a space with people who are all enthusiastic and happy to share their enthusiasm and love for culture open-heartedly; a lot of the joy I used to get from music festivals before the physical challenges of camping and the lack of ability to get away when it became overwhelming stopped making it fun I now get from cons. Anyway, here is a summary of the two cons.
I participated in both cons as well as attending them, talking about Harry Potter at both. At Nine Worlds I talked about education at Hogwarts, in Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books and in Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy; wonderful Meg MacDonald captured it in a Storify . You can access the paper here. At Worldcon I was on the academic track, delivering a paper about punk, protest and the Borribles:
I was also on a panel about pre-Potter wizarding schools. The idea of it was great, but unfortunately it lacked something in the execution. 5 people is too many for a panel, and it was hard for the moderator to keep all the panelists to the brief; also- panelists really shouldn’t swear in a panel related to children’s fiction… but anyway, here is a list of my favourite pre-Potter wizarding schools.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (1968). Ged, the son of a village smith, has natural talent as a wizard, and is sent to a wizarding school where he meets a a friend and an enemy. However, his arrogance and impatience puts himself and his community in danger, and Ged must battle his dark side as well as the evil he summons.
The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy (1974). Mildred Hubble, the hapless, clumsy student witch at Miss Cackle’s Academy, was a favourite of mine as a child. The series of books is set at a boarding school for witches, where Mildred has a loyal friend (Maud Spellbody), a sharp-featured, blonde-haired rival from a prominent magical family (Ethel Hallow) who is accidentally turned into a pig, and a tall, forbidding teacher dressed in black (Miss Hardbroom). Coincidences with another famous magical school are purely coincidental, I’m sure.
Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones (1982). At Larwood House, a boarding school for witch-orphans in a world where witchcraft is outlawed, Mr Crossley is marking homework. Out of one of the books falls a note: SOMEONE IN THIS CLASS IS A WITCH. This book features Chrestomanci, the Government official responsible for the regulation of magic across a series of parallel worlds similar to ours, but can be read as a stand alone- though since Diana Wynne Jones was such an amazing fantasy writer, why deny yourself the pleasure of all the books?
Finally, a series of boarding school stories that is not magical, but has so many parallels with Hogwarts that I wonder whether J K Rowling read them as a child.
The Marlows series by Antonia Forest, which starts with Autumn Term (1948) The Marlows are a large family of 8 children: Giles, Karen, Rowan, Peter, Ann, Ginty, and the twins, Nicola and Laurence, known as Laurie. In the third novel, the family inherits a rambling farmhouse after their cousin is killed in a plane crash. Despite the children’s father being a naval captain, and the oldest son Giles also being in the navy, the family is often short of money.
The first book features the school train from London to Kingscote, where the girls go to boarding school. Like the Harry Potter series, the universe of the books is expanded outside the school stories, with some wonderful adventure stories; my favourite is Peter’s Room, where the younger Marlows and their friend Patrick spend their Christmas holidays involved in a role-playing game based on the Brontes. Forest also wrote two historical novels about Nicholas Marlow, an Elizabethan ancestor of the family; the Marlow’s brother in law’s research into Nicholas is detailed in Cricket Term.
Very sadly the books are now out of print, although they have periodically been reprinted by Girls Gone By publishers.