Jill Sanguinetti, School days of a Methodist lady: A journey through girlhood (Review)

Jill Sanguinetti, School days of a Methodist ladyWhen I read a memoir, particularly one by an unknown person like Jill Sanguinetti’s School days of a Methodist lady, my first question is why was this memoir written? Sally Morgan’s My place, for example, explores how she discovered her indigenous origins and why her family had kept this hidden, while Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes chronicles the extreme poverty of his childhood. Not surprisingly, many memoirs, like these two, examine the writer’s childhood – that formative time in our lives – and Jill Sanguinetti’s is no exception.

So, why did Sanguinetti write her memoir? In her opening letter to the reader she says she’s written it for the MLC community, for young people “struggling to grow through life’s complexities”, and for herself to air “a dark and musty corner of my soul”. This breadth is a bit of a shame because it means the memoir doesn’t have a core purpose that propels it along like, say, Morgan’s and McCourt’s. Nonetheless, I did enjoy the book, mainly because of its subject, Sanguinetti’s school days. The main focus is her four years as a boarder at Melbourne’s prestigious MLC (Methodist Ladies College), but it starts with her childhood in the small country town of Kyabram in northern Victoria.

Now, I wasn’t a boarder and I didn’t attend a prestigious private school, but I am a baby-boomer, as is Sanguinetti. This means that, although I went to government schools in two Queensland towns and then Sydney, and although I’m a later baby-boomer, we shared a similar world, and I enjoyed wandering down memory lane with her. I remember the freer childhood of a 1960s country town, and singing hymns with my sister after church. I remember the Billy Graham Crusades (though unlike Sanguinetti, I didn’t attend one). Elvis was well established by the time I was a teen, so my rock ‘n roll memories are of the Beatles, Credence Clearwater Revival and the Stones, but our ways of enjoying them through our radios was similar. And I remember the formality of schools in those post-war decades. Sanguinetti tells all this with a simple, straightforward clarity.

What helped keep my interest, too, was the memoir’s structure. While it is roughly chronological, starting with the family’s move to Kyabram in 1951 when she was 6, and ending with her leaving MLC in 1961, most of the chapters in between are thematic allowing her to explore these aspects of her life in more depth. And so there’s a chapter on church (“My family at church”), and one on friendships (“The gift of girlfriends”), a chapter on school discipline (“Discipline and resistance”), and another on boys (“The embarrassing problem of boys”). And so on. I particularly enjoyed her chapter on four inspirational teachers (“Matriculation: Four Great Teachers”). Don’t we all have them? This departing from a formal chronological structure, yet still moving the time on, enables the book to function as a meaningful social history of the time within the broader narrative.

I started my post with “my first question”, but I do have others about memoir-writing, a major one being how writers manage to remember so much. My memory of my childhood is woeful, patchy at best. I appreciate that when you get down to it memories come, but still … Well, Sanguinetti covers this issue both directly and indirectly in her book – within the main text and in her Acknowledgements. Her own memory is of course critical, but she was lucky that her parents kept the letters she (and her sister) wrote home while at boarding school. How useful for a childhood memoir, methinks, to have gone to boarding school! There is a trap in this, though, because your memory can be swayed by what you wrote in your letters. Indeed, Sanguinetti quotes, from one of her letters, an experience from her schooldays, and then writes:

I have no recollection of the dormitory prayer circle and doubt that it lasted long.

What significance, then, should we grant this experience in her memoir? How often, I wonder, does this happen in memoirs without our knowing? The significance depends a bit on the intention of the memoir. If it is intended to be a social history of a place or time, or a nostalgia piece, then it’s probably just as significant as events more clearly remembered, but if the memoir’s focus is the experiences that formed the writer, does something not remembered carry equal weight as one consciously remembered? (Hmm … let’s not answer that lest we become mired in psychological theory!) I should add here that Sanguinetti had other sources  – written and oral – for her work. Some are mentioned in her Acknowledgements, and others in her useful, well worth reading, Chapter Notes.

