RECORD: Bowen, Elizabeth. 1934. The mulberry tree [Downe House]. In Greene, Graham ed., The old school: essays by divers hands. London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 45-59.
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THE MULBERRY TREE
BY ELIZABETH BOWEN
The house with a shallow front lawn, swagged in July with Dorothy Perkins roses, stood back from a tarmac road outside the Kentish village of Downe. The main block, three stories high, had a white pillared portico and a dado of ivy, looking friendly and undistinguished. It contained classrooms and bedrooms for about sixty girls, the staff study and the dining-room. To the left facing the porch (as we seldom had time to do) was a stable-yard, to the right, a warren of painted iron buildings — gymnasium, music-rooms, wash-rooms — twisted off at an angle, parallel with the road. A low trellis of ivy concealed these windows.
The back of the house, one portion curving out in a deep bay, faced a lawn flanked each side by heavily treed paths, tunnels in summer. A bed of azaleas outside the senior study french window made the summer term exotic. Features of this lawn landscape were an old mulberry tree with an iron belt and a mound with a large ilex, backed by evergreen shrubs, on which Shakespeare plays were acted. It was usual during rehearsals to pluck and chew the leaves of the ilex tree. We girls were for ever masticating some foreign substance, leaves of any kind, grass from the playing
fields, paper, india rubber, splinters from pencil-ends or the hems of handkerchiefs. In the course of my three years at school both the ilex and mulberry trees took on an emotional significance; under the mulberry a friend whose brother at that time captained the Winchester eleven, and who was herself our only overhand bowler, criticized my behaviour on an occasion, saying I had done something that was not cricket. The lawn gave on a meadow crossed by a path to the playing field: beyond the school boundary, meadows and copses rolled off into Kent pleasantly. In summer there was a great smell of hay. I remember also one June a cuckoo that used to flap round the school roof, stout, squawking and losing its mystery. It has taken years for me to reinstate cuckoos. The Gudham valley was said to be a great place for nightingales, but we girls can never have walked there at the right time. . . . From across country, features of this rather odd and imposing back view of the house were its very white window-frames, a glass veranda on to which the drawing-room debouched and a modern addition, one side, in the form of a kind of chalet, from whose balcony I played Jezebel with a friend's teddy bear. The survival of such childish inanimate pets was encouraged by fashion; several dormitory beds with their glacial white quilts were encumbered all day and shared nightly with rubbed threadbare teddy bears, monkeys or in one case a blue plush elephant. Possibly this seemed a good way to travesty sentiment: we cannot really have been idiotic girls. A friend of mine wore a carved ivory Chinese dog round her neck on a
gold cord for some days, then she was asked to wear this inside her djibbah. A good deal of innocent fetishism came to surround these animals; the mistress of the blue elephant used to walk the passages saying: 'You must kiss my elephant.' Photos of relatives, sometimes quite distant but chosen for their good appearance, the drawings of Dulac, Medici prints and portraits of Napoleon, Charles I, Rupert Brooke, Sir Roger Casement or Mozart lent advertising touches of personality to each cubicle's walls, slung on threads from the frieze-rail and napping and tapping in an almost constant high wind from the open windows. The ever difficult business of getting oneself across was most pressing of all at this age: restricted possessions, a uniform dictated down to the last detail and a self-imposed but rigid emotional snobbishness shutting the more direct means of self-expression away. Foibles, mannerisms we therefore exaggerated most diligently.
If anyone said 'You are always so such-and-such' one felt one had formed a new intimacy and made one's mark. A good many young women were led to buffoon themselves. It seemed fatal not to be at least one thing to excess, and if I could not be outstandingly good at a thing I preferred to be outstandingly bad at it. Personality came out in patches, like damp through a wall.
