School began at nine o’clock, but the hamlet children set out on their mile-and-a-half walk there as soon as possible after their seven o’clock breakfast, partly because they liked plenty of time to play on the road and partly because their mothers wanted them out of the way before house-cleaning began.
Up the long, straight road they straggled, in twos and threes and in gangs, their flat, rush dinner-baskets over their shoulders and their shabby little coats on their arms against rain. In cold weather some of them carried two hot potatoes which had been in the oven, or in the ashes, all night, to warm their hands on the way and to serve as a light lunch on arrival.
They were strong, lusty children, let loose from control; and there was plenty of shouting, quarrelling, and often fighting among them. In more peaceful moments they would squat in the dust of the road and play marbles, or sit on a stone heap and play dibs with pebbles, or climb into the hedges after birds’ nests or blackberries, or to pull long trails of bryony to wreathe round their hats. In winter they would slide on the ice on the puddles, or make snowballs — soft ones for their friends, and hard ones with a stone inside for their enemies.
After the first mile or so the dinner-baskets would be raided; or they would creep through the bars of the padlocked field gates for turnips to pare with the teeth and munch, or for handfuls of green pea shucks, or ears of wheat, to rub out the sweet, milky grain between the hands and devour. In spring they ate the young green from the hawthorn hedges, which they called ‘bread and cheese’, and sorrel leaves from the wayside, which they called ‘sour grass’, and in autumn there was an abundance of haws and blackberries and sloes and crabapples for them to feast upon. There was always something to eat, and they ate, not so much because they were hungry as from habit and relish of the wild food.
At that early hour there was little traffic upon the road. Sometimes, in winter, the children would hear the pounding of galloping hoofs and a string of hunters, blanketed up to the ears and ridden and led by grooms, would loom up out of the mist and thunder past on the grass verges. At other times the steady tramp and jingle of the teams going afield would approach, and, as they passed, fathers would pretend to flick their offspring with whips, saying, ‘There! that’s for that time you deserved it an’ didn’t get it’; while elder brothers, themselves at school only a few months before, would look patronizingly down from the horses’ backs and call: ‘Get out o’ th’ way, you kids!’
Going home in the afternoon there was more to be seen. A farmer’s gig, on the way home from market, would stir up the dust; or the miller’s van or the brewer’s dray, drawn by four immense, hairy-legged, satin-backed carthorses. More exciting was the rare sight of Squire Harrison’s four-inhand, with ladies in bright, summer dresses, like a garden of flowers, on the top of the coach, and Squire himself, pink-cheeked and white-hatted, handling the four greys. When the four-inhand passed, the children drew back and saluted, the Squire would gravely touch the brim of his hat with his whip, and the ladies would lean from their high seats to smile on the curtseying children.
A more familiar sight was the lady on a white horse who rode slowly on the same grass verge in the same direction every Monday and Thursday. It was whispered among the children that she was engaged to a farmer living at a distance, and that they met half-way between their two homes. If so, it must have been a long engagement, for she rode past at exactly the same hour twice a week throughout Laura’s schooldays, her face getting whiter and her figure getting fuller and her old white horse also putting on weight.
It has been said that every child is born a little savage and has to be civilized. The process of civilization had not gone very far with some of the hamlet children; although one civilization had them in hand at home and another at school, they were able to throw off both on the road between the two places and revert to a state of Nature. A favourite amusement with these was to fall in a body upon some unoffending companion, usually a small girl in a clean frock, and to ‘run her’, as they called it. This meant chasing her until they caught her, then dragging her down and sitting upon her, tearing her clothes, smudging her face, and tousling her hair in the process. She might scream and cry and say she would ‘tell on’ them; they took no notice until, tiring of the sport, they would run whooping off, leaving her sobbing and exhausted.
The persecuted one never ‘told on’ them, even when reproved by the schoolmistress for her dishevelled condition, for she knew that, if she had, there would have been a worse ‘running’ to endure on the way home, and one that went to the tune of:
Cut her tongue a-slit,
And every little puppy-dog shall have a little bit!
