You know how much I hate to use the Ch*****as word before December 1st, but needs must if we don't all want to find My Life by A Celeb under the tree, so I make an exception each year with a few posts about books that have arrived and which you might want to add to your list, so you can be ready when people ask the fateful question.
...or perhaps you are looking for ideas for gifts for others.
Well, an absolute gem was waiting for me as I staggered in the door laden with books from London and it is right up our street....
‘When I asked a group of girls who had been at Hatherop Castle in the 1960s whether the school had had a lab in those days they gave me a blank look. “A laboratory?” I expanded, hoping to jog their memories. “Oh that kind of lab!” one of them said. “I thought you meant a Labrador.”’
I didn't mean to start reading it immediately because I had that pile of new books just bought, but really, if this arrived in your stocking, it would make the very best Boxing Day read. I'd just browse a couple of pages I thought. 226 pages later I've almost finished it so will just have to hope for something else to fill Boxing Day.
We have had many boarding school conversations on here in the past, usually in the wake of books about St Bride's by Dorita Fairlie Bruce or the Chalet School, or most recently and worryingly idyllic The School on North Barrule by Mabel Esther Allan
So many schools, so many Old Girls, ' muses Ysenda, as she drives away from her first interview, before deciding on a start and cut-off date for her book. Settling on from 'in living memory' to the 'advent of the duvet' which, with its connotations of warmth and comfort, gives you some idea of the discomforts suffered and recounted herein and often in the sort of detail that makes you want to head for the nearest blanket...
'We did all our lessons wrapped up in rugs with mittens on...'
'Evacuated to Chatsworth in the war, Nancie Park picked her hot-water bottle off the floor in the morning and found it was a solid lump of ice.'
Raised on the glories of Malory Towers (which I now discover was based on Benenden as attended by Enid Blyton's daughter) and feeling sure that Darrell Rivers would be my friend and I would excel at lacrosse, I can't have been the only 1950's girl begging her parents to send her to boarding school. Had my parents had a mind to oblige there were probably still plenty to choose from in the south of England alone. In the 1930s, 16 in St Leonards, 22 in Malvern, 23 in Eastbourne, 32 in Bexhill-on Sea and about 150 in Surrey.
'Harsh matrons, freezing dormitories and appalling food predominated, but at some schools you could take your pony with you and occasionally these eccentric establishments – closed now or reformed – imbued in their pupils a lifetime love of the arts and a real thirst for self-education. In Terms & Conditions Ysenda speaks to members of a lost tribe – the Boarding-school Women, grandmothers now and the backbone of the nation, who look back on their experiences with a mixture of horror and humour.'
Judith Keppel (you know the first one to win Who Wants to be a Millionaire and now part of the TV quiz team Eggheads) recounts her greatest fear whilst attending St Mary's, Wantage, a school run by Anglican nuns and chosen by her parents because it did weaving; a room full of looms seeming slightly out of the ordinary...
'Judith was terrified of getting 'The Call'. 'We all knew about the previous headmistress, Sister Mary Patricia, who had been young and pretty with a life of fun ahead of her - and The Call came to her like a thunderbolt. She couldn't escape it. She went twice around the world to try to escape it, but to no avail. To me, that was a fate worse than death.'
There are tales of humiliation and homesickness...uniform that wasn't quite uniform the source of much self-conscious embarrassment; the homemade versions that would invite derision and a sense of exclusion. But the idea of the 'lost tribe' rings so true, camaraderie in adversity much in evidence and this little book a real gem of a tribute to them all. As Nicola Shulman suggests in her preface...
'This is not a history of women’s 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? . . . The other option would be comedy, as it’s the funniest book you’ll read all year.’
It is indeed a funny book... especially when you read that the gristle and slop that passed for boarding school food, (and approached with exquisite table manners) was the perfect training if you were likely 'to finish up in a gulag.'
But Terms & Conditions has a serious side too....
Like many who read here I too was part of that generation educated by the 'Misses' who, consigned to spinsterhood by the wartime depletion of suitors, turned their attentions to teaching. Now some of them were wonderful, we often talk about those who inspired us here, but there were some sadists among them (many named in this book ) for whom emotional and physical abuse were second nature and who would now find themselves very much on the wrong side of the law. That sense of education by fear most definitely reminded me of my primary school head mistress, Jessie Horsburgh, a devout but fearsome woman, as wide as she was tall to my young eyes, and also capable of inducing gut-wrenching fear and inflicting much physical and emotional pain. We were certainly not spared in the state sector but at least we had some kind teachers (also terrified of her) and went home to loving parents (even more terrified) at the end of each day. For these poor girls at boarding school there could be no respite and heavens did they suffer, for many this was a very expensive and torturous imprisonment and with very little useful education to show for it on escaping leaving.
A note about Slightly Foxed editions, small but perfectly formed and cloth-bound, these are books to keep and collect, you would definitely want to find this one in your stocking on Ch******as morning.
And talking of lacrosse...did anyone else play it ?
We did, very briefly at Nonsuch Girls (not boarding and a joy in comparison to my primary school) but I think we all got completely carried away with the no boundaries thing and were running wild (probably into Cheam village, any excuse) so it was stopped. Miss Dormer soon had us called to heel with her Acme Thunderer and confined once more within the lines of the hockey pitch.