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Winter Reading – Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979

February 5, 2018

When I was a boy, I used to wonder why my mother was slightly, well, odd. Not odd as in mentally unstable, or even eccentric. Just different from the mothers of my friends, who used to radiate confidence in social situations, parties and school events. She dreaded them because she felt “one down”. Visits from my friends were tolerated, not embraced.

There was a low hum of melancholy that persisted in her throughout the good times as well as the bad. Of the latter, there were many. On rainy days, she would, in the words of my younger brother, be “depressed of the weather”.

I used to think that her low-key personality, her lack of joie de vivre, arose from an insecurity as a result of my father’s career, which flourished for the first years of their married life, and then came crashing down, largely because of some reckless business decisions.

As I grew up, I came to realise that that her melancholia ran much deeper, back to childhood.  Her father died young, and her mother married again. She always felt that her mother preferred male company and wanted to enjoy her second marriage without the inconvenient presence of a female rival for the attention of the new man in her life.

So my grandmother packed her off to a boarding school, selected, sight unseen, on the recommendation of a friend. My mother didn’t speak much about it, except that it didn’t provide her with much of an education. Fortunately, for the last two years of her schooling, she went to live with my great aunt, a teacher, and attended as a day pupil an excellent church school.

Her brother, in contrast, went to a boy’s boarding school, from where he went to Oxford, en route to a watery grave at the hands of a German U-boat.

I didn’t think too much about the effect on her of the boarding school to which she was dispatched, a hundred and fifty miles from home, and which my grandmother never visited.

Then I read a remarkable book that made me realise that her years away from home might have responsible for her innate sadness and lack of confidence in later life.

The book is Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I bought it the other day on a whim, thinking that it might be an interesting counterpoint to my experience as a school boarder, which lasted from the age of eight to seventeen.

My school days were relatively benign, perhaps because my parents went to great lengths to select institutions where they thought my brothers and I would flourish. They discounted any schools that used corporal punishment, interviewed the headmasters and took an interest in every aspect of the education and wider experience that the schools offered.

My sister, on the other hand, didn’t go to boarding school, but ended up at the same day school as my mother, where she excelled. If she still feels that she drew the short straw, as I believe she did at the time, Maxtone Graham’s book might convince her otherwise.

The author interviewed dozens of former pupils of British girls’ schools that to a greater or lesser extent flourished from the end of the 19th through to the late 20th centuries, after which many were wiped out by the decision of cash-strapped boy’s schools to go co-educational.

The stories her interviewees tell range from hilarious to horrifying. The worst of the schools were ghastly. Cold, loveless places ran by vindictive, opinionated, unmarried women who cared less for the welfare and development of those in their care than for the maintenance of order and routine.

Draughty former country houses, linoleum floors, the pervasive smell of cauliflower. Dormitories so cold that hot water bottles froze. Sadistic teachers who delighted in belittling their charges, and who knew precious little about the subjects they were supposed to teach. An obsession with “games” – netball, cricket, hockey and lacrosse, to be endured whatever the weather. Pupils weeping with homesickness, some of them sent away at the age of four by their parents in India, not to see them again for a year.

For all but a few elite schools, the objective of the “education” provided was the prepare their pupils for a life of marriage and motherhood. They would be taught deportment, domestic skills and a modicum of conventional subjects such as English, French and Maths. Precious little science.

The trajectory for these girls from middle and upper-class families was finishing school, a secretarial job at the Foreign Office or Sotheby’s followed by marriage to Mr Right, who would be a doctor, a lawyer, a diplomat or a member of the landed gentry. Or, better still, a peer of the realm with a large estate.

University? Not possible with the education they received. Those who had such aspirations found them knocked swiftly on the head by fathers who believed that careers were not for their daughters. Princess Diana was a product of such a school. She left without a single qualification, and on occasion would refer to herself as thick. Subsequent history, I think, showed that she was far from stupid.

