Mother’s Red Copybook

There’s something incredibly special about being able to read an English Composition that my late mother wrote on October 2, 1935. She would have been fourteen then and poised to set off for boarding school after being schooled by a governess with her brother and sister. They lived on a farm which had no schools nearby so my grandparents went down the governess route.

I have to confess that I’ve never met anyone else whose mother was taught by a governess. It seems extremely ‘old-world’ ~ a term that Mother used to say a friend of hers once attributed to my grandmother.

Back Cover of Mother’s 1934/5 Copybook

Old-world or not, the red copybook is all I have to evoke thoughts of Mother’s time with the governesses. She talked a fair bit about those days and how she and her Big Bro did everything in their powers to encourage the governesses to let them do English, History and Geography ~ anything rather than maths!

The governesses lived in and most came for just a year at a time ~ some for less as they were very isolated. Mother recalled how she was very fond of some of the governesses and how she kept in touch with a few for many years after they had emigrated to America and Australia. Others, she wasn’t so keen on and was thrilled when they would depart the scene. Reflecting back, she used to think what a lonely life it must have been for these young women who were part, yet apart, from the busy farming family.

Here is that English Composition that Mother wrote on October 2, 1935:


I would rather be a bird than a fish. I would love to be able to soar into the blue sky and roost among the leafy trees in summer. If I were a fish I would be very cold and clammy and live in the same bit of the river, assuming I was a trout, all my life.  I would see much the same things every day. Of course, I would be able to swim but I would prefer to fly.

If I was a bird there would be danger too. Guns, birdlime and net would be used. Or if I was an attractive bird, which would be most unlikely, mischievous boys might set up a trap with a riddle and a piece of string, and some dainty which birds love for bait. If I were caught alive by this or any other method and put in a cage I feel sure I would pine away and die.

Another deadly menace to small birds is the hawk, who swoops down on his prey and carries them  squawking away  to be killed and consumed by the hawk.

A bird would be able to travel and see new places and new birds. Also they are more intelligent than fish. Birds eat nicer things than fish. Berries, fruit, especially strawberries, and other appetising things. I can’t say I would relish worms so much, though. Perhaps if I were a bird I would like them as much as they appear to. I daresay I would never be the early bird, though.

Most birds sing sweetly, and that would be another advantage to being a fish, for if they communicate with each other they do so very silently.

If I were a crow I hope I would have the decency not to inflict my voice on the other inhabitants of the rookery. Or perhaps I would imagine, like the crow in the fable that I was sweet and enchanting.

Still I would like to be able to sit on the topmost branch of a leafy tree in summer and warble in the sunshine.

However, I doubt if I will ever be a bird or a fish, but if I am I hope the gods will be kind and make me a bird  (not a crow or a crane, though, please!)

It’s fascinating how some turns of phrase that I associate with my late mother, like ‘I daresay,’ appear in this piece of writing. In ways, the composition seems childish to me ~ a far cry from the sort of essay one might expect from a fourteen year old nowadays. On the other hand, it shows a deeper knowledge of nature than one would be likely to find in our modern social-media- oriented world.

First Page of the Original Essay in Mother’s Handwriting. 


Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and sense of place.

18 thoughts on “Mother’s Red Copybook”

  1. Homeschooling is becoming very popular here as an alternative to sending your kids to traditional school. Stay at home Moms can teach their kids or join co-ops and co teach with other parents. Not too far from a Governess I suppose other than it is overseen by the state. Did your Mom ever feel like she got a better education this way or possibly a worse education? What was her opinion?

    1. Yes, home schooling has quite a following here too but the era of governesses is long gone.
      I don’t think Mother had any regrets at all about her education but was the first to say that it was unbalanced!

  2. That’s a fine imaginative essay – a window on another time when the educational emphasis was on tidy presentation, spelling and grammar. Fantastic that you still have this Jean.

  3. How wonderful that you have this beautiful link to your mother and her childhood. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our parents were children once. Legible writing, lots of knowledge of nature and a window to a time that has passed..truly a treasure. Our exercise books here in Australia had similar back covers when I was a child. They are long gone..
    They were very handy for quick reference and great to fill in time while waiting for others to finish a task. Do add a slip of paper to it or a label with dates and details about your Mum, as well as a copy of this article, so that future generations will value this as much as you do. It’s easy to think that because we know, others will automatically know to whom our treasures belonged and why we kept them.

    1. You’re right about the importance of being sure that it is well labelled and falls into aporeciative hands. I think that’s sorted for a generation or two anyway.

  4. What a charming essay your mother wrote! Yes, it does show a deeper understanding of the natural world and better writing skills, as well, then teens today! What a lovely remembrance of your mother.

  5. That’s lovely Jean. You are blessed to have such creative parents and much of it has rubbed off. That’s a very thoughtful piece for a fourteen year-old, and accurately punctuated. Handwriting a bit like a sailor’s walk but I’m sure it developed over time; a shame that the art of cursive writing is being lost.

    Our school notebooks too, in the late 50s/early 60s had the same back cover so it lasted the test of time, whoever first designed it.

    1. Roy, love your reference to ‘sailor’s walk.’ Her handwriting did steady up a lot and was pretty distinctive. The cursive writing remained to the end.
      Those backs of the copies fascinate me with measures I’d never heard of or maybe had simply forgotten.

  6. What a lovely keepsake, I too remember those tables at the back of the copybooks, though sadly my books are long gone, probably glad to see the back of them when school finished!

    1. It’s interesting, Joan, that Mother kept a copy belonging to my writerly brother. It was English Compositions, not too dissimilar to hers and the copy looks very much the same too.

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