The Ravendore School for Girls
Monday, 25 August 1925
You hold in your hand your very first letter from the Junior Mistress of the Fourth Form at Ravendore School! But it shan't be the last, for I promised you that I would tell you every detail of my work here, and I shall be as good as my word.
I wish you were here with me, the way we always planned when we were in school ourselves, but who am I to interfere with the course of true love? We can't all of us be bluestockings, can we? Some of us must be mothers to the next generation of students, or the likes of me will have no one to teach! (You know I'm just joking, Miriam dear; I think your Malcolm is a lovely man, and you'll be happy with him. I've already spoken to Headmistress McGonagall about taking leave so that I may come to the wedding.)
About the headmistress: I think she's the most splendid woman I've ever met. She has such fine ideals about life and about girls, and even better, she has practical plans for realising those ideals here at Ravendore. I must be honest, though, and say that in some ways, she is not an easy person. I can tell already that she does not suffer fools gladly. She can be more than a little intimidating and is sharp-tongued when she is displeased.
Then again, I suspect that complex, busy people like Miss McG are rarely easy. After all, she has a great deal resting on her shoulders: she's responsible for the success of this entire school, and the proper education of so many girls, and the livelihoods of the other teachers and the household staff, and...
But I see I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm forgetting the lessons Miss Herbster taught us when we were working on our play in our final year. (Frankly, I wish I could forget the whole experience. The Girls of Hawthorne School -- goodness, but it was trite and silly; I'm embarrassed to think of it now). Anyway, I can just hear Miss H: "Young ladies, a good playwright must find ways to set the stage." So let me indulge in a little stage-setting about Ravendore and then perhaps a list of the dramatis personae.
The Set: Well, as you know, the school is housed in the headmistress's family manor. Mother went to see her, you remember, before I took the position, to make sure that I wasn't getting into a den of thieves. (I told her that modern girls should be able to negotiate their own employment without the assistance of their mothers, but Mother just said that I should be glad she and Father are so constantly vigilant. And she does mean well, the dear thing.) In any case, Miss McGonagall told Mother that the Manor would have been sold had she not decided to open it as a school. "But I hated to see the estate go into private hands when so many girls need a place to be educated," she said.
I was expecting something terribly draughty and intimidatingly stately-home-ish, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a very large house after all; the dormitories and teachers' rooms and science laboratories had to be added on as extra wings. The main part of the house has all the classrooms and the offices (for the headmistress and the deputy head) and a parlour for guests.
And then there is the delightful staff sitting room.
The sitting room -- if only I had paid more attention during Señor Duarte's drawing lessons, I would make a sketch for you. But given my lamentable lack of skill in that area, I'll have to draw the picture in words.
It's so very homey a room, my dear: deep, inviting window seats and plump sofas and a cheerful grate and several nice, long tables with green-shaded lamps where we can do our marking and lesson planning. The headmistress is working on getting small offices for each teacher, though; she says we need to be able to meet with students in a professional environment. She doesn't want us to have girls come to our personal rooms; she says we are their teachers, not their mothers, and we should not be on constant call. It's not the viewpoint I would have expected, I must say, and I know that Miss Sprout disagrees; she thinks we do need to take the place of mothers for our girls.
(Miss Sprout is also the one who wanted to use English "forms" at Ravendore. According to Alice Milner (another junior mistress about whom I'll talk more later), Miss McG was adamantly opposed to using the English system; she's Scottish to the very bone and wanted her girls to be trained up as proper Scotswomen. But Miss Sprout believes that we need to do something to attract English students, too, and having forms will seem more familiar to them and might look more usual to the Oxbridge entrance examiners.
Since sending girls to university is one of Miss McGonagall's main goals, she yielded on the issue of forms. So speaketh Alice, at any rate. But we will still award Scottish Leaving Certificates. And that suits me fine, if you'll pardon the slang; I plan to go to St Andrews. In any case, it's not as if there's no precedent for using the English system. That's what they do at Fettes College for boys in Edinburgh, and you know what a fine reputation they have.)
But here, I'm getting ahead of myself again. More about the staff anon, after I finish the building tour.
Follow me now, if you will, as we move to the classrooms. They are all thoroughly up-to-date, with desks that can be moved about and bright lighting and vases of flowers and shelves on which to display the students' projects. It will not be a "memorising" education, which I know you will be pleased to hear; I haven't forgotten how you hated Miss Lambert's recitation rules! The recitations here will require the girls to "use their minds," as the headmistress says.
There are also common rooms for each of the upper forms, and the girls themselves will be responsible for the housekeeping. That's something Miss Sprout and the headmistress agree upon: modern girls need to know how to look after themselves. And they need to have a variety of skills: next spring, Miss Sprout is going to add a course in "practical gardening" to the biological curriculum; she likes the idea of girls working with their hands as well as their minds.
I don't object to that notion, either, but I'm glad I shan't have to muck about in the dirt myself! You know I've never been very fond of the outdoors. I'm happy to report that indoors here at Ravendore is very comfortable. My bedroom is spacious and airy and looks pleasantly cosy now that I've added my cushions and Grandmother's Persian rug. I can keep my ivy plants on the window-ledge, and on my free Saturday afternoon, I'm going to hang some prints; there's a lovely picture rail. And a desk -- of course -- and an armchair near the fire. I will share a bath with the other junior mistresses. The senior mistresses have little suites with a personal sitting room as well as a bedroom. I don't know about their bathing arrangements, though (and I wasn't about to ask!)
And now I've kept you in suspense about the staff long enough; I'm sure you're dying to know all about them. Oh, Miriam, they're just the sort of women we've always admired: fun-loving but serious about important things and dedicated to scholarship and absolutely convinced that the female brain is meant to be used.
I've already seen quite a few female brains in action. I'm talking about the headmistress and her colleagues, of course: the three women who have founded Ravendore. The "Triumvirate," they call themselves. They are about thirty-five or forty now, though they have been friends since their school days. But friends or no, they don't always agree on everything, and they are not the least bit shy about expressing their opinions. It's exhilarating to listen to them.
