Such is the premise of Gentlemen and Players, the latest novel from British author Joanne Harris, who reads at Auntie's on Tuesday night. Set at St. Oswald's, an elite private boys' school in the north of England, the novel unfolds like a chess match, pitting aging Classics professor Roy Straitley against an anonymous foe known only as Snyde who's determined to take down the venerable institution from the inside.
Many readers know Harris from her 1999 novel, Chocolat, a delightful story of a nomadic single mother whose joie de vivre flies in the face of convention in the small French village where she and her young daughter alight for a time. At first glance, a literary thriller like Gentlemen and Players seems a far cry from the lyrical magic of Chocolat, but even Chocolat had a darker subtext of provincialism, bigotry and xenophobia underlying the pastoral setting.
"All of my books have been centered on communities, especially the hermetic community," Harris said last week from her home in Yorkshire. "When you have a large group of people who see each other all the time, they know each other and understand the interactions that go on."
Before the success of Chocolat allowed her to write full time, Harris taught at Leeds Grammar School, a place not unlike St. Oswald's. During her tenure, she was a keen observer of traditions, activities and personalities, and that experience helped her create recognizable characters.
"I think the stereotypes worked because they were true," Harris says. "There are types of people who gravitate to teaching -- anyone who's set foot in a school can recognize them. I've had letters from school teachers all over the country who say these people are just like those in their staff rooms, and it gives me such a kick."
The stereotypes lead to a kind of black comedy, including Straitley's joy at tweaking the more humorless members of the faculty and lots of fun wordplay with names (Bishop, Knight, Strange and Meek) and Latin phrases ("Quid agis, Medice?" or "What's up, Doc?"). Amid the disruptions to the staid world of St. Oswald's, subtle humor is never far away.
"In my experience of teaching, the job is perpetually on the brink of tragedy or farce," Harris says. "You never know which it's going to be, and it can change from moment to moment."
Underlying the story is the class structure that is still present in British society; class distinctions separate the privileged world of St. Oswald's from the cash-strapped state-run school where Snyde came of age. The book's title refers to the segregated entrances to Lord's Cricket Ground, where one door is for "Gentlemen" -- those who have no need for money and play solely for honor -- while "Players," who get paid for their efforts, must enter through a separate door and can never be named captain of the team.
"To me that was a potent symbol of the social segregation that still exists here," says Harris. "People tend to think it's a thing of the past, but I don't think it's ever going to go away completely. There's a deep north-south division in England. And a lot of it is about money -- there are still people who think breeding will tell, but money can overcome that now. Nowadays you can buy into the grammar schools without being of the right social class to be there."
Harris says Britons are coming to think more like Americans: that it's possible for people to accomplish anything, regardless of their origins. "It's ironic, because that's what Snyde is doing -- Snyde is living out the American dream," she says. "Snyde is the personification of ambition."
Even within an insular place like St. Oswald's, there are insiders and outsiders, Harris says.
"In any social group certain people stand out as not quite belonging," she says. "Usually it's something to do with money and status -- breeding, education, what job your parents do, what kind of trainers you wear."
While many people are uncomfortable talking about the visible markers of class and socioeconomic status, Harris sees such physical traits as undeniable facts.
"When I worked in very impoverished state schools, the physical differences between students at state and private schools was phenomenal," she says. "[The state students] come from a place where years of poverty and inbreeding have stunted them. They have a certain look -- and I wanted to bring that out in the book, the physical dimensions of class. You go to Oxford or Cambridge and wonder why everyone is blond, tall and horsey-looking with perfect skin. They have a look, too. Class is much more subtle than just education or money."
In this book as well as her earlier novels, Harris has an affinity for the outsiders. "They're the interesting ones," she says. "I tend to identify with these people for all kinds of reasons. Plus, they're the people who motivate the story, who throw the spanner in the works, whose presence turns the place upside down. What I'm interested in is the volatility in the community, when another element enters and everything is suddenly in question again. A place like St Oswald's could be a very stagnant place -- there's 500 years of history there. It's easy to fall into lazy old behavior patterns, and from time to time these communities benefit from being shaken up a bit."
In both this book and in Chocolat, Harris focuses on a conflict between an older man who clearly represents the traditional power base in the community and a younger person who has come in as an outsider.
"That's been part of all of my stories," she says. "It's the dynamic of the small community. You can set it anywhere, but that doesn't change the nature of human beings and how they act. I think it's just the way people are when they're gathered in groups. Kids who were bullies tend to remain bullies all their lives. They might refine these things somewhat, but a lot doesn't change."
Harris doesn't talk much about her future writing projects -- "That's bad luck," she chides -- but whatever the setting, her characters are sure to tweak the status quo. She says, "Anything that questions the establishment from time to time is going to be a good thing."
Joanne Harris reads at Auntie's, 402 W. Main St., on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 7:30 pm. Call 838-0206.