I grew up in a very dull middle-class Midwestern suburb, so I traveled the world vicariously through books. I adored reading anything set in a boarding school -- all the neat rows of beds, made up just so with hospital corners! Uniforms (so no one would judge my lack of fashionable wardrobe)! Communal living with cheerful girls called Bunny, who would naturally want to be my friend.
OR SO I THOUGHT. Until I read Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls' Boarding Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham.
Published by Slightly Foxed back in 2016, this small volume of recollections about 20th century girls' boarding schools was all over my small corner of the blogosphere a couple of years ago. Naturally I HAD to have a copy, so I ordered this adorable book, a beautiful little hardcover (just the size to fit in a purse or pocket). Whereupon it then sat unread for a good two years until the TBR Pile Challenge behooved me to put it on this year's reading list. Spanning the years 1939 to 1979, this is a chatty, casual look at the lives of girls and young women in British boarding schools.
|The Slightly Foxed edition, available through their website.|
This book basically shattered all my childish fantasies about the delightful years I missed by taking the bus to my suburban public school -- in actuality, many of these girls were undereducated, bullied (by both students and staff) and constantly cold. So cold, in fact, that hot water bottles froze overnight. Inside the dormitories.
Their stories both fascinated and horrified me. Though many of the young women interviewed have fond memories of school, and made deep, lifelong friendships, this book horrified me. In reality, it seems like many girls' boarding schools had sketchy education programs, bad food, and forced the students to spend hours running around cold, muddy fields playing lacrosse and tennis. If by some miracle I'd won a scholarship (or had a benefactor bequeath me a fortune for tuition) I would definitely NOT have fit in at one of these schools -- I'm bookish, bad at sports, and no connections to famous people or aristocrats. In short, life in a boarding school would have been absolute hell for me, as it was for some of the girls interviewed -- some of them ran away, and others seem traumatized for life.
Don't get me wrong -- this is an entertaining read, and I feel like I have a better understanding of British culture and literature. It's been described as hilarious, and though there were parts that made me smile and laugh out loud, my reaction was to thank my lucky stars that I went to that dull suburban public school system.
|The Roedean School in East Sussex.|
|Miranda Hart as Chummy.|
I never wanted to go to an actual boarding school, but I do really love reading about them. :)ReplyDelete
I still love reading about them too!Delete
I never read enough that sort of book as a child to want to be sent to boarding school. I was much more in awe of kids like you that I read about who got to take the bus (I had to walk)!ReplyDelete
This book does sound really great however and like you said, a useful reference to a lot of British fiction.
American school buses are awful. They're full of screaming kids, smell bad, and have no seatbelts. I wish I had lived close enough to walk to school all 12 years -- the middle school was down the street from my house so I walked for two years and I much preferred it.Delete
This book looks interesting. I wouldn't have fitted in at boarding school either for the same reasons as yours but I did like to read about them. Enid Blyton's Malory Towers and St. Clare's series were my favourites in primary school. When older I enjoyed Ronald Searle's St. Trinian's cartoon comic strips which inspired the films.ReplyDelete
I never even heard of Enid Blyton when I was a kid, not even the Famous Five or the Faraway Tree series. Sadly she never really caught on in the U.S.Delete
I didn't read boarding-school stories growing up, so our libraries must not have had them (or I'd have found them!). Nursing school stories were my jam, especially Sue Barton.ReplyDelete
There weren't a ton of them, but unfortunately now all I can remember are the ones with terrible schools, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and A Little Princess. Surely there must have been some better ones of I wouldn't have wanted to go.Delete
A word of caution: don't treat these accounts a gospel! To start with, she is startlingly trusting of people's recollections dating back 50 years, making no allowance for the passage of time; and secondly, she has rather cherry-picked incidents to reflect her thesis.I had a perfectly normal boarding school education in the 50s in comfortable if not luxurious surroundings with kind and intelligent teachers who pushed us to be our best selves.ReplyDelete
Wow, what an eye-opener for any of us who ever bought into the happy, fictional boarding school tales (which were probably the majority of us) Sounds like a great read, but a good escape for me too!ReplyDelete
I felt the same, Karen. Hearing the book talked about on podcasts with mirth I was expecting something of a warm bath sort of read....NOT! I appreciate catlover's comment above though, it's gone a long way to dampen the horror that welled up again after reading your post.ReplyDelete
Reading your post reminded me of the school in Jane Eyre—obviously the 20th century versions weren’t as bad but sounds like they have that foundation. I agree that literature romanticizes the idea of boarding school but I think it is awful to send children away from home to be “educated.”ReplyDelete
I longed to go to a boarding school just like Malory Towers as a youngster, I still enjoy reading 1950s school setting books. I used to know a lovely couple who scrimped and scraped to send their only child to Roedean in the 1970s - and when their daughter grew up she had minimal contact with them as she looked down on her parents and didn't want any of her posh friends to know that her parents weren't rich - it was so sad.ReplyDelete
Come on! Hardship is good and helps imagination to thrive. At least two excellent novelists - Frances Fyfield and Hilary Mantel - have come out of Matlock, the girls' convent school mentioned in the book. And the other girls made lifelong friendships, and developed hardiness about cold and food. Although the low academic standards were shocking, are standards any better today in lots of schools? And didn't anyone else find the book laugh-out-loud funny? I was actually crying with laughter at parts of it. By the way, I never went to boarding-school - we hadn't the money. There are advantages to being lower-middle class. Ha haReplyDelete
This is extremely helpful info!!Thank you for giving information.ReplyDelete
I must read this! I've picked it up in the bookshop and put it down again more than once. I'm fascinated by the whole British boarding school thing.ReplyDelete