Margaret diligently working on Mason’s biography at the Armitt in Ambleside.
As you may know, Lutterworth Press in Cambridge, England is bringing out my new biography ‘Charlotte Mason 1842-1923: Hidden Heritage and Educational Influence in late September, 2015. It explores the lives of Charlotte Mason’s discovered paternal Quaker ancestors, committed to education and ministry, preceding the class-structured Victorian era which dominated her life and the P.N.E.U. educational mission.
As the indomitable Principal of her House of Education, what was Charlotte Mason really like? To give us an idea, here are some memories recorded by her Ambleside bairns (chiefly of Scotland and North England and means child or little one) and practising school pupils, who also trained as governesses. We begin with one of the numerous letters she wrote to her bairns, always by return of post:
My Dear Bairn,
Thank you for sending me such a nice letter. You gave us all pleasure as a student & I look forward with pleasure to your work with the two little boys. [She then asked the former student to tell her father all about the work in elementary schools, seeking his influence and interest]. We have had a rather snowy Christmas Day but today it is beautiful. Wansfell is golden as I write. With my kind regards to your Father and Mother, I am, dear, always affect’y yours CM Mason. 26 December 1916.
N.D.E. Storey (née Phillips) recalled, ‘I feel I am a privileged person . . . . I was taken to have tea with Miss Mason by my parents when I was four years old. I remember I couldn’t take my eyes off her face . . . it was so beautiful. I didn’t know about God in those days, but I thought he couldn’t have a kinder face than this quietly spoken lady . . . .
A Practising School pupil, Mrs. Storey recalled, ‘the excitement of Monday mornings when new students came down the drive to do a week of practice . . . . Two of these would be “on duty,” which meant they took charge of us after school hours. Poor things! Some were played up mercilessly. We had our favourites, for students then, as now, were a mixed bunch.’
Then there were the agonies of Criticism Lessons (crits) on Thursday mornings, when dear Stella (our Matron) looked us all over and saw we were respectable before going up to be guinea pigs in a lesson given before all the staff and students in the largest room the College then possessed. Shivering with fright we waited in the Hall . . . beneath the sad picture of ‘The Scapegoat.’ There was also in some conspicuous place, Miss Mason’s favourite saying: “Some cram to pass and not to know; they do pass and they don’t know.” Foolishly we felt we were the ones being criticised . . . . (Pianta, Summer, 1982)
Mary Yates, the daughter of the artist Fred Yates who painted Miss Mason’s portrait in 1901, recorded a visit to the practising school in her diary. ‘Miss Mason came down to school today, the prudent restraining element being absent–Miss Kitching is away on her holiday. She said my books were “very good work” but my writing seemed to be getting careless, perhaps I had been hurrying. So I am writing carefully now.’ (Mary Yates’ Diary 1907)
Aged 102, Margaret Owen (CMT 1904) recalled: ‘We worked very hard. In my year there were 10 students. It was the last year that students had to get up all the year round at 7 o’clock–be in the classroom by 7 o’clock. In winter it was too hard and we all got ill. Miss Mason sensed it was a bit too much and she stopped it. Practising was often done then but there was very little heating and it was too cold, terribly cold and people were smothered in chilblains. Crits were hard work, but you know it was quite an interesting morning when you had a criticism lesson to take. You had to be well-prepared, you had to be interesting too. Mary Yates was a pupil, older than most of them and much more intelligent . . . she always liked to ask questions that she thought you couldn’t answer! You had to keep your head and answer them and of course you got an extra good report for that . . . of course, in my young days, a lot of the students really weren’t educated at all. I’d not had much of an education . . . but I’d always enjoyed learning so when I got to Ambleside it was absolute heaven.’
