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

10 February 2017

Bookmarks for a Valentine and Other Nice Things


While scouting for a theme to dress up a display table at the library these bookmarks caught my eye.  In no time at all I made twelve and popped them into a mug in the staff work area with a note to help yourself.  They didn't last long!  The theme now gracing one of the shelves is 'Sweet Reads' decorated with a bunting of foam imitation sweetheart candies.  The large one saying 'Tweet Me' has disappeared but I can't say I'm surprised given it's a high school library.  Wonder who the lucky recipient is?


One of the nicest things about blogging is the opportunity to connect with wonderful people from all around the globe.  My post about Tirzah Garwood's compelling autogiography Long Live Great Bardfield led to an email from Kate Mears, an artist living in Somerset.


Kate humbly offered to send along a copy of her own book A Year Around Our House.  Each page features her cheery watercolours of their home throughout the seasons with charming handwritten notes describing events in daily life.  Caught in the depths of a Canadian winter, Kate's book couldn't have arrived at a better time.  I'm tempted to buy a watercolour set and try my hand but my attempts at anything so elegant can only end in disappointment....or a good laugh.  Kate's book is a fixture on our kitchen table and my husband and I are thoroughly enjoying it.


What is there to say about succumbing to the wonders of Hygge?  The photography, the recipes, the soothing colours....and support for what we booklovers know to be true, and that is that books (except perhaps Tolstoy) are most definitely Hygge.  I have to confess something though...I've had my eye on this book for a whole month before buying it in a most un-Hygge sort of place - Costco.  My apologies to Copenhagen.


And last, but surely not least, I've booked a trip to London for this summer.  At the top of my list is visiting every bookshop possible, going back to Cambridge, stroll around Primrose Hill, see a play or two and try my hand at mudlarking.

Planning a trip is half the fun so if you have a favourite spot to visit that's off the beaten path, please share!

1 February 2017

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West

This was my first encounter with a novel written by Vita Sackville-West.  To come to this book during the depths of a Canadian winter, when reflection strikes often, was perfect timing.  The subject matter is all too familiar with themes of what if, expectation and duty.  While these topics are ones that just about everyone contemplates on a regular basis, I thrilled at the notion that at eighty-eight years of age a woman from the Victorian era sets the terms for living out the rest of her life according to her own wishes.  It begins with the death of her husband.

 Lord Slane, formerly the Viceroy of India, has died at the grand age of ninety-four.  The list of his accomplishments is a long one.  At the age of seventeen, Deborah (Lady Slane) dreamed of becoming a painter and fantasized about a life full of adventure.  During this fantasy she must shed her feminine image for that of a boy...which says a lot about the norm when it comes to a life of adventure.  Accidentally accepting a marriage proposal with a misread facial expression puts paid to a life of paintbrushes and canvas. 

While Lady Slane looks upon the body of her husband, her adult children make arrangements for her care without her knowledge, input or presence.  It's decided that she can move between their households for a period of a few months per stay.  A sentiment of martyrdom hangs in the air.

'Of course, she would not question the wisdom of any arrangements they might choose to make, Mother had no will of her own; all her life long, gracious and gentle, she had been wholly submissive - an appendage.  It was assumed that she had not enough brain to be self-assertive.' 

But Lady Slane has other plans.  A lovely Georgian house in Hampstead, described as a Constable painting, caught her eye thirty years ago and if by chance it's available, she'll take it.  I loved the way Sackville-West reveals the tube stops as Lady Slane rides the train to Hampstead and reminisces about her husband.  Once the details are taken care of, the move is made.  Of course, this decision also affects Genoux, a wonderful French housemaid to Lady Slane for over sixty years.  The description of one of her traits concerning undergarments is fantastic.

'Here Lady Slane's dreamy reminiscences were cut short as Genoux came in, rustling like a snake in dry leaves, creaking like a saddle, for, until May was out, Genoux would not abandon the layers of brown paper that reinforced her corset and her combinations against the English climate.'

Finally able to spend her days sitting by the warmth of the garden wall as she listens to the bees fly around the pear trees, Lady Slane sees this time as a reprieve before death.  But there's another unexpected chapter still to play out.  Mr FitzGeorge, who collects art pieces like a magpie, has kept abreast of Lady Slane's state of affairs while keeping his distance.  He's a man from her past.   

As far as the plot is concerned, that's all you're getting from me.

I so enjoy the extra pleasure of noting street names, companies, and clubs while reading novels set in London.  Learning about the history or location of places mentioned will undoubtedly be beneficial should they pop up again in another book, and you never know when they'll inspire a stop during a trip overseas.  This morning I looked up Mudie's book subscriptions, Boodles (where Kay Holland and Mr FitzGeorge met regularly for lunch), and Bernard Street, where Mr FitzGeorge lived.  It turns out to be the street bordering Russell Square tube station and the Brunswick Centre.  A place I've explored many times but apparently while too absorbed in the surroundings to notice street names.

This is a wonderful story told from the perspective of a woman of privilege.  While it's been described as a feminist novel, and in some respects that is true, I can appreciate that men also experience unrealized dreams for reasons beyond their control.

A dream of moving to a red-brick Georgian in Hampstead during my senior years is going to carry me through an afternoon of domestic duties.  I don't even have the benefit of Genoux!

Arum and Tulips by Vanessa Bell

26 January 2017

This Week in Books: The Ups and Downs


I'm so excited about the arrival of a couple of items from Slightly Foxed.  Issue 52 of their quarterly magazine impressed me enough to commit to a subscription.  A personal message from Olivia on a gorgeous woodcut postcard tucked inside was a lovely surprise.  And while I'm not rushing to the end of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent because it's too good for that, I can't wait to start Terms & Conditions.


A few days ago I woke up to the sound of Kip making strange noises around the bookcase in my bedroom.  I thought he had sniffed out an errant dog biscuit, but it was the glue binding my copy of E, H, Young's The Vicar's Daughter.  The one bought on Charing Cross Road and published in 1937...silly boy *sigh*.