Good as boys

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • The Best Type of Girl: A History of the Girls’ Independent Schools by Gillian Avery
    Deutsch, 410 pp, £20.00, January 1991, ISBN 0 233 98642 1
  • There’s something about a convent girl edited by Jackie Bennett and Rosemary Forgan
    Virago, 217 pp, £4.99, January 1991, ISBN 1 85381 308 7

You don’t remember the lessons, you remember the teachers. At the heart of Gillian Avery’s book are the distant, half-familiar figures of extraordinary women, pioneers: Frances Buss of North London Collegiate, Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham, Frances Dove of Wycombe Abbey, Lydia Rous of The Mount. ‘A pupil at The Mount remembered saying loudly: “Well, I hate her.” A voice outside said calmly: “Whom dost thou hate?” There was an awful silence, and I could not answer.’ Gillian Avery makes it clear that she hasn’t set out to write a history of women’s education. It is an attempt, she says, to piece together the history of the schools at present within the Girls’ Schools Association (the equivalent of the Headmasters’ Conference), but at the same time she is comparing their ideals and their moral climates as well as their day-to-day life, and relating them to the social history of the past one hundred and fifty years or so. She herself was a fee-paying pupil at a day school at Reigate. She half-smiles at us, in her gym-slip and Peter Pan collar, from the back row of the tennis team on the jacket.

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