It occurs to me as I am writing this that this is actually the second book I have read by this title in the last few months, which seems peculiar. It also has absolutely nothing to do with this review, as Robert Glancy’s Terms & Conditions was absolutely nothing like Graham’s!
Some of you may remember, back in the mists of time (and by that I mean in December), that I received my first issue of Slightly Foxed, an absolutely delightful literary magazine. I enjoyed it so much that I actually wrote a review of a quarterly full of reviews! SF publishes a special edition book every quarter as well, and for this winter it was Terms & Conditions. Everyone spoke so warmly of this volume that I felt that I had to have it – and when it comes to books, I nearly always indulge my whims!
First off, we simply must address the physical perfection of this book. Everything about it is exactly as it should be, from grey-blue cloth-bound cover to the ideal size (perfect for slipping into a pocket or reading in bed) to the book-marker ribbon to the excellent quality binding that allows the book to lay flat no matter where it is opened. I wish all books would be published with such care! All this meant that reading this book was always a lovely experience. Every time I picked it up, my spirits were lifted before I even opened the book. It is that perfect!
As for the book itself – well, conveniently, that is delightful as well! This is a nonfiction book, a memoir of sorts, although not in the traditional sense as Graham has mostly collected the memories and stories of people other than herself. So in a way it is a memoir not of a specific person, but of a type of person – of a group of people who all went through a similar experience. And while each of them brings her own voice and memories, together they create a type: Women who attended British boarding schools between 1939 and 1979.
Before I began this book, I found myself wondering if I would really relate to anything it said. After all, I’m an American who was home-educated and wasn’t even alive during the first seven decades of the twentieth century! But to my delight, reading this book reminded me afresh that the simple kinship of being a woman is frequently enough of a bond to make the stories of other women relevant to me.
Graham’s book doesn’t really follow a linear story, a specific character, or even a particular location. Instead, she has divided her book into chapters that each delve into an individual aspect of boarding school life during this period. Throughout there are quotes from women who were students at this time, all with their own memories and stories, a rich reminder of how childhood experiences and friendships can stay with us throughout our lives.
I was a bit afraid that Graham was going to use this book as a platform to rant about the educational inequalities between girls and boys during this time. But while she did discuss this – as it was an important aspect of boarding school life – I never felt like the book ventured into the polemic. Instead, Graham balanced much of what she was writing with the concept that while some of the girls did suffer educationally because they were ambitious and their ambitions were dismissed merely because of their sex, other girls genuinely did want to find a nice husband and settle into their homes and raise their children, so for them an education that focused more on the social rather than the scientific was not detrimental to their future lives.
And in the end, I appreciated many of Graham’s conclusions –
These women were trained not to see themselves as the centre of the universe, but always to think of others, even when it came to the method for being passed the salt. They learned early that ‘it’s not all about me’. This lack of self-centredness is, I think, the biggest difference between privileged childhoods fifty or sixty years ago and privileged childhoods today. Yes, these boarding-school girls came from affluent families, but they did not go on skiing holidays every year, and they were not given the idea that things should be arranged mainly for their benefit and delight. Their schools taught them that their duty was to be of service to the community: they learned to look outwards and away from themselves rather than to wallow in introspection. Thus they grew into an unselfish, un-self-pitying generation.
A while back I worked for an elderly woman (born 1919) who was born rich, raised rich, married rich, and is probably going to die rich (last I checked, she was still going strong!). But what really amazed me about this woman was how despite the fact that she definitely felt entitled to a great deal (and honestly it was kind of hilarious to work as a servant… like if she had people come to visit I would legit bring them tea and then go hang out in the kitchen until they left haha at least I didn’t have to wear a uniform), she believed it was so important for her to give back to her community. In her lifetime she had personally overseen the purchase and restoration of a beautiful historic home that was slated for demolition in our downtown – it’s a museum now, and it was amazing to take her there for different events and listen to her stories about how even though other people helped, she almost single-handedly had done this. And that wasn’t the only thing – she led committees and fundraisers that benefited all sorts of different local charities and organizations. She was wealthy and privileged (she drove a custom-made Lincoln Town Car with her name engraved on the dashboard for pity’s sake!), but like the women in this book, she was also raised with the concept that being wealthy and privileged meant that you had responsibility. And while she – and most of the women in the book – didn’t have a career, that did not stop her from being a productive, intelligent, competent citizen who devoted hours every week of her life to bettering her community and the lives of the people who lived in it.
All that to say that I do think that it is excellent that girls are given equal educational opportunities nowadays, but it does sometimes feel as though we have sacrificed that ingrained knowledge (in both girls and boys) that if you have, you are responsible for helping the have-nots.
My only complaint about this book was that I somewhat felt that Graham did not establish context. I mean, yes, these girls definitely had a hard time of it – but so did almost everyone in those war/post-war years. I don’t think going to a boys’ school at that time was a bed of roses, but at times the book edges towards implication that girls had it so much worse than the boys. I don’t think they had it worse – I think they just had it different.
But on the whole, this was a delightfully entertaining and interesting read. Plus, it’s nonfiction, so I’m already working on my goal of reading more nonfiction in 2017 – bonus! I definitely recommend this book that manages to take a very specific piece of societal history and place it in relevant terms. I thoroughly enjoyed it and look forward to seeking out more of Graham’s works soon – not to mention more of Slightly Foxed’s lovely special editions!