Bubble Carew-Pole said to me, “Do let’s run away. I’ve got a hired Daimler coming. With a chauffeur.”
Far from the literary world of Angela Brazil, where jolly hockey sticks and midnight feasts were the hallmark of a girls’ boarding school, this book tells the true story by those who have lived it. Spanning from 1939-1979, Ysenda Maxtone Graham undertook the mammoth task of interviewing the girls who attended these British establishments and who are still marked by the experience. Naturally, during the war years many of the schools were evacuated and the girls’ received their educations in stately homes, one being Chatsworth. In those days, although many of the girls came from rich families who could afford a good education, some were from impoverished backgrounds and relied on generous benefactors to pay for their schooling. The novelist Judith Kerr relates her experience of this, and she recalled the snobbishness that prevailed. However, many girls from the upper echelons of high society were not given the opportunity to attend school and were confined to the school room with a governess. Lady Emma Tennant (then Cavendish), Debo Mitford’s daughter, offers a brief snippet of information in the book and speaks of attending a boarding school as a day pupil, whisked to and from Chatsworth in a chauffeur driven car. In the text pupils ranged from aristocrats and royals (Princess Anne attended boarding school), girls whose fathers were in (whisper it) trade, daughters of the Raj, and a princess from Siam.
After the war, many foreign pupils were sent from Greece, Spain and Africa in search of a good English education, and the overall view of boarding schools changed from that of basically housing children who otherwise got in their parents way, to really climbing the academic ladder and having to compete with the boys’ schools, where a first class education was the norm. Although Spartan conditions prevailed, with inedible food, freezing bedrooms where hot water bottles would be transformed into blocks of ice, some schools allowed homely touches and girls brought their ponies, another hid her rabbit in various cages and increased the bunny population. There was a chain-smoking, drunken headmistress who instructed the girls’ to dance with her father, who’d often forget to attach his prosthetic arms. The same headmistress added rugby to the PE curriculum and demanded, ‘Jump on me, girls! Jump on me.’ Such odd conditions were the norm, and in this particular school the teachers were leaving by the droves, often exasperated by the head, and she roped a 15-year-old pupil into teaching science, and disguising her with make-up to pass a school inspection. Eventually the pupil cracked under pressure and left, and the headmistress was fired for punching a girl during assembly for looking at her the wrong way. In other schools, the teachers were wicked and by today’s standards would be accused of child abuse. The former pupils, now women advancing in old age, agree they were sexually frustrated and took this out on the girls. A clandestine bond definitely existed between the teachers, though in those days such things were not spoken about. A pupil speaks of avoiding certain teachers, who often invited selected girls into the private rooms, to sit in front of the fire and chat. One was afraid the headmistress would ask her of her woes and stroke her hand. Another teacher was praised for her tough approach, but she ‘had a smile like Doris Day’ and taught them husbandry and to not be afraid. During the war, the schools whose grounds were transformed by livestock, expected the pupils to help with the animals.
Lessons were spent wrapped in rugs in the draughty classrooms, and during PE the with girls with ’rounded’ or ‘squint’ shoulders dangled from climbing frames, and having one’s front teeth knocked out during lacrosse was the norm. Academia was shunned in favour of domesticity, such as sewing, setting a table, and making a bed with ‘hospital corners’. The reason for this was that no girl, when grown up and in charge of her own home, would ask a maid to do what she could not. Today the women speak of their fixation with hospital corners. Running away was the norm, with a girl hiring a chauffeur driven Daimler for the occasion and escaping with her friend to a cinema. Another caught a train and escaped to her godfather who lived at the Savoy Hotel.
Today, the women remain the products of their education: some cannot sleep unless their bedroom is freezing, and one spoke of a friend, a former boarder, who asked for her cabin window to be opened – she would rather risk being sprayed by sea salt than sleep in an airless room. They still associate Fridays with fish. And the author herself has a sixth sense when it comes to recognising ‘Old Girls’: their voices, their practical natures, an inner toughness, and the shape of their calves (because of PE). The stories are endless and too many to list. This is by far the most exciting book I have read all year, or in a decade. A perfect companion to those books on English eccentricity, it is a wonderful journey to a lost world.
Terms and Conditions: Life in a Girls’ Boarding School, 1939-1979 is published by Slightly Foxed.