Who are they? Well, first and foremost, there is the headmistress, Miss Minerva McGonagall. She is in charge of the school, of course, and will give science lectures to the senior students and help prepare them for their Higher Leaving Certificate examinations.
She seems less frightening now than she did last March when I met her at that tea that Jenny Mellert's aunt gave -- you remember, when she invited her university friends to talk to schoolgirls about earning a degree. I think I told you that Miss McGonagall and Jenny's aunt were at the University of Glasgow together. But I never had a chance to tell you about our whole conversation, not while you were so busy with Malcolm!
Miss McGonagall did seem awfully stern and scary at first (and I can't deny that sometimes she still is) -- with spectacles and coal-black hair in a bun; she wore a plain dark dress and button shoes. But she was wearing a gold thistle brooch, so I thought, "she must have sparkle somewhere in her soul!"
I was right. She's quite kind when you get to know her, and she makes one feel important. Or she does me, at any rate. She takes one seriously when one talks to her, and she never mollycoddles. When I told her after the tea that I wanted to go to university more than anything, she said she was glad to hear it. Then she looked at me very sternly over the top of her spectacles (she does that quite a bit) and said, "You need to be aware of exactly how demanding university is. It's not a choice for the uncommitted." After she spelled out at least a dozen difficulties, she said, "Now, then, do you believe you are up to the task?"
I think she frightened me into being as honest as I could, so I told the exact truth: I said I didn't know if I was up to the task, but I did know that I loved to read and study and discuss, and that I wasn't afraid of hard work and that I was not a person who was easily discouraged.
Oh, you should have seen her smile then! She doesn't do it often, but it quite transforms her. I never dreamed she'd become so interested in my cause that she'd actually engage me to teach for her. Of course she talked to Miss Cameron, and evidently our old headmistress was rather complimentary about me (can you credit it? She only ever seemed to frown at me in assembly).
And Miss McG simply refused to accept lack of money as a reason for not attending school. I explained about Father's illness and how he has had to step down as vicar, and she said, "If you have a genuine academic calling, then the money must be found. You must earn it yourself, if your family cannot provide it."
I said, "But what am I to do? I could teach, perhaps, but good positions are not easy for beginners to come by."
That's when she told me about her own school and how she planned to use junior teachers both to provide young women with practical training and to expose pupils to different teaching styles. And for someone like me, she said, it's an "invaluable opportunity to prepare for university entrance and to compete for scholarships." She's going to help me prepare.
To be sure, the wages are not large, but I receive room and board, and I will work hard for a scholarship, and oh, just think, Miriam! Some day I truly, truly will be "Fiona Moody, B. A."
Oh, dear, I see I have wandered very far from my purpose of describing the staff! I hope you'll forgive me for turning the talk to myself. I'll make it up to you in the next letter, I promise. But just now, I must prepare for dinner. We won't eat at the high table until term begins; the headmistress says we'll just "eat informally" in the dining room. But informal or not, I wouldn't want to be late on my first evening. I don't think it would be wise to keep the headmistress waiting.
Your loving friend,
The Ravendore School for Girls
Wednesday, 27 August 1925
I hope you don't mind being deluged with rambling missives, but I have to write while I have the time. I fear that once term starts, the chances for leisurely letter-writing will be few.
I'll jump right into my descriptions of the staff, and I pledge most solemnly to stick straight to the point this time! Which is -- the three founders of Ravendore.
I've told you about the headmistress, so next is the deputy head, Miss Pomona Sprout. She's as energetic as her name, always popping about like a plant sprouting out of the ground. She's a very comfy sort of person, and somehow one never minds the fact that she usually looks rather dishevelled, with bits of leaves stuck to her gown and smudges of dirt on her face. (Her special interest is plant sciences.)
It's funny to see her standing next to Miss McGonagall; they make what our art master used to call "a study in contrasts." There's Miss McG, tall and straight and stern, always so crisply turned-out, never a hair out of place, and then there's Miss Sprout, short and plump and always smiling and with her hair a perfect mass of frizz (and sometimes with twigs in!) I know the girls will love her: she's a very nurturing type without being simpery, if you know what I mean. Not like that horrid Miss Umbridge back at Hawthorne, always talking about how she wanted to be like a mother to us and then doing everything she could to criticise and shame us in front of other girls. But always speaking so sweetly, of course!
Miss Sprout is the senior mistress of the sixth form. She has put her savings into the school just as Miss McGonagall has (and Miss Hooch, about whom more below. Oh, I hope the school succeeds! It can't fail, it just can't. That's too dreadful to think of. You must continue trying to persuade your mother to send Dorothy to Ravendore, Miri dear; it would be so much better for her than Hawthorne.)
Back to Miss Sprout. I love to watch her with Miss McG. (I feel a little audacious calling her "Miss McG," though I'm certain the students will come up with even more inventive monikers, the way we did at Hawthorne. Then again, they might not dare, give how formidable the headmistress is). Anyway, you get a sense of the sort of high-spirited girl Miss McG must have been, when you see her in private moments with Miss Sprout and Miss Hooch. They laugh together and reminisce about their own school days. You'll laugh, too, when I tell you what I learnt about them last night.
But before I can do that, I must introduce you to the third member of the Triumvirate: Miss Rolanda Hooch. She's the senior mistress of the fourth form and is games mistress, too, though she says she would prefer to be just the games mistress; she wants to establish a first-class reputation for physical excellence at Ravendore. (And yes, you've read my mind, Miss Miriam -- I'm hoping to move up to the position of Senior Mistress if and when Miss Hooch's dreams come true and she can leave the Fourth Form to focus only on games.)
Miss Hooch was a year ahead of Miss McG and Miss Sprout when they were at school, and then they all three were in the same ambulance unit in France in the Great War. (I think it was before the war that Miss McG went to university (and earned a BSc!) I so hope they'll tell me all about the war some day (though not many people who were near the front lines ever say much about it, have you noticed that?) It must have been dreadfully scary, driving an ambulance with all the mud and bullets and poison gas and the poor wounded boys. Miss McG and the rest are simply heroic to have done it; it gives me a little thrill whenever I think of how plucky they were.