It was no good telling the mothers either, for it was the rule of the hamlet never to interfere in the children’s quarrels. ‘Let ’em fight it out among theirselves,’ the women would say; and if a child complained the only response would be: ‘You must’ve been doin’ summat to them. If you’d’ve left them alone, they’d’ve left you alone; so don’t come bringing your tales home to me!’ It was harsh schooling; but the majority seemed to thrive upon it, and the few quieter and more sensitive children soon learned either to start early and get to school first, or to linger behind, dipping under bushes and lurking inside field gates until the main body had passed.
When Edmund was about to start school, Laura was afraid for him. He was such a quiet, gentle little boy, inclined to sit gazing into space, thinking his own thoughts and dreaming his own dreams. What would he do among the rough, noisy crowd? In imagination she saw him struggling in the dust with the runners sitting on his small, slender body, while she stood by, powerless to help.
At first she took him to school by a field path, a mile or more round; but bad weather and growing crops soon put an end to that and the day came when they had to take the road with the other children. But, beyond snatching his cap and flinging it into the hedge as they passed, the bigger boys paid no attention to him, while the younger ones were definitely friendly, especially when he invited them to have a blow each on the whistle which hung on a white cord from the neck of his sailor suit. They accepted him, in fact, as one of themselves, allowing him to join in their games and saluting him with a grunted ‘Hello, Ted,’ when they passed.
When the clash came at last and a quarrel arose, and Laura, looking back, saw Edmund in the thick of a struggling group and heard his voice shouting loudly and rudely, not gentle at all, ‘I shan’t! I won’t! Stop it, I tell you!’ and rushed back, if not to rescue, to be near him, she found Edmund, her gentle little Edmund, with face as red as a turkey-cock, hitting out with clenched fists at such a rate that some of the bigger boys, standing near, started applauding.
So Edmund was not a coward, like she was! Edmund could fight! Though where and how he had learned to do so was a mystery. Perhaps, being a boy, it came to him naturally. At any rate, fight he did, so often and so well that soon no one near his own age risked offending him. His elders gave him an occasional cuff, just to keep him in his place; but in scuffles with others they took his part, perhaps because they knew he was likely to win. So all was well with Edmund. He was accepted inside the circle, and the only drawback, from Laura’s point of view, was that she was still outside.
Although they started to school so early, the hamlet children took so much time on the way that the last quarter of a mile was always a race, and they would rush, panting and dishevelled, into school just as the bell stopped, and the other children, spick and span, fresh from their mothers’ hands, would eye them sourly. ‘That gipsy lot from Lark Rise!’ they would murmur.
Fordlow National School was a small grey one-storied building, standing at the cross-roads at the entrance to the village. The one large classroom which served all purposes was well lighted with several windows, including the large one which filled the end of the building which faced the road. Beside, and joined on to the school, was a tiny two-roomed cottage for the schoolmistress, and beyond that a playground with birch trees and turf, bald in places, the whole being enclosed within pointed, white-painted palings.
The only other building in sight was a row of model cottages occupied by the shepherd, the blacksmith, and other superior farm-workers. The school had probably been built at the same time as the houses and by the same model landlord; for, though it would seem a hovel compared to a modern council school, it must at that time have been fairly up-to-date. It had a lobby with pegs for clothes, boys’ and girls’ earth-closets, and a backyard with fixed wash-basins, although there was no water laid on. The water supply was contained in a small bucket, filled every morning by the old woman who cleaned the schoolroom, and every morning she grumbled because the children had been so extravagant that she had to ‘fill ’un again’.
The average attendance was about forty-five. Ten or twelve of the children lived near the school, a few others came from cottages in the fields, and the rest were the Lark Rise children. Even then, to an outsider, it would have appeared a quaint, old-fashioned little gathering; the girls in their ankle-length frocks and long, straight pinafores, with their hair strained back from their brows and secured on their crowns by a ribbon or black tape or a bootlace; the bigger boys in corduroys and hobnailed boots, and the smaller ones in home-made sailor suits or, until they were six or seven, in petticoats.
