The cliché’ “your schooldays are your happiest days”, is calculated to make me
see a more violent red than almost anything. My parents thought fit to keep me
at home until my physical maturity was established, which meant that I did not
go to school till I was within a few months of fourteen. I had never been even
to a day school, and for the previous three years I had had practically no
contact whatever with anyone of my own generation. My brothers were only at home
for the holidays, and May was too wildly energetic for me to care for more than
very short and occasional periods of her company. My whole life centred upon
Mother, I idolised her, and wanted nothing better than to be her constant
companion and to obey her every wish. I had hardly ever been away from her, and
then only on rare and brief visits to Aunt Wese or Aunt Jessie, both of whom
were well known and dearly loved, and, even more important, who both knew and
understood Mother’s methods of upbringing for me, and loyally adhered to them;
though I know that Aunt Jessie at least, had very different ideas of bringing up
children from those that Mother applied to me. I did not know what it was to be
spoken to sharply, and I had no idea, or intention, of taking orders from anyone
but Mother. From this life I was dropped straight into the junior house of a
large boarding school.
The school was, and still is, an extremely good one, but the sole reason that I was sent there was because the Chaplain happened to be an old friend of my parents’ from their early days at Hemel Hempstead. It was intended primarily for the orphans of clergy, who, I believe, were all foundation scholars. Certainly their school uniforms were handed down from one generation to another, for most of the girls in the junior house had gym tunics bearing the names, in marking ink of varying degrees of illegibility, of girls right up through the senior school, to the goddesses in the sixth form.
The few girls who, like myself, were not clergy orphans, were required to bring a very large and comprehensive outfit. Some of the garments had. to be strictly according to regulation pattern, but all the rest were made for me by the Police Sergeant’s daughter, who was the village dressmaker. These Mother had made in the pattern of at least twenty years earlier. All my skirts were down to my ankles, and my frocks were finished at the neck with a narrow upstanding band, into which I had to stitch narrow lace “tuckers”. My winter underwear included thick woollen combinations with long sleeves, and two horrible pockets upon the bosom, the reason for which completely bewildered me, as I had nothing whatever to put into them.
For the first time in my life I had nightdresses. All my previous years I had worn my brothers’ outgrown pyjamas, those being
the only articles of their attire which were possible for me. Nightdresses were quite a thrill, though I felt curiously naked and undressed inside them, but mine could hardly be called glamorous. The summer ones were of cotton, beautifully hand stitched and frilled and feather stitched according to the highest village traditions; while the winter ones were voluminous garments of a drab beige shade of woollen material. Somehow Mother could never move with the times, and though in my innocence, I was immensely proud of new clothes, a week or two at school materially altered my ideas. The amount of jeering and teasing occasioned by my old fashioned clothes, makes me shudder to remember. Like all youngsters my one wish in life was to be as exactly like all my companions as was humanly possible. But this outlook cut no ice whatever with Mother, in fact it seemed to make her all the more determined to keep me different. For years I would from time to time beg her to allow me to do or wear something or other, with the plea “All the other girls do”, but I found at length that this seemed to rouse a queer sort of obstinacy in Mother, and merely reinforced her refusal. When I was a tiny child she had loved to dress me and allude to me as ”a sweet, old fashioned little thing”, a phrase which, as I grew older, I came to hate. It seemed that she always wanted to keep me in that state, which, naturally, roused all my determination to be of my own generation and age, in defiance of all her wishes.
All that school outfit was of superb quality, and I was still wearing many of the garments until I was well into my twenties. The shoes, which Mother bought a size too large to allow of my growing, I never did grow into. For some reason or other my clothes never wear out on me, but go on year after year as good as new, till I could scream at the sight of them. This was very useful during the years of clothes rationing, but otherwise is rather trying, as I never have any legitimate reason for getting rid of them.
I entered upon my school life with every intention of doing my best and “being good”. But no wretched hermit crab, roughly dragged from its shell and flung to the mercy of the storms on a rocky shore, could have been more helplessly battered, bruised, and bewildered than I was. For so long I had been accustomed almost exclusively to the society of adults; I had my own secure niche in the established scheme of things; I had never encountered unkind teasing except from George, with whom I was well able to cope; and mentally I was far too mature for my age. I was genuinely anxious to make friends, but my grownup manners and conversation, combined with my old-fashioned clothes, simply made me a figure of fun among my contemporaries. On my side, I was completely bewildered by the chattering and, to me, senseless giggling of my companions. I tried hard to join in, but there was never any conversation such as I had been accustomed to, and which I understood and appreciated, and all the girls of my age seemed nothing but a lot of half wits, whose outlook was utterly incomprehensible to me. Actually they were an extremely nice type of child; the fault lay in myself, or rather in my upbringing, and heavily and bitterly did I pay for it.
