Every December, I attend an Old Girls reunion and Christmas carol service for my old school. It’s a fun event and I always meet the most interesting women. There’s the Olympian with stories about her time in Brazil this summer, the children’s book author who I adored growing up, the researchers doing amazing work in their labs, and the retirees who now travel the world after lives spent in law, medicine or academia. It’s a circle I take for granted much of the time but always appreciate reconnecting with around the holidays. It is also a chance to cuddle babies of younger alum while eating cookies with the school logo on them – a win-win, really.
This year, the event was the perfect thing to get me in the mood for the newest release from my beloved Slightly Foxed (so popular they are now out of stock and waiting for it to be reprinted): Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham, a history of British girls’ boarding schools from 1939 to 1979. The cut off date is, delightfully, based on when the duvet became popular, ushering in an era of unprecedented comfort. Maxtone Graham is having none of that: “the years I longed to capture were the last years of the boarding-school Olden Days – the last gasp of the Victorian era, when the comfort and happiness of children were not at the top of the agenda.” And capture it she does, in vivid, joyful detail.
But first, an aside: how stupid do you have to be not to adopt the duvet until the late 1970s, Britain? Of all the things you should have picked up on your continental holidays over the previous two hundred years, this would have been a really practical one.
I loved every page of this book but the introduction is particularly dear to my heart, especially when Maxtone Graham describes the prototype founders of girls’ schools:
…girls’ boarding-schools tended to be started, almost by accident, by two unmarried daughters of a widowed Victorian clergyman, who needed to “take in” a few pupils in order to pay the bills. These sisters were often called Maud or Millicent, women with unflagging energy and small waists, who had a vision of how a girls’ school should be, and who brought their schools into existence through dogged determination, enlisting wealthy professional men (often cousins) to form the necessary company and invest in the enterprise. These women were driven by zeal for the idea that girls could be properly educated together, as were their brothers. They thrived on obstacles in their way. The historians of their schools say things like, “All this might have daunted lesser mortals than the Wingfield-Digbys.”
Delightfully put and full of truth. My own school’s history tells an almost identical tale.
In chapters ranging from “Choosing a Suitable School” to “Teaching Nuns and Kitchen Nuns” and “Fresh Air and Other Discomforts”, Maxtone Graham looks at the experiences of girls at a wide variety of schools. Some were miserable, some happy. Some schools valued education, while at others it seems to have been a foreign concept. We hear about students who discovered boarding school life had little to do with Mallory Towers and others who excelled and made friends for life.
I loved hearing about the characters of the different schools. There were so many small, obscure ones, including complete disasters where parents recklessly deposited their daughters without taking the time to discover the headmistress was an alcoholic or that the teaching staff was disappearing, leaving the upper year girls to take over teaching the younger ones. The overachieving academic schools (school? This seems to have been a rarity) provide few good anecdotes. The snobbish schools that had little interest in teaching girls much beyond deportment and how to find a husband, on the other hand, are horrifyingly enjoyable to read about:
Southover was known as “the school where everyone married everyone else’s brothers”; and those brothers would certainly have been members of the landed gentry or above. If you read the list of pupils’ addresses at the back of the Southover school magazines of those days you find a mouthwatering selection of old rectories, castles, manor houses and farms. The acceptable home address was: name of large house; village it was quite near; county. It was not done to live at any kind of obscure urban address, such as 24 Whitfield Road, Haslemere. Only about one girl in the whole list did live at that kind of address and I pity her, because it stands out. If you did have an urban address it had to be a London one, and ideally Cadogan, Belgrave or Eaton something.
The Catholic boarding schools appear to have been even more elitist:
Mother Bridget taught Latin to the juniors and she kicked off the first Latin lesson for the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: “Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.” “Quite a few hands did go up,” remembers Maggie Fergusson, “and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin.”
You do finish the book wondering how the girls at most of these schools managed to make their way in world. Yes, marriage can keep you out of the workforce you are ill-prepared for (that was the typical solution for the girls from the earlier years covered in the book) but by the 1970s a year at finishing school and then an early marriage weren’t on the cards for most women. Maxtone Graham talks about their post-school lives with the women and their attitudes are varied. Some are angry that their schools never even considered the idea their girls would want to go on to university or give them enough education for a practical career while others thought the old ways “made for a better, more stable world than today’s world of career-ambition, with all the anguish, stress and risky postponement of parenthood it can bring.”
It is a charming, completely bonkers world and, for the most part, I am delighted it is gone. British schools aren’t particularly spectacular these days (see recent PISA scores), but at least there is an attempt to educate everyone in basic subjects to a certain level. It is horrifying to think how some of these schools would have performed in this era of standardised testing. The ability to remain ignorant has been severely curtailed and thank goodness for that.
However, as Maxtone Graham concludes, academic achievement isn’t the only thing that matters and the boarding schools of old had their virtues:
There was an innocence about these establishments. They were not all about self-advancement or money-making. They were run on a shoestring by women with high moral standards who needed to make ends meet and did so by taking in girls and forming their characters. As much by accident as design, these girls emerged into adulthood with sources of inner strength and resolve that (often literally) can’t be measured by exam results. The worst of the hopelessness has gone, but so have the best of the eccentricity and the most well-meaning of the amateurishness.
I’m not entirely sure I agree, being torn between my love of eccentrics and my bone-deep belief in the importance of academic achievement. But what I am not torn over is my love for this book. It bubbles over with humour and warmth and made for one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in a long time. Male or female, Old Girl/Boy or not, this is a book everyone can – and should! – enjoy.