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.

The Best Type of Girl begins with the Taunton Commission of 1868, which commended Miss Beale and Miss Buss and showed how endowments which should have been used to provide secondary education for girls were being misused or diverted. Their recommendations led to many new foundations. But the commissioners emphasised that ‘almost all private schools rest in some degree on social distinctions.’ Gillian Avery has kept this unpalatable truth firmly in front of her. Some of the new schools were extensions of charity hospitals or began as religious foundations. Many were High Schools, some were private ventures. Gillian Avery considers each of these in turn. The charity schools have a disappointing record. ‘Sometimes the governors, as in the case of Christ’s Hospital, fought prolonged battles to resist spending more on girls’ education.’ These children, after all, were earmarked as servants, or, if they were the daughters of poor clergy, as governesses. (Something is said, though, in defence of the Reverend Carus Wilson, decimator of the Brontës, and his Cowan Bridge School.) The High Schools, with the honourable exception of Manchester, lagged behind at first, but by the 1870s and 1890s, although there were still very few women on their governing bodies, they had entered their golden age, educating the daughters of lawyers, doctors, printers, bakers and shopkeepers side by side. The Girls’ Public Day School Trust, launched in 1872, was in the same spirit, class-mixing in its aims, and non-denominational. Many of the new pupils at 14 or 15 had never been in a classroom, and the unfamiliar discipline, down to the desks and pigeonholes, was felt as freedom. It was the first time, as many recollected, that they had been asked to think for themselves. Gillian Avery is perhaps too hard on the High Schools’ stiff curriculum and ‘the burning desire to turn out girls who could compete with boys on their own ground’. There was, after all, no way ahead for women into the professions except exam-passing and training on equal terms. As Emily Davies of Girton pointed out, there were double moral standards already: double educational ones were not needed.

It was not until the local authorities established their own secondaries under the Board of Education that middle-class parents began to turn away from the High Schools, not because of their academic standards but because of the terrible suspicion that they had too much in common with the Board schools. The two earliest girls’ public schools, Cheltenham and St Leonards, were started for day pupils only. Neither of them was based on what has been called ‘the tragic pattern of the English public schoolboy’. Here Roedean (1885) was the prototype, introducing the competitive house system, the rule of prefects, the importance of team games and cold water, collars and ties, a rigid timetable from dawn till dusk, and, inexplicably connected with all these, a new ideal of training for leadership and public service. Even the gentler foundations (such as Downe House, which was specifically designed not to be like Roedean), even the small individual private schools, couldn’t escape the influence. The structure felt like iron, and two wars and an evacuation hardly seemed to shake it. But in the mid-Sixties the expansion of university places meant that the parents demanded a higher standard of teaching from boarding schools, while the girls, who were turning into a new species, demanded not to board at all. They had to be met with large concessions. Today the admission of girls into boys’ sixth forms has introduced a new threat. So, too, has the girls’ ‘wounding enthusiasm’ for entry.

Convents seem to have needed separate treatment: they were the most difficult of all, says Gillian Avery, to research. ‘The way of life seemed so immutable that it was felt to be unnecessary to set it down.’ About convent stories, in fiction or in fact, there is an amazing similarity. Mentioned again and again are the serge-like smell and the rustle and flap of nuns’ habits, the beauty of the May Day processions, the smell of candles and what is always referred to as beeswax (although a Dominican once told me that they had long ago switched to Mansion polish), and beyond all this the abiding sense, at one and the same time, of security and guilt. Virago’s collection, There’s something about a convent girl, bears this out. Less than halt the contributors, all of them ‘socialised’ as Germaine Greer puts it, ‘by a gang of madwomen in flapping black habits’, have kept their faith. For Marina Warner, her Ascot convent is ‘like a beloved authority figure of your youth that you cannot face’, or perhaps a first husband. Marcella Evaristi would like to have her children baptised as lapsed Catholics. But the testimony remains constant until the Sixties, when Vatican 11 produced, not overnight but in the course of the next ten years, unimaginable changes. The number of vocations has fallen by 80 per cent, and convents today often have lay management and largely lay staff. When direct grants were withdrawn in the late Seventies, nearly all the teaching orders voted to join the maintained sector, and so passed out of the scope of Gillian Avery’s book.

Gillian Avery is not afraid to come to conclusions and would probably agree with Ruskin, who said that boys could be hammered into shape, but girls must grow like plants. Emphatically she is on the side of small establishments, individual in themselves and careful of individuals. Girls, she believes, don’t adapt readily to large groups. What’s more, the powerful ideals of loyalty, discipline and sportswomanship were really nothing more than making the best of a bad job. ‘If one is going to herd two or three hundred adolescents in a constricted space and keep them out of mischief one must impose stringent discipline, and try to exhaust them on the playing-fields.’ And in any case, ‘many are questioning whether it is worth spending £7000 a year for a child to be homesick.’