The constant supervision and lack of personal liberty was a torment to me. Every other person seemed to have the right to order juniors about, mistresses, sixth form prefects, dormitory monitresses, down to the monitress and sub-monitress of our own form. I, who had been far more accustomed to giving than taking orders, and accustomed also to understanding the reason for such orders as Mother gave me, could never get used to the idea of obeying just because I was told to. To any order, no matter from whom, my immediate and invariable response was “Why?” I had not the least intention of being naughty, or impertinent, or any of the other things I was told I was; it merely seemed the obvious thing that I should be informed of the reason why I was required to do, or not to do, anything If I had been told the reason, and, after due deliberation, had come to the conclusion that it was right and reasonable, I should ever afterwards have observed the rule; but to have orders snapped at me which I neither understood nor for which I could see any reason whatever.
No, my logical little mind refused to countenance such things.
Besides this, quite a number of the rules were in direct opposition to what I knew to be Mother’s wishes; therefore they were wrong, and I was convinced in my own mind that I was doing right in disobeying them. Activities such as sewing, knitting, letter writing or reading anything other than “Sunday books” or missionary magazines, were prohibited on Sundays under Mother’s regime, and I was shocked to the depths of my Puritanical little soul to find that all these were permitted, and in the case of letter writing, actually ordained, at school. So completely was my mind impregnated with Mother’s likes and dislikes, that any other way of life seemed evil and wrong. I should not imagine that it is very often that one person gains complete an ascendancy over the mind and outlook of another as Mother had over mine during the first thirteen years of my life.
I could not do much about these various forms of sacrilege, but there was one of Mother’s rulings which I upheld tooth and nail, much to my own undoing. This was with regard to plaiting my hair. Mother was, I believe, inordinately proud of my hair, though I never had a hint of it for years; and merely looked upon my spreading cloak of pale gold curls as an unmitigated nuisance. However Mother would never have it either cut or plaited, and when I was abruptly told the first morning at school to go and plait my hair, I gaped in amazement and replied that my mother didn’t wish me to have it plaited. It was the rule throughout the school that every girl should have her hair plaited, and though I got away with it for a week or two, the time came when I began to be sent out of the classroom and forbidden to return till my hair was properly plaited. Personally I did not care if it were plaited or not, but I was determined to uphold Mother’s wishes, whate’er betide. I would therefore plait it very loosely and flimsily right down to the longest hairs, and painstakingly tie the ribbon so that it clung precariously to the very tips. On my return to my desk it was an easy matter to catch the bow between my spine and the bar of the chair, then with an unobtrusive forward movement of the head, the ribbon would drop down on the floor, and within a minute my hair was all over the desk again. The exasperated mistress would go for me once more, only to be met by an innocent gaze and the helpless reply that I had plaited it and the ribbon kept falling off.
I must have been a dreadful child to deal with. I was always ready to enter into
a brisk discussion on any subject at a moment’s notice, and always had a reason
to offer for anything that I did, or did not do. There was no intentional
naughtiness in this, it merely seemed to me sane and sensible procedure, and I
was bitterly hurt and insulted when I was told sharp1y, ”don’t argue” and “don’t
answer back”. I had not the slightest idea of being rude, as I was essentially a
very polite little soul, and I merely thought that the mistress or prefect was
being extremely rude to me.
On one occasion, goaded beyond endurance by being told tartly, “Don’t always be so ready with excuses,” I cried out indignantly, “I’m not making excuses, I’m explaining.” What could one do with a child like that?
Another rule which I took as an unpardonable invasion of private liberty was that all letters written by juniors were to be left open so that they could be inspected before dispatch. To this day I fail to see the reason for it, but there it was, and none of the others seemed to mind. But to me it was the ultimate degradation and cruelty. It precluded me entirely from any free confidences to Mother, and as I was already suffering quite bitterly enough by being this torn from her, and subjected to unimagined miseries, it was the final refinement to be prevented even from writing freely to her. How much of my unhappiness was conveyed to Mother through my necessarily restricted, and probably stilted letters, I do not know. She must certainly have known I was miserable, for her weekly letters invariably contained earnest injunctions to “fight the good fight”, and to “endure hardness as a good soldier” and suchlike Christian precepts. She meant this as the very highest method of encouragement, but to me, aching for a bit of human affection arid understanding, it was cold comfort, All I longed for was to get home and be with her in the old happy relationship, and in the surroundings which I knew and understood; anybody could be a Christian and fight the good fight as far as I cared. I had endured quite as much hardness as I could stand.
