A World of Girls... In the Kitchen?

Attentive followers of my 'What I'm Reading' list will have noticed that I've been devouring lots of old-fashioned girls' stories lately, especially the ballet books of Lorna Hill (which probably deserve their own post). This was partly prompted by my picking up Rosemary Auchmuty's A World of Girls from the last library book sale. This was a fascinating analysis of the enduring appeal of girls' school stories (think The Chalet School, The Abbey Girls series etc) in the face of (male) derision and jolly-hockey-sticks satire. Auchmuty contends that these books, despite some dodgy elements, nevertheless provided their young readers with a picture of a world where women thrived, independent of men, and had real, loving relationships with each other.

I was never a huge consumer of school stories (apart from Antonia Forest, who, with respect, is in another league entirely from the authors discussed here), but Auchmuty's description of one particular book made me sit up. In Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Prefects At Springdale, the different houses of Springdale compete to show their special strengths -- one house gives a concert, another shows off their prowess in foreign languages etc. Wistaria House decides to go in for Domestic Science, and puts on a dinner party, which ends up winning them the prize.

'Hang on,' I thought, 'this sounds familiar...' and sure enough, a search of my mother's bookshelves revealed a battered copy of Prefects At Springdale, awarded to Mum as a Sunday School prize in 1948 (twelve years after its original publication).

Auchmuty's book contains a whole section on the topic of Domestic Science and its role in the school story genre. Especially after the female freedoms of the two World Wars, there was a concerted political push to encourage girls to be educated in the science of home-making, to nudge them back into their 'proper' domestic sphere. This was a source of some ambivalence in women's education and also in the school stories, though in Prefects, Dorita Bruce comes down firmly in support of girls being taught to cook and mange a household (though the actual cleaning, one gathers, would probably still be performed by the servants!)

Rosemary Auchmuty applauds (with reservations) the attempt to revalue 'women's work' by making it more 'scientific', but laments the way that girls were forced to cram in Domestic Science on top of the normal (male) curriculum of sports and academic subjects. 

Having won the competition, Wistaria is awarded with their trophy -- a bonsai cedar tree. As Auchmuty points out:
Of all the images that could have been chosen to symbolise women's position under patriarchy, it would be difficult to find one more apt than this. A bonsai tree is something which is beautiful, certainly, but stunted, reduced to ornamental status to stand on a domestic shelf, certainly not fit to take its place in the might forest of real trees.
Of course, back then, Domestic Science was a subject taught only to girls. These days, Home Economics should probably be compulsory for everyone (my friend Elizabeth, who is studying to be a Home Ec teacher, might agree with this view). All students can benefit from learning about nutrition, environmental sustainability and the economics of household management. In a world of scarce resources and climate change, this is stuff we all need to know: how to live responsibly and sustainably, how the personal decisions we make about how we live (what we eat, what we buy, what we consume and throw away) affect the future of the planet. It just needs a more compelling name: Applied Environmental Ethics? Practical Life Philosophy? Any ideas?


  1. That sounds like a most fascinating book. I love old school stories - particularly the Abbey Girls by E.J. Oxenham and the Chalet Girls ... I go through phases where I re-read them all :)

    I must try and get hold of that book ....

  2. I went to school with Rosemary Auchmuty's sister! Must read the book