This book called Terms and Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979 by Ysenda Maxtone-Graham popped up on my Amazon recommendations feed yesterday. It includes some tales from former school friends and was Country Life Magazine’s Book of the Week and recommended by India Knight as ‘the most brilliant, hilarious book’.
‘Ysenda’s book is a quietly hilarious tale of life in British girls’ boarding schools when an education for girls was seen as a handicap which could render them too unattractive for marriage. There were notable exceptions such as Cheltenham Ladies College, but while most of the boys at Harrow and Eton were being taught Latin verse and doing quadratic equations, girls were being taught how to lay the table for lunch.’
This got me thinking about my own (often absurd) education at a British girl’s boarding school. I went to Westonbirt School in Gloucestershire from 1970-75. Yes, we too were taught how to lay a table for dinner, plus the usual lessons in deportment, the art of conversation and good manners. But the funniest lessons were called, ‘How to Drink Champagne Without Burping’ (swallow your burp backwards very quietly) and ‘How To Get Out of a Sports Car Without Showing Your Knickers’, (keep your knees together, swing both feet outwards, follow with body) and ‘How To Marry A Peer of the Realm,’ (must have missed that lesson ‘cos I married a barrow boy).
Most of the girls had double or triple-barrelled surnames. I learned how to pronounce counter intuitive names like Cholmondeley and Froude with panache. I also learned how not to walk on the newly mowed grass, how to plan a dinner party for twenty-five, how to instruct the staff, how to sew a collar and cuffs, and how to grease a lacrosse stick. Normal, regular survival stuff!
Church twice a day, three times on Sunday. Outer knickers (grey wool with a pocket for your spare hankie), tweed divided skirts that gave you an inner thigh rush, long maroon cloaks with monk hoods. Deodorant, make-up, jewellery and tampons all forbidden. No heating, carpets or curtains in the dorms, hair wash once a fortnight. Plastic washing up bowls for washing in. And the food came with attractive names like Baby’s Bum, Dead Man’s Leg and Bogey Mash.
But it wasn’t all Lowell School. We had jolly japes a la Malory Towers, apple pie beds, midnight feasts and imaginary boyfriends. Mine was called Craig Stone because I thought that was a really cool, manly name. I got quite fond of him… I still am.
Looking back on it all with a mixture of horror and humour, I can see how it shaped the woman I am today and why I tend to giggle at the absurdities of life. I mean how can you possibly take life seriously when you were once asked by matron to bang your bottom hard against the dorm wall one hundred times a night to stop it getting too big? Somebody should have told her that big bums would be all the rage in 2017!