So running a school must be child's play after the trenches. (Or maybe not -- sometimes I think schoolgirls can be as bad as any hostile soldiers!) I can just imagine what Miss Hooch was like in France -- determined and reliable and strong as a man. She has her hair cut short, just to her chin, and she says she thinks women ought to wear trousers to play tennis! Miss Sprout was a bit scandalised by that notion, and even Miss McG said, "we will not challenge the bounds of propriety in that way just yet, if you don't mind, Rolanda. Wait at least until we have made our name as the female Fettes."
I expect the Triumvirate were all very bright at school. After dinner last night, the others were laughing about Miss McG having been a swot, but they obviously were good at their own studies, too.
Miss Sprout said, "You do know we're just teasing you, Minerva dear," and she replied, "I should hope so! That's at least one aspect of pedagogy that we all agree upon: that Ravendore will provide girls with an education that allows the mind and the body to be celebrated equally. I want us to create an atmosphere that encourages girls to make heroines out of the so-called 'swots' as well as the champions of tennis and rounders. We want to have the highest standards of performance and character for Ravendore girls."
Then Miss Hooch said, "Of course, but we want them to be jolly and all-around, too, not prim and miss-ish. I'd worry about any girl who doesn't have the gumption to break the rules occasionally."
The headmistress got her stern, thin-lipped expression -- one that I predict the students will soon come to recognise and dread! -- and said, "There is nothing prim or miss-ish about taking academics and rules seriously."
Miss Hooch said, "Not in general, of course not, but life isn't all about following rules, Minerva! What would have happened to that little girl and her grandmother near Ypres if you hadn't disregarded the rule about giving rides to civilians?"
Miss McGonagall sat up very straight and said, "That was different! Lives were at stake. It's hardly the same thing as schoolgirls carrying on clandestine correspondences with young men, or whatever it is you're assuming they'll get up to. They need to learn to respect legitimate authority, and -- "
Then Miss Sprout broke in and said, "Good heavens, my dears, it can't be good for your digestions to have a dispute so soon after dinner. Minerva, Rolanda is hardly proposing full-scale anarchy -- just a bit of judicious self-governance on the part of the girls. Everyone has to cut loose now and then; it's part of the natural cycle of things. It's a good idea to let the girls themselves decide when they need to let off a little steam."
"Precisely!" Miss Hooch said, and she looked quite triumphant, like some bird of prey -- a hawk, perhaps, with the evening sun in her face turning her eyes yellow and her nose beaky.
"Ah, et tu, Pomona?" Miss McG said, and Miss Sprout laughed and looked at me and Alice Milner, who is the fifth-form junior mistress. (She's the only other member of the staff who is staying at the school just now, and she's the jolliest girl you'd ever want to meet; I just know that she and I will be great friends. (Though never as good as you and I, dear Miri!) She has curly hair and an upturned nose and is going to be teaching only this one year, until her fiancé finishes at St Andrews and they can marry. Then she'll be Mrs Frank Longbottom, but I daresay she'll be no less jolly for that!)
Miss Sprout said, "Mind now, Minerva, don't give Miss Moody and Miss Milner a wrong impression of us. We wouldn't want our junior mistresses to think that Rolanda and I are raging Bolshevik revolutionaries while you are safe as houses."
She turned to Alice and me and said, "Miss McGonagall is right, of course, that we want Ravendore girls to respect order and authority, but they can do that without being unnatural paragons. We certainly weren't, were we?" And she beamed at Miss McG and Miss Hooch.
Miss Hooch laughed and nudged Miss McG with her elbow. "No, indeed. I seem to remember more than one occasion on which even our esteemed headmistress condescended to join a secret spread after lights out."
Miss McG looked over her spectacles with mock severity and said, "Now, that's just too bad of you, Rolanda, to throw childish escapades in my face after all these years." But I could tell she wasn't upset; her lips weren't thinned out any longer, and she was almost smiling.
Miss Sprout went on, "Oh, yes, you should have seen the headmistress in those days, my dears. She had expert organisational skills even at fourteen. Of course, she first tried to talk us out of sneaking food after curfew, but when she failed, she would join us -- "
"Only to protect them from themselves!" Miss McG said to Alice and me, and she was definitely smiling now. "Pomona, if you're going to air my dirty linen to these young ladies, they should know the full story. Someone had to ensure that we would not get caught out."
"Yes, Minerva had a better spying system than a field general," put in Miss Hooch.
"Spies! Nonsense," the headmistress said. "I simply made certain that we never transgressed too far. We were always quiet and cleaned up after the feast, and we never stayed up beyond half-past ten, and I made sure that no one overate herself. It would never have done to have Matron called in to examine half a dozen upset stomachs at once."
"And while you were so busily watching out for us, you never enjoyed a bit of the feast yourself?" Miss Hooch asked, nudging the headmistress again. "None of Amelia's fruitcake from home, or those peppermint humbugs that Irma seemed to have an endless supply of?"
"Minerva was partial to that hard black licorice from Denby's Confectionary, as I recall," Miss Sprout said.
Then, if you'll believe it, Miss McGonagall laughed aloud! It was a lovely sound; she looks quite dashing when she's in good humour. "Enough!" she said. "You've made your point. Miss Moody and Miss Milner now know us for the desperadoes we are, and if they still feel safe sleeping in the same house with us, then I suggest we all retire. The rest of the staff will be here tomorrow, and I want us to spend the following two days on curricular matters. We have a great deal to accomplish before term starts."
We all stood up, of course, and as we filed out of the room, Miss Sprout put her hand on my arm and whispered, quite conspiratorially, "She could never say 'no' to a secret spread when anyone had ginger biscuits to contribute. She's a perfect slave to ginger biscuits, our Minerva."
I lay awake for quite a long while after I went to bed, thinking it all over. Mother always says that there are no friends so good as your schoolfriends. Do you suppose we'll be like the Triumvirate some day, Miriam? Grown-up and still ever the best of friends?
I hope so.
