With this free ebook from Amazon's kindle shop, I found myself right in the late 1800s; to be specific, in the strange world of a college for young ladies in a small town in England's south.
Back then, usually only the daughters from wealthy families had a chance at higher education, and even for them it was by no means self-understood that they would get anything above what was considered the basic education for a lady, which would usually have been imparted by a French or German governess at the family seat and not at a school far from home.
Many heads of wealthy families did not see it necessary for their daughters to learn more than the ladylike skills such as cross-stitching, some dancing and music, watercolour painting and pencil drawing, and maybe one or two foreign languages, such as French or German.
Rather sooner than later, their daughters would marry suitable men who'd provide for their wives and children well enough - it was never expected of such ladies to work for their own upkeep.
Only those unfortunate enough to lose their parents (and/or their fortune) had a true need for work, and more often than not, becoming governesses themselves was the only realistic option.
In this story, 18-year-old Priscilla Peel has been an orphan for some years. She and her three little sisters live with an elderly aunt who struggles to put enough food on the table for all of them. The village vicar takes a keen interest in intelligent, serious Priscilla, and together with the aunt makes it possible for her to go to the prestigious college for young ladies at Kingsdene, a fictional version of Oxford, it appears. The plan is for her to become a teacher and earn money.
When Priscilla arrives there, she is a stranger in a new world, and the only girl poor enough to really take her learning seriously, knowing full well that it will in the end determine her ability to provide for her younger sisters.
The other girls are not sure what to make of the new girl, but she is of such good character that she manages to find a few friends nonetheless. One of them is the most popular girl at the school - the complete opposite of Priscilla in all respects.
Soon, jealousy rears her ugly head, and Priscilla finds herself at the centre of an intrigue she does not know how to handle.
Other puzzles want solving: Why does nobody want to speak about the girl who used to live in Priscilla's room before her? What happened to the first tender blossoms of a romance between the school's most popular girl and a young man from the men's college? Will Priscilla be able to pursue her studies in spite of the difficult situation back home?
The cast is rather stereotype; there are clever and beautiful girls, clever and plain ones, earthy and warm characters as well as cold and shallow personalities. A lot of hands-holding, kissing, hugging and putting arms around each others necks is going on between the young ladies, and they do not hesitate to confess their love for each other and their most popular head teacher.
The girls live under surprisingly few rules and are largely allowed to come and go as they please - they are not considered "girls" but young women by the college authorities, and more trust is put into noble principles than into strict rules.
I must admit there were moments when I thought "This is too much, I can't keep on reading this", but as the story unfolded, I found that I did want to know the answers to the questions, and to a certain extent cared about Priscilla. For a while, I imagined things to turn out quite differently, but I was happy enough with the actual end of the story.
"A Sweet Girl Graduate" was written in 1891 by L.T. Meade. This pen name stands for Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, an Irish writer who during her lifetime (1844 to 1914) produced around 300 (!) books for girls; she started writing at the age of 17. Wikipedia calls her a feminist. Most of her life was spent in London. She was married and had at least one daughter. For someone so prolific, it is amazing that so little seems to be known about her.
PS: I have found more about her, if you are interested: Click here for a blog post from 2012.