Review by Simon
Slightly Foxed are beloved for their reprints of memoirs from across the twentieth century, but they also have published a handful of new books – most of them, thinking about, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Having previously turned her hand to a biography of Jan Struther and a book about a Catholic boarding school, she has now written about girls’ boarding schools 1939-1979.
The first thing to note, and perhaps my favourite thing about the whole book, is that the closing date was chosen because of the popularity of the duvet by 1979. ‘The girls’ boarding-school in the age of the duvet’, Ysenda Maxtone Graham notes, ‘is another matter entirely from the girls’ boarding-school in the age of the frozen hot-water bottle’. Well, quite.
The book covers the various stages of a girl’s life at boarding school – starting with choosing the school (often a rather haphazard practice, based on a chance encounter at a club, or proximity to a sports ground, or because it happens to be halfway between two other points). At no point does Maxtone Graham really discuss why a boarding school at all – to me, admittedly not a parent, one of the most curious decisions a parent could ever make – but this was less of a hot topic in the 1940s, and its omission allows Terms and Conditions to be an amusing set of accounts rather than a social analysis.
After this, she turns to a girl’s first day, and the rest of the chapters looks at all the elements of a school: teachers, games, grounds, other girls, table manners, outings, rules, discomforts, and even lessons. In each chapter, time and space fold in on themselves; schools up and down the country are considered en masse, darting anywhere in the 1939-to-1979 period. Comparisons are chiefly made of happy girls and unhappy girls, or liberal schools and strict schools, rather than dividing by anything more concrete like county and decade. It works.
Maxtone Graham’s book – with, I should add, my favourite title of the year; I love an artfully-constructed pun – is rigorously unacademic. There is no index, and there are no footnotes. Very little attempt is given to elaborating on partial anecdotes (she mentions a teacher, for instance, who received a bucket of water over the head every day – which can’t possibly be true), and none at all to verifying them. It doesn’t seem to cross Maxtone Graham’s mind that any of the stories might be untrue. And her sources? The ‘girls’ she tracks down; the women – many of them now extremely old – who tell stories of their experiences, relayed with the breathless excitement of the schoolchild and often with the same level of exaggeration, for better or worse. Unkind teachers loom large, as do the freezing nights or bitter homesickness or lacrosse triumphs. Everything is writ large. And everything is reported without question, and with affable humour. It is not at all difficult to envisage Maxtone Graham (herself a boarding school girl in her day) chattering happily with every old girl over a glass of wine or mug of cocoa, swapping stories, and scribbling down the best bits for inclusion. This is not academic writing or journalism – this is storytelling, and Terms and Conditions is all the more enjoyable for it. The audience for a scholarly discussion of girls’ boarding schools is slim; the audience for this sort of chatty, witty collection of tales is much larger.
Her research also took her to printed matter, I should add, and she is very amusing about that:
Nearly every famous girls’ school has its own written history, and I’ve been collecting ‘boring sentences from girls’ school histories’ while researching this book, and have been delighting in them in their own way. In their very boringness – their meticulous recording of too much information – they express the devotion felt by the author (nearly always an Old Girl or ex-mistress at the school) for every aspect of the beloved institution. Nothing is too small to record. Each time a new stained-glass window is donated to the dining-hall by a grateful Old Girl (and it’s often), the event is recorded.
The strength of Maxtone Graham’s books is that she matches this devotion without any of the boredom. There is a touching exuberance throughout Terms and Conditions that made even me, lefty cynic about private education and particularly boarding schools, love every moment and throw my concerns out of the window. It’s a perfect stocking filler – and is one of the first books in the Plain Foxed series, which don’t have the same limited print run of the Slightly Foxed Editions, while being equally beautiful objects. This one will have you or your loved one giggling all through Boxing Day, sharing anecdotes and marvelling at the extravagances both of youth and of recollections of youth.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding-Schools, 1939-1979 (London: Slightly Foxed, 2016). 978-1906562939, 272pp., hardback.
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