Your friend forever,
The Ravendore School for Girls
Saturday, 5 September 1925
Term began on Tuesday, and it's been bedlam here ever since. Oh, not in terms of classes and meals and things, for the Triumvirate runs a tight ship, and so far the students have learnt the routines quickly. But there has been homesickness, and one of my fourth-formers was up all night on Wednesday being sick in a bucket ("nerves and over-excitement," Miss Hooch says). I stayed up for a while to help look after the poor child, until Miss Hooch shoo'd me off to bed.
"You're not that far past being a growing girl yourself," she said. "You need your rest."
It's the first time she's treated me at all like a junior, and to tell you the truth, I didn't mind being mothered, for I was nearly asleep on my feet. But most of the time, Miss Hooch and the others treat Alice and me and the rest of the juniors as complete equals; it's a fine change from Hawthorne School, let me assure you!
My students seem an interesting range of girls. Several of them are pleasant and ordinary (but I would never dare call them "Plodders," the way we did at Hawthorne! If I did, I think the Headmistress would actually shout at me, the way she did when Miss Brown, one of the sixth-formers, was caught trying to bribe a maid to post a letter to her beau.
Well, perhaps "shout" is too undignified; I should rather say that she filled her office with ringing tones that carried out into the corridor -- "Miss Brown, such behaviour is a disgrace to your sex and your school. We do not abide deceit here." I did rather feel for Miss Brown, or "Lavender," as the girl is unfortunately called, because facing Miss McGonagall's displeasure is no easy task.)
There are two fourth-formers in particular who already appeal to me: Hermione Granger, who reminds me of myself at her age, reading ahead in all the lessons and so eager to learn everything there is to learn. (Though I hope I didn't come across as quite such a know-it-all! Did I? I know I can rely on you to tell me the truth, dear Miriam. How did you cope with me? I'd like to know, so that I can help Miss Granger.)
And then there is Miss Millicent Bulstrode. She's a stout, taciturn girl, but the intelligence just shines from her eyes. When Miss Hooch asked each student to talk about her interests, Miss Bulstrode came alive when she explained how she loves horses, how her father is a veterinarian, and how she wants to become one herself.
We don't yet have stables at Ravendore -- that's a project for the future, Miss McGonagall says -- but any girl whose parents will allow her to ride is to be taken on a field trip to do so on alternate Saturdays. It seems that Miss Hooch knows a woman who runs a training stable.
I'd love to tell you more, but I have lessons to plan (a delightful task for the most part, but never-ending), and I need to go into the village to buy a new sponge-bag; the one from my Hawthorne days has finally given up the ghost.
I'll write again next week, I hope!
The Ravendore School for Girls
Saturday, 12 September, 1925
Another week has somehow rushed by. I'm busy from morning till night, but so far, I love every minute. This morning, I accompanied Miss Hooch and Mademoiselle Delacour (the French mistress) and eight students to the Hazelwood Stables for two glorious hours of riding. (You know that riding is the only thing I really enjoy about the outdoors, and I'm glad that at least it's something that gives me proper exercise.)
Two of the students are beginners, but the others are fairly experienced horsewomen (er, horsegirls?) and were a pleasure to ride with. Mademoiselle in particular was quite a surprise; she seems so delicate and fluttery, but she is positively masterful on a horse. Miss Bulstrode, too, is excellent, and you can just tell how much she loves and understands the animals.
Miss Grubbly-Plank, the woman who runs the stables, is an oddity. Her hair is as short as a man's, and she smokes a pipe and wears dungarees. She calls Miss Hooch just "Hooch," and told us to call her "GP."
GP approved of Millicent from almost the moment she met her. The horses were already saddled and waiting for us, but one of them was a bit skittish. Millicent had him calmed down in seconds.
"What's your name?" GP asked her.
"Like horses, do you, Bulstrode?" GP said. That's how she talks, like a gruff telegram. It's funny.
But she's extremely gentle with horses and children alike. You should have seen how well she dealt with one of the new riders, Betty Potter. Yesterday, Betty had been rather lording it over her form-mates about how she was going to learn to ride, but when she was faced with an actual horse, she became frightened. GP was as calm and patient as she could be, and she soon had horse and girl getting along "like a house afire," as Effie the Hawthorne housemaid used to say.
By the time we were to return to Ravendore, all the girls were fast friends with GP, and Millicent had had such a good time that, if she were any other girl, she would have been in tears when we left. But Millicent is made of stern stuff, so she just got a bit red in the face.
Miss Hooch stood and talked to GP for a few minutes while we were waiting for the jitney from the station, the two of them laughing together like the old friends they reportedly are.
When we got back to the school, Miss Hooch tipped me a nod to follow her to the staffroom, and once we got inside, she said, "I had a word with GP after the session today. She could use someone to give her a hand around the stables a couple of afternoons a week, and you saw how keen Miss Bulstrode was to be around the animals. If her parents approve, I'd like to grant her permission to leave the grounds to work with the horses. What do you think?"
Now, whether she would have listened to me if I'd said it was a bad idea, I don't know, but I was pleased to be consulted! Like a real professional. Of course I said, "I think it's a wonderful plan. Millicent will be thrilled. She's one of those who doesn't thrive if she's too cooped up; she needs to be out of doors."
Miss Hooch nodded. "My feelings exactly. Would you be willing to chaperone Miss Bulstrode on some of her trips? I know it's an extra duty for you, but it wouldn't be every time: I will do it as often as I can. GP has a very comfortable sitting room that you can use while you wait, as I well know. That's where I live during the hols."
"Oh, I'd be happy to," I said, and then I registered the rest of what she'd said. "Really? You live at Miss Grubbly-Plank's?"
Miss Hooch nodded again. "We met in France and got along so well that we've shared digs ever since the war. She bought the stables only last year, after Minerva and Pomona and I decided to see if we could make a go of the school."
"Do Miss McGonagall and Miss Sprout live there between terms, too?" I asked.
"Oh, no," she said, chuckling a little. "Minerva lives here; her heart and soul are in this school, so it only makes sense that her person would be, too. And wherever Minerva is, Pomona is. They've been inseparable friends ever since our schooldays. We used to joke that when they got married, their husbands were going to have to agree to set up a joint establishment."
