Memories of an Edwardian Girlhood

Barbara Wootton

  • Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England by Carol Dyhouse
    Routledge, 224 pp, £8.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0821 X
  • Hooligans or Rebels: An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939 by Stephen Humphries
    Blackwell, 279 pp, £12.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 631 12982 0

Carol Dyhouse’s book is concerned only with girls, and mainly with those drawn from middle or upper-class circles, although she makes one substantial digression in which she contrasts their educational history with that of their working-class contemporaries in the elementary schools of the day. Stephen Humphries’s story, on the other hand, theoretically covers both sexes, though boys and youths loom larger than their feminine counterparts, and his horizon does not extend beyond the working classes. Both stories are exceedingly well documented, but whereas Dyhouse draws largely on written memoirs, biographies and other published studies, Humphries justly observes that most of what has been written about working-class youths of earlier generations has not come from the subjects themselves, and therefore necessarily presents interpretations of working-class culture by middle-class outsiders. His book is an attempt to redress the balance by ‘rewriting the history of working-class childhood and youth largely in the words of working-class people who themselves experienced it between 1889 and 1939’. Since, however, few such people have left written records, Humphries’s data have been almost exclusively gathered from interviews with men and women now of advanced age (there cannot be many who go back to 1889) recounting childhood experiences.

Both authors reveal their personal points of view: but here is the most striking difference between them. Dyhouse never explicitly states her attitude, yet the reader is left in no doubt that she is not sympathetic to the idea that girls should be brought up to sacrifice their own interests to those of their menfolk, which was the dominant theme during most of the period of her study. By contrast, Humphries declares on his second page that his own ‘theoretical perspective’ is similar to that of the ‘emerging revisionist school of Marxist sociologists and historians who ... have challenged the method and metaphor upon which the orthodox literature on youth has been based’. His reader is therefore presented with a story of the clash of cultures in class conflict, and constantly reminded that juvenile delinquency or rebelliousness is merely an expression of ‘resistance’ (the author’s favourite word) against capitalist society. Even the apparently well-meaning attempts of social reformers to cope with these phenomena are presented as attempts to impose irrelevant middle-class standards of behaviour upon an autonomous working-class culture, and to produce a subservient work-force better adapted to perform the menial tasks required by capitalism.

As one born in 1897, my own lifespan includes the greater period of Dyhouse’s book (which she has at many points extended into the present century far beyond any Edwardian reign). But it so happens that the cult of ‘femininity’ which figures so prominently in her pages was more typical of the upbringing of wealthy or middle-class girls in general than of my own. In the earlier part of her story (and right up to the First World War) these girls were frequently not sent to school at all, but taught by governesses or by their mothers who duly inculcated the virtue of ‘femininity’ – comprising gentleness, self-sacrifice (always in the interest of the opposite sex) along with a smattering of French or German – and imposed total suppression of independent intellectual interests, on the principle that ‘bookishness or intellectual confidence diminished a girl’s sexual attractiveness’ and that ‘learning destroyed femininity.’ As a result, some of the more intelligent are said to have bribed their brothers by performing various small services in exchange for the loan of school books.

In a minority of homes, Dyhouse admits, different standards prevailed, but not necessarily with happier results, as I can testify. Both my parents were Classical scholars, and my two older brothers and I were brought up in the academic atmosphere of Cambridge, where my father, who died when I was ten, was a college tutor. In due course the boys went away to public school, while I was taught at home by my mother, generally alongside one or two other children of Cambridge dons. In that exceptional environment, far from intellectual interests being suppressed, I was driven by her to reading books way beyond the interests and competence appropriate to my age. I didn’t have to conceal nefarious intellectual tastes: mother’s favourite question when she saw me struggling with one of her recommended books was always: ‘What are you going to read next?’ The result was that our relationship became no less strained than that of many of my contemporaries, but for exactly opposite reasons; and every time I went to the lavatory (the only place where privacy was guaranteed), I used to kneel down and pray to be sent to boarding-school. Eventually, at the age of 13, I was sent, not indeed to boarding-school, but to the local girls’ high school, whence I proceeded to Girton.

