Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Portrait of a Lady

Some of you may know my darkest secret: I attended a boarding school known as The Cheltenham Ladies' College. For years, during parties and introductions, I have skated over this inconvenient fact. I have been reluctant to own up to my association with this venerable institution, mainly because I feared it would typecast me, or worse still arouse antipathy in my listener. We all make judgements and a school with that much baggage is bound to inspire some prejudice.
A Victorian lady
The original lady: corsets and decorum 
© Artefy | Dreamstime.com
Last night the school inevitably featured in Rachel Johnson's BBC Four Timeshift programme on How To Be A Lady. Rachel's grandmother attended the school and Rachel admits that she resisted her own father's attempts to enroll her simply because of the name.

It seems that in our economically straitened times the term lady is undergoing something of a revival. Young women are re-discovering (and even studying) ladylike ways in an attempt to develop their social confidence and also their professional presence. Drunken antics, Page 3 models and even the ladette excesses of the 1990s have had their day, apparently. 

Rachel even interviewed a modern feminist - the writer and critic Bidisha - who was keen to extoll the virtues of a ladylike demeanour. "It's about bringing a kind of formality and elegance back into a culture which is really quite vulgar," she says. We can redefine our concept of the lady, Bidisha believes, by divorcing it from notions of class and associating it with being a "brilliant, strong, sisterly woman".

Nevertheless, by the end of the programme, Rachel is still not convinced that we should all re-embrace ladyhood - and I am inclined to agree. We are who we are. What a dull place the world would be if every woman was schooled to be a lady! I will admit that my education, augmented by my mother's discipline, has turned me into a creature of decorum (for the most part). However, although this forms part of my identity, I hope that over the years I have managed to add a few more layers. 

More notably, I have my school to thank for my conviction that women are intellectually equal to men - an obvious point, perhaps, but still in contention the world over. In the late 19th century, Cheltenham Ladies' College was in fact a radical exponent of education for girls. The second principal, Dorothea Beale, believed that girls should lay their needlework aside and be as highly educated as boys. 

During my time in Cheltenham, we were taught to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted. We had a right to a career, the same as any boy. Sadly not all girls' schools were so progressive, even as recently as the 1980s. Former pupils of the college are undoubtedly privileged but also broad-minded. Some of my peers are now teaching in state schools, working in the city, writing children's books, mothering children and running their own businesses. There! My secret is out. Just don't tell anyone, please...


Next week, I will post a sample from my new novel, set in the 1970s. The main character, Maggie, has been brought up in the mould of a lady, just at a time when the world is changing its view on a woman's place. Imprisoned by her own femininity, Maggie battles with an unhappy marriage and low self-esteem. A chance meeting with Louise - a free spirit and a creature of the moment - opens Maggie's mind to other possibilities.