"Were they engaged to be married?" It was very forward of me to ask, I suppose, but I was curious.
This time Miss Hooch laughed outright. "No, no, It was just schoolgirl chatter, although I think Pomona was once a little sweet on a boy from her village whose family had a farm. She's always denied it, though. Anyway, after we left school, we were too busy to think of marrying, and after the war, even if we'd wanted to, well..." She shrugged. "All the men were dead."
It shocked me to hear her be so matter-of-fact about it. But of course it's true; there's no point in turning away from it. An entire generation of young men, gone, and not just British boys. It's a good thing I don't want to marry.
Miss Hooch said the same. "Not that any of us was very eager to wed in any case," she told me, with another bark of laughter. "Can you see GP walking down the aisle in a white gown? And Minerva is far too independent."
Then she stood up briskly and said, "Well, that's settled, then. I'll mention the horse plan to the rest of the Triumvirate, but I can't imagine they'd object. We can talk to Miss Bulstrode on Monday."
It's so fascinating, Miriam, to be on the teacher side of the school now! I'm enjoying every minute.
The Ravendore School for Girls
Saturday, 17 October, 1925
My apologies, my friend, for being such a dilatory correspondent! I've had your last letter on my blotter for weeks now, and just have not had a moment to respond.
We have something of a crisis here at Ravendore: my dear, it is entirely possible that our first year might be our last!
Remember Alice Milner, the junior mistress who plans to marry at the end of next summer term? Her fiancé is named Frank Longbottom, and it turns out that Frank's mother, Lady Augusta Longbottom, is one of the principal financial backers of the school. She's the one who got Alice the post here, and evidently it was quite a shock to all her society friends, that she would accept the idea of her son's future wife having even a temporary career. But she's an unusual woman, Alice says.
Apparently she's quite militant about quality education for girls, and when her husband died, she decided to use his money to help establish a school. She's older than the Triumvirate -- fifty at least! -- but it seems that Miss McGonagall's mother knew Lady Longbottom's older sister...well, I don't exactly know how it all worked, but the result was that Lady Longbottom decided to back the Triumvirate. As I understand it, she has a one-third controlling interest in the institution.
Alice says that her future mother-in-law agreed to leave curricular decisions to the Triumvirate, but then, last week she (Lady Longbottom, that is) suddenly appeared in our fourth-form classroom. She just opened the door and walked in.
I had no idea who she was until Alice whispered the whole story to me during the lunch interval, but I can tell you that Lady Longbottom is almost as formidable as Headmistress McGonagall, and that's saying something. She was corseted within an inch of her life -- she positively creaked as she walked along -- in an old-fashioned black bombazine mourning dress and a huge old hat with one of those horrid stuffed birds on it (I swear it looked like a vulture).
Miss Granger was in the middle of her history lesson when Lady Longbottom came in and of course she stopped her recitation. Lady Longbottom boomed, "Carry on, child! Don't let me distract you. Pretend I'm not here" -- as if we could possibly ignore her, sailing majestically between the desks like the Titanic in full steam.
She berthed herself at an empty seat, and Miss Granger, to her everlasting credit, finished her recitation with barely a stumble. Then for the rest of the day, Lady Longbottom wandered at will in and out of classes and asked the students a thousand questions.
Miss Hooch seemed a little amused by it all, but Miss McGonagall -- well, I've told you how her mouth gets thin when she's angry, and for most of the afternoon, you'd have thought she had no lips at all. She's very protective of the girls and their study time, and it was clear that she resented the way they were being disturbed.
When the last class ended, Miss Sprout asked Lady Longbottom if she would stay to dinner, and she said, "But of course. And then after we eat, I would like to meet with you and all the teachers in the staffroom. I have many things to discuss. I have told my chauffeur not to call for me until 9:00 p.m." She pointed at Mademoiselle Delacour and said, "The French lass can look after the students for the evening, n'est-ce pas? The rest of you can listen to what I have to say."
Miss McGonagall said, "The senior mistresses and I will be glad to meet with you after dinner, Lady Longbottom. But the junior mistresses must be allowed to please themselves. They needn't trouble about administrative matters unless they wish to."
There was a rather tense pause during which they both stared at each other, and I felt that there was much more at stake than just whether the junior mistresses attended this gathering.
Finally Lady Longbottom gave a brisk nod. "Very well. Alice, my dear, I'll expect to see you there, of course."
"Of course, Mother Longbottom," Alice said, and under her breath said to me, "Round One to the headmistress, wouldn't you say?"
Well, as you might imagine, I was in a quandary. I couldn't decide whether the headmistress had been indirectly telling us juniors to stay away, or whether she really meant for us to please ourselves about whether we attended the meeting.
In the end, I decided to take her at her word and do as I pleased -- and of course what I "pleased" was to hear all about it! I want to learn everything I can about the running of Ravendore.
(And before you make a pointed little comment in your next letter the way you did in your previous one, I'll admit it: yes, I also wanted another chance to be with Miss McGonagall. There, are you satisfied, Missy Miri? I have a crush. Make that a Crush. Full-blown. But if you could just see her, I know you'd love her, too. She's fierce and indomitable and brilliant, and she has the most darling determined jaw and the loveliest hands.
Go ahead -- laugh if you must. But I'm going to practice until I can silence an entire room with just a glare, the way she does. Then I'll dare you to laugh!)
So Alice and I went along to the staffroom after dinner; we were the only juniors who did. We sat in the far corner, quiet as mice, and the headmistress gave Lady Longbottom the choice chair near the fire and offered her tea.
Lady L said, "Thank you, but I've had sufficient. I prefer to do without the distraction of refreshments; this is a business, not the Women's Institute." (Which is funny, because I know that Miss McGonagall feels the same way about business matters. If it weren't for her fatal weakness for ginger biscuits, she'd probably never have consented to have a tea pantry off the staffroom. I suspect Miss Hooch would have insisted, though. But my point is that Miss McG and Lady L are more alike than they might think.)