‘Miss Mason came down each day . . . . She had a weak heart . . . she used to lie down because her ankles swelled so, otherwise she worked. She worked to within three days of her death . . . She was so inspiring, she made you want to do everything, without saying much. She came to crits. When she was not too ill . . . Miss Williams, the Vice-Principal, took the lectures.’ (Talked to Pat Kenworthy (CMT 1942), Pianta Winter 1986)
Dorothy Cooke (CMT 1913) did not find the tough Spartan regime easy. Miss Mason was an attractive old lady but very remote. As she did not teach them, they only saw her in formal situations: at dinner, the Tuesday evening drawing-room evenings and Sunday ‘Meds.’ The staff were also remote. The system of going out for walks with a different person each time meant the students felt very remote from each other. Later, Dorothy concluded that the remoteness of Scale How life prepared them for a governess’ lonely life. Her first year was spent in ‘Millet, a kind of wooden hut with no heating. There were five sharing the room; they took turns to wash in the basin next door but had to go outside to get to the bath. (Interview with author, 11 October 1985)
Boarding at the Practising School, Dorothy Bernau (CMT 1923) described her first ‘crit.’ in 1913. ‘I can remember being tidied up and going to the College. I must have been in 1a, I think. There were only three of us in the form. I had not the faintest idea what was going on but we were taken into a room with long windows down to the ground [the classroom] and a lot of people were sitting there in tiers, up to the ceiling, it seemed to me . . . . We sat down facing the window with our backs to all the people and the lesson began. I think we were being read to by a student, who shall be nameless. I must have seen something that interested me out of the window, as I either kicked or nudged a friend next to me. Then a small voice, which seemed very far away, said. “Miss——–, I think the little girls are not attending, we will all sit silent for a minute.” There was a deathly silence and I was very intrigued by the poor student for a slow blush went down her face and neck. Then the lesson continued. I was never taken up to a crit. again! The “small voice” was, of course, Miss Mason’s.’ (Pianta, Winter 1985)
Even by 1922, Dorothy Bernau (CMT 1923) confirmed that everything, ‘was very Victorian and Spartan. We had few comforts and not much heating; no electric light upstairs. We had small oil lamps in our rooms . . . . Some of our lectures were even before breakfast. There was a great gulf fixed between seniors and juniors and we always addressed each other as “Miss.” The list of requirements sent to us before we came to College . . . included woollen long-sleeved combinations and galoshes! We all had long hair as no one was allowed to cut it. There was a hushed scandal that one student returned after the holidays with her hair short. We were told that she would never get a post.’ (Pianta, Winter 1978)
Winifred Hill (CMT 1908) recalled, ‘We were told to bring our Nature Note Books to the drawing-room for inspection by Miss Mason. I am a very slow performer–could never finish a painting in the half-hour allowed–so my book was scantily illustrated, but padded out with appropriate bits of poetry. That day Punch had published a quiz on Milton and to entertain us while she studied N.N.B’s one by one, she shot quiz questions at us. I happened to have been well ‘Miltoned’ at school and I knew all the answers–and, they saved my bacon! Miss Mason leafed through my half-filled N.N.B. and returned it with a kind smile, and said, “Well dear you have some nice drawings here–and I see that your talents are more literary than scientific!” – No reproaches!’ (Pianta, Summer 1973)
Margaret Kidd (Panter CMT 1916) recalled: ‘There were only 12 of us in those days, the first World War being on, and Miss Mason herself was a great inspiration to us all. Elsie Kitching was her right hand man and was always at her side, except when she–Miss Kitching–took us out on bird walks . . . . Miss Williams, V.P. as we called her, was the Vice Principal and she always took Prayers in the mornings. I can still remember her reciting the five 16-lined verses of a poem, ‘Coming’ on Advent Sunday, without looking at the words. The poem begins, “It may be in the evening when the work of the day is done” . . . and the first verse ends . . . “for it may be in the gloaming I will come.” Then there was that great character, Miss Drury, whom we all called “Uncle.” We were a little scared of her, especially when she had bouts of temper, but she was a wonderful teacher on Nature Walks and with handicrafts etc.’ (Pianta, Spring 1985)