Baptismal names were such as the children’s parents and grandparents had borne. The fashion in Christian names was changing; babies were being christened Mabel and Gladys and Doreen and Percy and Stanley; but the change was too recent to have affected the names of the older children. Mary Ann, Sarah Ann, Eliza, Martha, Annie, Jane, Amy, and Rose were favourite girls’ names. There was a Mary Ann in almost every family, and Eliza was nearly as popular. But none of them were called by their proper names. Mary Ann and Sarah Ann were contracted to Mar’ann and Sar’ann. Mary, apart from Ann, had, by stages, descended through Molly and Polly to Poll. Eliza had become Liza, then Tiza, then Tize; Martha was Mat or Pat; Jane was Jin; and every Amy had at least one ‘Aim’ in life, of which she had constant reminder. The few more uncommon names were also distorted. Two sisters named at the font Beatrice and Agnes, went through life as Beat and Agg, Laura was Lor, or Low, and Edmund was Ned or Ted.
Laura’s mother disliked this cheapening of names and named her third child May, thinking it would not lend itself to a diminutive. However, while still in her cradle, the child became Mayie among the neighbours.
There was no Victoria in the school, nor was there a Miss Victoria or a Lady Victoria in any of the farmhouses, rectories, or mansions in the district, nor did Laura ever meet a Victoria in later life. That great name was sacred to the Queen and was not copied by her subjects to the extent imagined by period novelists of today.
The schoolmistress in charge of the Fordlow school at the beginning of the ‘eighties had held that position for fifteen years and seemed to her pupils as much a fixture as the school building; but for most of that time she had been engaged to the squire’s head gardener and her long reign was drawing to a close.
She was, at that time, about forty, and was a small, neat little body with a pale, slightly pock-marked face, snaky black curls hanging down to her shoulders, and eyebrows arched into a perpetual inquiry. She wore in school stiffly starched, holland aprons with bibs, one embroidered with red one week, and one with blue the next, and was seldom seen without a posy of flowers pinned on her breast and another tucked into her hair.
Every morning, when school had assembled, and Governess, with her starched apron and bobbing curls appeared in the doorway, there was a great rustling and scraping of curtseying and pulling of forelocks. ‘Good morning, children,’ ‘Good morning, ma’am,’ were the formal, old-fashioned greetings. Then, under her determined fingers the harmonium wheezed out ‘Once in Royal’, or ‘We are but little children weak’, prayers followed, and the day’s work began.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic were the principal subjects, with a Scripture lesson every morning, and needlework every afternoon for the girls. There was no assistant mistress; Governess taught all the classes simultaneously, assisted only by two monitors — exscholars, aged about twelve, who were paid a shilling a week each for their services.
Every morning at ten o’clock the Rector arrived to take the older children for Scripture. He was a parson of the old school; a commanding figure, tall and stout, with white hair, ruddy cheeks and an aristocratically beaked nose, and he was as far as possible removed by birth, education, and worldly circumstances from the lambs of his flock. He spoke to them from a great height, physical, mental, and spiritual. ‘To order myself lowly and reverently before my betters’ was the clause he underlined in the Church Catechism, for had he not been divinely appointed pastor and master to those little rustics and was it not one of his chief duties to teach them to realize this? As a man, he was kindly disposed — a giver of blankets and coals at Christmas, and of soup and milk puddings to the sick.
His lesson consisted of Bible reading, turn and turn about round the class, of reciting from memory the names of the kings of Israel and repeating the Church Catechism. After that, he would deliver a little lecture on morals and behaviour. The children must not lie or steal or be discontented or envious. God had placed them just where they were in the social order and given them their own especial work to do; to envy others or to try to change their own lot in life was a sin of which he hoped they would never be guilty. From his lips the children heard nothing of that God who is Truth and Beauty and Love; but they learned for him and repeated to him long passages from the Authorized Version, thus laying up treasure for themselves; so, the lessons, in spite of much aridity, were valuable.
