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Ysenda Maxtone Graham on the girls’ school stories of Angela Brazil

Educating Ulyth

On the cobwebby bathroom bookshelf of our family’s shabby but adored flat in Avignon sits a book which I have read 44 times – once a year since first going to the flat in 1970. Wedged in between The Damon Runyon Omnibus and Don’t Tell Alfred, it’s a thick-papered hardback girls’ school story called For the Sake of the School, by Angela Brazil, and for me it never palls.

It really should have palled by now, as Brazil has some fairly terrible stylistic habits. For example, she avoids the word ‘said’ in her dialogue-filled prose, substituting for it multiple elegant variations such as ‘propounded Marjorie Butler’, ‘piped Romola Harvey’, ‘volunteered Consie’ and ‘ejaculated Lindsay’. Her depictions of the heavily scented English countryside, in which most of her fictional girls’ boarding-schools are set, are chocolate-box-lid florid. Her thumbnail sketches of her characters and their schoolmistresses are fairly repetitive: there’s many a ‘flaxen-haired damsel’ who, ‘if not exactly pretty, knew how to make the best of herself’; and many a strict spinster headmistress with ‘iron-grey hair’. The names she gives her girls are a formulaic juxtaposition of the romantic and the plain: Ernestine Salt, Blanche Greenwood, Raymonde Armitage, Morvyth Holmes, Fauvette Robinson. The heroine of For the Sake of the School is Ulyth Stanton, and she addresses her mother as ‘Motherkins’ in her letters home.

I think what hooks me, and many of us who adore girls’ school stories, is the deep longing to belong and be accepted by a gaggle of girls. And not just any girls: girls who (like us) get a thrill out of embroidered nightdress cases, matching writing-paper and envelopes, autograph books, china ornaments, photograph frames, and brush and comb sets. The thought of stepping out of the train at Llangarmon Junction in September 1915, into a crowd of such schoolgirls looking for each other – ‘There’s Helen!’ ‘And Ruth, surely!’ ‘Oh! Where’s Marjorie?’ – is delicious to anyone who finds the word ‘dormitory’ or even ‘cubicle’ exciting. We are stepping into a clearly defined world, where the rules are set in stone and where the headmistress, when we get into trouble, will be ‘not angry, just deeply grieved’.

I hardly need tell you that ‘Brazil’ is supposed to be pronounced ‘Brazzle’, although I still find it hard not to pronounce it as it looks. Unmarried, childless, but busy and fulfilled, Angela Brazil (1869–1947) lived in Coventry (a place to which some of her characters are metaphorically and unwillingly sent), and most of her romantic inclinations, it seems, were channelled into celebrating the romance of life in a girls’ boarding-school, which she distilled into 59 novels. Unlike Elinor Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers books, Brazil created a totally fresh school for each novel: The Dower House, The Manor House, The Woodlands, Aireholme, Brackenfield, Silverside, Birkwood Grange and so on.

‘The summer term was always of more than usual interest.’ So starts a paragraph in The School by the Sea, describing life at The Dower House. ‘The school lived mostly out of doors, many classes were held in the garden, and meals, when weather permitted, were often taken on the lawn.’ Don’t you long to be there, in your linen afternoon dress, listening to ‘the soft thud of tennis balls and distant cries of “Vantage!” and “Game!”’? I certainly do. ‘What a frolicksome notion!’ as one of the schoolgirls would say.

Brazil’s first novel, A Terrible Tomboy, was published in 1904 and she wrote two books a year till the last one, The School on the Loch, in 1946. I’ve been looking at the ones she wrote during the First World War, from The School by the Sea (1914) to A Patriotic Schoolgirl (1918). As well as being highly readable stories, they show how that war gradually impinged on the daily lives of the fictional schoolgirls of Britain, who in 1915 were merely knitting socks and doing a bit of bandaging practice, but by 1918 were visiting munitions factories, hunting down German spies, dispensing with servants, eating ‘war cake conspicuous by its lack of sugar’, planting vegetable plots and making scrap albums for the hospital.

I have yet to find any of Brazil’s novels quite as satisfying, purely from the point of view of the plot, as For the Sake of the School (1915), which is illuminating for anyone interested in the unformed characters of girls. Ulyth Stanton, exquisitely well brought up, deeply proud of her school The Woodlands, longing to be a member of its Camp Fire League, waits excitedly for the arrival of her penfriend from New Zealand, Rona Mitchell, with whom she’s going to be sharing her cubicle. When Rona arrives at the school after her sea voyage across the globe, ‘there was a noise such as nobody had ever heard at The Woodlands before’. That noise is the sound of Rona’s hideously loud (and nasal) colonial voice, and her ‘hinnying laugh’. The story tells how Ulyth deals with her shock and disappointment; how the headmistress (Miss Bowes) doesn’t let Ulyth swap rooms; how the even more snooty Stephanie Radford is first vile to Rona and then knocked down a peg or two; how the friendship between Ulyth and Rona gradually develops; and how Rona, the rough diamond, is polished and eventually discovered to be of very noble birth.