Now, let’s return to my original question: why did Sanguinetti write this memoir? Throughout the book she hints at or foreshadows something darker, and we gradually realise it is depression of some sort. Around the middle of the book (“Angst”), she says that “I believe today that it was the sustained stress that harmed me in the long term, rather than separation from home or the privations of boarding”.  This chapter ends with:

I was up and down like a yo-yo, revelling in the buzz and stimulation of school life one moment, and languishing in anxiety, regulation and grey ordinariness the next. I knew that other girls whose marks were not brilliant did not tackle their work with the same intensity as I did, nor did they get in a muddle, or be all up and down as I was. And why was I blighted with ever-stiffening fingers and crazy handwriting. What was it about me?

While she suggests misery, and mentions that her sister “too, started to show signs of depression”, she doesn’t develop this or make us “feel” her pain, which makes it easy for us to dismiss it as “typical” adolescent ups and downs. However, from a reference, in the post-school concluding chapters, to a breakdown, it was clearly more than that. For her, she says, the memoir “would free myself from that particular set of ghosts” left from her MLC experience, but for us it is a well-written, analytical, and yes, interesting story about Australian school and society in the 1950s to early 1960s.

Thinking about all this, I was reminded of Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing a woman’s life in which she worries that in autobiographies “nostalgia, particularly for childhood, is likely to be a mask for anger”. This is not a nostalgia piece, though – it’s too real in her evocation of boarding-school hunger, cold and lack of freedom to be that – but it does feel as though she throttled back. Indeed, she says as much through her choice of epigraph:

Perhaps the only point about autobiography is to remember a world which, by the time of writing, has changed so much as almost to vanish, and to record the succession of changes … How to look back, not in anger, but in reflection, is a problem I had to solve. For the small, enclosed world I began in had its concealments and anguishes as well as joys. (Judith Wright)

Sanguinetti, I realise, headed me off at the pass, before she began. She’s done what she intended – and done it well. Still, a little anger mightn’t have gone astray.

awwchallenge2014Jill Sanguinetti
School days of a Methodist lady: A journey through girlhood
Melbourne: Wild Dingo Press, 2014
ISBN: 9780980757095

(Review copy courtesy Wild Dingo Press)

24 thoughts on “Jill Sanguinetti, School days of a Methodist lady: A journey through girlhood (Review)

  1. That Orwell quote: Autobiography is never to be trusted unless it reveals something disgraceful. I know that memoir is a little different and the motivations to weite them are perhaps as varied and complex as for any other type of writing. Orwell’s own memoir of his prep school days, Such, Such Were the Joys, is much more than a simple record of days. It is a tormented attempt at self and social/historical understanding which reads very much like a novel would. I wonder if Jill Sanguinetti has been temted to write fiction. Certainly her books sounds like a fascinating personal and social record of her time.

    • Thanks Ian, that sounds like Orwell! I’ve read a few of his works but not Such, Such Were the Days. It’s perhaps telling I think that many first novels are autobiographical. It would be interesting to know if she plans to continue writing – and what she’ll do if she does.

  2. Your “later baby-boomer” sounds so similar to mine, even though we were thousands of miles apart during that time… yes, me growing up in HK before moving to Canada. This just says something about memoirs, and in particular, this book, in which I’m really interested. We may live in very different cultural settings, there are things that still bind us despite the differences. And for this one, there’s one thing I can find affiliation… I attended weekly church services with my family at a Methodist church in HK until we left.

    • I guess there was quite a bit of similarity in Anglo lives, Arti, no matter where we lived. The only difference in my church going is that we were Presbyterian.

      PS Have you seen Whiplash? I don’t think I’ve seen it come through your blog (yet)

      • I’m planning to see Whiplash tomorrow. Looking forward to it. In the past weeks, I’ve seen Birdman, Nightcrawler, St. Vincent, The Skeleton Twins. Don’t think I’ll write reviews on them. But one really stood out, and that’s Nightcrawler. I think Jake Gyllenhaal should get an Oscar nom for his acting, although I know who just might win this category: Michael Keaton for Birdman.