This well meant attitude of Mother’s had of course quite the opposite effect upon me from that which she intended. It merely served to convince me that being a Christian meant nothing but a life of misery and unhappiness, and despite all her early teachings it left me with the conviction that pleasing God simply led to the negation of everything that made for happiness. It was very many years before this impression was obliterated, and so strongly had it been burnt into my mind, that it turned me completely against any thought or wish to please God, or to lead a Christian life.
As the miserable weeks of that first ghastly term dragged past, and my
reiterated pleas to come home met with no response, the awful and terrifying
idea began to dawn on me that Mother had for some unimaginable reason, cast me
off; that she no longer cared that I was wretchedly miserable; that she no
longer loved me or wanted me to be with her; and that, as Mother behaved towards
me in this inconceivable way, so also did God, for to me vox Matris vox Dei.
With my mind in this state of turmoil, constantly being checked and scolded when
I had no intention, or even awareness, of wrongdoing, rebuffed and laughed at by
those with whom I wanted to be friendly, it is not to be wondered at that I
developed an armour of defensiveness. I became deliberately disobedient and
impertinent, and went out of my way to give the mistresses cause to scold me. My
attitude was perfectly logical. I was so frequently scolded when I did not know
that I was being naughty, that now I would jolly well give them something to
scold me for.
In later years Mother told me that she had never seen such a terrible change in anyone as she found in me on my return home after my first term. I had left home as a happy, open-hearted child, confiding, ready to please, and always willing to fall in with her wishes. I came back looking ill and scared, showing a nervous suspicion towards Mother which must have hurt her deeply, always on the defensive, and refusing to show her either affection or confidence. The psychological scars of that first term at school never entirely disappeared, and though in time things improved between us, yet never, to the end of her life, could I feel towards Mother the full trust and confidence which I had known before being sent away to school. It hurt me quite as bitterly as it hurt her.
The only pleasure that I could find at school, apart from the lessons and prep,
which I thoroughly enjoyed, was the library. Here I discovered the hitherto
unknown delights of Angela Brazil, and other up to date children’s books, a most
intoxicating diet after years of Jessica’
First Prayer and Ministering
Children. I would creep off to the library on every possible occasion, and
immerse myself in these delights; but my joys were only too often interrupted by
a breathless and indignant monitress, probably despatched by an equally annoyed
mistress, with the exasperated exclamation of:
“Oh, there you are, I’ve been hunting everywhere for you. Don’t you know you ought to be changing for netball?” or something equally loathsome.
I never knew where I was supposed to be, or what I was supposed to be doing at any given time, apart from the actual timetable of classes which was drawing-pinned inside the lid of each desk. I was always losing myself in the huge building; bells ringing meant nothing to me, and I would look round anxiously for any member of my own form, and helplessly tag on behind, in the hopes of arriving eventually wherever we happened to be required to go. By comparison with the ordered life at home, where I knew every move, this in itself was purgatory enough.
Our positions in the form each week were allotted in accordance with the aggregate of marks during the previous week. I loved the lessons and really worked hard, but, try as I would, I could never get above third place, much to my annoyance. After a time I began to realise that the monitress and sub-monitress always, automatically, held the first two places by reason of their office. This seemed to me very unfair, when sometimes my marks were higher than theirs, but I was becoming accustomed to unfairness, and was somewhat consoled when I found I was usually in the third place.
The form mistress was a brisk and kindly soul. She was always nice to me in her
aseptic and impersonal way, and I feel sure she was genuinely concerned at my
hopeless inability to adapt myself to school life. Eventually she entirely
despaired of doing anything with me, and sent me to the Head, not in disgrace,
but in the hopes that the Head might succeed where all else failed. The Head was
a most charming and experienced woman, well known in the educational world, and
she had the wisdom to talk to me as one adult to another. This was the sort of
thing I understood; I immediately dropped my armour of self defence, and showed
my real self, as she conversed frankly and sensibly about the necessity for
rules in a large community, and told me how much I could help by being amenable
and co-operative. I think this interview must have taken place in my third, and
as it turned out my last, term at that school, for I know it made a great
impression on me, and assisted enormously towards my happiness.
Of course “crushes” were rampant throughout the junior school. I duly developed a mild crush on the pretty dark-haired Latin mistress, but it was a very milk-and-watery affair, and only done from the desire to be in the fashion. I could never hang round her, or any of my subsequent crushees, or carry her books, or present her with flowers, as most of the other crushers did. The only person for whom I had, or have retained, any real feeling, was the junior music mistress. I have mentioned elsewhere that when I first went to school my music, entirely taught by Mother, was so good that I was the only one in the junior house to be put with the senior music mistress. She, however, was a hot-tempered and violently impatient person, unpopular everywhere. She merely succeeded in paralysing me with terror, so much so that after my first term Mother was horrified to find how my playing had deteriorated.
