Terms & Conditions // by Ysenda Maxtone Graham


//published 2016//

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!

Slightly Foxed // No. 52

Somewhere, sometime, in the not-so-distant past, someone mentioned something about Slightly Foxed, and whatever it was that that someone said intrigued me, so I looked it up – and subscribed almost immediately.  A quarterly literary magazine, Slightly Foxed reviews books that I actually want to read – not pretentious novels that only the literary elite can understand, but warm and comfortable books that have withstood the years to remain well-loved and engaging.  As SF itself says, it “introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal.”

Because I enjoyed reading my first issue so much, and because it added multiple books to my TBR, I thought that I would take a post to review the reviews as it were.

The Albert Campion novels of Margery Allingham

These books have been floating on the perimeter of my TBR for quite sometime, and Brandon Robshaw’s loving review of them pushed them onto the list, despite the fact that there are twenty-odd of them.  He refers to Allingham as “the real queen of crime, the best, the darkest, the most interesting, idiosyncratic and literary novelist that the Golden Age of detective fiction produced.”  I do also enjoy a series where the characters actual change with real time, so I think that that aspect of the series will appeal.  In the end, I just love well-written and engaging mystery stories, and everything I hear – including this article – claims that that is what Allingham produced.

Terms & Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham


How am I supposed to resist this?!

Every quarter, SF chooses one of its book – I believe it is generally a memoir of some kind – to reprint in a special cloth-bound edition.  This issue’s book is Terms & Conditions, a story of life in girls’ boarding schools in the twentieth century (namely the 1930’s through the 1970’s).  Nicola Shulman’s review says,

This is not a history of girls’ boarding-schools.  It’s not easy to say where, exactly, you would shelve it.  It could be under memoir.  Or is it more like anthropology?  Here’s a study of a vanished society, based upon the testimony of elders whose way of life has been erased by exposure to modern culture, but who remember the days before the first boats came upriver.  The other option would be comedy, as it’s the funniest book you’ll read all year …

The more I read about this book, the more convinced I am that I ought to splurge for that cloth-bound edition.

The Cazlet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Not every review convinced me to read the book(s) it was reviewing, but every review was a delight to read nonetheless.  While I have no desire to read the Cazlet Chronicles, which sound rather dreary to me (novels that cover long expanses of time seem to wallow in the difficult times rather than the joyous ones), I did thoroughly enjoy Sarah Perry’s review.  I especially enjoyed the section where she described the various Cazlets.  My favorite description was of

Rachel, their unmarried sister, sacrifices herself to the care of others; she is selfless, good-humoured, sensible and accompanied everywhere by the faintest whiff of burning martyr.

Such a perfect description!  It’s good to know that some types of people are universal.

Food in England by Dorothy Hartley

20010651060Lucy Lethbridge wrote the article for this book, which she says is a sort of history book of food – “a culinary epic celebrating two millennia of change, accrued knowledge and the skills of survival.”  I really do enjoy history books on random topics, and Food in England sounds rather fascinating in that respect.  I’m unfamiliar with Hartley’s other works, but Lethbridge describes her as a fanatic for detail who makes even mundane information intriguing.

This is classic Dorothy Hartley.  Brisk yet lyrical, she can make brass handles as evocative as poetry … Food in England is not out to make us salivate over delicious dishes; it is less about eating than about fuel, implements, drainage, ventilation and waste disposal, and the might resourcefulness humans have employed over the centuries to make raw ingredients edible.

Not only did Lethbridge make me want to read Hartley’s book, she made me want to read her own.  The little endnote of information about Lethbridge says, “Lucy Lethbridge’s most recent book is Spit and Polish: Old-fashioned Ways to Banish Dirt, Dust, and Decay.  Her researches left her awestruck by the domestic labours of the past – and by the unsung heroes who gave us rubber gloves and Formica work-surfaces.”  I must say that Spit and Polish has also made its way onto the TBR!

