Prep-School Girl

Sarah Wintle

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.

In the morning we were woken by Matron’s call, and had to jump straight out of bed and go in dressing-gowns, vests and knickers, towels over our arms, flannels and toothbrushes in hand, to wash. Matron dominated the junior dormitories, which were in the old main bedrooms set around a spacious landing at the top of an imposing stone staircase. A big woman with thick trunk-like legs and a pink face, wearing a starched and immaculately white uniform and a wide blue elastic belt which embraced her unyielding waist, she had a sarcastic bark and stood over us while we washed. A dark passage leading from the main building down to what had once been the old domestic and nursery wing – now the seniors’ – had been lined on one side by a row of basins, each equipped with a cube of slimy pink carbolic soap. At the end of the passage was the one lavatory to serve the juniors: seven dormitories, each sleeping between four and nine girls. Every morning the chamber-pots were brimming and there was a line of contorted children in front of the lavatory door. Our knickers were changed regularly twice a week and they were mostly stained, to our secret chagrin, by the long agony in the queue.

The intense animal consciousness of children makes them peculiarly susceptible to physical humiliation. Juniors took baths, one every three days, in a scruffy little room, four baths standing like islands on its stained red lino floor. We were washed and dried with detached vigour and once a fortnight our hair was washed with a harsh-smelling medicated shampoo, and our nails were cut painfully short, an ordeal dreaded for days. Two junior matrons, young girls fresh from training college, were the sole source of warmth, but only when Matron, of whom they were as frightened as we were, was not around. Otherwise, only the stuffed animals lying neatly on the pillow of each regimented hospital-cornered bed bore mute witness to other needs.

When we were ten or so we were promoted to the senior end. Life here was a little more civilised: the baths were cubicled, the dormitories smaller. We were in charge of an under-matron, Mrs Emery, who came in daily from her home in the village. She was a small neat middle-aged woman who always looked worried and fussed, but under her white overall we all recognised a maternal heart. Looking back, I think she must have been perplexed by the institution in which she found herself working, and above all by its resolute refusal to recognise the homely and the feminine, particularly odd in an institution run entirely by women entirely for girls. By the age of 11, some of my contemporaries were distinctly pubertal; one or two had even passed the menarche. Mrs Emery was particularly exercised by their situation. How could such girls still be treated like neutered nine-year-olds? One day she gathered us together and gently suggested that as we were now growing up it might be a good idea if we used an underarm deodorant. ‘Sno-flake’ she said was just what we needed, a special puff-powder pack aimed at novice deodorant-users. Why didn’t we all suggest to our mothers that they buy us some, when we went home for half-term. Her worried tones suggested that she couldn’t think why we weren’t there in the first place.

Sadly, at the time my chest was as flat as a pancake, no matter how often I hopefully examined my faintly-sketched nipples for tell-tale bumps, and my armpits were as innocent of overactive sweat glands as they were of the first prickle of hair. I knew that to ask my mother for Sno-flake would be an impossibility: a fraud, cheat and humiliation that I could not perpetrate. After half-term the washstands were ornamented by a number of pale blue packs of Sno-flake, and morning wash times were celebrated by the puff-puff-puffing of clouds of scented white powder into adolescent armpits. Irked by my lack of status and my exclusion from an important experience, I asked a more curvaceous contemporary if I could borrow her Sno-flake squeeze pack. Trembling with excitement at this big step towards a now beckoning adulthood, I raised my left arm and puffed hard. Alas, my aim was faulty. My hairless armpit remained virgin and a squirt of powder went straight into my eye. I was led ignominiously to the surgery to have my eye washed out by an irritated Matron, who muttered to herself about the idiocies of getting small girls to use deodorants. I felt deeply ashamed that I had betrayed Mrs Emery.

Both Matron and Miss Leefield had their bedrooms near the juniors, and any talking after lights-out or before Matron’s morning call was strictly forbidden, and resulted in immediate punishment for the culprits, or if no culprits were caught, for the entire dormitory. The system worked beautifully, unrumbled by those it caught in its designs. We children developed our own code of strict honour which saw to it that we were ‘honest’ and ‘owned up’. We saw ourselves in that school as collecting punishments like battle-honours. ‘Wet’, ‘weedy’ and ‘soppy’ were our most denigratory words. Now, it is obvious that we must all have realised, unconsciously at least, that not to ‘own up’ would be to run the risk that the punishment inflicted by one’s peers in retaliation for their undeserved suffering would be far worse in the long run than anything the authorities could do. Our code of values, so treasured by us as a sign of solidarity and a kind of independence, was in fact in perfect tune with the authorities’ aims.

