What makes a Methodist Lady? Jill Sanguinetti’s memoir, School Days of a Methodist Lady: a journey through childhood, goes a considerable way to answering to this question. She introduces us to Methodist Ladies College of the late 1950s to early 1960s and her time there as a boarder.
Jill’s gift, and the prompt for writing this book, was finding, in the process of clearing out their parents’ house, the letters that she and her sister Margot had written home during their MLC years. The letters have an immediacy and honesty that convey the existential struggles of this teenage writer, as she finds her place in the boarding school world.
In her use of extracts from the letters, Jill’s adult-self coexists with her teenage-self. The letters are the key to her release from ‘being a prisoner in her own childhood’, a quote she uses from Clive James.
We meet a young girl on the cusp of maturity, with a well-developed sense of self-irony and injustice, ambivalent about her own abilities, but with the courage to question and seek answers.
This account of boarding school days and their impact on the formation of one girl’s identity is well-researched and well-written, with footnotes provided. Black-and-white photographs provide a visual record of those who figure throughout this account as important influences in Jill’s life.
Historian Eric Hobsbawm stressed the importance of setting personal memoir in the context of its time. Jill has done this compellingly. She also opens a window onto the ethos of MLC at that time . Its educational practices were intent on shaping young women in particular ways, so that they might take their place in the world as young Methodist ladies.
French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote: ‘We don’t so much write as we are written’. Through her letters, Jill shows how her developing sense of self was written through her experiences as a boarder in that era – an educational era which, with 50 years hindsight, seems almost Dickensian in character.
It was a time of detention, of austerity in living conditions, and of a paucity of good food. For Jill it was also a time of encountering new ideas, testing the boundaries, and making enduring friendships. As she writes in her introduction to the book, quoting from a 1961 letter, life at MLC ‘was revolting and terrific at the same time’.
The spartanism of Jill’s time as a boarder is reflected in the recurring theme of food, or lack thereof. ‘1 slice of cold meat, one piece of beetroot for tea the first night,’ she wrote home, complaining of continually experiencing pangs of hunger.
The girls organised deputations to Dr Wood, they held spontaneous food strikes or they revolted against food they considered inedible. Calls to home for help were answered in the form of jars of home cooked rabbit curry or spaghetti bolognese, kindly delivered to MLC’s door by travelling salesmen on their way home from Kyabram. Without refrigeration these jars of food did not always arrive in an edible form.
An MLC education was a process of total immersion, especially for the boarders. At the helm of this all-encompassing formation was the principal, Dr Wood, a charismatic figure who could be intimidating and forbidding, at other times deeply caring.
He was musically gifted and eloquent but he could also cut girls down with a cruel comment, often in public. The school motto, For God and For Home, inculcated in the girls their duty to love God and to aspire to be devoted home-makers, the expectations of being a good Methodist lady in the mid-20th century.
Jill’s account finishes at the end of her MLC years, her identity etched with the markings of a Methodist Lady. She tells us she was successful in gaining entry to university, but we are left to imagine how her life has evolved since those formative school days. A sequel would tell us how as a Methodist Lady in her subsequent years, she has taken her place in the world.
book l School Days of a Methodist Lady: a journey through childhood l Jill Sanguinetti l Published by Wild Dingo Press,2014 l RRP: $29.95
Review by BEVERLEY CAMPBELL