Ab­so­lutely su­per

This vivid study of life at girls’ board­ing schools be­tween 1939 and 1979 is both hi­lar­i­ous and poignant, finds Maggie Fer­gus­son

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

WOmen who have been to board­ing schools,’ writes ysenda max­tone Gra­ham, ‘live with flash­backs both joy­ous and night­mar­ish.’ read­ing this hi­lar­i­ous, poignant study, i had two. the first was of a thun­der­storm dur­ing which our head­mistress, mother Brid­get, sum­moned the school to the con­cert hall to read act 3 of King Lear: an act of in­spi­ra­tion. the sec­ond was of yawn­ingly dull week­ends, when our only oc­cu­pa­tion was to ‘re­port’ hourly to the nun on duty. some girls on the nun’s list had ‘G’ by their names. this meant ‘Greasy’ and al­lowed them to wash their hair twice a week.

in cre­at­ing this ‘patch­work of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury board­ing-school life’, miss max­tone Gra­ham has spo­ken to scores of old girls. some were at school way back in the 1930s and all had left be­fore the ad­vent of the du­vet—which ush­ered in a new warmth and cosi­ness—in about 1979.

Her writ­ing is crisp, ev­ery word pre­cisely weighed. she never tells us what to feel, but sim­ply presents her ev­i­dence and leaves us to gasp (of­ten), laugh or, some­times, cry. she finds gems in old prospec­tuses (‘the en­try of all ex­am­i­na­tions is purely op­tional’), clothes lists (‘wo­ven knick­ers’) and let­ters home. Here is amanda Gra­ham writ­ing from Han­ford in 1972: ‘We have su­per lessons to­day. read­ing, hand­work, hand­work, then the rest of the day is free.’

Han­ford was a merry school. Girls brought their ponies and there were ‘gal­lop­ing ma­trons’ to take them rid­ing. How­ever, most schools had no ponies and min­i­mal mer­ri­ment. many were run by cardi­ganed spin­sters, who felt it im­per­a­tive to keep things com­fort­less and emo­tion­ally aus­tere. Girls spent their free time strad­dling ra­di­a­tors to try to get warm, the food was foul and, apart from odd-job men, there was strictly no male com­pany.

Many schools were run by cardi­ganed spin­sters

With the no­table ex­cep­tion of Chel­tenham Ladies’ Col­lege, aca­demic stan­dards were piti­ful. When Frances Dove founded Wycombe abbey in 1896, she promised that ‘the hours of study will be strictly lim­ited’ and the be­lief that fe­male brain­i­ness was unattrac­tive per­sisted to the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tury and be­yond. at st mary’s, Wantage, girls who went to univer­sity were so rare that they had their names em­bla­zoned in gold let­ters in the hall. When miss max­tone Gra­ham asked a group of Hatherop Cas­tle old girls whether their school had had a lab, they thought she meant a labrador.

How can par­ents have cho­sen such schools? Of­ten, they never even vis­ited, but were charmed by some odd quirk in the prospec­tus—that the school had looms (st mary’s, Wantage) or that el­gar had once leapt over the bird bath (Lawn­side). even when they did visit, their rea­son­ing was ec­cen­tric. Camilla Gef­fen’s fa­ther chose Heath­field be­cause the girls had no spots.

What par­ents wanted for their daugh­ters was a suit­able mar­riage as soon as pos­si­ble af­ter school; fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion of any kind was dis­cour­aged. Diana Copis­arow was only al­lowed to do a sec­re­tar­ial course ‘in case i mar­ried a rot­ter’.

so what be­came of them all? many did marry young. most had brought up their chil­dren be­fore turn­ing 40 and then threw them­selves into good works. if this sounds bleak, it’s not nec­es­sar­ily so. in a bit­ter­sweet, fi­nal chap­ter, miss max­tone Gra­ham ar­gues that the rigours and pri­va­tions of board­ing schools gave their girls en­vi­able qual­i­ties. they are re­silient, un­self­cen­tred, un­spoilt; they look af­ter one an­other.

even the dim teach­ing had its sil­ver lin­ing. many have gone on to do Open Univer­sity de­grees, join cho­ral so­ci­eties and sub­scribe to the Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment. if there’s one thing their ed­u­ca­tion gave these girls, it was ‘a life­long thirst to im­prove it’.

The girls of Roedean School re­turn­ing from a lacrosse game in 1951

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