Absolutely Education interviews author Robin Stevens, and she reveals how her years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College inspired the popular Murder Most Unladylike novels

Where did you go to school and when?

I went to Cheltenham Ladies’ College from 2001 to 2006.

What sort of school was it?

An immensely posh all-girls’ boarding school – I usually explain it as being a cross between Malory Towers and Hogwarts (without the magic).

Did you love it or hate it?

I had, and still have, complicated feelings about it. I got a fantastic education there, and made friends I’m still very close to today. It also lives on in my mind as Deepdean School for Girls, the fictional (and far more murderous) boarding school I send my schoolgirl detectives Daisy and Hazel to. But with my American accent I never quite felt that I fitted in, and I sometimes felt stifled by the routine of boarding school life. I’m a very restless, curious person and I spent my time there desperate to get out and see the world – which is ironic, since my life now is all about remembering my school years.

What was your favourite subject or activity there?

Unsurprisingly, English. I had some incredible teachers who saw that I loved writing and pushed me to be better at it. 

Who was your favourite – or most influential – teacher?

I dedicated my first book, Murder Most Unladylike, to my two English teachers Miss Silk and Mrs Sanderson. I adored them both – they were very different, but equally brilliant and kind, entirely unlike the awful teachers who are the suspects in Murder Most Unladylike.

Where was your favourite place at school – what did you do there?

Cheltenham Ladies’ is full of astonishingly beautiful places but I think my happiest memories come from my boarding houses. There were a lot of ways in which boarding school was disappointingly unlike an Enid Blyton book, but the experience of living with my school friends really was like an endless sleepover. Just spending time with them was the most fun I had at school. Daisy and Hazel’s dorm mates Kitty, Beanie and Lavinia have become a big part of my series, and they’re crucial to my newest book, Top Marks for Murder.

Top Marks for Murder Robin Stevens interview

What beliefs do you think that particular school instilled in you?

To be proud of my intelligence and to be unafraid to take up space in the world. 

What was your proudest achievement?

 My friends and I spent weeks planning and filming our own version of Dracula, complete with special effects. Sadly the video itself has been lost to history, but it was the pinnacle of our school experience – alas, there were no murder mysteries for us to solve in real life.

What was the most trouble you got into?

I was generally a good girl (Hazel, my polite, kind-hearted narrator, is based on me in that respect), but I did once get into quite a lot of trouble for being part of an end of year prank in which different girls had to jump up and sit back down again whenever they heard a particular word being spoken in assembly. Most people gave up halfway through out of sheer embarrassment, but I kept going all the way to the end.

What is your most vivid memory of your time there?

The utter despair of playing hockey in the rain, followed by the total joy of going back to house and eating nine slices of toast in a row.

Were you too cool for school?

Never in my entire life have I been too cool for anything.

Would you send your own children there?

If I have a kid I don’t think I’ll choose to send them to boarding school – but since I was the one who asked my own parents to go, I don’t really know. I suspect my child would have their own ideas about this.

Do you think going to a single-sex school altered your view of the world?

I have a real fascination with how women interact in female-only spaces, and how female friendships form and change – it’s something I spent many years observing at Cheltenham, and it’s the basis for Daisy and Hazel’s strong friendship, which is itself the heart of my series. Going to a co-educational university (Warwick) was a real contrast, and brought the uniqueness of my school experience home to me. 

How did it influence the rest of your life and career?

Cheltenham really left its mark on my imagination – I wanted to write about my school experiences, and that book became Murder Most Unladylike. Five years after it was first published, I’m still writing about Daisy and Hazel’s adventures, and I’ve just sent them back to the fictional version of Cheltenham for the third time – I can definitely say that my career wouldn’t exist without my school.

What is your relationship with your old school now?

I go back quite regularly, and have a good relationship with the principal and staff. It’s wonderful to feel that they’re still supporting me.

What other influences did you have in your younger life?

My parents were very supportive. They really encouraged me to read and write, to have the courage of my convictions, to love learning and to speak up when I saw injustices. I was also very influenced by the world views of writers like Terry Pratchett, Eva Ibbotson and Diana Wynne Jones, which became part of my own morality.

Did your interest in creative writing start at school?

I think it started even before I went to school: I was telling stories as soon as I could talk, and writing them down the moment I learned to write. But school was very influential, and I’ve definitely been lucky in the teachers and school librarians who have encouraged me over the years.

What was the first story you ever wrote?

The first story I ever remember writing down was about a unicorn who was adopted (I was six). The first murder mystery I ever wrote was about a couple who were murdered by every single one of their house guests at different points over the same weekend (I was 14, and it was pretty clear by then that I’d found my passion in life). 

You are a Guest Curator for the Schools Programme at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. What does that involve?

I want to introduce festivalgoers to mystery authors and books I enjoy. The mystery genre is something I’m so passionate about, and I love the way each author can approach the same basic ideas in absolutely unique ways. 

What are you writing about now?

More in my series. I’ve got so many ideas for stories in Hazel and Daisy’s world, and I’m currently working on another adventure starring my two favourite detectives and their friends.

How would you sum up your school days in five words?

Friendship but sadly no murders.

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