      • Saw Whiplash last night. Don’t think I’ll write a review. My thoughts in short: From realism to unrealism in 105 mins. Good jazz though. Good camera works and sound coordination. Many commendable shots, like the opening. Great acting from both. I think J. K. Simmons will get a nod for his performance. But the Oscar categories are so crowded this year.

        While all goes reasonably well, getting towards the third act, it has become more a fantasy/unrealistic turn. Like Gone Girl is a hyperbole of a marriage gone wrong, Whiplash is a hyperbole of a teacher/student/ mentoring relationship gone wrong. As for the actual idea, from the mouth of Mr. Fletcher: “The two most harmful words in the English language: ‘Good Job'” I’m not surprised to hear that because, well, Tiger Mom Amy Chua cannot agree more.

        Now, your thoughts? 😉

        • Oh thanks Arti for being true to your promise. I think I liked it more than that … Trying to remember the third act and what you mean by fantasy/unreality .. Oh, you mean the concert at the end? Yes, that was rather unreal but I was prepared to suspend my disbelief, as it worked dramatically.

          I thought the two main players did an excellent job, and the camera work and editing kept the film tight and focussed. I was interested in its exploration of what you will do for art, and what is art worth? Is it worth destroying yourself or being pushed to destroy yourself to be a Charlie Bird Parker? What price teaching/mentoring that is physically and emotionally brutal … Which we know can be/has been pretty much state institutionalised in some countries. I reckon there’s a lot of leeway between good job and brutality.

        • I did enjoy it too and i think it kust might get some noms comie Awards Season. On another note, have you watched the 1975 Australian film Picnic at Hanging Rock? I’ve never heard if it until now, just got it from the library.

        • Have I heard of it? Arti! It’s the film that launched our film Renaissance in the 1970s! Pretty much anyhow. It’s an icon here. It’s the film that made Peter Weir a household name. I have some very close professional contacts to that movie too. Hard for me to be objective about it – it’ special. Fascinating that you’ve only just heard of it … Then again, how many 1970s Canadian films do I know!? (I hope you know my tone of voice there was teasing, not critical!)

      • I’m so glad to have an Aussie film buff as a blogger friend! Pardon my ignorance, WG! I admit I’m not very familiar with Australian films, and they are not a frequent display on library shelves. I knew this one must be special because it’s on the Criterion Label. I’ve heard of Peter Weir, of course. I must say this is the first time I see this film on the library shelf… and I checked the library movie shelves on a regular basis, like, daily almost. Anyway, I’m glad I’ve got a gem in my hands now. Thanks for the ‘admonition’. Come again, say more, let me know which other films I’ve been missing all these years. 😉

        • Yes, I enjoy sharing films with you though I think you are more “buff” than I am. But do check Peter Weir in IMDb. The last wave was an interesting one, and Gallipoli. They’re very Australian, and speak to Australian themes. I’m a big fan of Breaker Morant … Again speaks to Australian themes and our rel with the Brirish and to authority. Moving on a bit into the Quirky 80s. You might like to check out Malcolm if you can. And Muriel’s Wedding is a must. Do you know any of these? How recent do you want me to go.

        • Just finished watching it. What a suspenseful film. Wonderful cinematography, love the music selections. At first it makes me think of The Virgin Suicides, and as it goes deeper, it’s so eerie that I think it’s one of the scariest films I’ve seen for some time. And since its a Criterion Label, there are supplementary info, analysis by film scholar David Thompson and interview with Peter Weir. I’ve seen several of his works and they remain some of my all time faves.

          Thanks for the list, I thought I’d seen Muriel’s Wedding but when I checked IMDb, I found I hadn’t. Gallipoli I’d heard of but never seen. I’ve seen very few Aussie films, Walkabout is probably the earliest, then few and far apart, A Cry in the Dark, Rabbit-proofed Fence (like it very much), Rabbit Hole, Animal Kingdom, I think those are about all. I’ll check out the ones you’ve mentioned above. It’s 1 am, I must sign off now. Again, I’ve enjoyed our movie talk.

        • Glad you liked it … It’s a while since I’ve seen it, and have been thinking for a while that I’d love to see it again.

