Below Stairs: Continuing Education

It was when my youngest son was going to grammar school and my eldest was preparing for the university that I realised we had nothing in common to talk about except the weather. They would come home and discuss history, astronomy, French, and all those kind of things, some of which meant nothing to me. I’d never tried to keep up with the Joneses, but I determined to have a shot at keeping up with the boys.

First of all I thought about taking a correspondence course. But apart from the expense, you’re on your own doing a correspondence course; if you don’t feel like working there’s no one to urge you on, you’re not in rivalry with anyone and it doesn’t matter how long you take.

Then one of my boy’s history masters told me about a course of lectures given by Professor Bruce, Extra-Mural Professor from Oxford. They weren’t expensive, I think it was only a shilling a time, or cheaper if you took the whole lot, twenty-four of them. I took the lot.

It was fascinating to me this course of lectures. He must have been a brilliant teacher because the lessons were in the evening from half past seven to half past nine, with a break in between for a cup of coffee, but often with the discussion that used to go on afterwards it was eleven o’clock before I got away, and eleven thirty before I got home. My husband used to say, ‘I don’t know what kind of education you’re getting that keeps you out till half past eleven.’

But it was a real eye-opener for me, I’d always thought history was a dry thing, a succession of dates and things like that.

Then I started going to evening classes in philosophy, history, and literature. The only thing that really beat me was this metaphysical philosophy. You know when you first start anything, you want to be all high-hat. You don’t want to go to the same things that everyone else goes to, you want to come out with some high-falutin’ name, so I signed on for metaphysical philosophy.

I never knew what it was about. All I could understand was it was something to do with being a hedonist, or some such thing. After six evenings I decided that it wasn’t for me. But that was the only subject where I didn’t stick the course out.

Where has it all taken me? Well, I passed my  ‘O’ levels at the age of fifty-eight, and I’m now taking the Advance levels which I hope to get before I’m sixty. People say to me, ‘I can’t understand you doing it.’

I think it springs from the beginnings. All life is bound up together, isn’t it? I liked school, I won a scholarship which I couldn’t afford to take; I went into domestic service….

When I got married, I had the boys and became a mother pure and simple. Then when they were off my hands it came out again.

People say, ‘I supposed you got bored with life’, but it wasn’t as sudden as that. The seeds are in you and although it may take ten, twenty, or forty years, eventually you can do what you wanted to do at the beginning….

So, despite what it may sound like, I’m not embittered about having had to go into domestic service. I do often wonder what would have happened if I could have realised my ambition and been a teacher, but I’m happy now, and as my knowledge increases and my reading widens, I look forward to a happy future.

—Margaret Powell, Below Stairs

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