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

Educating Ulyth

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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 –

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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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