The dormitories were called bedrooms, and we had little opinion of schools where the bedrooms were called dormitories. Ours were in fact the bedrooms of a fair-sized country house, divided into from four to six cubicles. The window cubicles went to the best
people, who were sometimes terribly cold at nights; the door cubicle went to the youngest inhabitant, who could hold everyone up if her sense of decency were over-acute. 'You can't come through' she would shout; 'I am indecent.' The niceties of curtain-drawing and of intrusion varied from bedroom to bedroom, according to temper, but we always closed our curtains to say our prayers. No embarrassment surrounded the saying of prayers at this school; in fact it would have been more embarrassing to have left them unsaid. Whom one sleeps with is always rather important, and ill-assorted companions could cast a gloom over the term. There was always one rather quiet girl who patently wished herself elsewhere, lurked a good deal behind her curtains and was afraid to speak. As in a railway carriage, one generally disliked one's companions less after some time. The tone of a bedroom would be, of course, set by the noisiest girl, who talked most freely about her private affairs. As one began to realize that bedroom lists for a term were drawn up on a psychological basis, the whole thing became more interesting. Great friends were not put together and we were not allowed into each other's bedrooms, but it was always possible to stand and talk in the door, with one toe outside. Assignations for serious or emotional talks connected themselves with the filling of hot-water-bottles and water cans at a tap outside the bathrooms, when one was otherwise ready for bed. Girls of a roving disposition with a talent for intimacy were always about this passage. A radiator opposite this tap was in demand
in winter; one could l§an while one talked and warm die spine through the dressing-gown. The passage was dim-lit, with wobbly gas brackets, and it was always exciting to see who had got there first. The radiator was near the headmistress's door, and she would disperse any group she came out and found. It irritated her to see us being girlish in any way. We cannot really have been emotional girls; we were not highly sexed and any attractions had an aesthetic, snobbish, self-interested tinge. Conversations over the radiator were generally about art, Roman Catholicism, suicide, or how impossible somebody else had been. At nine o'clock a bell rang from the matron's room and we all darted back to our bedrooms and said our prayers.
I first went to this school in September 1914. We unpacked our trunks in a cement passage outside the gymnasium and carried our things upstairs. The school must have re-assembled with an elating sense of emergency, but as I was new I was not conscious of this. Everything seemed so odd that the war was dwarfed, and though one had been made to feel that one was now living in history, one's own biography was naturally more interesting. I found my schoolfellows rather terse and peremptory, their snubbing of me had a kind of nobility: whether this arose from die war's or my own newness I did not ask: as I had been told that this was a very good school it was what I had been led to expect. A squad of troops marching past in the dark on the tarmac road, whistling, pointed the headmistress's address to us in the gymnasium that
first night of term. Wind kept flapping the window cords on their pulleys, the gas jets whistled and the girls drawn up by forms in resolute attitudes looked rather grim. The headmistress stated that it did not matter if we were happy so long as we were good. At my former school the headmistress had always said she knew we should be good as long as we were happy. That sounded sunnier. But in my three years at this school I learnt to define happiness as a kind of inner irrational exaltation having little to do with morals one way or the other. That night in the gymnasium I felt some apprehension that my character was to be lopped, or even forcibly moulded, in this place, but this came to be dispelled as the term wore on. The war having well outlasted my schooldays, I cannot imagine a girls' school without a war. The moral stress was appalling. We grew up under the intolerable obligation of being fought for, and could not fall short in character without recollecting that men were dying for us. During my second year, the Daily Mail came out with its headline about food-hogs, and it became impossible to eat as much as one wished, which was to over-eat, without self-consciousness. If the acutest food shortage had already set in, which it had not, meals would really have been easier. As it was, we could over-eat, but it became unfeeling to do so. The war dwarfed us and made us morally uncomfortable, and we could see no reason why it should ever stop. It was clear, however, that someone must have desired it, or it would not have begun. In my first term, we acted a pageant representing the
Allies for the headmistress's birthday, and later sang songs of the epoch, such as 'We don't want to lose you, but. . . .' at a concert in the village, in our white muslin Saturday evening frocks. Most eligible fighters had, however, by this time gone to the war and we can only have made their relatives more hysterical. An excellent bun supper was provided by the village committee, and some of us over-ate.