Matron’s harsh bark would come through the wall or door: ‘Sarah T. report to Miss Leefield after breakfast.’ Every morning a glum line of half-defiant children would queue outside Miss Leefield’s study in order to tell her what she already knew, that they had been talking in the dormitory. The punishment was mandatory: you walked round in your spare time that day, and if it was a Saturday or Sunday so much the worse for you. Walking round was a speciality of the place. Miss Leefield’s study windows, which looked out over the gardens to the fields and woods beyond, had immediately below a lawn the size of two tennis courts, surrounded by a wide gravel path. Walking round meant just that; you walked round and round that lawn until you were sick of the sight of it and everything else, and you were not allowed to talk, slouch or wander. If it rained or got dark you stood in the corner in the hall instead, sometimes long after your official bedtime, for you were not allowed to leave off walking or vacate your corner unless given permission by Miss Leefield herself. At the minimum, ‘spare time’ meant half an hour or so after breakfast before lessons started; the morning, lunchtime, and afternoon breaks; and then from after tea until bedtime. At weekends you could walk round from after lunch until bedtime if you were not told to stop. On the other side of the gravel path was the school swimming-pool: small and unchlorinated, it was a vivid shade of green, and its invisible bottom was slippery with algae. Nonetheless, its situation was an added refinement to the torture of walking round on summer weekends. I can still remember the tears of disappointment and envy pouring down my cheeks as I walked on and on, round and round, while my friends sported in the green water.

Early in my school life I walked round for talking in the dormitory. Later on I was more often punished for failing to learn my Latin grammar. At Ripley Hall work was important and classes were based firmly on ability. Yet for us girls, in spite of the board in the dining-room, there were no prizes quite like a scholarship to Eton or Winchester, opening up prospects of later glories, Firsts in Greats, shining careers in the Diplomatic Service, the Judiciary or Parliament, as there supposedly were for our brothers. Indeed, in my year only one girl took a scholarship exam, and that not to a major girls’ school. Some of us did not even sit Common Entrance.

Miss Leefield was, I suspect, a feminist of sorts, but without a proper constituency. The wishes of our parents were not that we should become hockey blues and blue-stockings like herself, but, rather, that a decent education would help us later to earn a living until in the ideal outcome we found good husbands and had children of our own. At the time and indeed for a number of years afterwards, I did not know, did not really know, that women went to university and had careers. School-teachers might have – some of them – but they were different and hardly human. We knew that Miss Leefield was different and that her difference had something to do with Miss Dunton, who was officially the school secretary. She was a tall shy woman with great wings of fuzzy iron-grey hair who had little contact with us children, and who chauffeured Miss Leefield on mysterious trips down the drive in an enormous and rather old black Riley.

We talked in the playground as we grew older about the mechanics of sex, getting it all a little wrong, and the signs of oncoming puberty bestowed status. All this, though, was still unconnected with our real lives. My own fantasies, cultivated lovingly and at length during the long hours of walking round, revolved round one aspect of my reading – Rider Haggard, Coral Island, John Buchan, G.A. Henty, Captain Marryat, and Lancelyn Green’s version of Malory. In my fantasies I was either a chivalric knight riding in quest of adventure, or a young boy journeying in foreign parts: both these characters obeyed an ethos which, quite unaccidentally, corresponded to our dormitory code of honour. A number of girls’ parents at both my schools were active in the process of winding down the Empire. I remember Suez clearly, because petrol shortages threatened our parents’ attendance at the School Sports Day. Later that year a rather odd new day-girl appeared briefly in the playground. She had one thick blonde plait down her back, wide cheekbones and queer brown clothes. Her name or the only word she could say was Magyar.

There were a hundred and eighty girls in the school of whom ninety were day girls, twenty or so weekly boarders, and the remainder full boarders. We boarders considered ourselves an élite, for a day girl’s life was unimaginable and weekly boarders were denied certain privileges, like acting in the school play, and the kudos to be painfully won from walking round on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. There was also a rough social divide. Weekly boarders were more likely to be the daughters of local businessmen, whereas full boarders had brothers at major public schools, and fathers who were judges or generals. This divide was rarely overtly alluded to, except for some minor boasting about brothers’ schools. However, when we played netball against the local primary school we were filled for days with satirical incredulity at our opponents’ supporters’ chant of ‘Two, four, six, eight, Who do we appreciate’. Such demotic enthusiasm was for us unthinkable.

