Clearing the family bookshelves for the last time at my parents' home in Devon, I found my old 'Girls' Handbook' this summer. Perhaps you had something similar - full of useful tips from mending punctures to taking care of your animals, and always with a section on heroic women from history. At the age I remember devouring the book, I was at the kind of girls' school that put as much emphasis on being able to navigate Dartmoor and change a plug as rustle up a decent meal and walk with a straight back (deportment badges were handed out for good posture). It had a strong spiritual heart, was academically rigorous, and instilled an instinctive sense of sexual equality. At the time that practical, intellectual and liberal foundation seemed completely normal. Only with the benefit of age can I see how incredibly fortunate it is to have an education like that. Also - a sign of the times - that exemplary girls' school has just closed its doors for the last time.
The stories in the handbook - of remarkable women like Joan of Arc, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Amelia Earhart, Amy Johnson, Anne Frank - became a shared history. These women were conjured to life by our teachers and their courageous examples became part of us - they were truly formative. I still remember standing in silence in the Frank house in Amsterdam at roughly the same age Anne was when she lived there. Perhaps you've seen the Hilary Swank film 'Freedom Writers', where the true life story of teacher Erin Gruwell is dramatised? Gruwell used the example of Anne Frank to reach a group of 'unteachables', working several jobs to pay for Miep Gies (who sheltered the Franks), to come and talk to her group. The book speaks across the years, but I wonder if the Diary of Anne Frank is still required reading in schools?
Writing historical fiction I still find myself drawn to these women - Amy Johnson in 'The Beauty Chorus', Gerda Taro in 'The Perfume Garden'. One of the lovely things about being published that I'm still getting used to is how people give you the gift of their stories. At a shwarma party in a desert house the other night, a woman told me a wonderful tale about her grandmother, who was named for British nurse and patriot Edith Cavell. 'I'd love to read a novel about her,' the woman said.
I began to wonder who today's girls admire and look up to. A quick survey at home came up with two names:
J K Rowling
I'll be putting a copy of the 'Girls' Handbook' or its modern equivalent under the Christmas tree for my daughter this year in the hope we can add a few more to this list - it would be interesting to know which names you can come up with from your daughters or young friends. Which heroines had an impact on you as a youthful history girl? Or perhaps you've also had the experience of being 'given' a story?
Who will be the modern day heroines, the examples from our own era? If there is one contemporary candidate, it's Malala Yousafzai, whose biography has just been published. Her bravery fighting for the education so many of us take for granted, and her message of peaceful resistance is truly inspiring. If you haven't seen this clip, it's well worth watching - 4.40 onwards takes your breath away and just goes to show that heroism is alive and well today: