War Among Ladies (1928), by Eleanor Scott, is a recent British Library Women Writers’ republication. As has probably become apparent over the past few years, I am fascinated by books that give insight into the history of teaching (or nursing/medicine), and this falls squarely within that first category. Scott, born in 1892, started out as a teacher before becoming a writer, and for her first novel published under this name, she chose to set it in Besley High School, a mediocre girls’ high school. The book is split into two sections – the first relatively short, with the second taking up most of the novel. In the first section, it’s exam season, and there is one question on everyone’s minds: will Miss Cullen’s pupils pass their French exam? At Besley, a student who fails one subject fails their whole exam – not only scuppering their chances for a career, but also imperilling the teachers who failed to get them through the process. Yet Miss Cullen is truly, deeply incompetent. She can’t manage her classes, her pupils don’t respect her, and she’s now so stressed that she’s even failing to do the basic administrative tasks that the teachers have to split between themselves, like lunch duty. Every year, her exam results get worse – but if Miss Cullen is dismissed or retires before 60, she loses all the money she has paid into her pension. At the start of the novel, she is 56. Can she hang on? Should she?
The second, much longer section starts in the autumn term, with idealistic new English teacher Viola Kennedy arriving at Besley, her head full of grand ideals of Education, of Helping Girls to Love Books. Unbeknownst to Viola, she is arriving into a world of simmering tension: if the exam results don’t improve, the school will close, and every member of staff close to retirement age (not just Miss Cullen) will be cast out on an unforgiving job market – at the top of their salary band, coming from a school that has failed, and with old-fashioned qualifications. Other than Miss Cullen, they are all competent, though rather weary. Miss Cullen herself feels victimised and persecuted. Both sides of this polite, vicious war are looking for allies, and will try to make Viola one of their own. The central conflict is spelt out clearly towards the very start of the book:
All the staff at Besley were anxious this year. A school lives or dies in the eyes of Authority by its examination results, and Besley High School was in a parlous state indeed. Steadily through the last five years the honourable roll of “Distinction”, “Honours”, and “Passed” had dwindled; every year had the examiners, those remote and awful beings, dreaded as fiends, as capricious, as implacable, damned a larger number of Besley girls with those mystic hieroglyphics which to the initiated mean: “Ill-taught – incapable – uneducated – failures”. And they knew that by this year’s results the school’s fate would in all probability be decided.
This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s such a fantastic character study – especially of Miss Cullen and Viola, but all the characters are complex and real. In the hands of a less skilled writer, Viola in particular could have become a grating, one-note Pollyanna, but she is very human. She’s kind and optimistic, but she gets exhausted, she snaps at her colleagues, she loses some of her idealism pretty sharpish. Because there is an impersonal third person narrator, we see fairly close into Viola’s perceptions and thought processes, so we understand her decisions – but we also see enough of her colleagues’ to see how she is being perceived and received by these women whose nerves are frayed to the last threads. On several occasions I felt like I wanted to charge into the book and interrupt her in the middle of making a mistake – but it’s also very believable that she would see the world the way she does, that she would make the mistakes she does. I probably would as well. She’s just a fantastic creation and comes right off the page.
Miss Cullen is, equally, a wonderful and tragic creation. Testament to this: I am a teacher, currently struggling with the limitations of a (very nice) colleague who has many of Miss Cullen’s same issues – scatty, poor classroom management, unable to adjust to changes in the education system, unreliable, making work a lot harder for the rest of us (though, mercifully, at least we can’t lose our pensions as a result). In addition to these shortcomings, Miss Cullen lacks insight into her colleagues’ experiences and perspectives – she’s so focused on her own survival that she doesn’t see how scared they are for their own. I should have found her entirely unsympathetic – but actually she just made me very sad. Scott manages to get all Miss Cullen’s lonely, anxious heart onto the page, so that the whole way through I was wishing for her to have a sudden revelation and pull it together for those last few years before retirement. She dreads teaching so much, and I love it. I was so sad to know that she had come to hate a job that I find incredibly rewarding.
What should she do – what could she do? No voice could be heard above that pandemonium of girls’ voices, talking, laughing, two whistling a fox-trot, others slinging missiles about the room. Suppose someone heard? Thank Heaven the ventilators into the corridor were shut! … Suppose Miss Fergusson, underneath in IIIb, were to hear and complain? Suppose the Head came in? … In spite of the warm sun her hands were cold and damp. She felt a little sick. Then – thank Heaven! – the bell. It was over – for the moment.
Although this is character-driven, it’s still tense and exciting. For a novel whose primary plot can be boiled down to “will some teenage girls pass their French exams?” and “will the school inspector be rude to Viola or polite to her, equally hazardous in different ways?”, War Among Ladies moves along at an impressive clip. In terms of atmosphere and tension, this feels almost like a thriller. The stakes are very small on paper, of course – but Scott’s skill is in showing us how enormous, how devastating, the potential consequences are for the participants. Even the girls’ exam results – not, in fact, the point of the novel, but there in the background – are a reminder that, if they fail their exams because of poor teaching, their own lives will be terribly affected. (I found the lack of care for the girls’ futures, among the people meant to be teaching them, very disturbing – but I think it’s meant to be).
Overall, this is an excellent novel, though a terribly sad one. This comes with my very highest recommendation. One tiny caveat: if you are a teacher, especially if you’re expecting Ofsted to show up some time soon, maybe give it a miss! Otherwise, I think there’s something in here for everyone – definitely the best that I’ve read so far in this reprint series.
I probably wouldn’t have been attracted to this from the blurb but you’ve made it sound really appealing, and I want to know if the girls passed their exams and if poor Miss Cullen kept her pension! I may have to add this one to my wishlist!
Oh, I hope you enjoy it if you read it! I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if it hadn’t been for the teaching theme, and I’m so glad I did.
You have made this sound like an interesting read, despite the bare bones plot! I couldn’t help thinking that these teachers need a union!
They really do need a union!
I think this book would give me heart palpitations. There was nothing that drove me nuts when I was teaching like a colleague who thought students should feel honored just to hear (typically) him speak. It’s very much the “professor jacket with patched elbows” days they miss. And yet they’re stubbornness and unwillingness to reach out, take a workshop, get a mentor–anything!–would just set me on fire.
I don’t work with that many people like that, exactly – but I do work with people who are very, very reluctant to improve their teaching. I teach on the research methods module along with a lot of active researchers, and the idea that we should make the module a) interesting and b) applied to practice is constantly shocking to them.