Reviewed by Harriet
First published in 1928, War Among Ladies is the latest offering from the British Library Women Writers series. I’ve read all of them, and reviewed almost all, either on here or on my blog. If my reckoning is correct, this is the sixteenth in the series, and a very welcome, if somewhat sombre addition. For War Among Ladies, although it is set in a girls’ school, concerns not the pupils but the teachers; and believe me, if you took up schoolteaching in the 1920s, you were almost certainly not in for an enjoyable time.
Besley High School for Girls is somewhere in the Midlands. Needless to say, the staff are all women, and of course unmarried women, as Besley, like most other schools at the time, applies a ‘marriage bar’ – if you chose to marry, you had to leave, as Miss Jessop does in the novel. The teachers are almost all middle-aged, and the oldest of them is fifty-five year old Miss Cullen. She is the French teacher and, though as a graduate of Somerville College Oxford she is extremely well-educated, her teaching methods are old fashioned and she has completely lost the respect, and thus the control, of her pupils. Her classes are terrifyingly unruly, and the more she dreads them the worse the pupils’ behaviour becomes. In today’s world, however unsatisfactory the teaching profession may be in many ways, Miss Cullen would be able to cut her losses and take early retirement, but this is not an option open to her. She has been paying into a pension scheme throughout her career, but if she leaves before the age of sixty she will lose the whole lot. Unable to save from her meagre income, and already living a severely straitened existence, she would fall into dire poverty, and has no option but to struggle on.
You might think this would evoke the sympathy and support of her fellow teachers, but this is far from the case. The pension situation is one of the worst iniquities of the education profession, but there’s another, equally shocking, which affects the staff’s attitude to Miss Cullen. If students fail one subject in their leaving exams, they fail them all, even if they have top marks in every other subject. And it’s crystal clear that most of Miss Cullen’s pupils will undoubtedly fail French. So it’s not just Miss Cullen who is under threat of dismissal and subsequent poverty – if the school fails as miserably as it appears to be going to do, it may be closed down, leaving everyone jobless and penniless unless they can get work elsewhere. So instead of supporting Miss Cullen, everyone hates her and longs for her to be sacked.
So it’s war among ladies indeed. There are factions, of course – usually pairs of teachers who club together to snipe at the others, especially poor Miss Cullen. In charge of them all, nominally at least, is the headmistress, Miss Barr (or, to give her her full title, Miss Adela Barr, MA (Dublin), Hist. Trip. Camb.) is weak and frequently confused about how to save the school:
Miss Barr frequently felt that the world needed readjusting very badly. She wasn’t accustomed, she told herself with an attempt at head-mistressly hauteur which her natural diffidence rendered abortive, to being questioned or doubted. But some are born to be doubted and others to be believed; and, if she had known the truth, Miss Barr always had been. The only real novelty was that she now realised it.
The arrival of a new young teacher, Viola Kennedy, promises to shed a bit of light into Miss Cullen’s dark and confusing world, but events intervene and the internal plotting and suspicion only increase. Can Viola escape, or will she end up as another Miss Cullen?
This is indeed a dark book, and it’s not giving away too much to say there’s no happy ending for Miss Cullen – how could there be, really, given the insuperable problems she is facing. She’s a sad creature, and at first perhaps a rather unsympathetic one, but as events unfold it’s impossible not to be rooting for her and hoping for a satisfactory turn of events.
Eleanor Scott (a pseudonym of Helen Magdalen Leys (1892-1965)) had herself attended Somerville College, though before 1920, the first year in which women could be granted degrees – the same would, of course, apply to Miss Cullen. She became a teacher and wrote short stories in her spare time; War Among Ladies was her first novel, and clearly – sadly – based on her own experiences in a girls’ school. She survived, and went on to become the principal of an Oxford teacher training college. She never married, but completed another eight books under the same pseudonym, including two mystery novels, The Bolt (1929) and The Death Film (1932). Perhaps we’ll see them in the British Library Classic Crime series one day soon. She certainly can write, and this is a book well worth reading, as apart from anything else its a salutary lesson on how much things have progressed since the end of the 1920s.
Harriet is co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books. She once did a term’s teaching at a girls’ High School, which confirmed her belief that school teaching was not her forte.
Eleanor Scott, War Among Ladies (British Library, 2022). 978-0712354622, 276pp., paperback original.
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