Girls in Boarding Schools: Navigating the Self and Others

What is it about adolescent schoolgirls living under one (educational) roof that makes for such a hot bed of meanness and spite?

When I read Rebecca Starford’s Bad Behaviour, I immediately heard echoes of Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom. The two books were published over 100 years apart – Richardson’s novel in 1910 and Starford’s memoir in 2015 – but despite their differing time frames and genres, the books share common ground. Both focus on Australian secondary school-aged girls who have been sent away from home to further their education; both squeeze those girls into austere, regimented, potentially hostile, living arrangements where ‘mean girls’ rule the roost.

Let me begin with some scene-setting…

The Getting of Wisdom

In writing The Getting of Wisdom, pseudonymous author Henry Handel Richardson (born Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) drew on her own youthful experiences as a boarder at Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC). As Ethel Richardson, she began her single-sex boarding school years in 1883 and remained at PLC from ages 13 to 17. While The Getting of Wisdom was published as a novel, Richardson wrote that the book ‘contained a very fair account of my doings at school and of those I came in contact with’ (Myself When Young, 76). Readers can safely assume that the anxieties, doubts, fears and hostilities that beset the novel’s protagonist, Laura Rambotham, represent those experienced by Richardson.

Bad Behaviour

While Ethel Richardson/Laura Rambotham’s relocation is from country Victoria to 1880s ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, 14-year-old Rebecca Starford’s is from late 20th century suburban Melbourne to rural Victoria. Starford chooses not to name the school in her memoir and I am opting to follow suit here. (A few strategic minutes spent with a search engine will reveal the school’s identity.) Suffice to say that it is one of Victoria’s pre-eminent private schools and is among those that have a rural campus at which students spend a portion of their schooling midway through their secondary education.

Stale bread and hospital food

In many ways, Laura and Rebecca’s boarding school lives, separated by time and place, mirror each other.

Sometimes, the mirrored experiences are of no great significance. Both, for example, reflect on the quality of their meals. On her first night in the boarding house, Laura is offered bread that does ‘not look particularly inviting’. She is inclined to reject it until her dinner-time neighbour suggests she’d ‘better take some’. Laura then sees that ‘there was nothing else’ (40). On her first night, Rebecca is offered a meal that ‘smells like the food served in hospitals’, complete with stale bread (15, 16).

Her ‘ostracism was complete’

On some occasions, the echo from the 1880s to the 1990s resonates more deeply. Laura and Rebecca both have a penchant for breaking social conventions. In Laura’s case, it’s telling lies; in Rebecca’s it’s risk-taking. For both girls, these behaviours are usually attempts to raise their status in the eyes of their fellow students; for both, their efforts backfire.

After an overnight stay at the home of the local, married curate, Laura stitches together a fanciful romance. She embroiders her tale elaborately as she shares it with her classmates. ‘For a month or more, Laura fed like a honeybee on the sweets of success … What had hitherto been lacking was now here: the admiration and applause of her circle’ (154). When her deceit is inevitably discovered, she is shunned by her student circle.

Laura’s ostracism was complete. She had been sampled, tested, put on one side. (165)

Rebecca throws herself into dorm raids, ‘bell runs’ and stealing alcohol from staff members. It earns her some notoriety. ‘You’re the worst girl in Red House’, she is told (67), but her behaviour does not, ultimately, win her friends. Her ‘loneliness stings like a cut’ (137).

It’s this striving for acceptance and inclusion within their cohort that binds the two girls’ stories most closely.

‘Instant new friends’

Perhaps not unreasonably, Laura and Rebecca arrive at their respective schools with expectations about new friendships.

Laura imagines that soon after her arrival she will form a friendship that would be ‘the wonder of all who saw it’ and the new friends would go on to become ‘blind to everything but themselves’ (26). In reality, she never gets beyond ‘a surface friendliness with any of her fellows’ (199-200).

Rebecca, too, anticipates a warm welcome:

I had pictured the open arms of instant new friends, laughter and smiles. (14)

Instead, she was met with a ‘deep black loneliness’ (14).

Both girls are drawn into friendships with powerful, manipulative girls. Laura has ‘ample proof’ that Lilith is ‘double-faced’ and ‘not to be trusted’, but Lilith has a knack for attracting intimacy: ‘She could make herself very pleasant when she chose, seem to be your friend through thick and thin, thus luring you on to unbosom yourself; and afterwards she would go away and laugh over what you had told her, with other girls’ (94).

Rebecca, too, makes friendship decisions knowing they are fraught. She is thrilled to be ‘chosen’ by powerful Portia (35) who she knows to be ‘fickle’ (52). When Rebecca is later ostracised by Portia, another student tells her: ‘That’s just how Portia is. She’s got her favourites and then she moves on to someone new’ (93).

Navigating friendship is an all-consuming, vexatious and painful course for both girls to chart.

Wisdom and resilience

With hindsight, Laura and Rebecca grasp hard won truths from their boarding school experiences.

For Laura, who left school with ‘the uncomfortable sense of being a square peg, which fitted into none of the round holes of her world’, it’s that ‘even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found’ (234). She makes peace with The Getting of Wisdom’s epigraph: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding’ (Proverbs 4:7).

Rebecca’s eventual understanding is that she no longer wants to live a ‘half-life’ (229).

I want to be proud of myself and who I have become, and to do that I have to let go of some of the past. (229)

Rebecca casts her mind back to a lesson from Outdoor Education, to a teacher who talked ‘a lot about resilience’ (99): ‘It’s still there, the resilience … I did manage to take it away with me, after all’ (228).

Links and sources

  • Quoted works

Bad Behaviour (2016) by Rebecca Starford. Published by Allen & Unwin.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson. Quotes above are from the 1968 New Windmill Series edition (my old school copy). Recent editions include Text Publishing’s 2012 ‘Classics’ edition.

Myself When Young by Henry Handel Richardson (Text Publishing, 2019 ‘Classics’ edition)

  • Adaptations
Susannah Fowle as Laura Rambotham in 1977 film adapatation.

The Getting of Wisdom was adapted for film by Australian writer Eleanor Witcombe in 1977. (Witcombe also adapted Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1979) and won AFI awards for both screenplays.)

The lead role in The Getting of Wisdom was played by Susannah Fowle. (Image at right courtesy of Australian Screen.)

Bad Behaviour has been optioned for television by Matchbox Pictures.

  • Author websites

Henry Handel Richardson Society

Rebecca Starford

  • Want more?

Two other similarly themed books include Fiona Wood’s Wildlife (2013) set in an Australian outdoor education campus, much like Bad Behaviour’s Silver Creek, and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep (2005) set in an exclusive US boarding school in Massachusetts.

Unlike Bad Behaviour and The Getting of Wisdom (and notwithstanding Laura’s relationship with Evelyn in the latter), Wildlife and Prep feature angst-ridden storylines about burgeoning sexual relationships.

  • Image credits

Header image: Ladies’ College, Albert Street, [Melbourne, Vic.]., 1860. Held at the State Library of Victoria.

One thought on “Girls in Boarding Schools: Navigating the Self and Others

  1. Pingback: Classics and Literary Round-up: May 2021 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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