Oh, dear -- there goes the retiring bell, and it's my night to make certain that all the girls are in their rooms with the lights out. So I shall have to continue this another day, I fear.
So sorry to keep you in suspense, but I must run.
Yours in haste,
The Ravendore School for Girls
Sunday, 18 October, 1925
I finally have a moment to pick up where I left off yesterday. The Triumvirate is not unreasonably strict about observing the Sabbath, but they do insist on a silent hour of reflection after tea -- for the girls anyway. I'm afraid that most of the teachers use the time to relax in their rooms. The junior teachers take it in turns to do chaperone duty in the quiet room, but today is not one of my days. Thus I can devote the whole hour to writing to you.
(Lest you fear that I am ignoring my proper Kirk o' Scotland upbringing, however, I hasten to assure you that I do plan to attend Vespers tonight with Miss Sprout and Miss McGonagall and most of the girls. Miss Hooch does not accompany us, though. In fact I have it on good authority that Miss Hooch sometimes uses the quiet reflection hour to reflect on the inside of her eyelids -- that's right, she naps. What is my good authority, you ask? An unimpeachable one: If you walk past the end of the senior teachers' corridor during quiet hour, you can hear...snores!)
Now, I have teased you long enough; I know you must be simply expiring to know what Lady Longbottom wanted to talk about. Well, if you're sure that you're sitting down, I shall tell you: she wants to withdraw her money from Ravendore!
As I told you in my last, Lady Longbottom has a one-third financial interest in the school; the Triumvirate holds the other two-thirds. Alice explained to me what this means: in theory, Lady L can't force the Triumvirate to do what she wants, for if it came to a vote, the Big Three could vote in a bloc and carry the day. But in practice, of course, it's not so simple.
Until the school has established itself on a paying basis, Lady L has the power to enforce any change she wishes, merely by threatening to remove her contribution. Here's how Frank explained it to Alice last spring: Miss McGonagall -- well, the whole Triumvirate, really -- put most of their capital into building the new wings and furnishing the classrooms. They thought they would still have enough to meet the monthly expenses of running the school, but the construction was costlier than they'd anticipated, and that's why they needed Lady L -- she puts up the money to meet the overhead (the day-to-day expenses, that means) until we have enough students and tuition. (And Miss McG is going to establish an endowment fund, too, but that's neither here nor there at the moment.)
Anyway, the point is this: Ravendore is threatened!
Lady Longbottom had scarcely sat down before she said, "I don't believe in dilly-dallying, so I shall come straight to the point. An alarming report has reached me about the nature of instruction at Ravendore. I had tea last week with Mrs Arbuthnot, whose daughter Edna, as you know, is in the upper sixth. And in her most recent letter home, Edna talked about a class designed specifically to prepare girls to enter university! Now, I was told nothing about university when we came to our original arrangement."
She raised her lorgnette and stared through it at the headmistress, as if Miss McG were some form of new species. Miss McGonagall raised her chin (she really does look charming when she's being determined and regal) and said, "Lady Longbottom, I do hope you are not suggesting that my colleagues and I misled you about the school's prospectus. Is it possible you are simply misremembering our conversations? For I distinctly remember Miss Sprout explaining that we were designating our years as 'forms' in part to make Ravendore girls attractive to English universities."
Lady L made a motion rather like batting away flies, and said, "Oh, no doubt, the possibility of university was mentioned, but I thought it would be just an occasional thing -- of course there will be the odd bluestocking now and then, but university education for women is a freak that should not be encouraged by formal instruction! Or at least, I don't want my money encouraging it."
Miss Sprout (who had managed to tidy herself quite wonderfully) spoke up and said, "Dear Lady Longbottom, this is a surprise! I had always thought you a friend of female education."
"And so I am!" Lady L declaimed. "Women are the mothers and the conscience of the race, and they need finely-trained minds if they are to take their rightful place as rearers of good men and leaders. That is what a good education should do: train girls to be intelligent wives and mothers, not to be running off to university and burying themselves in books.
"The three of you" -- and she looked through her eyeglass at each of the Triumvirate in turn -- "are good with numbers. I'm certain that you've seen the statistics, and there is no gainsaying the fact that women who go to university are less likely to marry than women who do not. We cannot afford to encourage such nonsense, especially not now. The late war has destroyed the finest specimens of British manhood; British women have a duty to repopulate the Isles."
"And how are they going to do that without enough 'specimens' to be the fathers? Are you suggesting that we encourage the students to join harems instead of trying for places at university?" Miss McGonagall demanded.
Even I knew this wasn't a very diplomatic remark, but Miss McG isn't always in perfect control of her temper. Everyone looked a little shocked except Miss Hooch. She started to snicker and had to turn it into a cough.
But Lady L didn't get as angry as I thought she would. She just said, "Now, Minerva, there's no need for sarcasm. These are important issues."
Miss McG said, "Indeed they are, you're right. My apologies. But I do think that today's modern girl has many legitimate options for her life. Motherhood is certainly one of them, and a noble calling it is, but there is room for the girl who would attend university, too. It's not a path that every girl is suited to trod; I am tutoring only a small number of potential candidates. I daresay Ravendore will still turn out her quota of the nation's mothers."
Lady Longbottom said she hoped so, and there was a little more discussion, but the meeting ended with nothing settled. Lady L finally said she would "give the matter further thought" and would call on the headmistress next week.
Then everyone stood up, and the Triumvirate escorted Lady L to her automobile, and the other senior mistresses trailed out, until Alice and I were left alone in the staffroom, just looking at each other rather helplessly.
Oh, Miriam, I don't know what I'll do if Ravendore is forced to close before we've even got properly started! In just these few months since term began, I have come to realise how much I enjoy teaching, and I don't want to give it up. I admit, when I began, I saw teaching as mostly a means to my university ends. I intended to do my best, of course, but I didn't think of teaching itself as a calling.
Now I do. It is difficult and challenging, to be sure, but I don't think I shall ever tire of the satisfaction that comes from helping a girl understand or enjoy something that had baffled or bored her. Of course it's very rewarding to work with girls like Hermione Granger, who already loves learning for its own sake, but I also love moments such as the one I had yesterday with Ginny Weasley, another of the fourth-formers.
