‘Correspondence between a Mother and her Daughter at School’
The story is simple: fifteen-year-old Laura, intelligent, home-sick and naïve, is sent to Mrs W’s boarding school and exchanges letters with her mother, a sort of Marmee March. Her letters of advice to Laura could, from a writer’s point of view, easily be a recipe for disaster – over-pious and priggish, say. Instead, they come across as affectionate, moral but not sanctimonious, and practical.
Laura’s various fellow pupils have real characters (the picture above is of Laura and her friend, Grace). Over-friendly Jessy takes a grateful Laura under her wing when she first arrives but, on further acquaintance, proves to be possessive and jealous. The parvenu Miss Biggins is initially an object of scorn, being showily and richly dressed but virtually illiterate. In Mrs W’s exercise on ‘Thoughts’, Miss Biggins writes: ‘Them that has’nt (sic) any patience, can never have no learning.’ The girls all laugh but Mrs W rebukes them. Miss Biggins’ sentence, she says, has a simple, honest sincerity; the grammar and punctuation will improve with time. Laura must learn to look beneath the surface.
Meanwhile, her mother has the orphaned daughter of a much-loved friend to stay. Charlotte is an heiress, educated at a fashionable school, and with a very high opinion of herself. She falls ill with a dangerous fever and that, together with Laura’s mother’s wise ministrations, brings her to her senses.
The book ends a year later with Laura about to enter the adult world. Like Fanny Burney’s Evelina, her principles are sound and she has learned to judge her own sex truly. But is she equipped to cope with the opposite sex? I think there’s a story here.
This is exactly the sort of book a Regency heroine might be given by her mother, and Mrs W’s school reminds me of the school Anne Elliot attended where she was befriended by Mrs Smith. There are also traces of Jessy’s giddy, fashion-loving friends in the two Misses Beaufort in Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’; and the snooty Charlotte reminded me of Caroline Bingley.
I’m glad I finally got round to reading it.