The junior music mistress was young and pretty, a recent “old girl” if the school, so recent that most people found it difficult to remember to call her Miss Pembury instead of Margery. At my earnest request, coupled with the obvious retrogression under the senior music mistress, I was sent to Miss Pernbury on my return. I became genuinely fond of her, not a crush, and my music immediately began. to improve under her kindly tuition. I almost believe she was quite fond of the queer little oddity who never showed its true, but quite likeable, little self to anyone in the school but her. Miss Pembury played the organ in the School chapel, and under her I was introduced to the joys of learning it, though I was too small ever to master the pedals properly.
Towards the end of my third term I was just tentatively beginning to get used to school and to find my feet. I was due to move into the upper school at the beginning of the next term, and I have always been convinced that I should have been much happier if I had gone back, and should probably have got on really well. In the upper school there were far fewer restrictions and less supervision than in the lower school.
However I was due for a very sharp lesson in how not to pray. Finding that it was no use appealing to Mother to take me away from school, and let me come home, I fell back in desperation upon prayer, even though I felt pretty certain that God would take no more notice than Mother did. During my whole time at school I was battering and clamouring in fierce desperation at the Gates of Heaven; the Importunate Widow could have taken tips from me. Never in my life have I prayed so wildly and desperately, and eventually my prayers were answered, though not quite as I should have liked.
The end of my third term fell in July 1914. The 3lst was George’s birthday, and
a grand mass picnic was arranged for the occasion. Uncle George was staying with
us, together with his son Philip, a most gay and lively young man some six years
older than Jack, and down from Cambridge for the long Vac. Uncle George was a
far wealthier man than Father, and owned several cars one of which, a small
Bedford, he had. brought with him, leaving the chauffeur and the Daimlers at his
home for Aunt Nora’s use. At that time cars were a complete novelty in our
remote area, and a source of excitement to us and everyone in sight.
There must have been about twelve or fifteen of us on that picnic, for my brothers had brought several school friends home, and of course May and her brother were invited, and a number of others whom I have forgotten. Uncle George’s car was packed. to overflowing, May came on her pony, and the rest on bicycles, and off went the cavalcade to May Hill, some ten miles away. Having climbed to the top, a huge bonfire was lit, and the picnic proceeded in fine style. By the time we were ready to leave, a light rain had begun, making the turf very slippery. Before the bonfire was pulled apart and stamped out, all we youngsters took turns in jumping over it.
As I ran for my jump my right foot turned on the wet turf, wrenching the ankle
severely. This, had. I known it, was the answer to all my prayers.
I had to be carried down to the car, pick-a-back, by the men and older boys, as I could not put my foot to the ground. For weeks and weeks I was in bed, in constant pain, while Father tried every possible treatment. There was no question of my being able to return to school at the end of the holidays, and I was a helpless cripple for nearly two years. It seems incredible that a simple sprain should have caused such prolonged trouble, but it was due to the fact that I am extremely loose jointed. I can lift all my fingers out of their sockets, and bend and twist them about in a manner which most people consider quite sickening. I can walk with stiff knees and my hands flat on the floor and still could kiss the wall behind me, and put my big toe in my mouth should I feel so disposed. But having had most of my joints displaced, including various vertebrae, at one time and another, I rather avoid these gymnastics now a days.
Some eighteen months later, when Father and Mother were in absolute despair over my lameness, and the apparent impossibility of my foot ever getting right, Father happened to mention it to a lady of his acquaintance. She told him of an old cobbler in Gloucester, who had a local reputation as a bonesetter. Father, having tried everything in his extensive medical repertoire, including visits to Harley Street, and expensive surgical boots, decided as a last resort to take me to the cobbler. I well remember the old man, in his leather apron, his dark little shop full of un-mended shoes and farm boots awaiting attention, and his big roughened hands which felt so competently over my twisted foot. After a few moments of exploration he gripped my foot, pressed both his thumbs with a sudden jerk under the arch, there was a crack, a squeak of pain from me, and after another moment’s manipulation my foot was as perfect in shape as the other. It was absolute magic. I walked out of that shop firmly and steadily, and ever since then I have had unbounded faith in osteopaths. That old man was a self-taught amateur, but I believe later on he became so well known for his amazing skill that he gave up his cobbling business and concentrated entirely on bone-setting.
Owing to this accident the outbreak of the 1914 war has left little impression on me. I remember overhearing anxious discussions between Father and Uncle George during the few days before August the 4th, and Uncle George decided to cut short his visit, and he and Philip returned to London by car on August the 3rd. Rumours were thronging thick and fast, and from each town that he passed through Uncle George sent Father a telegram on the latest developments. These Father posted up on the notice board outside the Rectory, so in that way our remote and isolated village was probably better informed than many a far larger place.
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