George Orwell was sent to St Cyprian’s in September 1911, when he was eight years old. His sisters, Marjorie and Averil stayed at home until they were 11. Orwell went on to Eton, his sisters, Bernard Crick writes, ‘to a girls’ boarding-school at Oxford, a decent enough place but by no means famous or front rank’. Forty-five years later I went, at nine, to a girls’ prep school, and then, at 12, to a girls’ public school, both of them boarding. Neither’s name is generally familiar or well-known, yet many of my school-fellows’ fathers and brothers, especially at my second school, had been or were at Eton, Winchester or Harrow.
The relationship of the girls’ public school system to the boys’ is parasitic but not straightforward. Parents who send their sons to Eton or Winchester do not necessarily send their daughters to Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies College, but often to smaller, more select places whose names are known to few. Girls’ prep schools are particularly odd, for the rationale of the prep school is to get boys into good public schools preferably with scholarships, but a scholarship to Roedean is not equivalent to a scholarship to Winchester, and many girls will in any case go to the smaller schools where there is less emphasis on academic achievement. Yet all prep schools are institutions dedicated not only to the teaching, but also to the feeding, bedding and 24 hour-a-day supervision of children of between eight and twelve or thirteen. Because of the small size of these schools and the impressionability of their young pupils, prep school heads of both sexes are very powerful; their schools reflect their own compulsions and confusions, ethics and beliefs.
Miss Leefield (as I shall call her) was small, determinedly energetic and had a very odd shape. Her bebunned head was round, her chest flat, with only the suggestion of flabby elongated breasts clad in formidable underclothing, vaguely visible under one or another transparent pastel-coloured blouse. Her beam was broad and flat and powered by curiously bowed legs; her calves were still noticeably muscled above her brown lace-up shoes. She was a tennis and hockey blue and a Classicist who had definite academic ambitions for her school. The dining-room – I remember plastic beakers with stained and chewed rims, as well as fat, gristle, and semolina mixed with obscenely swollen and seeded reconstituted dried figs – had prominently displayed on the wall a varnished board on which were picked out in gold letters the names of all the girls who had won scholarships or exhibitions to girls’ public schools. Cheltenham and Roedean were there along with Godolphin, Sherbourne and Benenden, and no doubt some of the girls whose names appeared had gone on eventually to Somerville or Girton.
Energy was Miss Leefield’s most obvious characteristic. In a good mood she had a boomingly infectious laugh which was heard most often on Sundays as, surrounded by her senior girls, ten and eleven years old, and with the rest of the school streaming behind, she bounced in her pin-striped suit down the long drive to Matins at the village church. On Sunday evenings the three top forms would take their sewing into her study and we would sit on the floor while she read us long Sunday-evening kind of books. I remember particularly Tolkien’s Hobbit and J.M. Faulkner’s Moonfleet, for she read well, her own excited enjoyment of a good story coming through unmistakably. It was this hearty and good-humoured aspect of herself that she must have presented to our parents when she welcomed them loudly in the large stone-flagged hall, every corner of which would have in it on a rainy day a girl standing with her face turned to the wall.
I can still remember clearly my first night at Ripley Hall, after Miss Leefield’s laugh had ceased and the last parental car had disappeared down the long drive of the solid, stuccoed late-Georgian country house. There were five or six of us in the dormitory, aged eight and nine, and I lay awake for what seemed hours registering every impression, the hollowed and lumpy hair-mattress, the chipped black iron bedsteads, the big country-house bedroom with its high ceiling and moulded freize, the white enamel chamber-pots glinting under the beds, and, counterpointed against the familiar sounds of a country night, the half-muffled sobs of at least three of my companions, one of whom I already knew a little as the cold and formidable daughter of rather grand friends of my parents. It was because she was crying, and because I instinctively knew that the next day she would still seem cold and formidable, that I at once recognised that the place set a challenge which would demand all the stoic endurance a child possesses.