I do not remember ever discussing the war among ourselves at school. Possibly some of the girls may have done so, but I had a sense of inferiority owing to having no brothers and not taking in a daily paper. Though, seated beside one of the staff at meals one would say. 'Aren't the French doing splendidly?' or 'Isn't it awful about the Russians?' The Danish music mistress, however, had melancholia and we were not allowed to mention the war at her table. I do not think it was so much the war that made her melancholic as her unhappy friendship with the violin mistress; any attempt to make conversation with her was the last straw. She looked extraordinarily like Hamlet, and as she was a neutral I always resented her taking up this attitude about the war . . . . If a girl's brother were killed or wounded we were all too much embarrassed to speak of it. Though death became familiar, it never became less awkward: if heroic feeling ran low in us I think this was because the whole world's behaviour seemed to be travestying our own: everywhere, everyone was behaving as we were all, at our ages, most anxious not to behave. Things were being written and said constantly
that would have damned any one of us: the world seemed to be bound up in a tragic attack of adolescence and there seemed no reason why we should ever grow up, since moderation in behaviour became impossible. So we became in contradistinction violently precious, martyrized by our own good taste. Our morbidity was ingrowing. I cannot, either, remember discussing men. Possibly the whole sex had gloomy associations. One or two of the girls fell in love in the holidays, but something in the atmosphere made it impossible to talk of this naturally without seeming at once to make copy of it. All the same, I and my friends all intended to marry early, partly because this appeared an achievement or way of making one's mark, also from a feeling it " would be difficult to settle to anything else until this was done. (Like passing the School Certificate). Few of my friends anticipated maternity with either interest or pleasure, and though some have since become mothers it still seems inappropriate. Possibly, however, we were not natural girls. We may have discussed love, but I do not remember how. The future remained very hazy and insecure. We were not ambitious girls, though we all expected to distinguish ourselves in some way. Not one of us intended to be L.O.P.H. (Left On Pa's Hands). We lived, however, intensively in the present; when the present became over-powering there was an attic-loft over the bedroom ceilings in the main buildings, with sacks and a cistern in it, where an enterprising person could go and weep. Less fastidious people wept in their cubicles,
We were not in love with each other at all continuously, or, as far as I know, with the staff at all. A certain amount of emotion banked up in the holidays, when letters became important. During the school day we all looked violently plain: school uniform, even djibbahs, cannot expect to suit everyone; red wrists stuck out of our cuffs and our hair (short hair was not at that time the prevailing fashion) was so skinned back that our eyes would hardly shut. After games we charged indoors, stripped, rubbed down, put on stays and private clothes, released our front hair and became a little more personable. On Saturday nights, in modified evening dresses, quite a certain amount of glamour set in. In the week, curvilinear good looks were naturally at a discount and a swaggering, nonchalant air cut the most ice. If you were not good at games the best way of creating an atmosphere was to be good at acting. We acted a good deal. On Saturday afternoons, one or two people who could play the piano emotionally had seances in the music rooms. All this was the best we could put up in the way of romance. All the same, one or two people contrived to keep diaries, moon round the garden alone and be quite unhappy.
Competitive sociability and team spirit was rather well united at my school by the custom of picking up tables. The first day of term seven seniors shut themselves up and, by rotative bidding, each picked up from the rest of the school a team of about eight for her table at meals. Each team moved round each week to the next of the seven dining-room tables,
each table presided over by one of the staff. The object of each team was to make the most conversation possible, and to be a success: girls were therefore picked with a view to chattiness, desirability, tact, table manners, resource and charm. Certain unfortunate girls were never in demand, and the screams of seniors repudiating them could sometimes be heard from the other end of the garden. It was a great thing to be at the head of the most patently animated table in the dining-room. Many of us have grown up to be good hostesses. If a girl sat just eating on without saying anything the head of the table would kick at her, if within reach. So that young nervous girls got into a way of saying almost anything. The great thing was to amuse the mistress whose table it was, and keep her smiling constantly: each girl had to take it in turns to do this. There was a French table and a German table: the games mistress was usually difficult to talk to. The headmistress sometimes received our remarks with irony, and was inclined to say 'Quite . . .' The table rule bound us only for breakfast and dinner; at tea and supper we sat with whom we liked, few of the staff were present and very merry we were. Quarrels, if any, sometimes occurred at this time.
The other great social occasion was Saturday evening (as I have said). We danced (we thought) rather glamorously in the gymnasium to a piano, and dances were often booked up some days ahead. On summer Saturday evenings we walked round the garden between dances, feeling unlike ourselves. The garden was long, with lime trees and apple trees and long
grass with cuckoo flowers in it: it looked very beautiful in the late evening light, with the sound of the piano coming out through the gymnasium door. On winter Saturday evenings we danced more heartily, in order to keep warm. The staff filed in in evening dresses and sat on a platform, watching the dancing, and occasionally being asked to dance, with expressions of animation which, now that I look back, command my respect.
