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.

Agnes Gwynne – A Forgotten Australian Author

Do you know the name Agnes Gwynne? Hmmm … not ringing any bells?

How about Miles Franklin, Henry Handel Richardson or Mary Grant Bruce? Ah, yes, a few nods of recognition, especially if you had to study Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career or Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom at school, or if you are a reader of ‘a certain age’ who devoured Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books in your youth.

Agnes Gwynne, like Miles, ‘Henry’ (a pseudonym for Ethel) and Mary, is an Australian woman writer who published novels in the 1920s. Unlike the other three authors, Agnes’s books are out of print and almost completely forgotten. She receives a scant 100-word entry in the Oxford Companion to Australian Literature and is not mentioned at all in either the Australian Dictionary of Biography or the Australian Women’s Register.

Beginning on Baraba Baraba Land

Agnes Mary Gwynne, the third of four children, was born into a prosperous ‘pioneering’ family at Werai on the Edward River, downstream from Deniliquin, in 1862.

Red River Gums, Edward River Crossing, the Riverina, NSW. Photo by Margaret R Donald.
Reproduced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the early 1840s, Agnes’s father, Henry Gwynne, had been one of a quartet of white men who claimed Baraba Baraba land in what became known as the Riverina region. The quartet also included Ben Boyd, speculator, banker and blackbirder. Another was Henry Lewes – later to become Henry’s father-in-law and therefore Agnes’s grandfather – a man who relieved ‘the monotony of his pioneer life … by well fought battles with the blacks, who became more troublesome as the white men increased’ (‘A Tour to the South’).

Henry used an Aboriginal word, ‘werai’, meaning ‘look out’, to name the land on which he farmed.

Daughter of an Entrepreneurial Father

Henry had a taste for the new and the untried. In 1849, prior to his marriage to Agnes’s mother, he had spent some time in California where he ‘underwent all the experiences of the wild life of the early gold-field days’ (‘A Deniliquin Pioneer’). He seems to have been regularly on the lookout for a new adventure.

When Agnes was four years old, the family moved to the outskirts of Geelong, a shift possibly prompted by Henry’s health needs. At Werai, he had established a successful irrigation system to water the household’s fruit and vegetable plots, but ‘the miasma constantly rising about his garden’ created a ‘moist atmosphere’, ‘endangering the health of himself and his family’ (‘A Tour to the Riverine District’).

Henry now turned his attention to a new undertaking – the development of the coastal township of Lorne and, in particular, the construction of the Grand Pacific Hotel.

Grand Pacific Hotel and Jetty, Lorne, c. 1876-94, W.J. Lindt. State Library of Victoria.

Henry Gwynne died when Agnes was in her late twenties; he left an estate valued at more than £14,000 (allowing for inflation, over AUD$2,000,000 in today’s terms). Agnes, her brother Charles, and sisters Grace and Alice received equal shares in the income derived from the estate. (A decade later, Charles and Agnes each also received £1,000 from the estate of their Uncle Francis, Henry’s brother.)

Extract from Henry Gwynne’s will, Public Record Office Victoria, 45/918

A Writing Career Takes Off at Lorne

Although Henry had attempted to sell the Grand Pacific Hotel in 1883, the popular Lorne establishment remained under the family’s control for decades to come. Agnes’s brother Charles took over proprietorship of the hotel after Henry’s death in 1890, and the remaining family members soon moved from Geelong to Lorne. (The hotel was eventually auctioned in 1922 following Charles’s death the previous year.)

During the 1890s, local newspapers list Agnes’s name (sometimes using the diminutive ‘Nessie’) as a singer at Lorne concerts. She sang solo and in a duet with the popular English tenor Charles Saunders at a concert to raise money for the building of All Saints’ Church, and she opened the programme at a fundraiser to aid the construction of walking tracks to the seaside town’s resorts.

Electoral rolls confirm Agnes’s residence in Lorne from 1903 to 1921, and it is during these first two decades of the 20th century that her literary career begins. The coastal strip stretching from Geelong to Portland would feature regularly in Agnes’s writing for decades to come.