As well as being carried along by the plot, I devour every paragraph of Brazil’s novels for details of what girls’ boarding-schools were like then. For one thing, although they were housed in manor-houses and castles, their numbers were tiny: 30 girls at the Manor House School; 39 at Silverside in For the School Colours (that is, before the invasion of the local day-girls, which annoys the boarders and makes a good story); and only 26 at Marlowe Grange (The Madcap of the School ). Brazil never tires of describing school traditions and rules, and no detail is too small to include – such as the names of dormitories (the Cowslip Room) or the precise stitches used in sewing (open-hem stitch). The girls change for dinner every evening. They don’t go home at all during term-time. Their letters home are censored. In the summer term they go blackberrying: in For the Sake of the School there is a chapter called ‘A Blackberry Foray’, in which Rona gets stuck in a tree-trunk and says a great deal in her loud nasal voice. (‘Well, I guess that’s taken the bounce out of me. I’m as stiff as a rheumatic cat! Oh, I’ll get back to school somehow, don’t alarm yourself.’)

If you have read Victorian boys’ school stories, such as Dean Farrar’s Eric, or Little by Little, where many of the boys’ scrapes and japes end either with a caning or an actual death, it is a relief, with Angela Brazil, to be in a world where the sound of the headmistress’s footsteps coming closer in the middle of the night heralds nothing worse than a mortifying torrent of moralistic words. ‘This afternoon’s occurrence has grieved me more than I can express,’ or, ‘Have you been here a whole term, Avelyn, and not yet learnt the very elements of honour?’ The female reader strongly feels the ‘Ouch!’ of such words, and even blushes along with Avelyn.

The harshest punishment in all the First World War novels is this one, from Mrs Morrison to Marjorie Anderson in A Patriotic Schoolgirl. Marjorie, out of genuine pity and a desire to be kind, has written to, and received a letter back from, Private Hargreaves, a lonely soldier in France of whom she has heard. Receiving letters from anyone except parents or guardians is strictly against the school rules. ‘Every pupil’, says Mrs Morrison to Marjorie, ‘is at least supposed to be a gentlewoman, and that a Brackenfielder could so demean herself as to enter into a vulgar correspondence with an unknown soldier fills me with disgust and contempt. I cannot keep such a girl in the school. You will go for the present to the isolation room, and remain there until I can make arrangements to send you home.’ Marjorie, thank goodness, is granted a reprieve, for which she is profoundly thankful. Little would Brazil have known how powerfully Mrs Morrison’s disdainful words ‘an unknown soldier’ would resonate a century later.

Usually the punishments are merely tedious tasks such as copying out the whole of ‘Lycidas’ or Bacon’s essay ‘Of Empire’, learning two pages of Curtis’s Historical Notes by heart, or being sent to bed straight after supper instead of being allowed to go to the Needlework Union. ‘If Bunty puts me to construe anywhere on page 21 I’m a gone coon,’ complains a post-punishment Manor House schoolgirl, reminding us that we are also in shockingly pre-politically-correct days here. Some of the girls collect golliwogs. In The Jolliest Term on Record we read that ‘Gwethyn liked drawing animals, or niggers, or copying funny pictures from comic books.’

We are also in pre-health-and-safety days. The girls carry naked candles up old oak staircases to bed. Their possessions catch fire, and lives are saved by quick reflexes. The girls rush, unattended by adults, down to the lake or sea to bathe, and many of them can’t swim. Again, lives are saved by the stronger, swimming girls. In The Luckiest Girl in the School there’s a hair-raising episode in which the 16-year-old Winona Woodward is allowed to drive her Aunt Harriet’s motorcar around the local country lanes, never having driven a car before. ‘Winona never knew by how much she exceeded the speed-limit,’ Brazil merrily writes.

For what are these girls being educated? Brazil is vague about this, but there’s little (if any) mention of university, and one senses that a good marriage is the hoped-for outcome. The most academic school in Brazil’s 1914–18 novels is the urban day-school in The Luckiest Girl in the School, Seaton High School, to get into which Winona Woodward has to sit two days of stiff exams – in fact she and another girl both drop their entry forms so they get mixed up and Winona is mistakenly given a place. (Brazil makes the spot-on observation that ‘Mrs Woodward was one of those parents who expect their children to gain the prizes which they were incapable of winning for themselves.’) Winona’s reaction, on being entered for the school, is ‘But I don’t want to win scholarships and go in for a career!’ She has to work extremely hard at Seaton High, studying Virgil all evening while also finding time to practise her Schubert Impromptus and Bach Preludes and Fugues.

At the girls’ boarding-schools, by contrast, one feels that a bit of French-speaking with Mademoiselle, a spot of Latin and maths (or ‘maths.’ – it still has a full stop), a great deal of drawing and painting, a sound knowledge of the acceptable works of English literature, and the occasional dabbling in chemistry in the more forward-looking schools, will be quite adequate. Plus, of course, the endless tennis, hockey, cricket and calisthenics. But you feel that the girls are, actually, getting a wonderful education. The thing is, they love it. This surely must help. They adore romantic English literature and romantic English history. When it’s discovered that Winona Woodward only got her place at Seaton High School because of a mix-up, the headmistress has another look at her entrance exam papers, and the single thing that saves her is that she wrote a marvellous, deeply imagined, romantic essay on what it must have been like to be Lady Jane Grey. This is typical of an Angela Brazil schoolgirl. The girls adore The Lady of the Lake, they are enraptured by any girl with ‘long, glossy Burne-Jones hair’, and they always plait garlands of flowers on May Day.

To write this, I brought For the Sake of the School back to London with me from Avignon, in order to read it for the 45th time. It looks totally out of place in England and must now be taken back to its rightful spot in a bathroom in Provence.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 44 © Ysenda Maxtone Graham 2014

About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham had to learn the hymn ‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’ by heart as a punishment at her girls’ boarding prep school in the 1970s. She wonders whether hymn-learning is ever still used as a punishment.

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