My aunt, Teresa James, was the epitome of elegance. She dressed exquisitely and always sat upright. In her house, butter appeared in curls and grapefruit halves never had pith. Even Mars bars (which she loved) were sliced up and arranged on a plate.
My father, Mark Girouard, is many wonderful things but I wouldn’t call him elegant. I once came into the drawing room to find him sitting on the sofa, peeling potatoes onto a towel on the floor. ‘I didn’t see why I should stand up to cook,’ he said, by way of explanation. Ironically, he was following one of Aunt Teresa’s recipes.
My father went to Christchurch. My aunt went to finishing school, because my grandfather didn’t believe in girls going to university. Sadly, she died before I thought of asking her about her past but I have started talking to others from her generation and I’m fascinated by what I hear.
It’s amazing how much, and how quickly, things have changed for women in England. Some things ‘back then’ sound ghastly – like school pants (long, baggy bloomers with cotton ‘liners’ underneath) and chilblains. Other things sound quite terrifying – like unprotected sex (before the Pill was available) and illegal abortions. Other things boggle my mind – like the fact that you couldn’t eat in a restaurant with another girl or share a flat with a male friend.
What amazes me most, however, is how attitudes and aspirations have changed. Parents really didn’t seem to care about their daughter’s education. Bindy Lambton refused to get out of the car, on parents’ evening, because she was grieving her dead dachshund. Edward, Duke of Devonshire, refused to sack his daughters’ useless governess because, he said, no one else would employ her. Valentine Wyndham-Quinn said that you shouldn’t educate women because it would teach them to argue with their husbands.
Everything seemed to be geared towards marriage. At Laverock, all the girls were taught to play ‘God Save the King’ on the piano so that, as the wife of the local squire, they would be ready to close Women’s Institute meetings. At Benenden, they were taught how to curtsey and open a bazaar. One girl’s mother even got her to wash her brother’s hair and socks during the school holidays, in preparation for marriage.
It all seems so incredible now. And yet, I think, there are aspects of that era that are really, really enviable. School days were relaxed then. The girls’ parents didn’t care about their exam results so neither did they. They didn’t expect to go to university so they didn’t worry about it. They read a lot and they developed their own passions, which many of them went on to pursue in later life.
How much better that sounds than life for bright young women today. I teach at a school where everybody – teachers, parents and girls – is concerned about exam results and university places. I bumped into a parent of a brilliant ex-pupil the other day. He told me, with delight, that he had ‘got his daughter back’. ‘She’s like the sunny 11 year old I once knew,’ he said, ‘before she began to worry about examinations.’ Girls, today, think about what they ‘ought’ to do. They study Mandarin and Maths A’ Level because they are told that it is a good idea. They apply for roles as school charity representatives, or year representatives, because they believe it will look good on their university application forms. They work their socks off to get straight A*s at GCSE and A’ Level.
Many of the women I’ve interviewed are playwrights, novelists and authors. If they had been brought up today, they would probably be working, unhappily, in a bank or law firm, because that is what their parents wanted them to do.
I don’t think we should go back to the days when sex education was a lesson on the reproduction of rabbits, or when no one learned any science. However I do think we should all back off and give children the time and space to work out what they actually want to do. There is so much more to life than a place at Oxford and their future happiness and success really doesn’t depend on it. The women I have been interviewing are proof of that and it’s time we listened to them.
On envying women over 70 – The Oldie,