15 February 2017

Terms & Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

As a Canadian, the English school system remains something of a mystery despite daily doses of the BBC, Woman's Hour, English novels, and The Archers.  During my last trip to London I asked Rachel (Book Snob) to explain O levels, A levels and GCSEs .  One morning, during breakfast at my B&B, a guest mentioned his gentleman's third degree followed by me asking what that meant.  In simple terms his education was heavy on fun and light on studying into the wee hours.  But girls' boarding schools, set in the countryside, well that sounds like a bit of heaven on earth, doesn't it.  Oh dear....

'For a start, entrance was through the back door, not the front door.  One of the first things my interviewees learned, on arrival at the actual school and as soon as their parents drive away, was that no pupil went up the main stairs.  The beautiful, beckoning, curvy-banistered staircase in the pot-pourri-scented hall of the main house, with its deep-ticking grandfather clock - this was not only out of bounds but rarely even glimpsed.'

Ysenda Maxtone Graham interviewed scores of women who stayed at boarding schools during the years between 1939 and 1979.  In a time ages before internet reviews, the decision to send your daughter to a certain school was often laughably esoteric.  In one case it mentioned that a father (and it was often the father who made the final decision) wanted his daughter to go to a school where the girls all seemed to be so pretty.  In some cases a well-toasted teacake was reason enough to sign up your children.  Another factor was the all-important matter of who your daughter would be friends with, and taking it one step further...did those girls have brothers.  Because while these girls were being educated in the gentler arts, their brothers were sent to academic institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.  These young men would make perfect husbands and connect families.  If a title came with the package then so much the better.

Rigid rules such as carrying book bags on one shoulder on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays then the opposite shoulder on alternate days in the name of deportment remained with some ladies long after leaving school.  The residual effects of cringe-worthy head teachers stroking the hands of girls in the evening or asserting control by mandatory line-ups to say good-night most likely caused a shiver or two later in life.  One of the cruelest comments dreaded by most young ladies began with the words 'We've all been discussing....'  As a woman who wore glasses and braces in high school when the 'it' girls looked like Farrah Fawcett, I was instantly reminded of a time when confidence was in short supply.  At a boarding school there was no escape from demeaning comments and some students' parents were off in another country.

So, is it unusual to want your daughter to have socially well-rounded friends?  No.  Is it realistic to accept that some forms of bullying will always exist in society?  Yes.  But something that frustrates me is the void when it comes to stories of teachers taking young women aside who clearly showed an interest in academics.  I like to think there were teachers sprinkled here and there who fostered the notion of higher learning and a career.  At the very least, an independent life before deciding the course of your future.  I'm heartened to say there were a few girls whose parents were progressive enough to entertain the idea of higher learning but this wasn't the norm.

There were stories that did make me laugh such as the horror of fish night on Fridays when myth was that mackerel fed on the bodies of dead sailors.  And in highlighting the virtue of remaining a virgin until marriage an interesting metaphor was used...nice clean new books are so much better than the second-hand sort.  Bouts of boredom led to long sessions of reading, and lofty material at that, which may explain why there's such a wealth of sublime women writers from the twentieth century.

For me, the most touching paragraph of Terms & Conditions was near the end of the book...

'What struck me, after I had met all these women who went to girls' boarding-schools in the mid-twentieth century, was this: never had I met such a lot of well-educated under-educated women.  Especially the older ones.  Their book-filled houses, their radios tuned to Radio 4, their kitchen tables piled with old concert programmes and dog-eared copies of the Times Literary Supplement, their grand pianos with open music on the stand.....'

These life-long learners may have been shortchanged in their youth but they're making up for it in any way they can.  These are fabulous women!  Also, as a reminder that beneath the exterior of an aged person still lies the sentiments of youth, some former boarding school girls see an icy cold rain and feel glad they don't have to venture outside for afternoon sports.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book for its exposure of life in an English boarding school in the twentieth century, but it wasn't the book I was expecting.  Terms & Conditions certainly isn't the funniest book I'll read all year, as claimed on the cover, but it may well be the most thought-provoking.


Students from Howell's School for Girls
Summer of 1941

6 comments:

  1. I swear every blog I subscribe to has a post about this book! I did order a copy but haven't even opened it yet (it came beautifully wrapped from Daunt Books in London, all the Slightly Foxed editions were sold out last time I checked.) It does seem like a fun and interesting read so I'll have to move it up my TBR list.

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  2. I've just read this too, Darlene. I found it sad & poignant rather than funny although there were certainly funny stories. I was also touched by the quote you mention & felt so indignant for those girls in their loneliness. The class system was all important & there were so many uninvolved, unsympathetic parents. It made me admire the stoicism of the women interviewed all the more.

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  3. Perhaps your B&B friend only narrowly missed getting a 'Desmond'. (If you know what I'm talking about, we''ll award you an A-level in British Education Studies, Darlene!)

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  4. This book sounds so interesting and I agree with Karen that many blogs are recommending it. Thank you for your wonderful review which has inspired me to buy this book!

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  5. The book sounds so very interesting and similar to colonial attitudes amongst convent schools in my country!! Thanks for this post.

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  6. Oh I wonder how this one escaped my radar! I really want to read it.

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