Miss Weasley is bright enough, and expert at games, but she's not an intellectual. She's a girl of action and thus finds it quite a struggle to sit quietly and compose a theme -- which is exactly the task I had set the girls. Her first effort was decidedly slapdash, and I thought I had better speak with her before academic carelessness became a habit.
So a few days ago, I asked her to meet with me, and oh, Miriam! If you could have seen how woebegone and reluctant she looked! It had never occurred to me until that moment that the girls might feel as unnerved by a summons from me as you and I did that time we were called to Miss Cameron's office! I have authority now, and I must learn not to misuse it.
I tried to set Miss Weasley at ease by smiling and telling her that I liked her lively style of writing, but that I thought she had much more ability than she was showing. I said, "In your heart of hearts, do you think this theme represents the best you can do?"
She thought for a moment and said, "I s'pose I could have spent more time on it, but I don't know if that would have made it better. I'm just not good at themes, Miss Moody. I have ideas in my head, but when I try to write them out, they just don't come right. They get all tangled, and I can't say what I mean."
Well, of course, we know that feeling very well, don't we, Miri? I told Ginny a little about my own school days, about how you and I would try to "untangle" our ideas by telling them out loud to each other. I said, "If you have a good friend, Miss Weasley, talk out your theme with her. Ask each other questions. If you like, I will help you get started right now, to show you how."
She agreed, so I started with some simple questions. The topic of the theme was to describe a woman they admired and explain why. Ginny had picked Lucy Morton, but beyond recounting her triumph at the Olympic Games last year -- "The only British woman to win a gold medal, Miss Moody!" -- she hadn't much to say about her.
I tried asking more questions and encouraging her to tell me exactly why she admired Miss Morton, and gradually she became more excited and interested, until finally I said, "Now, will you try the theme again and spend at least two whole study periods on it? Raven's honour?"
This last is a phrase the Triumvirate often uses in speaking to the girls, and of late I have heard some of them adopt it, too. You should have seen how Miss Weasley's shoulders straightened at the sound of it!
"Yes, I will!" she said. "Raven's honour."
She gave me the new theme today, Miriam, and I couldn't be more pleased. It's not perfect, of course, but it is so much better, and I could just see by the glint in Ginny's eye that she knew it was work she could take pride in.
So you see why I am so eager to continue the good work of Ravendore. Miss Hooch and Miss McGonagall and Miss Sprout have created a place for girls to thrive, and if we give in to Lady Longbottom's vision of things and lower our intellectual expectations, why -- we'll be little better than a finishing school, and eventually all the students will be like those prissy twits from Miss Trelawney's Academy that we used to laugh at when we were at Hawthorne, remember them?
I'm rather too disheartened to write anything further just now, but I will let you know as soon as there is any more news.
The Ravendore School for Girls
Saturday, 24 October, 1925
Just a short note today, I'm afraid; I haven't the heart for more. Oh, not that there is any bad news to impart, but that's part of the problem: there hasn't been any real news at all.
Miss McGonagall has been a veritable whirlwind this past week, spending whole afternoons away from the school and having any number of meetings in her office with the Triumvirate. I heard raised voices behind her door more than once, and twice, she has been called from the high table to take telephone calls. (Unprecedented -- normally, she never allows meals to be interrupted.)
In front of the staff and students she is always calm, and Miss Sprout is still cheerful, and Miss Hooch is still jaunty, so I suppose catastrophe has not (yet) struck. In fact, at our regular weekly staff meeting, Miss McG said, "I continue to work with Lady Longbottom on pedagogical and financial issues, and our talks are going well," which could mean anything or nothing. But I had the uneasy feeling that Miss McG was being deliberately nonchalant so as not to worry us.
Well. I shall try to put it out of my mind and concentrate on my students and classes. On Tuesday, I shall accompany Miss Bulstrode to GP's riding stables for the first time in nearly a month (usually Miss Hooch chaperones her), and I'm looking forward to a pleasant afternoon. GP's sitting room is a restful place, very comfortable. It's Spartan, as she is, but somehow the very lack of clutter is soothing.
(Still, this isn't to say that there's not an occasional spot of excitement at GP's -- just last week, for instance, something interesting happened. Miss Hooch told us all about it in the staffroom. She'd been at the stables with Millicent and was talking with GP when a local boy came tearing into the yard shouting about a "lady" being thrown. Apparently a very well-to-do local woman, a Mrs Malfoy, had been riding her horse nearby and had an accident that the boy witnessed.
Everyone was prepared for a horrendous injury -- broken legs, broken neck, that sort of thing -- when it turned out that it wasn't Mrs Malfoy herself who had been thrown at all. It was her horse, Lady, that had thrown a shoe. But GP fixed the horse up, and that was that; everything was back to normal quickly. So I don't think I'll need to anticipate too much disruption of my quiet visit.)
I probably will not write again, my dear, until I have something definite to report. But I am thinking of you.
The Ravendore School for Girls
Saturday, 21 November, 1925
You darling! I just heard the news, though the story will come as no surprise to you. Miss McGonagall called a meeting of the staff and told us all about it. And she told me very particularly about your part in it -- about what you've done to help Ravendore. You dear, dear thing!
As you might imagine, rumour has been swirling here; even the students caught wind of it. Miss Granger came to my room almost in tears at the thought of the school closing, and last week when I escorted Miss Bulstrode to the stables, I could tell she had something on her mind. When I asked what was wrong, she put her hands on her hips and said, "Tell me straight, Miss M. Is Ravendore for the chop?"
Finally Miss McGonagall had to make an announcement at morning assembly. She said, "Young ladies, a culture of rumour seems to have developed here at Ravendore, and that's a situation I want us to avoid. Perfectly ordinary events become magnified out of all proportion if they are whispered about in secret.
"For example, many of you have heard that Ravendore School is presently undergoing some financial reorganisation. Such changes often occur in the running of institutions and are nothing to become alarmed about. But it seems that some of you also have been hearing that the school is closing and that you're to be sent home within the week.
