A/N - This story is a non-magical AU featuring characters from the Harry Potter universe; I don't think you'll have any trouble recognizing them. The plot is modeled on old girls' boarding school stories of the early 20th century, the sort written by popular authors like Angela Brazil and Elinor Brent-Dyer. I love reading those old books, so I've had fun incorporating some classic school-story tropes into this fic: the powerful headmistress, the gallery of girls (the swot! the outdoorsy girl! the flirt!), the late-night clandestine spread, the unexpected benefactor, the tied-up-in-a-bow ending, and above all, the sense of strong female camaraderie and friendship. I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I did writing.
Many thanks to my careful beta readers, The Real Snape and Pale Moonlite.
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The Ravendore School for Girls
Monday, 25 August 1925
You hold in your hand your very first letter from the Junior Mistress of the Fourth Form at Ravendore School! But it shan't be the last, for I promised you that I would tell you every detail of my work here, and I shall be as good as my word.
I wish you were here with me, the way we always planned when we were in school ourselves, but who am I to interfere with the course of true love? We can't all of us be bluestockings, can we? Some of us must be mothers to the next generation of students, or the likes of me will have no one to teach! (You know I'm just joking, Miriam dear; I think your Malcolm is a lovely man, and you'll be happy with him. I've already spoken to Headmistress McGonagall about taking leave so that I may come to the wedding.)
About the headmistress: I think she's the most splendid woman I've ever met. She has such fine ideals about life and about girls, and even better, she has practical plans for realising those ideals here at Ravendore. I must be honest, though, and say that in some ways, she is not an easy person. I can tell already that she does not suffer fools gladly. She can be more than a little intimidating and is sharp-tongued when she is displeased.
Then again, I suspect that complex, busy people like Miss McG are rarely easy. After all, she has a great deal resting on her shoulders: she's responsible for the success of this entire school, and the proper education of so many girls, and the livelihoods of the other teachers and the household staff, and. . .
But I see I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm forgetting the lessons Miss Herbster taught us when we were working on our play in our final year. (Frankly, I wish I could forget the whole experience. The Girls of Hawthorne School - - goodness, but it was trite and silly; I'm embarrassed to think of it now). Anyway, I can just hear Miss H: "Young ladies, a good playwright must find ways to set the stage." So let me indulge in a little stage-setting about Ravendore and then perhaps a list of the dramatis personae.
The Set: Well, as you know, the school is housed in the headmistress's family manor. Mother went to see her, you remember, before I took the position, to make sure that I wasn't getting into a den of thieves. (I told her that modern girls should be able to negotiate their own employment without the assistance of their mothers, but Mother just said that I should be glad she and Father are so constantly vigilant. And she does mean well, the dear thing.) In any case, Miss McGonagall told Mother that the Manor would have been sold had she not decided to open it as a school. "But I hated to see the estate go into private hands when so many girls need a place to be educated," she said.
I was expecting something terribly draughty and intimidatingly stately-home-ish, but I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a very large house after all; the dormitories and teachers' rooms and science laboratories had to be added on as extra wings. The main part of the house has all the classrooms and the offices (for the headmistress and the deputy head) and a parlour for guests.
And then there is the delightful staff sitting room.
The sitting room - - if only I had paid more attention during Señor Duarte's drawing lessons, I would make a sketch for you. But given my lamentable lack of skill in that area, I'll have to draw the picture in words.
It's so very homey a room, my dear: deep, inviting window seats and plump sofas and a cheerful grate and several nice, long tables with green-shaded lamps where we can do our marking and lesson planning. The headmistress is working on getting small offices for each teacher, though; she says we need to be able to meet with students in a professional environment. She doesn't want us to have girls come to our personal rooms; she says we are their teachers, not their mothers, and we should not be on constant call. It's not the viewpoint I would have expected, I must say, and I know that Miss Sprout disagrees; she thinks we do need to take the place of mothers for our girls.
(Miss Sprout is also the one who wanted to use English "forms" at Ravendore. According to Alice Milner (another junior mistress about whom I'll talk more later), Miss McG was adamantly opposed to using the English system; she's Scottish to the very bone and wanted her girls to be trained up as proper Scotswomen. But Miss Sprout believes that we need to do something to attract English students, too, and having forms will seem more familiar to them and might look more usual to the Oxbridge entrance examiners.
Since sending girls to university is one of Miss McGonagall's main goals, she yielded on the issue of forms. So speaketh Alice, at any rate. But we will still award Scottish Leaving Certificates. And that suits me fine, if you'll pardon the slang; I plan to go to St Andrews. In any case, it's not as if there's no precedent for using the English system. That's what they do at Fettes College for boys in Edinburgh, and you know what a fine reputation they have.)
But here, I'm getting ahead of myself again. More about the staff anon, after I finish the building tour.