Ida Moffatt (CMT 1919) recalled her delayed arrival at Scale How, in the dark, with snow falling. ‘The next day was mostly spent by me in solitude, coping with the entrance exam papers . . . . Dinner time came. With all the staff and students there I waited for my first glimpse of Miss Mason . . . Slowly Miss Mason entered, looking round, then much to my embarrassment, she stopped opposite me and this short, stoutish lady, with pure white hair and lovely blue eyes, smiling with wonderful kindliness, took my hand saying, “Welcome to Scale How for the sake of your sister.” Then I knew I had been accepted and would become one of Miss Mason’s “dear bairns.”’ (Pianta Winter 1986)
Violet Curry (CMT 1912) was asked to instruct students in cooking, ‘one of whom owned to never having peeled a potato or broken an egg, to produce a meal cooked over a tiny paraffin stove. I regretfully think of the stuff [that]evolved for Miss Mason’s supper! But for the first time in my life I met with loving appraisal and encouragement. Because she gave both so lavishly Charlotte Mason could always command our loyalty and outpouring of effort in all we did day by day.’ (Pianta Spring 1973)
Beryl French (CMT 1923) also remarked on the, “very Spartan Life,” ‘There were no “easy” chairs, only one two-seat couch in the front hall where it was possible to read the daily paper. . . . As Juniors, we had to produce a play at the end of the Spring Term, and that year  we had to act Sheridan’s The Rivals twice more at the two Conferences, one of these in the garden. During the Christmas Term we had to organize a Fancy Dress Dance. We all dressed as Fairy Tale characters and it was a great success. In those days we had a big “Dressing –Up box” in the Barn, and augmented the costumes with home-made ones of sateen and butter muslin, cheap and effective.’ (Pianta, Spring 1992)
E.D.A. Chubb (CMT 1920) said, ‘One afternoon we Seniors were in the Classroom rehearsing for one of our half-term shows. There came a timid knock on the door, and we shouted, ‘Come In!’ I flung open the door to find Miss Mason leaning on her stick and smiling at me. ‘I’ve escaped from Miss Kitching . . . Can I come in? So she came in and watched us.’ (Pianta Spring 1973)
Jenny King (CMT 1935), author of Charlotte Mason Reviewed (1981), recalled her P.U.S. (Parents’ Union School) education by exploring her bookcase. ‘Of all the things that bring back memories, it is books that stir the dust of ages. Do you remember the Age of Fable? I seem to recollect the horror of being asked to narrate the stories full of names of gods and goddesses with very strange life styles as long ago as form 3 in the P.U.S. What would modern 11 year-olds make of it? I was at the Practising School at the time . . . . On a lower shelf is Our Island Story from which I came to love History, a lasting pleasure until the present. What wonderful books we had to enjoy. There was a worn copy of Pilgrim’s Progress. Worn because I used it for years with children in Form 1a and 2b. Drawing pictures, making little plays and narrating with enthusiasm. Who can tell what ideas were fostered in their minds.’
‘Dear old Arabella Buckley, Life and her Children, Winners in Life’s Race still bearing the marks where we stopped to narrate. All the creatures so vividly described. I can still picture them. The fish in the deep sea carrying their own lights, the ostrich pacing over the desert at forty miles an hour. How did she know so much so long ago? Of course there are the Shakespeares. Seen through rose coloured spectacles it was fun performing parts of them for parents. I still have sets of the Picture Study books and have used them quite recently with children who have taken to them like ducks to water. What have we done to education as Charlotte Mason thought of it? Computers and endless projects do not do for the mind what good books do. Racing round museums with a clip-board does not educate, although it may inform. There is one other book that graces my bookcase: an Atlas, Map of the World . . . every week and repetition for ten minutes every day. What a wonderful foundation we gave our children.’ (Pianta Centenary Edition, 1887-1987)
(Single quotation marks are generally used in British English.)
© 2015 by Margaret Coombs