Books and Themes

Between 1908 and 1935, Agnes Gwynne published two plays and five novels, the last of which, the historical romance High Dawn, was published posthumously. Her protagonists are generally wealthy, independently minded women.  

Agnes’s first publication, for which she won first prize of £25 in the literature section of the Women’s Work Exhibition for a ‘play of three acts, scene laid in Australia’ (‘Women’s Work Exhibition’) was A Social Experiment. The play pits two men – one a fervent socialist, the other an avowed capitalist pastoralist – against each other; the main female character, Muriel Mannering, sees value in both perspectives. The juxtaposition of political ideologies recurs in two of Agnes’s novels, The Mistress of Windfells (1921) and The Mystery of Lakeside House (1925), and in her second play, The Capitalist.

Another recurring theme in Agnes’s books is the flow-on effect of a man’s bequest to a female relative via the stipulations of a will. In An Emergency Husband, the will decrees that the deceased’s niece, Gwendoline Vaughan, must marry within six months or the whole of a sizeable estate will be re-directed to distant relatives. Other women in Agnes’s fiction are less encumbered by the terms of a will: upon marrying, Muriel Mannering (A Social Experiment) uses a portion of the inheritance left to her by her father to cover the mortgage on her husband’s heavily indebted farm; Joan Fetherston (The Mistress of Windfells) is the sole heir to her father’s 13,000-acre sheep property.

Extract from a review of The Mistress of Windfells, The Herald, 3 November 1921

A Puzzle

Given that Agnes spent most of her life living in, or on the edge of, towns and cities, I am curious about the credible depictions of sheep farming in Victoria’s Western District in several of her books. How did she gain such a detailed knowledge of the annual recruitment of shearers, the art of shearing, and the workings of woolsheds?

A possible answer lies with her wealthy brother-in-law Archibald Johnson, husband of Agnes’s younger sister, Alice. Agnes spent long periods with the Johnsons, even accompanying them on three extended journeys to England and, closer to home, on voyages to Java and Papua. In her later years, she lived a 10-minute walk from their residence, Toorak House (an impressive mansion that had previously housed Victoria’s colonial governors).

How is time spent with Alice and Archibald relevant?

Archibald Johnson owned the extensive and profitable Western District property, Chetwynd.

A property that ran …

sheep.

I shall write more on Agnes’s sheep-property settings another day.

Agnes Gwynne’s signature as it appears on the application for probate of her mother’s will. (Agnes, along with her sister Grace, was executrix.)

Links and Sources

Agnes Gwynne’s books (note that although Agnes’s books are out of print, some are freely available online ):

Red River Gums, Edward River Crossing, the Riverina, NSW. Photo by Margaret R Donald. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Riverina regional history: Aboriginal Occupation

Quote about Henry Lewes from ‘A Tour to the South’, Australian Town and Country Journal, 1 June 1872, p. 17

Quote about Henry Gwynne’s experience in California from ‘A Deniliquin Pioneer’, Riverina Recorder, 20 August 1890, p. 2

Quote about Henry Gwynne’s irrigation system from ‘A Tour in the Riverine District’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 July 1865, p. 2

Grand Pacific Hotel and Jetty, Lorne, circa 1876-94, W.J. Lindt, collection of the State Library of Victoria

Extract from Henry Gwynne’s will, Public Record Office Victoria, 45/918

Prize for A Social Experiment, ‘Women’s Work Exhibition’, Chronicle (Adelaide), 9 May 1908, p. 38

Examples of musical activities: ‘Lorne’, The Colac Herald, 14 August 1894, p. 3 and ‘Bendigonians at Lorne’, Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918), 15 January 1897, p. 3

Review of The Mistress of WindfellsThe Herald, 3 November 1921, p. 13

Agnes Gwynne’s signature, as it appears on the 1918 application for probate of Margaret Ann Sayers Gwynne’s 1909 will. Public Record Office Victoria, Wills and Probate, 158/144