Friday, May 8, 2015

MARGARET HASSETT, Educating Elizabeth (1937)

I'll be getting back to my World War II Book List in the next few days, but in the meantime I wanted to talk about a book I read recently that belongs on another list I'll be finishing up soon—my list of grown-up school stories.

It's a sad fact of life for all readers—and perhaps particularly for a blogger focused on the most obscure of obscure titles, some of which surely have perfectly good reasons for being forgotten—that disappointments are inevitable. Sometimes even the most highly anticipated books—those books we imagine blissfully curling up with on a rainy day with a nice hot cup of tea and losing ourselves in for hours—just don't quite live up to their potential. Sometimes even on a rainy day, we find ourselves putting down the highly-anticipated book, getting back out of bed, and cleaning out our closets instead of continuing to face the disappointment.

Okay, it's true that books are very rarely that disappointing for me—it takes a lot to drive me back into the closet for any reason. Ahem. But the principle is sound.

Now, I don't want to overstate the case when it comes to Margaret Hassett's Educating Elizabeth. In all truth, I enjoyed quite a lot of it, it had many unquestionably high points, and I imagine a few of you reading this might enjoy it as well (I'll try to explain both the strengths and the weaknesses I found in it as clearly as possible). But I had been anticipating this novel ever since I stumbled across Hassett's Austen-esque later novel, Sallypark, and enthusiastically reviewed it last year. And the anticipation had been building during a relatively extended search for a library willing to lend the book (thank you kindly, University of Alberta!).

Add to that the fact that I've become increasingly obsessed in the past year with school stories written for adults, as you may already have noticed from several recent posts, and such a story from an author I already knew and liked—and one that practically no one had heard of to boot—seemed to hold great potential for being memorable and bloggable-about. So perhaps I just brought too much anticipation with me.

At any rate, on the spectrum of girls' school novels written for adults, Educating Elizabeth falls somewhere between Clemence Dane's rather mean-spirited Regiment of Women and Mary Bell's joyful, smart, funny Summer's Day. It's certainly funny, and it's certainly a bit spiteful—most of the women teachers presented are little more than caricatures to be mocked for their various oddities and idiosyncrasies—but it's not out-and-out vicious, and even caricature can be entertaining sometimes, even if it doesn't provide much in the way of character development.

Educating Elizabeth follows the travails of 37-year-old Elizabeth Hillary, who has just left a happy, secure teaching post at a lovely, successful Suffolk girls' school with a kindly, supportive headmistress, in order to become a headmistress herself at the Ellen Jebb Memorial High School in a town called Roytoun (fictional as far as I can tell) in Scotland—a school whose glory days are but a distant memory:

The dingiest classroom in a slum school was not more dingy than the Ellen Jebb Staffroom; even Miss Dinwiddie could not remember when it was painted last. It would be hard to say whether it was more depressing empty or full; one was more conscious of its drabness and untidiness and of the bars outside the windows when it was empty, but on the rare occasions when every mistress was in her place, the spectacle of all those mature forms seated in silence at desks too small for them, with the grizzled heads of the ladies Dinwiddie, Mutch and Shillen in the front row, had something nightmarish about it, suggesting that they had all died and gone to a hell for teachers.

Elizabeth's new staff, particularly her second in command, the aforementioned Miss Dinwiddie, is, er, problematic to say the least—ridiculously, exaggeratedly so. And this description, early on, of the decidedly bleak staffroom sets the stage for the epic conflict that forms the centerpiece of the story. For Elizabeth, bless her heart, decides to relocate said staffroom to some storage rooms on an upper floor of the school and decorate it brightly and cheerfully. The difficulty is that the rooms currently hold the accumulations of Miss Dinwiddie's many years of teaching, and Miss Dinwiddie takes a deep personal affront at the enthusiastic new headmistress's plan.

A full scale pitched battle ensues, with the pettiest of details taking on trembling, hyperventilating-with-rage importance (as they so easily tend to do in almost any workplace). Although there are numerous smaller sub-plots—Miss Shillen's tendency to be overly intimate with the other women, Miss Boax's recurring and probably psychosomatic illnesses, school officials and inspectors who are charmed by Elizabeth and disconcertingly increase their visits as a result, and occasional letters from Elizabeth's friend Anne, who is having adventures serving as secretary to a woman lecturer touring the U.S., among other things—the staffroom wars are at center stage throughout. Quite often, the conflicts are amusing and entertaining, especially the ways in which Miss Dinwiddie's barely suppressed lividity reveals itself in her seething glares:

"[A]nd where, may I ask, has the stuff to go out of my storerooms?"

"What about your Sewing Room, Miss Dinwiddie?" suggested Elizabeth blandly. "So much of it seems to be needlework apparatus and so on that I'm sure you would find it much more convenient to have it near you in your own room. Of course, it's all only a temporary arrangement until the present Staffroom is available. The Scripture illustrations and other books could be distributed among the various Form Rooms perhaps."

For a full moment Miss Dinwiddie was perfectly speechless. Out of the corner of her eye Elizabeth could see her extract a long hairpin from her bun and examine it from end to end in a half-ruminating, half-frenzied sort of way as if she were calculating exactly how far it could be run into the body of her Head.