Tremendous Trifles by G.K. Chesterton

Surprisingly, I have not read much Chesterton in my lifetime.  He is another of those authors that I am always thinking I ought to pick up but never seem to.  Gordon Bowker’s review of Tremendous Trifles was delivered with such obvious warmth and love, though, that it definitely inspired me to add this book to the list.  The book is actually a collection of newspaper sketches, basically just Chesterton rambling on about different random aspects of life.

When a cow wanders into sight, Chesterton decides that he can’t possibly draw it, so he resolves to draw the soul of the cow instead, seeing it as all purple and silver.

What a perfect line.  Bowker discusses many of the different essays, and concludes

Tremendous Trifles contains thirty-nine of these lovely essays.  Each has its charm, its humour, its curiosity and its moral to be drawn.  Reading them, with their blend of elegant writing and gentle irony, always gives me a sense of satisfaction.

As someone who also derives much joy out of the small and random bits of life, I think that Trifles will be right up my alley.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

In all honesty, I don’t really desire to read this piece of Russian literature, published in 1957.  It’s sounds overwhelmingly depressing.  But Christian Tyler’s article about it was intriguing nonetheless as he looks at the impact that the book had on political atmosphere at the time of its writing.  I was especially struck by one of the final paragraphs of Tyler’s essay, describing why Pasternak was willing to risk much in order to write about the true impact of the Soviet government, which is what I wanted to include for you:

For it was not just the atrocities and killings, the breakup of families, the agonies of separation, hunger and disease that Pasternak wanted to record, but the loss of personal autonomy, the  mindless slogans and slavish conformism of a false religion which decreed that human beings could be reshaped like raw material and which put loyalty to the collective far above love of neighbour.  He wanted, in short, to depict the moral as well as material damage done to humanity when Utopian fantasies are applied to the real world.

There are ever and always those who believe that morality can be imposed from the top down.  I love that line – “loyalty to the collective far about love of neighbour.”  This, to me, is the first sign that a government has gone wrong – when it demands that you turn your back on your neighbor in order to bring honor to the government.

Time to Be in Earnest by P.D. James

91igtrspmflA common thread, I’m realizing, is how many authors on this list are ones I keep meaning to read – P.D. James definitely falls into that category; I actually just recently added her Adam Dalgliesh mysteries to the list.  But Maggie Fergusson’s article about James’s autobiography-of-sorts made that book sound completely intriguing.  She says that James decided that “rather than write a conventional memoir, she chose instead to keep a diary for a year and to allow her accounts of the to-ings and fro-ings of daily life to ‘catch on the threads of memory as burrs stick to a coat.’ ”  The result sounds quite fascinating, and is actually one of the books I was most intrigued to add to the list.

Uncle Fred in the Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse

I’ve actually already read this book, and I’m positive that I will read it again, as it is a beloved favorite.  I merely mention it because it made me happy to read about someone else loving it as well.  Finding out that someone else loves a beloved book is really like finding a friend, even though you’ve never met.

Peter Mark Roget’s Thesaurus

Ah, a confession.  I do love looking through a thesaurus, and Roget’s is, of course, the best.  There is something so delightful about looking at the way that words interconnect and work together.  Oliver Pritchett writes about Roget and his love of lists.  And while I don’t think that the thesaurus itself will be added to the TBR, Pritchett does mention a biography of Roget that sounds quite interesting – The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall.


All in all, Slightly Foxed was a complete win.  I enjoyed every page and am already anticipating the spring issue.  I also have to say that the actual physical copy of this quarterly is also a delight.  It’s a small paperback with good quality paper that I quite look forward to placing on a shelf that will hopefully someday hold many of these little booklets.  I highly recommend checking into this publication, which seems to genuinely be a quarterly published by book lovers for book lovers, rather than by pretentious book reviewers for people who want to sound smart at the next business party.

As for now, I believe I’m off to order a copy of Terms & Conditions…