Scripture over and the Rector bowed and curtsied out of the door, ordinary lessons began. Arithmetic was considered the most important of the subjects taught, and those who were good at figures ranked high in their classes. It was very simple arithmetic, extending only to the first four rules, with the money sums, known as ‘bills of parcels’, for the most advanced pupils.
The writing lesson consisted of the copying of copperplate maxims: ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; ‘Waste not, want not’; ‘Count ten before you speak’, and so on. Once a week composition would be set, usually in the form of writing a letter describing some recent event. This was regarded chiefly as a spelling test.
History was not taught formally; but history readers were in use containing such picturesque stories as those of King Alfred and the cakes, King Canute commanding the waves, the loss of the White Ship, and Raleigh spreading his cloak for Queen Elizabeth.
There were no geography readers, and, excepting what could be gleaned from the descriptions of different parts of the world in the ordinary readers, no geography was taught. But, for some reason or other, on the walls of the schoolroom were hung splendid maps: The World, Europe, North America, South America, England, Ireland, and Scotland. During long waits in class for her turn to read, or to have her copy or sewing examined, Laura would gaze on these maps until the shapes of the countries with their islands and inlets became photographed on her brain. Baffin Bay and the land around the poles were especially fascinating to her.
Once a day, at whatever hour the poor, overworked mistress could find time, a class would be called out to toe the chalked semicircle on the floor for a reading lesson. This lesson, which should have been pleasant, for the reading matter was good, was tedious in the extreme. Many of the children read so slowly and haltingly that Laura, who was impatient by nature, longed to take hold of their words and drag them out of their mouths, and it often seemed to her that her own turn to read would never come. As often as she could do so without being detected, she would turn over and peep between the pages of her own Royal Reader, and, studiously holding the book to her nose, pretend to be following the lesson while she was pages ahead.
There was plenty there to enthral any child: ‘The Skater Chased by Wolves’; ‘The Siege of Torquilstone’, from Ivanhoe; Fenimore Cooper’s Prairie on Fire; and Washington Irving’s Capture of Wild Horses.
Then there were fascinating descriptions of such far-apart places as Greenland and the Amazon; of the Pacific Ocean with its fairy islands and coral reefs; the snows of Hudson Bay Territory and the sterile heights of the Andes. Best of all she loved the description of the Himalayas, which began: ‘Northward of the great plain of India, and along its whole extent, towers the sublime mountain region of the Himalayas, ascending gradually until it terminates in a long range of summits wrapped in perpetual snow.’
Interspersed between the prose readings were poems: ‘The Slave’s Dream’; ‘Young Lochinvar’; ‘The Parting of Douglas and Marmion’; Tennyson’s ‘Brook’ and ‘Ring out, Wild Bells’; Byron’s ‘Shipwreck’; Hogg’s ‘Skylark’, and many more. ‘Lochiel’s Warning’ was a favourite with Edmund, who often, in bed at night, might be heard declaiming: ‘Lochiel! Lochiel! beware of the day!’ while Laura, at any time, with or without encouragement, was ready to ‘look back into other years’ with Henry Glassford Bell, and recite his scenes from the life of Mary Queen of Scots, reserving her most impressive tone for the concluding couplet:
Lapped by a dog. Go think of it in silence and alone,
Then weigh against a grain of sand the glories of a throne.
But long before their schooldays were over they knew every piece in the books by heart and it was one of their greatest pleasures in life to recite them to each other. By that time Edmund had appropriated Scott and could repeat hundreds of lines, always showing a preference for scenes of single combat between warrior chiefs. The selection in the Royal Readers, then, was an education in itself for those who took to it kindly; but the majority of the children would have none of it; saying that the prose was ‘dry old stuff’ and that they hated ‘portry’.
