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.

Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir

‘I began this writing in an attempt to seize copyright in myself.’

These are the words of Booker Prize-winning novelist Hilary Mantel. With eight novels already published, and years before The Wolf Hall trilogy appeared, Mantel embarked on a story that could ‘only be told once’ (5).

Giving Up the Ghost_Cover image_2004_UK edn

Cover image (2004 UK edition) courtesy of HarperCollins.

The story was not another work of fiction; it was Mantel’s own life story, Giving Up the Ghost: A Memoir.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, a memoir is ‘a narrative recollection of the writer’s earlier experiences, especially those involving unusual people, places or events’.  It is a literary form that has grown rapidly in recent decades. From 1990 to 1999, about 20,000 English-language memoirs were published in book form. The following decade (when Mantel’s book appeared), that number rose to 35,000, and between 2010 and 2019, the number doubled to 70,000.

Clearly there is an appetite for personal stories. Writers and readers seem hungry for them, and publishers are happy to oblige.

‘The Book of Me’

Mantel confesses that she ‘hesitated for such a long time’ (66) before beginning her narrative. Her first novel had been published when she was in her early thirties; the memoir was released in 2003, just after she turned fifty.

What compelled the novelist to turn the spotlight on herself?

‘For a long time I felt as if someone else were writing my life. I seemed able to create or interpret characters in fiction, but not able to create or interpret myself. About the time I reached midlife, I began to understand why this was. The book of me was indeed being written by other people’ (66).

Perhaps that is a universal condition. When we are infants and children, it’s primarily our parents who write ‘the book of me’. As we grow and assert our independence, we might allow our friends to dictate our story. Hopefully, with adulthood and maturity come the capacity to write our own story. Mantel knows this. She reflects that those who populated her child-world were mostly either old or dead, and she ‘belonged to their company and lineage’ (57). But from infancy, she had to ‘learn to walk, to make a line, a confident line, a path of my own through my family … Slowly, slowly’, she says, ‘we are pulling away from hearth and home’ (30, 35).

 Places We Live

As the Oxford Dictionary definition highlights, our life stories are shaped not only by the people around us, but by the places we live and the events we experience. This is a reality to which Mantel is attuned.

The eldest child of three children, Mantel was born in 1952 and ‘grew up in a village called Hadfield, which lies on the edge of moorland at the tip of the county of Derbyshire’. It was ‘a place of complex geology and inventive forms of human deprivation’ (22) where ‘the wretched weather encouraged a grim view of life’ (25).

Mantel is precise in her descriptions of Hadfield’s streets and lanes and houses – so much so that I read her memoir with Google Maps open beside me. It doesn’t require imagination to picture 56 and 58 Bankbottom. I simply key the addresses into the search field and there they are – the houses inhabited by Mantel’s extended family, looking much as they did in the 1950s.

There’s a move to 20 Brosscroft, less than 200 yards along the street, when Mantel is six. The Brosscroft residence, as I see via Google, comes with a pocket handkerchief front garden, thus marking its ascendancy from Bankbottom where the doorstep abuts the footpath.

Former Brookwood Hospital, photo by Alan Hunt

There are more houses to come: 78 Roebuck Road, Sheffield, with ‘one cold-water sink, a shared outside lavatory, and a single metered gasfire’ (167);  the ‘tiny flat in Windsor, the castle looming at the window’ (209); the ‘executive home’ with ‘five beds and three baths’ (210); Reepham’s Owl Cottage where there was ‘no light pollution, no urban backwash to pale the sky; no flight path, no footfall’ (6); and ‘an apartment in a converted lunatic asylum’ (221) where ‘a spiral staircase leads … to the clock tower’ (222). (It is in this apartment, in the former Brookwood Hospital, that Mantel writes Giving Up the Ghost.)

Events that Re-Shape Us

It’s when recollecting an event at the Brosscroft house that even Mantel’s superb writing skills fail her. ‘Sometimes’ she says, ‘you come to a thing you can’t write … You know that, technically, your prose isn’t up to it’ (92-93). Mantel has no name for the ‘diffuse’ horror that wraps ‘a strangling hand’ around her life (93) a little before her eighth birthday. She simply describes the sensations she experienced when, alone in her backyard, she noticed something ‘some fifty yards away’ – ‘a disturbance of the air’, ‘a space occupied by nothing’ that gave rise to ‘a sick resonance … in all the cavities’ of her body’ (93).

‘Grace runs away from me’ (93).

Mantel can only suppose it’s the Devil. She is permanently changed and ‘more or less ashamed and afraid’ ever after (97). (It’s important to know that Mantel was raised a Roman Catholic and had begun going to confession by this time in her life.)

There are other important events: Mantel’s dismay at the unsatisfactory yet compulsory nature of schooling; her mother’s lover coming for tea one day and not going home; and a series of fevers, foreshadowing worse to come.

‘All of us can change’, says Mantel. ‘All of us can change for the better, at any point. I believe this, but what is certainly true is that we can be made foreign to ourselves, suddenly, by illness, accident, misadventure, or hormonal caprice’ (53).

It’s ‘hormonal caprice’ that delivers a bitter and ultimately irrevocable change to Mantel. Undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years, Mantel has endometriosis. To treat the symptoms, male medical practitioners of the 1970s prescribe anti-depressants, tranquilisers and anti-psychotic drugs. The side-effects are not pleasant.

It’s left to Mantel to make the correct diagnosis. Living with her husband in Botswana in 1979, she travels to the university library and scours the medical texts. Driven by disabling pain, and without medical training, she accurately identifies her condition. Back in London, at the age of twenty-seven, Mantel is a patient in St. George’s Hospital, ‘having my fertility confiscated and my insides rearranged’ (172). Her body changes. She grows fat. People treat her differently.

Why Memoir?

Hilary Mantel. Photograph by Els Zweerink. Used with permission.

In Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel says: ‘I am writing in order to take charge of the story of my childhood and my childlessness; and in order to locate myself’ (200).

Memoir is a version of the truth, the writer’s truth. ‘Truth isn’t pretty’, writes Mantel. ‘Truth is squalid and full of blots, and you can only find it in the accumulation of dusty and broken facts’ (144).

In memoir, writers takes charge of those facts and shape their recollections into a narrative of their choosing. Like Mantel, memoirists seize copyright in their own selves.

Links and Sources

Image credits

Cover image (2004 US edition) courtesy of Picador.

All quotations and page numbers from Giving Up the Ghost are from the 2004 Picador edition (USA). Giving Up the Ghost was first published in the UK by HarperCollins.

For reviews of Giving Up the Ghost, see, ‘Ghost Stories’ by Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian, 10 May 2003 and ‘Unsuited to Everything’ by Inga Clendinnen, The New York Times, 5 October 2003.

For more information on Mantel’s Booker Prizes, see ‘Hilary Mantel’ on The Booker Prizes’ website.

Figures for the number of English-language memoirs published in various decades are derived from keyword searches in World Cat, an online network of library content and services.