Suitable literature for young ladies 1964 – 1971
Form III Mrs Nurse: 39 Steps; The Tempest
Lower IV Miss Crowfoot: Great Expectations; Twelfth Night; Hornblower
Upper IV M M Francis: The Rape of the Lock; Northanger Abbey
Lower V Miss Mclaughlin A lot of poetry and visits to the theatre What else?
Upper V Miss Thickett: As You Like It, Cider with Rosie, 8 Narrative Poems including Sohrab and Rustum
Lower VI /Upper VI Mrs Cheung (Miss Howarth): Hamlet: Middlemarch: Emma; Wordsworth and Coleridge; Nightmare Abbey; Wife of Bath’s Tale, Paradise Lost, Book 6
I am not usually too partial to lists but last night when I couldn’t get to sleep I was trying to remember all the books I was made to read at school, and it is a miracle I still like reading after the literary diet they fed us from the age of 11. My overwhelming memory is not of the books themselves but of how I struggled to understand what was going on. They were always chosen, until the O level year, by Mother Mary Francis, who was a brilliant woman and very highly educated herself, but unfortunately very keen to extend our narrow little minds. I remember enjoying Agatha Christie, Georgette Heyer and other novels of that ilk but the classics, at that time, totally left me cold. She used to go through our bags every week (the boarders) and confiscate everything she thought was unsuitable – until one end of term she handed back the pile of books she had requisitioned, with the words: “Does Mummy have any more of these as I have really enjoyed them?” It turned out that she was allowed to read at night time (very unusually for the nuns) and devoured all the Georgette Heyers and Anya Setons with the best of us. Once her little secret was out, I was allowed to read what I liked too!
Meanwhile I used to complain to her and she would just chuckle away and say the classics were good for me. She even wrote it on a report, much to my horror. The absolute killer was the “Rape of the Lock” – which she herself taught us, explaining all the little jokes in a most painstaking way – and we still never got them! I can see her now, twinkling away behind her John Lennon specs, with pure relish at the cleverness of the poetry, the puns, the reversals, the alliteration and the assonance, convinced that the sheer elegance of the words would rub off on us somehow.
So – she found The Rape of the Lock hilarious – whereas we would just be longing for Mother Mary Austen’s RE lesson, where she would open her anonymous question box and try and answer our teasing questions. Or she would ask us some of her own as she hadn’t been outside the convent walls since before the first world war. This was 1966, and I remember her asking us if they still put straw down on the road to dampen the outside of the carriages when they knew a funeral cortege was going to go past.
Back to the list. The names are of my English teachers and the books those on the official reading lists. Who have I missed out? What have I missed out? I am annoyed I can’t remember more precisely. So any St Augustine’s girls reading this, who can remember, please let me know. ho can remember any of these books?
Mother Mary Francis (Florence Kay) had entered the convent just before the Second World War, I believe, as an already mature woman who had a job and a flat and was totally independent. She had met the woman who was to become Reverend Mother May Gabriel (Constance Chapman) and when Constance converted to Catholicism, and became a Canoness of the Lateran, so did Florence and entered the same order a few years later.
I remember her telling us that as a child she had several brothers and that she was cleverer than all of them but because she was a girl her parents did not want her to go to university. They let her take the entrance exam though when she was fifteen. She thought it would be a huge joke to answer all the questions in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameters, and was only a bit surprised when she got a place at Birmingham university. She had to wait until she was seventeen, however, until they let her in. She read Latin and English, I think, but her general knowledge is what made her stand out so completely from the rest of the nuns and teaching fraternity. She was headmistress for a long time and could teach everything. There was never any need for a supply teacher in those days. She officially taught me English, Maths, Latin and History at various times in my school career and could always take over any French or Spanish lesson. She wouldn’t, however, let German be taught because of the war – even though she could speak it and over twenty years had passed.
The most poignant story she told was about a day during the war. The nuns and the school had been evacuated somewhere safe, and they hadn’t yet got to grips with the catering arrangements. She was doling out mashed potato to the long queue of girls when she realised that only about half had been fed and there was no more food in the pot. So she prayed. Nothing happened. She scraped the spoon along the side of the pot. Enough for one more plate. The pot was empty. She scraped again. A spoonful. And so to the end of the line. She told us this in answer to the question, “Do you believe in miracles?”
Humble and self-effacing in many ways, she was also very assertive. She was the only nun in the school who understood the lyrics to the musical Hair. The dance and drama teacher, Miss Royle, was playing the song “Sodomy” at full blast in the hall while teaching the girls a dance, when MMF happened to be passing by. The only person in the school probably at that time (1968) who actually knew what the words meant. She wasted no time. Miss Royle was never to darken the doors of St Augustine’s again. There was no dance nor drama on the menu again either, at least not while I was there. We were devastated as we adored her. I was to meet her by chance in Barcelona in 1975, but that is another story.