'I often dream about Girton'
An education in the life of the writer Sally Beauman

Sally Beauman is the author of the novels Destiny, Dark Angel and the Lovers and Liars series. Her partner is the actor Alan Howard and she has also written the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. She worked on the Telegraph Magazine and edited Queen magazine before becoming a novelist. Her most recent novel is Rebecca's Tale, which is out in paperback.

Cross patch: I adored the Maris Convent in Torquay but I don't know why I went there, since we weren't Catholics. On Ash Wednesday the nuns marked the forehead of every girl with a cross - but didn't do mine because I wasn't a Catholic. I wept when I went home because I wanted to be like everyone else.

Bristol's cream: When I was 12 I went to Redland High School for Girls in Bristol, a direct grant school in a beautiful building, a Queen Anne house. I loved that building; it had panelled rooms and rumours of secret passages - very Gothic. The school was extremely academic. I wasn't academic to begin with but I improved when I was about 13. We had such wonderful teachers. Charlotte Brontë wrote about the only roles for a spinster being a teacher or governess: I was taught by women not a million miles from that. Looking back, I can see some were clearly lesbian. Mainly unmarried, they were dedicated professional women of a kind now, I think, extinct. It was a cloistered life, unimaginably sheltered: I worked, I went home, did my homework, had my supper, annoyed my parents by reading at the table, then went to bed. I didn't meet any boys at all, apart from the brothers of school friends in the holidays. And we used to have ghastly formal dances every year: long dresses, gloves and the agony of fearing that you were going to be the wallflower. No alcohol, no smooching. A lost world, like the other side of the Moon - yet not that long ago.

How blue is your stocking? I bless that school because outside there was still the expectation that a woman's function was to get married and run a home. My mother was quite perturbed because she feared that I was going to be a bluestocking and that no man would ever marry me. I did my O-levels, then A-levels in English, Latin and history. You had to stay on an extra term for the Oxbridge entrance and there was fantastic one-to-one tuition: just two people reading Shakespeare together and analysing it line by line. I was as happy then as I've ever been.

Ghost trusters: I often have Girton dreams. It is such a wonderfully strange building, it haunts my imagination even now. I loved the sense of a company of ghosts of women who had founded that place and fought for the right to education. But I was colder then than at any time before or since and the food was unspeakable!

Darling, you were awful! The one thing I wanted to do at Cambridge was act, so I went to the Amateur Dramatic Company for auditions. As you entered the building, an atmosphere of feuds and jealousy and rivalry and spite drifted out through the door at you. There were no women among the Peter Hall impersonators who were auditioning you. One of them later showed me his notes; for the women, he'd simply put down remarks about their physical appearance - and given them marks out of 10. I got seven and a half or maybe eight. I thought it was funny, but it made me angry that this was the only way they could rate women.

Last straw: I was in one or two productions a term; it took up an enormous amount of time. I got a 2.1 in Part I and then slipped to a "theatre 2.2". You can't blag your way through Finals. The novel paper was a complete nightmare. I'd read all the novels that the examiners decided to ignore that year. For three questions I had to improvise. I was making bricks without straw - an especially bad idea when the brick concerned is Henry James.

Jonathan Sale

The Independent, 16 January 2003.

A longer version of this interview was published in the CAM.


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