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Old Girls and Very Old Girls

I went to a girls’ boarding-school in 1972. It was only for an afternoon. I’d been staying with a friend for half-term and we stopped on our way into London to drop her older sister back at school. I can’t remember which it was. Wycombe Abbey? Cobham Hall? Or Benenden, then of matchless fame for the education of Princess Anne? Though I’d never actually been inside a boarding-school, I knew all about them from books like Third Form at Malory Towers by the evidence-based historian, as I supposed she was, Enid Blyton.

Boarding-schools were palaces of fun, emporia of midnight feasts and loyal mischievous friends. In the summer there would be lessons on the grass. In winter there would be snowballs and skating on the lake, heedless of the cries of Mam’zelle, the scatty French teacher whom everyone teased, anxiously bleating for us to be’ave! Girls! S’il vous plait! If the money could be found, I would join these happy folk before the year was out.

That day we drove up, not to the handsome manor-house that fronted the establishment, but round to an ugly annexe where a side door, fenestrated with chicken-wire glass, formed the pupils’ entrance. Shushed by the suddenly meek and obedient-looking sister, we threaded in silence down mazes of low-ceilinged linoleum corridors. I remember the dingy lighting, the rows of closed doors with something unnervingly quiet behind them, the punitive ugliness of everything, and the billows of cooking cabbage-smell that rolled up the passageways and under the doors like smoke through a burning building.

I went to a London day school, and had forgotten this incident altogether until Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s book Terms & Conditions, with its startlingly bright evocations of girls’ boarding-schools in the twentieth century, flushed it from the overgrowth of my memory. What an inspired idea of hers – to write a book on this under-exposed subject. Existing accounts are abundant but misleading. Indeed, as we learn in these pages, the shattering disappointment of little girls who had begged to be sent to boarding-school and were then faced with the reality was one of the most recurrent of all school memories and a common scar.

This is not a history of girls’ boarding-schools. It’s not easy to say where, exactly, you would shelve it. It could be under memoir. Or is it more like anthropology? Here’s a study of a vanished society, based upon the testimony of elders whose way of life has been erased by exposure to modern culture, but who remember the days before the first boats came upriver. The other option would be comedy, as it’s the funniest book you’ll read all year, and if it doesn’t win the P. G. Wodehouse prize, there is no justice in the world.

YMG’s ‘elders’ in this case are a cohort of women who already know there is no justice in the world, as they went to school in ‘the last years of the boarding-school olden days’. They attended establishments all along the academic scale, from the arid Cheltenham Ladies’ College to the jolly place where a ‘lab.’ meant a labrador. They are witnesses to a lost era, when hot-water bottles were made of ice, pudding of ‘phlegm’, and girls’ education was, in the main, so far subsumed to that of their brothers that fear of ‘putting husbands off’ with too much of it was an important consideration for the makers of their timetables. The oldest of them were schooled in the 1930s. As for the youngest, YMG decided,

My cut-off date . . . would be the advent of the duvet. As soon as duvets, with their downy warmth and tog-factors, came into fashion, I would be out. This was in about 1979, the introduction of duvets coinciding with the Thatcher era. The girls’ boarding-school in the age of the duvet is another matter entirely from the girls’ boarding-school in the age of the frozen hot-water bottle.

A lost world, and also a closed one. It is now unimaginable that parents would consign their offspring for months and even years, if the parents lived far away, with no questions asked and no contact but the occasional censored letter, to a place they had chosen from a photograph in a prospectus, or because ‘the quality of the toasted tea cake’ at the open day had made an impression upon them. But so it was: much of what is described here could only occur in an environment almost completely shut off from outside interference and therefore free to breed self perpetuating systems, preoccupations, rules and taboos so arcane and downright bonkers that if an ex-girl is rash enough to mention them in adult life, no one will believe her. YMG suggests this is something to do with women:

Anyone who has ever compared a convent with a monastery will have noticed that women tend to make more rules than men. Compare the way the genial monks at the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield wolf down their supper and chat (they pronounce ‘pizza’ as ‘pitzer’) while the West Malling nuns nibble their bread and marge in silence.

Few authors would have such a fruitful comparison at their command; but one comes to expect it from YMG. As I turned the pages and bits of boarding-school life were unearthed piecemeal, like the skeleton of some fantastic and once-common beast, I began to imagine what an index would look like:

Bath cube, 25, 72; as love tribute, 110
Books (and periodicals): discouraged, 87‒8, restricted, 142; confiscated if discovered, 73; pages of, as supplement to blankets in winter, 59; new, as a metaphor for virginity, 97; worn and dog-eared, as a metaphor for sexual experience, 97; school library, pages of, taped together as a means of censorship, 143
Bosoms: mistresses’, 27; as defining feature, 27‒8; names for, 28; and cardigans, 36

Bosoms, books and bath cubes. Who now remembers bath cubes, that most Spartan of bath-time luxuries, the main point of which was to disguise the rusty patches of bath enamel under your bottom with their own indissoluble sandiness? Let alone that they once had currency as single enticements.

YMG has been fortunate in her examples of Boarding-School Woman: a type of adult female who, her researches reveal,

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

If this sample is representative, then Boarding-School Woman is also funny and thoughtful and clever, in spite of the exertions of her school. Also, possessed of perfect memory. The women here have near-eidetic recall of their schooldays and we must all be grateful that YMG has got to them in time to pluck their collective experience from the waters of oblivion. They don’t remember things in the way a non-boarder might expect. Who’d suppose that one of the very worst horrors a boarding-school could inflict was, by general agreement, ‘the mistress who wanted to be your friend’? And that grown women would still be shuddering forty years later at the memory of this menace: ‘you thought she might take your hand and stroke it’?

Physical and emotional privations, on the other hand, are shrugged off, as are the many ingenious acts of sadism in these pages. YMG detects a remarkable lack of self-pity in her sample of Old Girls: they do not see themselves as ‘victims’ or ‘survivors’ of any kind and would hate to be regarded as such. The only time anyone really seems angry is when the question of what had happened when they left school came up. Some women from the ‘book-learning puts husbands off’ type of establishment felt that the neglect of their education, be it wilful or careless, had hobbled them for life.

It wasn’t necessarily the fault of the schools. Schools are among the slowest of entities to register social change. Ideas and textbooks are only replaced when absolutely necessary and the traditional practice is to prepare the current generation of pupils for the lives of the preceding one. When change is rapid and unprecedented, as happened with women’s expectations in the twentieth century, this matters more. I doubt a better chronicler of these times could be found than YMG. As an alumna of Sibton Park Preparatory School for Girls, she has had experiences with cauliflower that have left her with a fine sense of sympathetic discrimination. She is not one for over-emoting, and nothing seems to leave her aghast. The incidents of cruelty appear without comment – they stand on their own merits – and we often sense a muffled cheer for school eccentricities and the kind of resilient woman they produced.

There’s a different sort of sensitivity at work in YMG: a genius for comedy, and also a kind of comic pathos that leaves us not knowing whether to laugh or cry. For example, when she points out the deployment of capital letters in school literature, or School Literature, as a form of reverence for school creeds (‘three grey School Cardigans’ on a terrifying clothes list). Or when she exhumes a gem like Miss Alice Baird’s letter to her sixth form at St James’s, West Malvern, in the 1930s: ‘I sometimes speak about the dry rot of slackness . . .’ begins Miss Baird, and instantly we are there in West Malvern with her. We can well imagine the rolling eyes of the poor sixth-former reading this; but we can also picture Miss Baird writing it from the confines of her prospects between the wars: the changeless timetable of the years, the aeons of tenure implied in that ‘I sometimes speak’; the note of self-estimation she permits herself in resorting to her own mot juste.

St James’s has since merged with three other schools in the vicinity of West Malvern and is one of the girls’ boarding-schools ‘still going strong’ today, as YMG puts it, with the faintly subversive qualifier, ‘though some of them can only keep going by bringing in a large number of girls from overseas’. If you look it up you’ll find it now offers show-jumping, drama and a fashion show to girls who can choose ‘to stay with us all week, all term, or drop in for a night now and then’. Drop in. Drop in, under the very portrait of Miss Baird. I do hope these girls all get Terms & Conditions for Christmas, to show them how lucky they are. In fact, I hope everyone gets Terms & Conditions for Christmas, as it will make a joy of Boxing Day.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 52 © Nicola Shulman 2016
This article also appears as a preface to Plain Foxed Edition: Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Terms & Conditions

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