Books in monsteries, boarding schools, and other confined locations
April 12, 2020 4:47 PM   Subscribe

It's RecommendationFilter time! For some reason I have always loved books set in semi-confined spaces like monasteries (Name of the Rose, Cadfael series, Anathem, Canticle for Leibowitz) and boarding schools or old universities (HP, Secret History, Instance of the Fingerpost), cathedrals and ancient castles (much Gothic fiction). I don't know why! But I'd like more.

I'm open to magic and fantasy, YA if it's not too YA, and other genre stuff. Love complex plots, history, academia, ancient secrets, and all that sort of thing. Don't particularly care for action or romance. Old, very old, or new, it's all good.

Please recommend a few books in settings like these! Thanks and I hope everyone is doing well in their quarantines!
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
Generation-ship stories? Eg Elizabeth Bear’s Dust?
posted by clew at 5:06 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

(which is also a Gothic cathedral story!)
posted by clew at 5:07 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Glass Bead Game comes immediately to mind. Also The Time of the Hero and Decline & Fall.
posted by kickingtheground at 5:09 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

posted by tatiana wishbone at 5:10 PM on April 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

The Schooled in Magic series by Christopher G. Nuttall

A teenaged Earth girl is taken to another world and ends up in a school of magic. The series is up to 17 books and are all interesting.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 5:12 PM on April 12, 2020

Titus Groan.
posted by praemunire at 5:18 PM on April 12, 2020 [8 favorites]

In This House of Brede is a novel about a couple of decades in the life of a convent (Anglican monastery, to be precise) and it's lovely.
posted by gideonfrog at 5:27 PM on April 12, 2020 [6 favorites]

Convents: The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, The Abbess of Crewe by Muriel Spark, also Muriel Spark, but not as many nuns, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
posted by betweenthebars at 5:45 PM on April 12, 2020 [4 favorites]

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (feel free to skip through, for example, chapter-long sermons about hell, if you’d prefer).
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:52 PM on April 12, 2020

The convent tip is really excellent, and The Corner That Held Them is a treat, but the one I love most of all is Frost In May, my favourite novel, a tightly-strung miracle.
posted by wattle at 5:54 PM on April 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game. Tana French's The Secret Place, though it is the 5th book in a series.
posted by ferret branca at 5:55 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

The Magic Mountain definitely has the confined space element. It's a long, slow read and it doesn't have a complex plot or ancient secrets or anything like that, so it may not be the kind of thing you're looking for, but it is a good book.
posted by Redstart at 6:31 PM on April 12, 2020 [2 favorites]

All We Know of Heaven: A Novel (2002) by Remy Rougeau set in a Cistercian monastery

The Rector of Justin by Louis Auchincloss mostly about a boarding school

To Serve Them All My Days by R.F. Delderfield is another classic boarding school novel.

Philip Larkin's novel Jill is mostly at Oxford, but with a significant boarding school element.

Does it need to be fiction? Also, what about prisons as a setting? Because it's hard to beat Ted Conover's Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing for a look behind the walls (literally) of a closed institution.
posted by Jahaza at 6:39 PM on April 12, 2020

Also, Trollope's Barchester Towers is set in a Cathedral and it's environs. It's the second in a series, but you could read it on its own.
posted by Jahaza at 6:41 PM on April 12, 2020

Escape from Colditz is nonfiction, about Allied prisoners of war during World War II, imprisoned in an actual castle.

Life With Mother Superior is set in a Catholic girls' boarding school (The movie "The Trouble With Angels" was based on this.)
posted by gudrun at 8:05 PM on April 12, 2020 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all these recs! I'm going to leave the question open for any latecomers. I was looking for fiction (and forgot to specify) but honestly just hadn't even thought of non. I'll check out those recs too!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:32 PM on April 12, 2020

Tam Lin by Pamela Dean fits your requirements well. It's set at a small college, but has the same cloistered, walled-garden feeling. It was one of my favorite books when I was in graduate school.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:52 PM on April 12, 2020

The Body Outside the Kremlin is a murder mystery set in Solovki, a Russian monastery that was converted into a gulag after the Bolshevik revolution. The book is fiction but the setting is real, and really fascinating. Complex plot, check. History, check. Monastery, check!
posted by ourobouros at 9:08 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, although really only the lead character is confined to one place: he's a former Russian count confined to a hotel by the Bolsheviks.
posted by suelac at 9:22 PM on April 12, 2020

A bunch of Lireal by Garth nix fits this.
posted by azalea_chant at 10:19 PM on April 12, 2020 [1 favorite]

Old Boy by Tobias Wolfe; Also Abbess of Crewe by Spark is the Nixon Whitehouse recast in a convent, it is v dark and v funny.
posted by PinkMoose at 12:30 AM on April 13, 2020

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is set largely at a boarding school. It’s very lightly science fiction, in that the scifi of its premise isn’t wildly outside of possibility, and it doesn’t really hit you over the head with it.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M R Carey starts at a boarding school, but it doesn’t stay there. It’s a straight-up horror book, and I enjoyed it a lot.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 1:01 AM on April 13, 2020

Brian Jacques's Redwall series -- fantasy animals, a monastery, some prophecy.