Some of these scenes are hilarious, despite the fact that neither the terrible Miss Dinwiddie nor the idealized Elizabeth are particularly convincing characters. However, as this plotline must sustain a 300+ page novel, I have to admit that it did start to wear just a little thin by the time that a white flag was finally waved (by one character or the other—I won't tell). This was Hassett's debut novel, and she already had great charm as a writer, but her development over the next several years until Sallypark's appearance in 1945 must have been rather extraordinary. There is nothing here to compare with Sallypark's eloquent, subtle humor and charming characters. But nevertheless, if you're as entertained by school stories as I am, you may want to check it out for the charm and humor it does offer. Just don't expect too much. (Have I made my mixed feelings clear enough in this rather schizophrenic paragraph?)

But having made the disclaimers I felt I had to make about a novel that has its ups and downs, I have to share a couple of rather wonderful examples of Hassett at her best. These are both digressions from the main plotline (and, honestly, all the stronger for that). First are Elizabeth's musings (slightly exaggerated), upon reading some old school reports, on the ideals of education:

Searching for some light on the Bulloch correspondence, she had come across in a locked cupboard containing dog-eared registers and faded memoranda, a pile of old school reports, and had been speedily fascinated by the romantic richness of their style. They all bore the signature of one Charles Kinnear Minto, H.M.C.I., and they all began or ended with a grand disquisition on Education of which the writer spoke in the very highest terms of figurative language and with a wealth of synonyms. Thus, Education was possessed of an essence and a being, not to mention an entity, a nature, a substance, a spirit and a fabric, each of which had its appropriate adjective; it had an aim as well as an object, an objective, an end, a purpose and a goal; it had a direction, a tendency, an orientation and a course. It was, moreover, burdened with a something that was variously called a task, a work, a charge, a business, a mission, a function, a duty, an office, which nobody from Aristotle downwards could exactly define, but which, as far as Elizabeth could make out, seemed to involve much painful though noble exertion on one side of the transaction and an almost equal amount of spirited but futile resistance on the other. Somebody whom Charles K. Minto had horridly christened the Educand filled those dusty pages with his mute sufferings. Elizabeth's heart went out to him. He was being perpetually dragged blinking out of dark caverns into the light, or hauled along lordly avenues to temples or fanes or sanctuaries or edifices of that sort which by some coincidence always stood at the end of wondrous vistas and always had doors of gold. Or he was hoisted up to towering mountain-peaks for views and prospects, or plunged down into the depths of the sea and compelled to build like the coral insect on the work of the hapless Educands who had gone before him. When he was not thus engaged, he was either handing on a blazing torch to somebody or other, or waving a banner, or playing a game (by preference in the dust), or fighting the good fight to the end. There was no limit to the things he had to do and suffer.

Happily, Hassett would learn a bit more restraint in her humor over the years, but I still got some chuckles from this passage. I think education—as well as other similarly abstract social issues—are often still treated with similar sentimentality and idealization.

And finally, I have to confess to a rabid curiosity about whether Lady Espie, the lecturer with whom Elizabeth's friend Anne is travelling across North American, might be based on a real figure. Undoubtedly there were numerous such women who travelled the lecture circuit in the 1930s (E. M. Delafield having written hilariously about one such tour in The Provincial Lady in America), so perhaps Lady Espie is merely a fictional approximation of them. But she is given a fair amount of time in the sun, as Anne describes her at length in her letters, and her traumatic wartime experiences brought to mind Vera Brittain, though of course Brittain had already published her memoir several years before. Here's a choice passage:

"Goodness knows when we shall see England again, for apart from the lectures, some publishers have now got hold of Judy and actually started her on an autobiography. In fact, I may tell you in the strictest confidence that we're well away with our confessions; they simply pour out of Judy; opening the sluices isn't the word for it. My dear, the most gorgeous muck! I hate having to interfere with it, but I suppose I must do something about her blooming participles (Judy always was unstable on the participial question). It's a shame though. But we're getting along like a house on fire—you can figure out our rate of progress when I tell you that despite lectures and parties and travelling millions of miles we're already through with Judy's infantile repressions and indoctrinations (where the heck, as Stansfeldt has a most undeanlike habit of saying, does the woman get the words?) not to mention her suffocated Victorian maidenhood, and we're now nursing at the Front. I feel in my bones that the War bits are going to be stupendous: the revelations up to date are horrible. Didn't they say some of the men's War books were of the Latrine School? Well, Judy's is going to be the female equivalent—what you might call the Bedpan School-pure Bedpan in fact. Judy never lets you off a B.P.; there's one on every page…"

All quite amusing. If there were just a few more such digressions and a tiny bit less focus on the Staffroom War, the book could have been a favorite.

However, I have to admit that I must—quite shockingly to most people who know me well—be some kind of an optimist. Because I happen to have acquired a copy of Hassett's fourth (and final) novel, Beezer's End, which is apparently a sequel to Educating Elizabeth. Now, perhaps it's foolhardy to be excited about a sequel to a novel that has proven a bit disappointing. But the fact that Beezer's End didn't appear until 12 years after its predecessor, and until 4 years after the lovely Sallypark, makes me believe that it could have considerable pleasures in store for me.

Perhaps I'll save it for a rainy day?


  1. Now, you are going to put Charlotte Fairlie by D.E. Stevenson on the list, right? Otherwise, you will have a lot of angry DESsies after you!

  2. Longman Stories of Laughter, eh?

    I tend to cringe when Humour is used as a book classification, as though writing style is on a par with genre (say, Fantasy or Mystery) or subject matter (such as History or Cooking).

    Penguin series of Stream of Consciousness Novels, anyone?


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