Lessons must have occupied a good deal of our time, but I remember very little of this. What I learnt seems to have been absorbed into my system, which shows how well taught I was. I used to sit riveting, or trying' to rivet, the mistress's eye, but must otherwise have been pretty passive. I spent an inordinate amount of time over the preparation for some lessons; the rest of my preparation time went by in reading poetry or the Bible or looking up more about the facts of life in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. We were morbidly honourable girls and never spoke to each other at preparation or in our bedrooms after the lights were out. I often wonder whether in after life one has not suffered from an overstrained honour from having been too constantly put upon it in youth, and whether the espionage one hears of in foreign schools might not have kept one's sense of delinquency more en-duringly active. In these ways, we were almost too good to last. We did not pass notes either, though one of my friends, just back from a day in London, once wrote on the margin of her rough note book, and pushed across to me, that Kitchener had been
drowned. Perhaps the occasion may have excused the breach. I simply thought, however, that she was pulling my leg . . . Games were compulsory and took up the afternoon: it did not matter being bad at them so long as you showed energy. At lacrosse, girls who could run would pound up and down the field; those who could not gripped their crosses fiercely and stalked about. Lacrosse is such a fierce game that I wonder we all lived through it. Hockey, though ungainly, is not nearly so perilous. The only real farce was cricket, a humilitating performance for almost all. I never thought worse of anyone for being good at games so long as she was not unattractive in other ways; one or two of the games committee had, however, an air of having no nonsense about them that was depressing. We were anything but apathetic about matches: when a match was played away the returning team would, if victorious, begin to cheer at a given turn of the road; we all sat with straining ears; if the charabanc rolled up in silence we knew the worst. Our team so often won that I should like to think we had given them moral support.
The literary society was presided over by the headmistress, of whom I should like to place it on grateful record that she did definitely teach me how not to write. There were gardens to garden in, if you had nothing more personal to do in your spare time, and, because of the war, there was haymaking in season. Two or three of the girls who had formed the idea that they wished to be engineers in after life spent a good deal of time looking in through the windows of the
engine room at the light plant and water-pumping machine; sometimes they were let in by the geography mistress to help her oil the thing. The geography mistress was a Pole, who had built the chapel as well as all the other modern additions to the school. The chapel was put up during my second year and dedicated by the Bishop of Rochester: a friend of mine pointed out to me during the service that the Bishop's sleeves were not white but of very pale pink lawn, and I have had no opportunity since to correct this impression: perhaps it was not incorrect. The chapel was approached by a dark, draughty and rather impressive arcade from the gymnasium. There were no cases of religious mania or any other obsession while I was at school.
Seeing Mddchen in Uniform, and reading more sensitive people's impressions of their school life, makes me feel that either my old school was prosaic or that I was insensitive. A toughish, thick child, I did not in fact suffer in any way. My vanity would have been mortified anywhere and my heart was at that age really all over the place. At my old school there was nothing particular to conform to, and the worst that can be said of it is that I got no kick out of not conforming to anything. I was only too well understood, and when I left school my relations complained that my personality had made rapid and rank growth. I talked too much with a desperate self-confidence induced perhaps by competitive talking at meals. I say with deference to the susceptibilities of possible other essayists in this book that I consider
my old school an exceedingly good one. If girls ought really to be assembled and taught, I can think of no better way of assembling and teaching them. No one dragooned us; in the course of three years I never once heard the expression esprit de corps and we were never addressed as future mothers. The physical discomfort was often extreme but (I am prepared to believe now that its details escape me) salutary. I regret that my palate has been blunted for life by being made to finish up everything on my plate, so that when I dine out with a gourmet my manner becomes exceedingly artificial. I was taught not only how not to write (though I still do not always write as I should) but how not, if possible, to behave, and how not to exhibit feeling. I have not much idea what more than ten people at my school were like, so cannot well generalize about our type or mentality. No one of my companions betrayed my affections, corrupted me, aggravated my inferiority complex, made me wish I had more money, gave me a warp for life or did anything that is supposed to happen at schools. There is nothing I like better than feeling one of a herd, and after a term or two I began to feel firmly stuck in.
Memory is, as Proust has it, so oblique and selective that no doubt I see my school days through a subjective haze. I cannot believe that those three years were idyllic: days and weeks were no doubt dreary and squalid on end. I recall the most thundering disappointments and baulked ambitions, but those keep repeating themselves throughout after life. I do not desire to live those three years again, but I
should be exceedingly sorry to have them cut out of my past. Some years after I left, the house, after so much pounding and trampling, began to wear out; the school moved and the building has been reinstated as some kind of shrine, for Charles Darwin lived there for some years and died there, I believe, too. Our Morris wall-papers have been all stripped off and the white woodwork grained: the place now rather seriously and unsatirically reconstructs a late Victorian epoch. Our modern additions have been pulled down; the geography mistress has re-erected the chapel, the gymnasium, the lavatories and the music-rooms elsewhere. When I revisited the place, only the indestructible cement flooring of these remained. To indulge sentiment became almost impossible. I have never liked scientific people very much, and it mortifies me to think of them trampling reverently around there on visiting days, thinking of Charles Darwin and ignorant of my own youth.
Essays by Divers Hands
Edited by GRAHAM GREENE
Thirty Bedford Square London
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