Nth-ing Gideon the Ninth.
posted by k3ninho at 1:58 AM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Seconding In This House of Brede. Noting that although Frost in May is very good, it's one of the bleakest books I've ever read. (Another school-set book which is often recommended, Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom, is also very bleak.)

Mysteries set in schools or colleges are a thing:
Miss Pym Disposes, by Josephine Tey (physical education training college)
Poison for Teacher, by Nancy Spain (school, comedic)
Death Among the Diadems, by Iona MacGregor (Victorian school)
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers (university women's college)
Death in Holy Orders, by PD James (theological college)
Death Among the Dons, by Janet Neel (university women's college)

You can find various lists online. Mysteries set in other closed spaces are also a thing, such as ships.

I saw recommended recently, but haven't read, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, by Nayana Currimbhoy (Indian girls' boarding school in the 1970s).

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny is set in a monastery, though it is part of a series and may not be the best place to start (it was where I started and some of the back story is a bit confusing).

Charlotte Bronte's novel set in a school in Brussels, Villette.

Rosemary Manning's The Chinese Garden.

What about children's books? I won't start listing these in case you aren't interested, but let us know if you do want recommendations.
posted by paduasoy at 2:26 AM on April 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

Came back to add Susannah Kearsley's The Splendour Falls. This is set in and around Chinon Castle - it doesn't quite fit the confined spaces thing but it does fit the other aspects of your question, about Gothic novels and ancient secrets.
posted by paduasoy at 4:58 AM on April 13, 2020

Oh, and Jane Christmas's memoir And Then There Were Nuns, in which she tries out living in convents (and one monastery) to see if it's what she wants to do. Quite interesting though some of it is as you might expect (loneliness, the importance of food, etc). There is a strange tea-towel related mystical event.
posted by paduasoy at 5:06 AM on April 13, 2020

Barbara Hambly's Darwath Series, starting with Time of the Dark

Barbara Hambly's Windrose Series, starting with the Silent Tower (It's only book 3 that's set only in one place, but the whole series is so damn good that you'll want to read 1 and 2 to get to 3.)

Lev Grossman's Magicians Trilogy. It's Harry Potter, if Potter's a rudderless youth at a magic boarding school where kids have problems and aren't sure what to do in the real world.

A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer, with this goodreads review
Picked this up as an antidote to Grossman's The Magicians, for which purpose it is recommended. Women doing things! A magical college that produces functional humans! An academic community I totally recognize! Protagonists I don't want to drown! A protagonist who undergoes change and grows the hell up and deliberately chooses political power! Seriously, I have so much love for Jane and Tyrian and Eve-Marie, and Faris gets better throughout the book, and I hope very much they all remain awesome
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:38 AM on April 13, 2020 [2 favorites]

Patrick Rothfuss- The Name of the Wind- large portions of this are about the protagonist's university days.
Pamela Dean- Tam Lin, a modern retelling of the fairy tale- also set in a university. Full of university politics.
posted by Coaticass at 6:30 AM on April 13, 2020

Sarah Gailey's Magic for Liars is about a non-magical PI investigating a murder at the high school for mages where her magical twin sister teaches and it's great.
posted by Flannery Culp at 9:10 AM on April 13, 2020

The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies, set in an old-fashioned Canadian religious college where the faculty are also residents. Not fantasy, but many fantastical elements including characters that are eccentric bordering on grotesque, hidden artwork and artifacts, ancient languages and the occult.
posted by JonJacky at 10:02 AM on April 13, 2020 [4 favorites]

You might/will like the Chalet School books :)

The Unburied by Charles Palliser is awesome. it's got a spooky cathedral!!
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 10:47 AM on April 13, 2020

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant takes place in an Italian convent in the 1500s.
posted by soelo at 10:55 AM on April 13, 2020 [1 favorite]

Throwing it back to my high school English class with A Separate Peace by John Knowles. A melancholy coming-of-age story set at an east coast, all-male prep school during WWII.
posted by E3 at 12:14 PM on April 13, 2020

A Good School by Richard Yates (boarding school)

People in The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy aren't confined as such (it's set at a military academy) but it feels quite confined.
posted by Skyanth at 4:35 AM on May 7, 2020

Response by poster: Closing this question with a wealth of excellent recommendations. Really looking forward to reading a ton of these, and I've just started on The Rebel Angels.

Belatedly noticing that I was asking for books set in "monsteries," which... honestly, I would also like. Thanks for your input all!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 12:06 PM on August 15, 2020

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