Remembering Miss Sturgis
OR Susanna Shelton (née Whittingham, No. 4, 1968-74) shares her memories of English teacher Miss Sturgis.
Ellen Barbara Sturgis was Head of English among other roles as Assistant Housemistress of No. 2, Housemistress of No. 4, Deputy Second Mistress and Editor of the School magazine. She taught at Roedean between 1946 - 1973.
I was in House 4 between 1968 and 1974. Miss Sturgis was House Mistress for the first few years. She was strict, and came over as quite formidable. Boarding school in those years was a different experience to nowadays. No communication with parents was allowed except by letter. Telephone calls were forbidden except in emergencies. I think the philosophy of the day was that pupils got used to their new lives more quickly if they couldn’t get in touch with their parents at the drop of a hat.
Miss Sturgis was strict but fair. She was diminutive and always stood or sat with a very straight back. If she fixed you with her stare you quaked, but sometimes, if pleased, she could smile quickly, and make you feel proud that you had done something well.
In our first year, the Middle IVs had House reading every evening. We would gather in the sitting room in comfy chairs or sitting on the floor. Those who wished could bring their knitting or sewing which they would do while listening to the story of the week. It was a good time of the day, it felt a little like home. Sometimes there might be music or a biscuit. I remember Miss Sturgis reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It was the first time I had heard of Tolkien. Miss Sturgis was a good story teller, drawing us into the magical world of Bilbo Baggins and his adventures.
Miss Sturgis taught English throughout the time I was at school. In Middle IV we read Romeo and Juliet in class. For me it was the first time I had ever studied the play. To a homesick twelve year-old the tragic ending came as a big shock. It was all too much, so I just put my head on my desk and sobbed. I remember looking up and Miss Sturgis was watching me with a quizzical expression on her face. As I stutteringly explained my outburst, her gaze softened and she nodded gently.
English was my favourite subject, and over the years I developed a great love for all kinds of literature, going on to read English Language and Literature at university. With few exeats (outings), no computers, limited television (one hour after supper to watch Top of the Pops), and no internet, many of us read a great deal. I can recall on more than one occasion being caught by Miss Sturgis after lights out reading by torchlight under my bed covers.
Twenty years after leaving school I visited Miss Sturgis in her retirement flat on the Isle of Wight. She was very good at keeping in touch with pupils with Christmas cards, but I hadn’t seen her for many years. Her sea view apartment in Ryde was furnished in the 50s style, and there were stacks of books in every corner. Tea was served in bone china cups. We discussed the then new Harry Potter series. She said she approved of them – she felt they were well written and highly imaginative. She then mentioned she thought Tolkien would have liked them.
I was surprised and asked why, and she revealed that Tolkien had been one of her tutors at Oxford when she was an undergraduate. She said that she and many other students found his lectures extremely hard to unravel, as they were very complex. She also thought that Tolkien was probably writing the Lord of the Rings whilst he was a professor at Oxford.
She recounted an anecdote about when she was preparing for her final year viva to see whether she would be granted a First. Miss Sturgis had translated some Latin into English, and was called in to face three of her English professors including Tolkien. She was asked what she thought was a very simple question about her translation. “Might this be a trick question?” she asked herself, but proceeded to give her answer. None of the panel said anything but Tolkien turned to her and winked broadly, so she came away hoping all was well (and so it was, she gained her First).
Of course, I knew nothing of this history until many years after leaving school. Perhaps others who remember Miss Sturgis can reflect on the literary legacy they enjoyed without realising it at school – being taught by someone who was taught by Tolkien. No wonder she had high standards.