Those children who read fluently, and there were several of them in every class, read in a monotonous sing-song, without expression, and apparently without interest. Yet there were very few really stupid children in the school, as is proved by the success of many of them in after life, and though few were interested in their lessons, they nearly all showed an intelligent interest in other things — the boys in field work and crops and cattle and agricultural machinery; the girls in dress, other people’s love affairs and domestic details.
It is easy to imagine the education authorities of that day, when drawing up the scheme for that simple but sound education, saying, ‘Once teach them to read and they will hold the key to all knowledge.’ But the scheme did not work out. If the children, by the time they left school, could read well enough to read the newspaper and perhaps an occasional book for amusement, and write well enough to write their own letters, they had no wish to go farther. Their interest was not in books, but in life, and especially the life that lay immediately about them. At school they worked unwillingly, upon compulsion, and the life of the schoolmistress was a hard one.
As Miss Holmes went from class to class, she carried the cane and laid it upon the desk before her; not necessarily for use, but as a reminder, for some of the bigger boys were very unruly. She punished by a smart stroke on each hand. ‘Put out your hand,’ she would say, and some boys would openly spit on each hand before proffering it. Others murmured and muttered before and after a caning and threatened to ‘tell me feyther’; but she remained calm and cool, and after the punishment had been inflicted there was a marked improvement — for a time.
It must be remembered that in those days a boy of eleven was nearing the end of his school life. Soon he would be at work; already he felt himself nearly a man and too old for petticoat government. Moreover, those were country boys, wild and rough, and many of them as tall as she was. Those who had failed to pass Standard IV and so could not leave school until they were eleven, looked upon that last year as a punishment inflicted upon them by the school authorities and behaved accordingly. In this they were encouraged by their parents, for a certain section of these resented their boys being kept at school when they might be earning. ‘What do our young Alf want wi’ a lot o’ book-larnin’?’ they would say. ‘He can read and write and add up as much money as he’s ever likely to get. What more do he want?’ Then a neighbour of more advanced views would tell them: ‘A good education’s everything in these days. You can’t get on in the world if you ain’t had one,’ for they read their newspapers and new ideas were percolating, though slowly. It was only the second generation to be forcibly fed with the fruit of the tree of knowledge: what wonder if it did not always agree with it.
Meanwhile, Miss Holmes carried her cane about with her. A poor method of enforcing discipline, according to modern educational ideas; but it served. It may be that she and her like all over the country at that time were breaking up the ground that other, later comers to the field, with a knowledge of child psychology and with tradition and experiment behind them, might sow the good seed.
She seldom used the cane on the girls and still more seldom on the infants. Standing in a corner with their hands on their heads was their punishment. She gave little treats and encouragements, too, and, although the children called her ‘Susie’ behind her back, they really liked and respected her. Many times there came a knock at the door and a smartly dressed girl on holidays, or a tall young soldier on leave, in his scarlet tunic and pillbox cap, looked in ‘to see Governess’.
That Laura could already read when she went to school was never discovered. ‘Do you know your A B C?’ the mistress asked her on the first morning. ‘Come, let me hear you say it: A-B-C——’
‘A— B— C——’ Laura began; but when she got to F she stumbled, for she had never memorized the letters in order. So she was placed in the class known as ‘the babies’ and joined in chanting the alphabet from A to Z. Alternately they recited it backward, and Laura soon had that version by heart, for it rhymed:
Z-Y-X and W-V
U-T-S and R-Q-P
O-N-M and L-K-J
I-H-G and F-E-D
Once started, they were like a watch wound up, and went on alone for hours. The mistress, with all the other classes on her hands, had no time to teach the babies, although she always had a smile for them when she passed and any disturbance or cessation of the chanting would bring her down to them at once. Even the monitors were usually engaged in giving out dictation to the older children, or in hearing tables or spelling repeated; but, in the afternoon, one of the bigger girls, usually the one who was the poorest needlewoman (it was always Laura in later years) would come down from her own form to point to and name each letter on a wall-sheet, the little ones repeating them after her. Then she would teach them to form pot-hooks and hangers, and, afterwards, letters, on their slates, and this went on for years, as it seemed to Laura, but perhaps it was only one year.
