Part of the second of four generations of her family to go to Bedales, Jean Gooder is also a part of the school’s fabric. A distinguished student and later a Governor and Chair of the Governors, Jean looks back on the school’s influence on her life and career. Memories of music and Jaw rub shoulders here with her time as an English undergraduate at Cambridge, where she studied under teachers as distinguished as F.R. Leavis.
If such a concept existed within the school lexicon, Jean Gooder and her family would surely qualify as Bedales royalty. Entirely typically, Jean places matters in a slightly less exalted context: “There were always a lot of family trees at Bedales, even in the comparatively early days,” she says. “My grandparents knew the Badleys through family connections and my mother was Head Girl at the school. Later, I had cousins there and, still later, I was delighted that my own three children should follow in our footsteps. Only my husband, an American who regarded boarding schools as places for the very rich or the delinquent, didn’t initially approve of the idea!”
Jean had been home-schooled throughout the war years. “My mother had withdrawn me from the only available local school because it was ‘reducing me to hysterics’ in her opinion,” she explains. “Later I refused to have anything to do with the idea of going to Roedean, which seemed bleak and austere; Bedales, by contrast, appeared to be full of human beings. In my first term, I was in a dorm of eight people and although I was terrified at first of being in a shared room with some much older girls, not being layered by year turned out to work so well for me.”
Most of Jean’s memories of her school days come across to the listener as almost idyllic. “It was a very happy time,” she agrees. “I loved workshop and weaving at the barn; I discovered music and remember particularly an epiphanic moment listening to Margaret McNamee playing a Beethoven sonata. I've never experienced that pervasive sense of music being everywhere since I left Bedales. Through every open window in the spring and summer months there seemed to come the sound of scales, repeated phrases and full passages of sonatas and more. The school had, after all, no fewer than eight players in the National Youth Orchestra when it re-started after the war and several went on to become professional musicians. I came to appreciate the ‘shared’ moments: Jaw, where you might listen to a Jesuit one week and the Imam of Woking the next; school assemblies; and acquiring the Bedales jargon. Other people seemed so interesting. My contemporaries were from such varied backgrounds and they all appeared to know so much more than I did.”
It was a very happy time. I loved workshop and weaving at the barn, I discovered music... I've never experienced that pervasive sense of music being everywhere since I left Bedales
Typically an academic high achiever throughout her school days, Jean became even more intellectually driven by the time she entered the sixth form. “The humanities were always going to be my area of strength,” she says. “I was hopeless at science and I disliked the very smell of the lab, but in my subjects I was fortunate to meet with teaching that combined rigour with intense feeling for language. Denys and Ada John for French spring to mind, and especially Roy Wake, an outstanding medieval historian, who taught us as though we were already university students.”
It was English, however that would provide the leitmotiv for Jean’s future life and career. “In Block 6, English teaching was rather fragmented because there was quite a high staff turnover at the time,” Jean recalls. “The school therefore arranged for me to receive extra tuition from Geoffrey Crump. I was also lucky enough to learn a lot from Jill Balcon, and the impossible but wonderful Rachel Carey-Field. They showed me what verse really was, opening up the worlds of John Milton and theatre. These were the mentors who drew me to apply to Newnham College, Cambridge to read English.”
In the event, Jean sat the seventh term Oxbridge exams at Bedales, spending that term as Head Girl. “If the role didn’t involve much in the way of management, it did give me a suppler awareness of the concerns and preoccupations of my peers,” she says. “The prefects worked as a group, consultatively and collaboratively: Bedales was not a place that would accept anything else. I remember someone saying that they would never take a Bedalian on an Arctic expedition because at a critical moment they’d be more likely to ask questions than follow an order! That was the ethos of the school – a fearlessness that meant there was nothing that you couldn’t ask or try for yourself. Our own children were like that – independent and questioning – as we were, as Bedalian parents in our turn.”
The prefects worked as a group, consultatively and collaboratively: Bedales was not a place that would accept anything else
Jean went up to Newnham with two of her best friends from Bedales, Lynne Cainsey (Brown) and Felicity Salmon (Meshoulam). “The unholy trinity, as we were known,” Jean laughs. “It was only five years since women had been admitted as full members of the university and I was determined that we were not going to be taken lightly. One of the first things I did was to ask to be taught by F.R. Leavis; that was instantly refused, so I wrote to him directly and for three years went to his classes in Downing, entirely unofficially.”
Finding favour with Leavis proved something of a double-edged sword. A critic of legendary stature, he was also a man of strong beliefs who polarised opinion. “I recall his Spartan room and tutorials that featured a lot of rambling, punctuated by the occasional hour of sheer brilliance,” Jean reflects. “Eventually I became tainted by the association, branded as a Leavisite, just like my husband Richard, whom I’d met at Cambridge. We were damned by the faculty and eventually damned by the Leavises as well and had to make our own way with the support of our colleges (Richard became a Fellow at Clare). I’m sure the self-reliance that was so important then came directly from my Bedales days.”
It was only five years since women had been admitted as full members of Cambridge and I was determined that we were not going to be taken lightly
Between 1956 and 1959, Jean was a research student before becoming a Fellow and Director of Studies in English, a post that she held with a brief intermission until 1999. Her main work was in 19th and 20th century literary and cultural relations between Britain, France and America. Jean’s special interest, however, was in the great transatlantic novelist Henry James.
“I’d never heard of Henry James before I arrived at Cambridge,” she admits. “When I got there, all the bright young things were talking about him so I took myself off to the library, picked out the first alphabetical title –The Ambassadors – read it for the rest of the day and night, and was hooked. James understood, wrote and thought like a European, in the most international sense of that word. That still speaks to me today – I am one who would define myself as a European.”
Looking back on almost half a century in the academic world leaves Jean with few major regrets. “Well, I never finished my PhD because I landed a job too quickly,” she begins, “and then I went and had three children. I could and should have written more but I had a busy and fulfilling life. I would never have imagined that I would spend a whole life teaching at Cambridge but I enjoyed almost all of it.”
Throughout her career, Jean made time to cement her association with Bedales, not only monitoring the school days of her children Ben, Stephen and Kate (her grandson Rufus would later follow in the family tradition as well) but also serving as a Governor from 1972 and Chair between 1976 and 1984. “Those were interesting times, to say the least,” she recalls. “My spell as Chair coincided, among other things, with a period in which a head teacher was changed, which necessarily causes plenty of upheaval. By the end of the process, though, we were all fairly confident that the school had reached calmer waters.”
It still matters greatly to Jean that the school should retain the values that she absorbed during her time at Bedales. “Of course I look back on those days with a critical eye because no true Bedalian could possibly do otherwise,” she says. “In the final analysis, though, the last line of that great film Some Like It Hot still applies: nobody is perfect, but at Bedales the positives far outweigh the negatives. It was my intellectual foundation, the place where I learned to work collaboratively and recognise that leadership is best achieved not through a commanding voice but by treating people as equals and allowing them to find and express themselves. It’s also a place where I made friends for life, both among the staff and my fellow students, and one can’t put a price on that.”
Jean Gooder was interviewed by James Fairweather in Summer 2021.