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Stories Before 1850. 0142: Mary Hughes, The Rebellious Schoolgirl

Author: Hughes, Mary (Robson)
Title: The rebellious schoolgirl. A tale. By Mary Hughes (late Robson), author of 'The ornaments discovered', 'The alchemist', etc.
Cat. Number: 0142
Date: 1821
1st Edition: 1821
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: William Darton, 58, Holborn-Hill
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., 120pp.
Size: 13.5 x 8.5 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus five further full-page engravings

Images of all pages of this book

Page 005 of item 0142

Introductory essay

The Rebellious School-girl is a lively school story, with the added attraction of a mystery, solved by its heroine to bring the narrative to a close. The story is set in a small boarding school for girls run by Mrs. Grace. Mrs. Grace has been forced to leave the school for a time, and her assistant, Miss Frivol, has been left in command. As her name suggests, Miss Frivol is not a good teacher. She is rather vain - she is first introduced to the reader in the act of admiring herself in a mirror (see the frontispiece) - and she has a propensity to administer arbitrary and severe punishments. The chief victim of this tyranny is twelve-year old Eliza Howard. She is a quick-witted, bright girl, but too prone to what might be considered impertinence. Indeed, Mrs. Grace had predicted that Eliza would find much to mock in Miss Frivol, and had feared that Miss Frivol's excessive punishments would merely turn Eliza against her teacher. Before she left, therefore, she appointed another of the pupils, Clara Gordon, as Eliza's monitor, or 'mother', though she is just two years older (p.14).

But for all Clara's efforts to restrain her friend, Eliza soon gets into trouble by satirising Miss Frivol, and she is sent to solitary confinement in her room. She gets deeper into trouble when her letter to Clara, attacking Miss Frivol (not without some wit: see pp.37-39) is intercepted. The persecution of Eliza excites the rebellious spirit of the whole school. Indeed, only Clara 'considered Eliza inexcusable in thus rebelling against appointed authority.' Rather, Clara preaches a doctrine of passive obedience. Whether 'authority was exerted judiciously or the contrary,' Clara continued, 'it did not become them to determine; so long as they were in the school, it was their duty to render implicit obedience.' (p.35, and see p.40 for Hughes' further use of this distinctly political metaphor). Where the school-girls' rebellion would have ended is uncertain, for in the nick of time, Mrs. Grace returns and the whispering against Miss Frivol dies away. Clara is exculpated, and Eliza is reprimanded, though still confined to her room until such time as Miss Frivol forgives her.

From here, The Rebellious School-girl becomes a crime story. Various articles have been going missing in the school, but it is the theft of a gold 'steletto' (apparently a sewing implement) which prompts an investigation. All the pupil's private boxes are searched, and the steletto is found in Clara's. Pressure from parents forces Mrs. Grace to expel Clara, but just as she is sent away, a scream is heard from the back of the building. The reason for this commotion is that Eliza has thrown herself from the window of the second-floor room in which she was confined. Her leg is broken, but at least Eliza has attracted the attention of the school. This was her object in jumping, for she has important information about the thefts which she was not able to communicate while shut up in her room. Once placed in bed, Eliza reveals that she woke in the night to find Henrietta Bulman, her room-mate and Miss Frivol's favourite, awake and moving about the chamber. She thought no more about this until she heard that Clara was to be expelled, but now she realises that Henrietta might easily have placed the steletto - which she had stolen - in Clara's box. Eliza calls for Henrietta's key to be tried in Clara's box, and the key does indeed turn. But Eliza's clinching evidence is that she later saw, though a chink in the wall, Henrietta removing her own box from a secret hiding-place, using a different key. When this hiding place is searched, the box is found and is revealed to contain all the items which have gone missing over the previous months. Henrietta is convicted of the thefts, then, and Clara is cleared.

The narrative does not end quite here, though, for the last word is left to Eliza's conscience. Although Mrs. Grace is to remove Miss Frivol from the school, Eliza still sees fit to pledge herself never again to dispute her authority. '[S]ubmission and obedience', she concludes, 'was the duty of a school girl, towards her teachers' (p.120).

Apart from this examination of the rights and wrongs of the right to resistance, and the excitement of the investigation into the school thefts, the most striking feature of The Rebellious School-girl is its vivid depiction of life in a boarding-school. The strictly enforced rule that only French might be spoken at certain times of the day is interesting, as is the custom of 'the passing of the mark', whereby a girl guilty of some infringement of the rules had to bear a token indicating her guilt until she could find another transgressing girl to pass the mark onto (mentioned p.50). The description of the girls' boxes as the only place where they might store their personal property, and of the contents of these boxes when they are opened during the investigation, provides another realistic element (depicted opposite p.61). As with many later school stories, it is the passionate friendship, extending even to semi-suicidal despair, between the two central characters, Eliza and Clara, which seems to dominate the narrative. The other girls, by contrast, exist as a sort of crowd, fluctuating between support and condemnation of Clara, who is popular for her kindness, but disliked for being Mrs. Grace's favourite. The sustained portrayal of the girls' relationship to their teachers - one worshipped and the other detested - is also a feature that would recur in later school stories.

The Rebellious Schoolgirl was actually written in America, although it is apparently set in Scotland (certainly Clara Gordon is a Scot, and Eliza gently mocks her for her Scottish accent). The author, Mary Robson, was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, and married Thomas Hughes of Dundee in 1817. But the following year they emigrated to the United States, settling in Philadelphia where they established a school for young women - perhaps an inspiration for The Rebellious Schoolgirl. Mrs. Robson had started writing for children before her marriage, and Aunt Mary's Tales (0141 in the Hockliffe Collection), as well as several other titles, dates from this period. These works had been published in the United States by the time Mrs. Hughes arrived, and their fame assured the success of her school. After running the school for twenty-one years Hughes and her husband turned to farming in Doylestown, Buck County, in 1839. She continued to write while in America, producing, as well as many children's books, a Life of William Penn (1822). (Hale 1857 and Boase 1892-1921: 1:1575).

Hale, Sarah Josepha Buell, A Cyclopaedia of Female Biography, ed. H. G. Adams, London: Goombridge and Sons, 1857

Boase, F., Modern English Biography..., Truro: Netherton and Worth, 1892-1921