At the end of that time the class was examined and those who knew and could form their letters were moved up into the official ‘Infants’. Laura, who by this time was reading Old St. Paul’s at home, simply romped through this Little–Go; but without credit, for it was said she ‘gabbled’ her letters, and her writing was certainly poor.
It was not until she reached Standard I that her troubles really began. Arithmetic was the subject by which the pupils were placed, and as Laura could not grasp the simplest rule with such small help as the mistress had time to give, she did not even know how to begin working out the sums and was permanently at the bottom of the class. At needlework in the afternoon she was no better: The girls around her in class were making pinafores for themselves, putting in tiny stitches and biting off their cotton like grown women, while she was still struggling with her first hemming strip. And a dingy, crumpled strip it was before she had done with it, punctuated throughout its length with blood spots where she had pricked her fingers.
‘Oh, Laura! What a dunce you are!’ Miss Holmes used to say every time she examined it, and Laura really was the dunce of the school in those two subjects. However, as time went on, she improved a little, and managed to pass her standard every year with moderate success until she came to Standard V and could go no farther, for that was the highest in the school. By that time the other children she had worked with had left, excepting one girl named Emily Rose, who was an only child and lived in a lonely cottage far out in the fields. For two years Standard V consisted of Laura and Emily Rose. They did few lessons and those few mostly those they could learn from books by themselves, and much of their time was spent in teaching the babies and assisting the schoolmistress generally.
That mistress was not Miss Holmes. She had married her head gardener while Laura was still in the Infants and gone to live in a pretty old cottage which she had renamed ‘Malvern Villa’. Immediately after her had come a young teacher, fresh from her training college, with all the latest educational ideas. She was a bright, breezy girl, keen on reform, and anxious to be a friend as well as a teacher to her charges.
She came too early. The human material she had to work on was not ready for such methods. On the first morning she began a little speech, meaning to take the children into her confidence:
‘Good morning, children. My name is Matilda Annie Higgs, and I want us all to be friends ——’ A giggling murmur ran round the school. ‘Matilda Annie! Matilda Annie! Did she say Higgs or pigs?’ The name made direct appeal to their crude sense of humour, and, as to the offer of friendship, they scented weakness in that, coming from one whose office it was to rule. Thenceforth, Miss Higgs might drive her pigs in the rhyme they shouted in her hearing; but she could neither drive nor lead her pupils. They hid her cane, filled her inkpot with water, put young frogs in her desk, and asked her silly, unnecessary questions about their work. When she answered them, they all coughed in chorus.
The girls were as bad as the boys. Twenty times in one afternoon a hand would shoot upward and it would be: ‘Please, miss, can I have this or that from the needlework box?’ and poor Miss Higgs, trying to teach a class at the other end of the room, would come and unlock and search the box for something they had already and had hidden.
Several times she appealed to them to show more consideration. Once she burst into tears before the whole school. She told the woman who cleaned that she had never dreamed there were such children anywhere. They were little savages.
One afternoon, when a pitched battle was raging among the big boys in class and the mistress was calling imploringly for order, the Rector appeared in the doorway.
‘Silence!’ he roared.
The silence was immediate and profound, for they knew he was not one to be trifled with. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, he strode into the midst of them, his face flushed with anger, his eyes flashing blue fire. ‘Now, what is the meaning of this disgraceful uproar?’
Some of the younger children began to cry; but one look in their direction froze them into silence and they sat, wide-eyed and horrified, while he had the whole class out and caned each boy soundly, including those who had taken no part in the fray. Then, after a heated discourse in which he reminded the children of their lowly position in life and the twin duties of gratitude to and respect towards their superiors, school was dismissed. Trembling hands seized coats and dinner-baskets and frightened little figures made a dash for the gate. But the big boys who had caused the trouble showed a different spirit. ‘Who cares for him?’ they muttered, ‘Who cares? Who cares? He’s only an old parson!’ Then, when safely out of the playground, one voice shouted:
Old Charley-wag! Old Charley-wag!
