Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
If you thought the St Trinian’s films were fictitious, this “fantastically enjoyable” portrait of girls’ boarding schools between 1939 and 1979 will surely convince you otherwise, said Craig Brown in The Mail on Sunday. For it suggests that, by modern standards, “virtually every girls’ boarding school in Britain was completely batty”. At Wings, in Wiltshire, lessons in rugby – “the school sport” – were presided over by the headmistress, who would exhort her charges: “Jump on me, girls, jump on me!” On Saturday nights, pupils were made to dance with the headmistress’s armless father, while she watched “with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a glass of crème de menthe”. Nor was Wings a one-off: eccentricity flourished everywhere, amid primitive conditions. Terms and Conditions presents a world of chilblains and “aggressively non-absorbant” loo paper; of “disgusting” foods such as “phlegm” (sago pudding) and “Dead Man’s Leg” (jam roll); of breathless “pashes” and lonely Sundays. Most of the time, happily, all this is “funny rather than terrifying”, though it can be a “bit of both”.
One thing these schools didn’t do was teach their pupils anything much, said Cressida Connolly in The Specator. With the exception of Cheltenham Ladies’ College – “always a bastion of intellect” – they were all “pretty hopeless”. “Labs” were more likely to mean Labradors than laboratories; girls rarely went to university, or earned any qualifications at all. (Lady Diana Spencer famously left West Heath without a single O level.) And yet this didn’t really matter, because the schools were “essentially holding-bays in which to keep the girls during those awkward years between pony club and getting married”. Written with an eye for detail and an “abundance of wit”, this “marvellous” book deserves to reach a wider audience than its “niche” subject matter suggests.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham doesn’t romanticise these schools, said Virginia Nicholson in The Times. Besides cataloguing their educational failings, she presents some “mind-boggling instances of snobbery and bigotry”. Yet she also shows that there were “compensations”. Extended periods of boredom “stimulated an appetite for reading”. Unusual teaching methods produced “sparks of inspiration”. Moreover, as Maxtone Graham discovered, there is a discernible “old girl” type. “Old girls have straight backs, sing in choirs, sleep with the window open”; they are capable, frugal, reliable, loyal. Terms and Conditions left me “filled with admiration” for the “survivors of this lost world”.