Incidentally, the lack of affection between my mother and myself was largely compensated for by the mutual devotion of myself and my nanny, to whom most of our out-of-school upbringing was entrusted. Rather surprisingly, ‘nannies’ do not feature in Dyhouse’s book, although they were habitually employed in upper and middle-class homes in the early part of this century, and were highly influential in the upbringing of many subsequently well-known characters. I also saw something at first hand of the governess pattern, as one of my father’s sisters was employed by the late Lord Farrer’s family, and in consequence my nanny and I were occasionally invited to stay at the Farrer mansion, Abinger Hall. How my aunt, as the daughter of a Scottish agricultural labourer with five children, acquired the educational standards appropriate to a governess I have never understood. But her charges certainly made good. The elder, Frances Farrer, became the Queen Bee of the Women’s Institute movement, while her younger sister, an accomplished violinist, married the late Sir Edward (subsequently the first Lord) Bridges.

Eventually the standard pattern of home education gave way to formal schooling. The first schools were a ‘kind of extended family unit’, often established in the home of a widow for whom the opening of a small school for a few ‘daughters of gentlemen’ offered a means of support, even if the proprietresses frequently lacked both qualifications and enthusiasm: at least they could perpetuate the cult of femininity and preserve the principle that a girl’s place is in the home. By the latter half of the 19th century these establishments were superseded by the first girls’ ‘public schools’, such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and by ‘high schools’, such as the North London Collegiate College and the establishments founded by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, which was already responsible for 36 schools by 1896. Neither the new schools nor even the women’s university colleges which grew up alongside them, according to Dyhouse,‘rejected the Victorian concept of femininity: they redefined it.’ For the most part they were sponsored, organised, patronised and controlled by men. Women were seldom found on their boards of governors because, in the words of the Report of one such, ‘it was hard for ladies to deliberate and discuss freely in the presence of a large company of men.’ One American writer, Stanley Hall, much quoted on both sides of the Atlantic (and in both these books), urged as late as 1906 that in girls ‘the purely mental’ should be kept back, and that bookishness (‘probably’, he had the grace to add) ‘is a bad sign in a girl; it suggests artificiality, pedantry, the lugging of dead knowledge’. Several other writers, including the still-honoured Dr Maudsley, believed that ‘intellectual strain’ in puberty would militate against subsequent normal child-bearing. If that did in effect happen, it was not for the physiological reasons which the doctors of the time assumed. The fact was that the women who staffed the new schools were unlikely to take kindly to the idea that the truly feminine role was always one of subservience to the male, or that, in the famous phrase attributed by another author to one small child, ‘mummies stay home, cook the meals and clean the house, while daddies go by train and get tired.’ Celibacy was often a condition of the career woman’s employment, and not necessarily of her own choice. Well into the 20th century teachers were required to resign on marriage, and indeed I myself gave up the Principalship of Morley College for Working Men and Women in 1928, partly because such a condition was attached to the post, though I did not actually remarry (my first husband had been killed in 1917) till a few years later. Eventually, of course, ‘formal education’, as Dyhouse puts it, gave women the confidence to challenge the orthodoxies of the time. Nevertheless the passing of those orthodoxies has in no way resolved all the problems peculiar to the role of women in modern society.

The standards of ladylike behaviour traditionally imposed on the typical middle-class girl were not without their subtle cruelties, but these were far removed from the crude brutalities often suffered by working-class boys. Humphries does not give the reader any means of judging how his subjects were selected, or how far they constitute a representative sample of the relevant population: but whatever the means by which they were tracked down, they certainly all appear ‘resistant’ to the treatment they experienced in their schooldays. The three chapters which follow the theoretical introduction to the book and sketch aspects of the Victorian educational system make that abundantly clear. According to Humphries, the ostensible purpose of religious education was ‘to ameliorate important social problems’, such as juvenile crime and street-gang violence, by ‘an infusion of such bourgeois values as hard work, discipline and thrift’. In his view, the main ideological object of the educational system was to ‘act as an agency of class control, to enforce obedience to authority and resignation to one’s lot and to create an orderly and efficient labour force in the next generation’. This medicine, judging from what follows, can hardly be said to have been very successful. In the recollection of Humphries’s interviewees, religious teaching was most commonly criticised as ‘irrelevant and incomprehensible’. ‘I’m not going to be a parson, so why should I carry on with this rubbish?’ is a typical comment: one girl made a practice of deliberately arriving late at school every day so as to miss the religious instruction and worship, which she could not reconcile with ‘the callous treatment of her starving family by the workhouse authorities’ or the ‘brutal rape inflicted on her by an uncle’. Several pages of similar reactions follow, after which history succeeds religion in the curriculum. Here Humphries admits that imperialism ‘captured the hearts of some of the working-class youth’, but quickly produces examples of the ‘resistance motivated by the contradictions between imperialist rhetoric ... and the bitter daily experience of class inequality’.

