Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools 1939-1979
by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham
Hardback: Plain Foxed Editions 270pp £17.50
Review by Deborah Bathurst, Sherborne Literary Society
The size and shape of this small hardback is suggestive of the Christmas market stocking filler, but should you put it in your loo amongst the cartoon books to while away a few moments, beware, as any visitors may spend the rest of their weekend with you reading the entire volume.
At first sight the subject of former life in girls’ boarding schools might seem a rather niche topic but much of the material reflects those times and would be recognised by many attending day schools of the period, be it English teachers urging pupils to be scrupulous about not scattering essays with the word ‘nice’, which after all has a rather precise meaning, to unappealing school lunches, nicknames, cliques, bullying, and a rainbow of teachers from the terrifying but admirable, the kind, the eccentric and colourful, to the mean-minded, as well as the generally stricter discipline and parents being kept firmly at arms-length.
Where boarding schools differ of course is the lack of respite afforded by homelife and while some enjoyed hours of unsupervised freedom in extensive grounds, others had to endure prolonged boredom, misery, and home-sickness, relieved for many by the forming of life-long friendships. Communication with parents was by letters, often censored. Many of the girls had parents working or serving abroad and might not see them for a year or sometimes much longer. Holidays were with relatives or family friends. A few depended on school -friends inviting them to stay - a rather haphazard approach to parenting one might think nowadays, but which could lead to a striking independence of mind.
This living testimony depends on the recollections of many women who attended boarding schools during this period and it is clear that schools varied enormously, and experiences could be very different even for siblings sent to the same school. Choice of school often depended on parents’ concerns that their daughter would make suitable friends and learn good manners. Sometimes parents seem to have chosen the school in a rather cavalier fashion with minimal information and little thought as to whether it would suit their child.
Quality of education seems to have been far down the list of requirements for many parents and schools. Often fathers considered a highly educated daughter would be at a disadvantage when it came to marrying. What seems extraordinary is how late into the 20th century this poor education was tolerated. Those who did get to university were exceptional and success depended on their own determination. There were notable exceptions of course, such as Cheltenham Ladies College, one of the handful of girls’ boarding schools providing high quality education for girls from early on albeit in an austere atmosphere.
The author explores the experiences that shaped these women’s lives and characters and how they now view their schooldays in retrospect. Interestingly, many having married and had their families at a young age as expected of them, felt hampered by their lack of good education and some took university degrees later in life.
Terms and Conditions is an interesting, readable, sometimes amusing, often poignant book, but if it does appear in your stocking do place it by your guest‘s bedside or there may be a queue for the bathroom.
Ysenda Maxtone-Graham will be speaking at the 2017 Literary Festival. For more details go to the Festival Events page