It’s a month now since the media sought photographs of teenagers jumping for joy as they flourished their A-Level and GCSE results. Featuring one such girl our local paper asked “Is this Britain’s brightest girl”, explained that she had achieved eleven grade A’s at GCSE. Her father, the paper noted as they sought for a genetic explanation for her achievement, was a former Bristol Rovers footballer, and her mother a former beauty queen.
What makes for a successful education? I’m not going to explore the finer points of philosophy, argue the pros and cons of phonics, or even the appropriate age for transfer from primary to secondary school, instead I want to suggest a far more interesting field of study – history books. Not the old-fashioned 1066 and all that, or the finest writings of the Oxford histories. Think instead of that new generation of female historians who, in writing about women in the past, use a 21st century appreciation of what being female actually means. These writers now breath a level of life and vitality into the women of the past that make previous histories seem pallid. Think of Queen Elizabeth the first. There was a clever girl if ever there was one – not just clever in an academic sense (which she undoubtedly was), but emotionally, politically and socially astute, a woman of extreme resolution who succeeded brilliantly against the odds.
For me it was Jane Dunn’s Elizabeth and Mary published in 2003 that first caught my imagination, and now it is Tracy Borman’s Elizabeth’s Women, published a few weeks ago, that adds a new dimension to the historian’s ability to understand the human spirit. That Elizabeth survived was not a matter of chance, but due to her supreme ability to empathise with the other women around her, and to outplay men at the games they thought that women didn’t really understand. Elizabeth had almost everything against her in her youth. Her mother was executed, on her father’s orders, when she was less than three. She had several illegitimate siblings (one even by her own aunt). Her first stepmother, Jane Seymour, with whom she was very fond, died a few days after her brother Edward was born, and another was executed for adultery. Her third stepmother, Catherine Parr, with whom she lived after her father died, quickly married a well-born charismatic adventurer, Thomas Seymour. Seymour appears to have had considerably more than a stepfather’s interest in the fourteen-year-old Princess, and Catherine, sensing that Elizabeth’s teenage emotions were getting dangerously confused, banished Elizabeth from her home. Two years later Seymour was executed for treason, and her other guardian, Archbishop Cranmer, was burnt at the stake. Fearful that she, too, would be executed, the young Elizabeth worried about whether her head would be cut off with a sword, or an axe.
Both Dunn and Borman show just how much Elizabeth’s character was shaped by the emotional warmth that grew from her relationship with her long-term nurse, Kate Ashley, and the influence of her two tutors who gave her such a mastery of Greek that it was claimed that, when she was eighteen, there were no more than three or four men in the entire country who could use Greek as effectively as she. In some of the letters she wrote at the age thirteen, she showed an amazing use of the English language and an appreciation of other people’s feelings, that stands comparison with Jane Austin.
That education is as much to do with the emotions as it is with the intellect was demonstrated by Queen Elizabeth long before Matthew Goldman wrote his eminently readable book on Emotional Intelligence. Clever girls, as much as clever boys, are not simply the product of teachers in a classroom. The England of the second Elizabeth has forgotten that real love and affection, and a delight in the rigors of high scholarship are what see a person through the roughest of times.
See Actions 2 and 3 of the Briefing Paper