"Let me assure you that such stories are completely without foundation. Ravendore School is in excellent financial health, and in fact, we will be welcoming several new scholars next week.
"In the future, girls, if you have any questions about the state of Ravendore, I suggest that you ask me or one of your forms mistresses directly. Facts are always to be preferred over unsupported speculation."
She dismissed everyone soon after, and it wasn't until this evening that she told the staff the full story: that Ravendore is in better shape than ever! Not only is Lady Longbottom going to continue her support, but we've received a substantial endowment and nearly a dozen new students!
And to think that you were part of our salvation, dear Miriam, and you never let on! However did you manage to convince your mother to let both your sisters switch schools mid-term? I never guessed you were working so hard to help us.
It's funny, because last week, as I glanced out the library window, I could have sworn I saw your mother's motor being driven up to the front of the school. My first thought was that something had happened to you, and she was coming to tell me the dreadful news.
But I was not sent for, and the guest parlour was empty (yes, I sneaked down to check, just like any schoolgirl). Now I realise that your mother must have been in Headmistress McGonagall's office, arranging to transfer the girls.
I'm sure that it was her experience of seeing Miss McG face-to-face that helped your mother decide to send Dorothy and Ida here. I don't see how anyone could listen to our dear headmistress, could see and hear how fine she is, without being converted to whatever cause she chose to champion.
And there's more: Remember the wealthy woman with the horse, Mrs Malfoy? She comes into the story as well. I told you in my last letter about how she came to spend an afternoon at GP's while her horse was shod. I assumed that she had waited in GP's sitting room, but it seems that Mrs M didn't want to let her horse out of her sight, so she stayed with her while the work was done.
In the course of the afternoon, she met Millicent Bulstrode, our Ravendore student. Millicent is not generally a talkative sort, but Mrs Malfoy seems to have got her to open up -- I suspect because they're both so dotty about horses -- and Millicent told the grand lady all about our school. Mrs. Malfoy was most interested.
Over the last few weeks, she came to visit the stable several times while Millicent was there; she seemed quite taken with the girl. (I even met Mrs M once when I was chaperoning Millicent. She's very blonde and languid and drawling, and I would never have guessed that she had so many passions -- for horses and girls' education, among other things. She has a son whom she is simply mad about, but she told Millicent that she always wanted a girl, too. So that's why she is so interested in our school.)
Evidently Millicent told her about the rumours of the school's closing (at some point I shall have to talk with her about the impropriety of gossiping about Ravendore to near-strangers, but given the happy consequences, I can't be sorry she did!) Because here is what happened:
Mrs Malfoy seems to have talked the matter over with GP, and GP put her on to the Triumvirate. And she (Mrs Malfoy) met several times with all of them together and with the headmistress separately, and the result is, she's going to donate a large sum of money to establish an endowment!
It also turns out that Lady Longbottom knows the Malfoy family very well (they are apparently quite an old and established family hereabouts; Mrs Malfoy's father-in-law was at school with the headmistress's late father), so Lady L has been persuaded to continue backing Ravendore. Apparently she isn't so frightened of girls going to university if it's something the Malfoy family supports!
So it seems that Mr Shakespeare had it right: all's well that ends well.
I didn't have time to finish and post this letter last night, Miriam dear, and now I'm very glad I didn't, for now I have even more happy news to report.
I was in the staffroom this afternoon during the relaxation hour, and who should come in but the Triumvirate. We're all so busy lately that the staff rarely spends much time together; I don't think I've been in the staffroom with just the Misses Hooch, Sprout, and McGonagall since that night before term, when they told Alice and me about their schooldays.
They didn't see me at first. The headmistress appeared to be in quite high spirits as they came in, and Miss Sprout said, "Minerva, it does my heart good to see you like this; I don't think you've been this happy since the day we went to the solicitor's office to sign the partnership papers for Ravendore."
"Don't forget, Pomona," Miss Hooch put in, "that's also the day we actually succeed in getting her to take a bit of champagne in celebration. Minerva, you haven't been into the cooking sherry, have you? You seem quite exuberant."
Miss McGonagall just laughed. "My dears, I admit to being a trifle tipsy, but not from any actual spirits. From the beginning, I felt reasonably certain that we could make a success of Ravendore, but now I am fully convinced of it. We faced a crisis, and we have triumphed! Oh, I know that pride goeth, and we may have rocky times again in the future, but at this moment, I feel utterly invincible!"
And then guess what she did next! On second thought, don't even try; you'll never guess in a million years -- she seized Miss Sprout by the waist and actually waltzed her around the room!
When they reached the fender, she saw me sitting in the chair next to the fire and stopped short. I believe she was genuinely flustered; she started smoothing her hair and skirts even though there was not a pin out of place. It was very endearing.
Miss Hooch laughed, and Miss McG said, "Goodness, Miss Moody! I had no idea you were here. I do beg your pardon."
I think my reply sounded cool and collected, though I don't know how I managed it since I felt all tingly and nervous, the way I always do when she speaks to me directly. I said, "Not at all, Miss McGonagall. I'm just as excited as you are."
Miss Sprout tried to smooth her own escaping hair (with no success, I fear) and beamed at me and said, "Oh, no need to apologise to Miss Moody, Minerva. She's family, aren't you, dear? Ravendore family, I mean."
Miss McGonagall gave me that rare beautiful smile of hers, and then she actually took my hand and patted it! And said, "that she is, Pomona."
Family! Miss McGonagall said I was part of the Ravendore family! Oh, I know I sound like a great silly, but if I had expired on the spot, I would have died happy.
I love my life here, Miriam. I want to get my degree and then come back and spend the rest of my life at Ravendore. What a grand and noble calling this is. When your granddaughters are ready to come to school here, don't be surprised if they find me still in place.
I wouldn't even mind spending eternity here as a ghost -- flitting about, watching generation after generation of bright, fun girls be educated, letting the older ones catch rare glimpses of my ectoplasmic self. I'd become a legend: the Grey Lady of Ravendore.
It would be Heaven.
Your friend forevermore,
Fiona Moody, TEACHER