Ate the pudden and gnawed the bag!
The other children expected the heavens to fall; for Mr. Ellison’s Christian name was Charles. The shout was meant for him and was one of defiance. He did not recognize it as such. There were several Charleses in the school, and it must have been inconceivable to him that his own Christian name should be intended. Nothing happened, and, after a few moments of tense silence, the rebels trooped off to get their own account of the affair in first at home.
After that, it was not long before the station fly stood at the school gate and Miss Higgs’s trunk and bundles and easy-chair were hauled on top. Back came the married Miss Holmes, now Mrs. Tenby. Girls curtsied again and boys pulled their forelocks. It was ‘Yes, ma’am’, and ‘No, ma’am’, and ‘What did you please to say, ma’am?’ once more. But either she did not wish to teach again permanently or the education authorities already had a rule against employing married-women teachers, for she only remained a few weeks until a new mistress was engaged.
This turned out to be a sweet, frail-looking, grey-haired, elderly lady named Miss Shepherd, and a gentle shepherd she proved to her flock. Unfortunately, she was but a poor disciplinarian, and the struggle to maintain some degree of order wore her almost to shreds: Again there was always a buzz of whispering in class; stupid and unnecessary questions were asked, and too long intervals elapsed between the word of command and the response. But, unlike Miss Higgs, she did not give up. Perhaps she could not afford to do so at her age and with an invalid sister living with and dependent upon her. She ruled, if she can be said to have ruled at all, by love and patience and ready forgiveness. In time, even the blackest of her sheep realized this and kept within certain limits; just sufficient order was maintained to avoid scandal, and the school settled down under her mild rule for five or six years.
Perhaps these upheavals were a necessary part of the transition which was going on. Under Miss Holmes, the children had been weaned from the old free life; they had become accustomed to regular attendance, to sitting at a desk and concentrating, however imperfectly. Although they had not learned much, they had been learning to learn. But Miss Holmes’s ideas belonged to an age that was rapidly passing. She believed in the established order of society, with clear divisions, and had done her best to train the children to accept their lowly lot with gratitude to and humility before their betters. She belonged to the past; the children’s lives lay in the future, and they needed a guide with at least some inkling of the changing spirit of the times. The new mistresses, who came from the outside world, brought something of this spirit with them. Even the transient and unappreciated Miss Higgs, having given as a subject for composition one day ‘Write a letter to Miss Ellison, telling her what you did at Christmas’, when she read over one girl’s shoulder the hitherto conventional beginning ‘Dear and Honoured Miss’, exclaimed ‘Oh, no! That’s a very old-fashioned beginning. Why not say, “Dear Miss Ellison?”’ An amendment which was almost revolutionary.
Miss Shepherd went further. She taught the children that it was not what a man or woman had, but what they were which mattered. That poor people’s souls are as valuable and that their hearts may be as good and their minds as capable of cultivation as those of the rich. She even hinted that on the material plane people need not necessarily remain always upon one level. Some boys, born of poor parents, had struck out for themselves and become great men, and everybody had respected them for rising upon their own merits. She would read them the lives of some of these so-called self-made men (there were no women, Laura noticed!) and though their circumstances were too far removed from those of her hearers for them to inspire the ambition she hoped to awaken, they must have done something to widen their outlook on life.
Meanwhile the ordinary lessons went on. Reading, writing, arithmetic, all a little less rather than more well taught and mastered than formerly. In needlework there was a definite falling off. Miss Shepherd was not a great needle-woman herself and was inclined to cut down the sewing time to make way for other work. Infinitesimal stitches no longer provoked delighted exclamations, but more often a ‘Child! You will ruin your eyes!’ As the bigger girls left who in their time had won county prizes, the standard of the output declined, until, from being known as one of the first needlework schools in the district, Fordlow became one of the last.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00