Mini reviews, bits & pieces

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I’m doing lots of reading at the moment but not finding the time to write reviews so I thought I would just post quick reviews of a couple of books & mention a few other bits & pieces.

Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the latest publication from Slightly Foxed. It’s a history of girls boarding schools in England from the 1930s to the 1970s. The reviews for this book have been glowing, emphasizing the humour & laughter but I found it quite a melancholy read. So many of the women interviewed had been profoundly affected by their experiences at boarding school. Many of them had been avid readers of boarding school fiction by Angela Brazil or Enid Blyton & their actual experiences of loneliness, physical privations (cold dormitories, terrible food) & emotional deprivation were distressing to read about. Maybe I’m not as stoic as many of the interviewees, many of whom were nonetheless still affected by their experiences decades later. The story of girls education in the 20th century is so bound up with the class system & the different expectations of girls & boys & what their futures would be. Maxtone Graham is horrified by this,

The keeping of the lid on their ambitions was, though, shameful: an unimaginative and backward-looking way of keeping women ‘in their place’ by ensuring that they arrived in adulthood safely under-qualified for anything except a brief secretarial job followed by marriage and keeping house. There was appalling frustration for women in those bad old days.

but, as a boarding school girl herself in the 70s, she’s more accepting of the limitations of the system than I can be. There are some very funny stories & the advantages of life-long friendships & an ability to cope with any setback that life can throw at you are emphasized by many of the interviewees. I just found myself pondering the sadness rather than the jolly hockey sticks aspects. There were too many unsympathetic, unqualified teachers & uninterested parents & I felt desperately sorry for the students & frustrated that their talents & strengths were so often ignored.

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Weatherland by Alexandra Harris is a survey of the way English artists & writers have described weather. Harris begins in Anglo-Saxon England with Beowulf & ends in the late 20th century. It’s a fascinating journey. Some of the highlights for me were the descriptions of medieval manuscripts where it always seems to be winter. Spring & summer are never described but there are lots of illustrations of people pulling off wet shoes & stockings in front of roaring fires. The frost fairs of the 17th century, the amount of mud that was just a part of everyday life before modern roads. The influence of Italian architecture that led to 18th century country houses modeled on Italian villas but without the balmy weather that made living in marble halls comfortable. The tinted glasses that 18th century tourists used to enhance the view (blue for a moonlight effect or yellow for autumnal views). The cult of sublimity that meant the “fine” weather wasn’t sunny & bright but gloomy & atmospheric. The symbolic importance of those hot, summers before the Great War as described in novels like L P Hartley’s The Go-Between.

Harris has written a biography of Virginia Woolf (& cites Woolf as her inspiration for Weatherland) & Woolf is quoted several times, especially Orlando, her novel of a very long-lived protagonist who begins as a 16th century man, changes sex in the 18th century & ends the book in the 1920s. Many of my favourite authors are discussed from Shakespeare & Surrey in the 16th century to Gilbert White, the Romantic poets, Thomas Hardy’s heaths, Dickens’s London fog, T S Eliot & Stevie Smith. This is  a fascinating exploration of the way that weather has influenced English thought over centuries, a thought-provoking read. I know I’ll be noticing the weather in my reading from now on.

In last week’s Persephone Post, Nicola Beauman featured Dorothy Canfield Fisher, author of The Homemaker, one of Persephone’s first titles. Persephone has always championed Canfield Fisher & they’re considering reprinting another of her books. They’re asking for recommendations & I’ve emailed to suggest The Deepening Stream, which I absolutely loved.

In the latest Persephone Letter is a link to a terrific article about Susan Glaspell, one of my favourite Persephone authors. I reread Brook Evans a couple of years ago but Fidelity is a remarkable novel, one of the first Persephones I bought & should be better known. I bought Canfield Fisher’s Letters last year but haven’t read them yet. They’re definitely coming off the tbr shelves soon.

ethelredunready

Finally, I don’t write about politics on the blog but this is so clever & so funny that I just can’t resist. If you’re on Twitter, have a look at Donaeld the Unready @donaeldunready. You may know that Ethelred the Unready’s sobriquet didn’t mean that he was always late, it meant Ill-advised. I leave you to make the connection.

10 thoughts on “Mini reviews, bits & pieces

  1. fascinating stuff… i lost track of how many British authors i’ve read re the lower education system in England… horror stories, one and all, from Kipling to Orwell.., makes one wonder if maybe the reason Britain dominated world trade in the 18th c. might have been because so many people wanted to get away from it, England, i mean…

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    • Yes, I couldn’t help thinking of all that as well. I think the indifferent parents upset me the most as well as the many totally unsuitable teachers. Mostly women who hadn’t married after the War & didn’t have many choices but I still felt sorry that they couldn’t see what damage they were doing to their students.

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  2. Great review that makes me want to read Terms and Conditions all the more. Unfortunately it isn’t out on audio yet. As a pupil at a girls public boarding school from 1947-1953 I imagine that it would be fascinating. My school was founded in 1853 with the express intention of providing an academic education that equalled those of the top boys schools and was the earliest school to send women students to Oxford. In my time pupils came from all over the word, or perhaps, more accurately, the Empire and I am grateful for having been educated in a more multicultural grouping than many others. However, in retrospect it was an appalling experience for me personally…academically and socially. It took years to understand that I was not stupid and to get over the trivial sins of being a rebel. Yes, I suppose it made us stoical and I have to say that I can laugh at some of the traditions and punishments now. I recently took my comprehensive school educated 13 year old granddaughter to my school. She liked the old fashioned buildings but was indifferent to the philosophy behind the tradition. Wonderful that she takes for granted that she can receive the same education as her brother. This makes me wonder if the pioneering founders of some of the girls’ boarding schools paved the way for girls like my granddaughter.

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    • It was a fascinating read & I can imagine that you’ll get a lot out of it as a former boarder. At least your school aimed to educate girls to the same standard as boys. That was far from the case in so many of the schools in the book.

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  3. Boarding school stories and scandals crop up in the UK media with predictable regularity, and seem to be much enjoyed by everyone – though not usually by the school concerned! – whether they boarded themselves or not. I suppose it’s a hangover from our childish relish for First Term at Malory Towers and Jennings Goes to School. I boarded from aged nine to eighteen at schools mentioned in Terms and Conditions and have used certain memories about what went on in my novel All Desires Known, set in a boys public school …

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  4. What lovely books you’ve been reading. I’ve had ‘Weatherland’ waiting for a while because it looks so dense – a book that needs time and attention – and I’ve just bought a copy of ‘Terms and Conditions’. I’d been avoiding Slightly Foxed editions because I have so many collections/series already, but it seemed that so many had copies and thought that it was wonderful. I may be on a slippery slope!

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    • I fell down the Slightly Foxed slippery slope with the very first book, Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff &, before I knew it, I had a Standing Order! It took me a while to
      plunge into Weatherland but I read it very quickly. There were so many favourite writers referenced that I kept reading just one more chapter. Well worth it if you have the time.

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