Follow me now, if you will, as we move to the classrooms. They are all thoroughly up-to-date, with desks that can be moved about and bright lighting and vases of flowers and shelves on which to display the students' projects. It will not be a "memorising" education, which I know you will be pleased to hear; I haven't forgotten how you hated Miss Lambert's recitation rules! The recitations here will require the girls to "use their minds," as the headmistress says.
There are also common rooms for each of the upper forms, and the girls themselves will be responsible for the housekeeping. That's something Miss Sprout and the headmistress agree upon: modern girls need to know how to look after themselves. And they need to have a variety of skills: next spring, Miss Sprout is going to add a course in "practical gardening" to the biological curriculum; she likes the idea of girls working with their hands as well as their minds.
I don't object to that notion, either, but I'm glad I shan't have to muck about in the dirt myself! You know I've never been very fond of the outdoors. I'm happy to report that indoors here at Ravendore is very comfortable. My bedroom is spacious and airy and looks pleasantly cosy now that I've added my cushions and Grandmother's Persian rug. I can keep my ivy plants on the window-ledge, and on my free Saturday afternoon, I'm going to hang some prints; there's a lovely picture rail. And a desk - - of course - - and an armchair near the fire. I will share a bath with the other junior mistresses. The senior mistresses have little suites with a personal sitting room as well as a bedroom. I don't know about their bathing arrangements, though (and I wasn't about to ask!)
And now I've kept you in suspense about the staff long enough; I'm sure you're dying to know all about them. Oh, Miriam, they're just the sort of women we've always admired: fun-loving but serious about important things and dedicated to scholarship and absolutely convinced that the female brain is meant to be used.
I've already seen quite a few female brains in action. I'm talking about the headmistress and her colleagues, of course: the three women who have founded Ravendore. The "Triumvirate," they call themselves. They are about thirty-five or forty now, though they have been friends since their school days. But friends or no, they don't always agree on everything, and they are not the least bit shy about expressing their opinions. It's exhilarating to listen to them.
Who are they? Well, first and foremost, there is the headmistress, Miss Minerva McGonagall. She is in charge of the school, of course, and will give science lectures to the senior students and help prepare them for their Higher Leaving Certificate examinations.
She seems less frightening now than she did last March when I met her at that tea that Jenny Mellert's aunt gave - - you remember, when she invited her university friends to talk to schoolgirls about earning a degree. I think I told you that Miss McGonagall and Jenny's aunt were at the University of Glasgow together. But I never had a chance to tell you about our whole conversation, not while you were so busy with Malcolm!
Miss McGonagall did seem awfully stern and scary at first (and I can't deny that sometimes she still is) - - with spectacles and coal-black hair in a bun; she wore a plain dark dress and button shoes. But she was wearing a gold thistle brooch, so I thought, "she must have sparkle somewhere in her soul!"
I was right. She's quite kind when you get to know her, and she makes one feel important. Or she does me, at any rate. She takes one seriously when one talks to her, and she never mollycoddles. When I told her after the tea that I wanted to go to university more than anything, she said she was glad to hear it. Then she looked at me very sternly over the top of her spectacles (she does that quite a bit) and said, "You need to be aware of exactly how demanding university is. It's not a choice for the uncommitted." After she spelled out at least a dozen difficulties, she said, "Now, then, do you believe you are up to the task?"
I think she frightened me into being as honest as I could, so I told the exact truth: I said I didn't know if I was up to the task, but I did know that I loved to read and study and discuss, and that I wasn't afraid of hard work and that I was not a person who was easily discouraged.
Oh, you should have seen her smile then! She doesn't do it often, but it quite transforms her. I never dreamed she'd become so interested in my cause that she'd actually engage me to teach for her. Of course she talked to Miss Cameron, and evidently our old headmistress was rather complimentary about me (can you credit it? She only ever seemed to frown at me in assembly).
And Miss McG simply refused to accept lack of money as a reason for not attending school. I explained about Father's illness and how he has had to step down as vicar, and she said, "If you have a genuine academic calling, then the money must be found. You must earn it yourself, if your family cannot provide it."
I said, "But what am I to do? I could teach, perhaps, but good positions are not easy for beginners to come by."
That's when she told me about her own school and how she planned to use junior teachers both to provide young women with practical training and to expose pupils to different teaching styles. And for someone like me, she said, it's an "invaluable opportunity to prepare for university entrance and to compete for scholarships." She's going to help me prepare.
To be sure, the wages are not large, but I receive room and board, and I will work hard for a scholarship, and oh, just think, Miriam! Some day I truly, truly will be "Fiona Moody, B. A."
Oh, dear, I see I have wandered very far from my purpose of describing the staff! I hope you'll forgive me for turning the talk to myself. I'll make it up to you in the next letter, I promise. But just now, I must prepare for dinner. We won't eat at the high table until term begins; the headmistress says we'll just "eat informally" in the dining room. But informal or not, I wouldn't want to be late on my first evening. I don't think it would be wise to keep the headmistress waiting.
Your loving friend,