Welcome to my Mary Stewart Advent Calendar, now onto Day 12. Continuing to post about Mary’s childhood, today I’m looking at her early school education.

Mary could read and write before she started school, and she talks about this in her fascinating interview by Jenny Brown. Mary’s formal school education began at the local Trimdon parochial school – initially this was in a schoolroom at the bottom of her garden. According to E R Johnson’s Trimdon Snippets books, Mary received her first literary payment at this time: she was sent by her teacher Mrs Stubbs to see the headmaster (Mr Stubbs) with a story she had written which was so good that he gave her sixpence for it.

Included in her father‘s ‘Trimdon Parochial Magazine’ of November 1922, when Mary was six years old, is a letter describing a school inspection by the Durham Diocesan Board for Religious Education, in which pupils named as having ‘distinguished themselves by specially good answers’ included Mary and her brother. But perhaps it would be more surprising if the vicar’s children had done badly…

Then everything changed. The Rainbows moved to Shotton Colliery in 1924, ‘My brother went away to his prep school and I went to the village school for a few months, then at the age of eight, to boarding school.’ (‘About Mary Stewart’, p3-4)

Mary’s first experience of boarding school was so bad that at the age of ten she had ‘what amounted to a breakdown’ (p4). She refused to name the school but wrote that ‘after more than forty years I still flinch at the memories of the two years that I spent there.’ (p4) It is tempting to speculate how much of her experience is described in her 1988 novel  Thornyhold. Other aspects of Mary’s childhood were fictionalised in Thornyhold: see yesterday’s post and my post called A Merry Mary Stewart Christmas! 6 December. With regard to school, Gilly like Mary is sent aged eight to boarding school, suffers ‘the stuff of a lifetime’s nightmares’ in ‘a place of torment and misery’ until she is ten at which point she is allowed to sit an entrance exam for a scholarship to another school: Gilly/Mary passes and changes school. With all these similarities, it certainly seems possible that Mary’s first boarding school, like her character Gilly’s, was an Anglican convent, ‘a gaunt place, near the sea cliffs on the east coast’.

Wherever Mary’s school was, and whatever the circumstances of her unhappiness there, she seems to have had a horribly cold childhood. Or am I reading too much into Thornyhold? I’d love to hear from others who have read this novel – what did you think of it?

Thornyhold in Reader’s Digest; copyright The Reader’s Digest Association Ltd, 1989. Illustrator: Sergio Martinez