‘War Among Ladies’ by Eleanor Scott is the story of the vicious internal politics prevalent in a small girls’ school in the Midlands, a school on the brink of closing down due to poor academic performance. The book is not, yet another retelling of high spirited schoolgirl antics, troubled exchanges on the lacrosse field or ill-fated midnight feasts. Rather, the book focuses on the dire dilemmas facing the ladies in the school staff rooms. Moreover, the book aims to highlight some of the major problems facing the school education system of the 1920’s and the hardships faced by a generation of older women, beaten by such a system, leaving them penniless, uncared for and unwanted in the bleak, comfortless stretch of old age.
The story is set at Besley High School – a small school for girls in the Midlands. Several members of the faculty are quite older in age, in fact slowly approaching that halcyon period known as retirement. These women, of which there are quite a few at Besley, have everything to lose in the final stretch of their teaching career. They are women who have paid money in to a fund that will provide them benefits upon retirement, they have just a few years to work until they reach sixty, but if they lose their jobs before attaining that age, they have everything to lose and will forfeit their hard earned pension and pension fund savings. Towards the end of their careers they are paid at the maximum pay scale, making recruitment by another school difficult if they lose their jobs, they are rather inflexible in their ways, often adopting teaching methods that are out of favour, sometimes they cannot adapt to the new methods of examination and they are reluctant to change their ways. Some of them do not have private means of their own or substantial savings and it is these women who are often on the brink of nervous collapse, women who lose their sleep in fear of losing the means to live a dignified life in old age.
Such is Miss Cullen. Old and weatherbeaten. Counting the days till she reaches sixty. Praying that the unruly girls in her class will heed her. Each day is a misery. Sometimes it is too much to endure and Miss Cullen, feels she is too unwell to take up her French teaching duties for the day. And then there is the matter of the terrible results of the girls in their French exams that year. So bad that many of them fail the subject and therefore, fail overall. For to fail in one subject means that a girl fails the entire exam and brings shame to her school. Such a girl might gain distinction in other subjects. But this is if no use, if she fails in another.
When the school’s academic performance, particularly in French, turns from bad to worse, several members of the staff feel that they must take matters into their own hands in order to save their own skins. Naturally all eyes are fixed on incompetent Miss Cullen and a fair amount of finger pointing ensues.
Miss Cullen, realizes all too well, her perilous situation and she strives to save herself by whatever means she has to hand. Miss Cullen has one redeeming virtue, however, and that is her conscience. There is one rather telling chapter, where Miss Cullen has an internal dialogue with herself about her moral quandary. She stacks up all the pros and cons of resigning from her job. There are many reasons for her to resign – her inability to maintain discipline, inability to teach according to the present day standards, and lack of competency to prepare the students for examinations- being some of them. But quite pitifully, the only reason that Miss Cullen cannot listen to the dictates of her own conscience, is because of her financial dependency on her pension. She simply cannot afford to resign.
To contrast with Miss Cullen, there is a young, fresh-faced new teacher who has been added to the teaching staff at Besley – Miss Viola Kennedy. Totally innocent of the workings of the school system, she befriends Miss Cullen, when no one else will have anything to do with her, mostly because she feels sorry for her. And in this action, she commits an error because the rest of the faculty are determined to place her in the path of trouble. However, Miss Kennedy has youth and beauty on her side and if she does lose her job, it does not mean that it is the end of the world for her.
The title of the story is particularly interesting, especially when considering the time during which the book is set. In the late 1920’s the world was still reeling and recovering from the effects of the Great War. It was the men who played a more active role on the war field, in that cruel war that lead to the loss of so many lives. However, a whole generation of surplus women were still suffering from the aftermath of that war. People were having to adjust to a post-war life of economic hardship. The ‘War’ in ‘War Among Ladies’ is thus inextricably intertwined with the Great War that preceeded it.
‘War Among Ladies’ is filled with twists and turns, ugly politics, scheming and so much drama. It is quite a page turner of a novel, written very well and with great sympathy for the central character of Miss Cullen.
War Among Ladies, one feels, is a rather scathing social commentary. It may be alright, to become preoccupied in the game of pointing fingers at one or another individual in this story, but the problem is more far reaching than that. If one must point the finger, should the finger pointing be restricted to certain individuals or to the social system that helped perpetrate such finger pointing? It is quite a serious point to be pondered.
Many thanks to the British Library for sending me a review copy of ‘War Among Ladies’. All opinions are my own.