          Moving into the 1990s and 2000s some favourites are Lantana, Somersault, Jindabyne, and Samson and Delilah.

          A cry in the dark was called Evil Angels here. It wouldn’t be one of my favourites. I thought Animal Kingdom was excellent, and Rabbit-proof Fence was good too.

  3. I often wonder about memoirs and memory too. I think back to when I was a kid and remember moments but nothing so grand as to be able to make much of a narrative from it all. I suspect those letters were helpful but then you also need to rely on family members and friends perhaps? Which then runs you into pretty quickly discovering that there is one event you both remember vividly but you each recall it completely differently than the other. My sister and I have had a few of those conversations! Glad it ended up being a good book.

    • Haha, yes, Stefanie. Often my siblings would or do remember completely different things. Remember when? Nope, don’t remember that at all! Or, we remember them rather differently. It makes one think that there’s not as big a difference between memoir and fiction as we might think … Which is not too put either down but to say we should always be reading with awareness.

  4. Hello everyone,
    And thank you to my anonymous Whispering Gums reviewer and other commentators. I can understand why some may think I ‘throttled back’ on repressed angers and years of childhood anxiety that led to a lifetime struggling with depressive illness. Airing childhood angers was not however my purpose in writing my memoir, although to be honest, my early drafts of nearly ten years ago contained quite a lot of anger. But I disliked the anger that I saw in those drafts. I found it ugly, shrill, immature, and the words used to express it somewhat cliched. It didn’t come from the ‘me’ of today, and the more I wrote, re-wrote and researched and re-imaged the lives of my main childhood ‘bete noirs’, Dr Wood and my father, that anger slowly evaporated into an appreciation of their lives and a profound forgiveness of them and of myself. So, over time, that anger turned into a celebration of them both, whilst being as honest as I could about their failings and the occasional hurts they had caused to others.

    On the subject of ‘purpose’, I reject utterly that strong, meaningful writing needs to have a single over-riding purpose. I listed three of my purposes in the introduction, but could add at least three or four more, if pressed. In fact, the most richly-textured writing, in my opinion, weaves together the social/ historical, the personal, the comic, the political, and the spiritual in the creation of a work of art in a unique voice. Just look at the dazzling brilliance of ‘The Narrow Road to the North’, and think about the multiplicity in that!

    • Thanks for your response Jill. It’s always good to hear from the writer. We bloggers always appreciate that.

      I love the fact that you came to terms with your father and Dr Woods. I agree that it is part of growing up to accept the positives and negatives in our upbringing, to see that these people were human beings whose intentions were good. It sounds like you worked and thought hard about this memoir, and it comes through. You did exactly what you intended and it reads well.

      You are right, you did provide a number of purposes, as I listed, and I agree multiplicity of purposes is great. I loved Flanagan … And have reviewed it. He covers a lot of ground and explores many ideas. My sense though is that Flanagan had one over-riding idea that he wanted to explore, that of goodness, as I think I discuss in my review. I tend to look for that core in my reading as something that pulls the work together. But that’s just me, of course.

  5. Thank you again for your response. That’s an interesting idea that Flanagan’s core purpose was an exploration of goodness, and I think, in a profound way, that is right. He finds goodness in the mad Nakamura and evokes pity for the Goanna. Could you please put up the link to your review ?

    • Thanks, Jill. Click on the Index: Authors (Link) at the top of the page (under the Whispering Gums banner) and scroll down alphabetically to Flanagan. That’s the best way – and then you can also see any other books you might be interested in checking out. I see this goodness “theme” as being the prime one, and then I comment on a couple of other threads/ideas like literature and memory industry.

  6. Great!! I love your Richard Flanagan review. It has helped me find the words for my own somewhat jumbled feelings about it. I’ve sent it off to my book group (we are ‘doing’ it this week) with a recommendation that we all tune in in the future to Whispering Gums ideas and messages. I still think ‘The Narrow Road to the North’ is the best Australian novel I’ve read for a long time. Thanks for opening it up with your review, and I’ll certainly be browsing others.

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