The next chapter proceeds from the content of the curriculum to the methods by which it was enforced. From this point onwards, page after page is filled with sickening examples of the use of the cane in schools, often with calculated cruelty and for trivial misdemeanours. But it must be granted that the credibility of the theory that rebellious schoolchildren in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were motivated by class hatred is enhanced by the recurring epidemics of school strikes which marked this period, and which appear to have reached nationwide scope in 1889 and again in 1911. Although maps in this book are thickly studded with dots indicating when and where these strikes occurred, they do not, to my knowledge, seem to have attracted much attention from historians. Can it be that this discreet silence is due to fear that full reporting might encourage imitation by later generations? Anyway, it is a long time since we have seen newspaper bills proclaiming ‘London schoolchildren on strike for no cane’. Truancy, both sporadic and in some degree organised, has become a very much more serious problem than it was in my juvenile court days of forty-odd years ago: but school strikes – no. At the time, however, these incidents caused considerable alarm, for two reasons. First, they aroused fears about possible damage consequent upon interruption of the children’s education. The second, and more potent, cause for alarm was the fact that the children were clearly rehearsing the procedures adopted by their parents in industrial disputes, as, for instance, by stationing pickets at the school gates and organising marches and demonstrations.

Having nailed his colours to the Marxian mast Humphries resolutely stands by them. But things get difficult when we come face to face with the goings-on of some young men who are no longer subject to the supposedly civilising influence of the educational system. While Humphries light-heartedly refers to ‘rejection of conformist middle-class values, such as respect for property’, he expressly denies any wish to ‘underestimate the crucial importance within working-class youth culture of the street gang and its aggressive stance against society’. Indeed, his main concern is to ‘penetrate the stock images of brutality ... associated with gang members, to look beyond such epithets as “savage hooligan” commonly used to condemn them’, and to expose ‘the in-built class bias in the pseudo-scientific theories of psychologists and criminologists’ (of whose work he cites a single example and that dating from the 1930s). Gang attacks on the police, in particular, must be seen ‘as a form of resistance of working-class youth to the criminalisation of traditional street activities’, such as playing football in the street: but how on earth can attacks on the persons or property of a gang’s own working-class neighbours be passed off as ‘misdirected expressions of class feeling and class hostility’? Not a word of reproach is raised against such gross ‘misdirection’. Instead, we are to console ourselves with the fact that the media make the most of alleged gang ‘brutality’. Maybe they do, but from my own experience as a London magistrate, which overlapped the period of this study by 20 years, I can have no doubt that, when all the exaggeration is stripped away, there remains a hard core of violent assaults by working-class youths upon members of their own social class and often upon the defenceless elderly.

Unquestionably both these books effectively demonstrate that Britain has long been a class-divided society, though Humphries spoils his case by overstatement. Middle-class snobbery certainly survived the Second World War. I myself remember (it must have been some time in the Forties) a pupil of a well-known girls’ public school, when applying for admission to a university, telling me how during general elections she and her classmates were escorted to the local Parliamentary candidates’ public meetings: but this did not, she added, include those of the Labour Party. When I asked the reason for this omission she seemed unclear whether the risk was that their minds would be poisoned by the speeches they would hear or whether they might ‘catch something’ from the presumably uncleanly habits of a working-class audience. That small but significant incident revealed an impassable social gulf such as I hope seems incredible now. But a class-ridden society still survives, and will do so long as the head of more than one large business enterprise can unblushingly accept for himself an increase of over 30 per cent on his already very substantial salary, while explaining to the employees that any advance in their far more modest wages could not possibly go beyond single figures.