Not all schools were such hellholes of mediocrity, but many were. There would be the occasional chinks of light – inspiring teachers who left their pupils with a lifelong love for poetry, Shakespeare and art. And in amongst the indifference or sadism of the staff, kindness and compassion.

Yet despite their horror stories, many of those who contributed to the book talk of happiness and the life-long friendships they made. Of the joy of roaming the grounds of the grand country houses where the schools were located. During the Second World War, some relocated to country seats still in the possession of aristocratic families – Chatsworth and Castle Howard, for example. Some, now in their eighties, have magical memories of those places.

Aside from the grim mediocrity of so many of the institutions, there were the convents, ran by nuns who again varied from cruel to nurturing. And then there were the academic schools, Cheltenham Ladies College, Roedean, Badminton and Benenden, whose main purpose was to churn out Oxbridge candidates through regimes of iron discipline and intellectual rigour. Unlike the others, for whom a pupil gaining admission to university was in one case cause for a plaque on the wall in gold leaf, these schools were spectacularly successful.

But I don’t get the impression that they were places of joy. And more or less across the board, bullying among pupils could be vicious and sustained. As an example:

At Downe House in the early 1950s the classroom called 4B was ‘the divorce classroom’. It had doors on each side, which made it ideal for the purpose. When a clique decided they didn’t want to be friends with you any more there was a formal divorce process, and it all took place in 4B. The 13-year-old Amanda Theunissen was formally divorced in this way. ‘I suddenly found that the other girls weren’t laughing at my jokes any more. That was the warning sign. This was how the divorce process worked: you were called down to 4B. A you came in through one door, all the girls who had been your friends walked out through the other. That was it.  From that moment on you were an outcast. You were allowed to go around with the one disabled girl and the two foreigners who weren’t princesses’

Amanda has never felt as utterly unprotected as she did at that moment. There was no one to appeal to. The story makes us weep, not only for Amanda, but also for the disabled girl – ‘she had something wrong with her arm, and greasy hair, and wore thick round glasses’, Amanda said – and for the non-royal foreign girls, who had never been invited into the clique. Their loneliness and homesickness can only be imagined.

As anyone who has daughters will know, girls are capable of unspeakable cruelty without having to lay a finger on their victims.

Maxtone Graham finishes the book by observing that for all the awfulness, discomfort and emotional deprivation, women emerged from the experience with resilience, stoicism and a sense of duty and social responsibility, as well as loyalty to the life-long friends they made. Somehow, she says, they managed to transcend the emotionally buttoned up-culture that afflicted their counterparts in the boy’s schools.

She says that she can recognise one of their breed just by looking at them and talking to them. I think I can too, both in my mother’s friends, now departed, and in a few of my contemporaries.

Which brings me back to my mother. She was a product of that system. She was an intelligent woman who today might have gone to university and forged a career. She was widely read, a lover of the theatre, of nature and of animals. She had impeccable manners. She knew how to cook, sew, lay a table and ask for the salt. But how much more could she have achieved with an education that encouraged her to dream?

As things turned out, she met my father, a lawyer, and raised four children. Her only “proper job” was serving in the WRENS (the Women’s Royal Naval Service) during the Second World War.

Looking back now, three years after her death at 94, I wonder whether she was one of the bullied ones. Someone whose confidence was wrecked by an experience like that of Angela Theunisson, or perhaps by many similar tribulations. By exclusion, mockery and cruel practical jokes. Perhaps also, like other girls from families of relatively modest means, she was looked down on because of her perceived low social status.

I’ll never know. But if I’d read Terms and Conditions before she died, I would have asked her more about her school days. Losing a father when young, and then a brother during the war, and being – as she must have seen it – packed away, can’t have been easy. Though perhaps not unbearable enough to induce a lifetime’s melancholia.

But thanks to Ysenda Maxtone Graham and her contributors, I have a strong sense that I’ve found the last piece in the jigsaw of her life.

From → Books, Education, Social, UK

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