Miss Leefield was an ardent Anglican. One of the old main bedrooms had been converted into a chapel – with altar, choir stalls and rush-seated chairs complete with boxed shelves for hymn and prayer books. Reproductions of old masters hung on the walls and we were all impressed by a cruel Northern crucifixion. Miss Leefield’s obvious commitment affected us and I knew dimly that chapel was dark and serious, involved suffering and salvation. Boarders attended a short service before breakfast every morning, and were encouraged also to pray in individual acts of piety. I remember the sigh of relief that ran round the junior dormitories when it was reported that Frooma Green had been spotted on her knees in front of the altar. Frooma was a plump good-natured girl, the daughter of a Jewish shopkeeper from the local big town. Her Jewishness worried us terribly: we thought she was damned and we liked her a lot. Later in our school lives, Girl Guides involved campfires and the cooking of sausages and bacon; it took a lot of persuading to get Frooma to eat her first rasher, but her Patrol thought it their Christian duty to persuade her. Luckily she found it delicious, a fact we thought augured well for her immortal soul.

I have pleasurable memories, too, of Ripley, and Guides and Brownies are among them, especially tracking, fire-lighting and Baden-Powell’s great outdoors. I remember companionable summer evenings playing in the wilder reaches of the garden by the old iron park fence; nature-study walks in the woods; watching lizards scuttle about the old tree stump by the sandpit; and the accomplishing of feats of great physical virtuosity in the playground. At the age of ten I could do over seventy ‘bumps’ – a bump is skipping in such a way that the rope passes twice under your feet at each jump. The school record was held by Pamela Bagnall who could do over a hundred. We must have been extraordinarily fit. Winter brought the country-house cold, but its own pleasures too – sliding perilously along frozen puddles and roasting beechnuts on the castiron stoves which heated our classrooms.

As we progressed through the school, most of us, I think, developed a sense of considerable puzzlement, not about the nature of the relationship between the school and the outside world, although, as I look back, that is puzzling enough, but rather about our own particular failures to do, or even to know, what was expected of us. I was clever enough, but I sensed that for Miss Leefield my actual being was somehow unsatisfactory, a verdict which I neither accepted nor rejected but simply found bewildering. It was, in fact, inevitable that we should feel like this, given the way the school was run. For example, a system of stars and stripes worked in a calculatedly perverse fashion: stars were awarded a quarter at a time for good work (no one was thought to behave well) and stripes one at a time for bad behaviour. One stripe cancelled a whole star on your account, for they were written on forms like cheques, pink for a star and green for a stripe, and Miss Leefield sent them out with our termly reports.

Stripes were given for many offences but on no stable or statutory basis. One evening someone came rushing into the common room to tell us that an enormous turd had been deposited on the floor of one of the downstairs lavatories. In a state of great excitement we all rushed to see it, speculating as to who could have been responsible; a day girl probably. Jostled in the crowd, I literally put my foot in it. I was given a stripe for ‘dirty behaviour’, and told that the episode was typical of my general unsatisfactoriness. I spent the rest of the term periodically agonised over the imagined reaction of my parents when they found this particular stripe in my report.

Looking back now, I can only think what a very odd part of my education it was – which is not to say that my next school wasn’t peculiar too. In a way, Miss Leefield’s view of girls’ education was progressive, but it was the partial nature of the progressiveness which made our experience so dislocated. We were, in fact, rather well educated in a strictly academic mode, and could, I suspect, have held our own academically with most prep-school boys our age. I am still grateful for aspects of the training I got there. Yet the educational advantage was vitiated for many of us by a lack of fit with any larger context, educational or social. My next school aimed no one at university and certainly did not cultivate the life of the mind. It attempted rather to turn out characterful do-gooders with a strong sense of noblesse oblige. Neither there nor at home did I ever get much sense of how formal academic achievement might play a part in a woman’s life.

The usual emotional disadvantages of boarding-school education, too, were curiously distorted by our sex. Conventionally, after all, and the conventions were generally subscribed to by our families, girls are more sensitive and delicate than boys, and specialise in the emotional life. Orwell, when he left St Cyprian’s, knew that ‘the future was dark’ and his ‘deepest conviction’ was of failure. My experience was not as bad: some femaleness of the time and place modified the importance of success, and social snobberies in the 1950s were considerably weakened compared with Orwell’s experience forty years before. However, in no world that any of us were likely to live in later, could our training in stoicism, in taking punishment ‘like a man’, be remembered as anything but outlandish.