Writer and broadcaster Rebecca Stott remembers arriving at Brighton and Hove High School (now Brighton Girls) as her invitation into a world where women’s voices were heard.
“We girls were not allowed to cut our hair, wear trousers or question the authority of men. We were expected to get married young, stay at home and have many children.”
When I arrived at Brighton and Hove High School in 1976, wearing my neat, new green uniform and satchel, my hair in long thick plaits, I must have looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I was a rabbit caught in the headlights. I’d grown up in a strange Christian sect called the Exclusive Brethren, a group closed to the outside world. Brethren leaders taught that Satan ruled the whole world outside our ‘fellowship’ and that those bad people would snatch our souls for Satan if we let them. They told us that if we didn’t follow Brethren rules to the letter, we’d be left behind when God took all the Brethren off the planet in what they called the Rapture. We had to be obedient if we didn’t want to get left behind to face the terrors of the Tribulations.
Brethren rules included no television, universities, pets, holidays, beards, cinema, music, novels, unions, restaurants, even no sharing of walls, drains or driveways with non-Brethren and absolutely no mixing with non-Brethren. We girls were not allowed to cut our hair, wear trousers or question the authority of men. We were expected to get married young, stay at home and have many children. And yes this was in the suburbs of Brighton in the 1960s, hidden right in plain sight.
A few years before I arrived at the High School, my family had left the Brethren after the world leader was caught in a sexual scandal. (I’ve written about all of this in my memoir In the Days of Rain.) My parents did their best to fit in. They took us to the cinema. They bought a television set. They took us to an Anglican church. All the rules and facts and frameworks I’d ever known had been changed utterly overnight. I did not know what to think or who to believe.
It’s a hard story to tell, but I can’t tell you what Brighton and Hove High School meant to me without explaining that childhood. My new teachers didn’t know about my past or about what was going on at home, but they helped me put the world right side up again and to think for myself. I was lucky. It was a precious gift.
I was shy and awkward at first, but I was also curious. There was so much I wanted to know and ask: why do you do that? Is that normal? Does everyone do that? Is that allowed? Every part of school life seemed strange and new. There was a wall hung with oil paintings and photographs of women teachers and headmistresses, for instance, women esteemed for their opinions, leadership and scholarship. My French teacher told stories about her travels alone across Russia and France and the flat she’d lived in in Paris during the uprisings of 1968. I could have listened to her talk forever. I heard one teacher propose that God might be female. Some teachers didn’t seem to have husbands. Most of them had been to university. I started writing little stories in the back of my schoolbooks, stories full of a dreamlike wonder.
In my first year a girl called Neela joined the class. She had arrived from Malaysia to live with her English grandmother after her father had died. Everything she had ever known – her religion, her culture and her customs, the way she dressed – had turned upside down too. Both of us were disorientated, but we were also brimming with curiosity and wonder. We became close friends. She told me about temples and gods and funeral pyres and different ways of looking at the world.
And then there was Mrs Hancock our history teacher. She would be teaching us about the Second Reform Bill or the French Revolution. She’d come in and give us a textbook account. Then she’d leave the room and come back and tell it a completely different way using the same set of facts but from a different point of view. She wanted to show us that there was no neutral way of telling history, that it depended on where you were standing. It was one of the most valuable insights I have ever gained. I use her as an example often in my teaching.
Given the experiences my family had gone through and how difficult it still was at home – my father left my mother with five children to raise in 1976; he ended up in prison in 1980 – I wasn’t an easy or a very compliant student. I veered from being angry to daydreaming to truancy. But at home I’d be reading late into the night in the tiny pantry my mother had converted into a bedroom so that I could have some privacy for my studies: history, classics, poetry, novels. I was following my own new interests.
And now when my nerve fails me, or when I get stuck in a rut, or I feel I don’t belong, I take myself back to that staircase and the wall of portraits, or back into Mrs Hancock’s classroom and listen to the voices of girls discussing anything and everything in every possible way.
Rebecca Stott is an award-winning non-fiction writer and bestselling novelist, BBC Radio Four broadcaster and Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where she teaches on both literature and creative writing modules, and supervises PhD students writing historical novels.
She is the author of two historical novels herself, New York Times bestseller, Ghostwalk, and The Coral Thief, and in 2003, wrote a biography of Charles Darwin called Darwin and the Barnacle and a 2,200-year history of Darwin’s predecessors called Darwin’s Ghosts. Her most recent book, In The Days of Rain: A Daughter, A Father, A Cult (2017) is her own story of her childhood growing up in a highly secretive and separatist Christian fundamentalist cult in the 1960s. In The Days of Rain won the prestigious 2017 Costa Book Award in the Biography category.
She is a regular broadcaster on the Radio Four programme, A Point of View (currently available on BBC Sounds), and has just finished her latest novel set in the sixth century. She has three children, Jacob, Kezia and the actress Hannah Morrish, and lives in Norwich.