I will tell you what I told her: that I was fully prepared to hate the book, but I really loved it. I have heard Margaret speak on the inaccuracies in Essex Cholmondley's The Story of Charlotte Mason and debunk the claim that Mason was the only child of only children by exposing that she was actually the 13th (illegitimate) child of Joshua Mason and a woman almost 40 years younger who was probably a servant in the house. I have also been at the Armitt with her as she was conducting her research and seen that same sheepish grin when she thought she had gotten a rise out of someone, and I have been entertained by watching Margaret and John Thorley argue over lunch, able to leave the table on just as friendly terms as when they sat down. That is one of the things I like best about Margaret--she really loves pushing the envelope in open dialogue, she accepts criticism without taking it personally, and she is quick to acknowledge when a fair counterpoint has been made. I was able to secure my half-hour with Margaret, and our conversation was delightful.
What I expected when my book arrived was a sensationalized tabloid meant to shock and disillusion Mason followers. I sat down with a pen in my hand, ready to argue in the margins, and began to read. The first chapter contains an overview of the personality of Mason, painting the picture of someone who surrounded herself with loyal disciples (a few absurdly loyal, e.g. Elsie Kitching, who requested to be buried at Mason's feet with a flat, unmarked stone to give people a place to stand as they viewed Mason's grave), and who vigilantly guarded the story of her past so as not to lose her standing in the prudish Victorian social hierarchy. Margaret questioned Mason's motives in not wanting a biography written about her simply because it was the work that mattered and not her name, but I find this to be consistent with Mason's ethos. Apparently, Elsie Kitching began a biography after Mason's death, but it was never finished. Of course, Essex Cholmondley took up the torch later, writing what the discerning reader knows to be a shrine to Mason. For a long time, no one was sure what Kitching and Cholmondley had found in their research, because many of Mason's letters (which she had kept all her life) were destroyed, probably by Cholmondley herself. I have seen evidence of this in the archives, as even parts of letters were cut away. In my conversation with Margaret, she said that was the thing she could not forgive, and, as a researcher myself, I tend to agree.
If you have listened to Margaret speak on Mason's "hidden heritage" before, there is not much to surprise you in the first chapter. However, by chapter 2, I found myself transported into the fascinating Quaker culture of the day, with its emphasis on education. You can hear subtle echoes of Quaker beliefs in Mason's volumes. I enjoyed learning about growing flax and making linen. Margaret's extensive research in both Ireland (where Charlotte was born) and England helped her fill in many gaps in the archives. For example, we know that five of Charlotte's half-brothers and sisters were disowned by the Quaker community for sins such as drunkenness, debt, pregnancy out of wedlock, and being married before a priest (for which Joshua himself would also be disowned). Joshua did manage to work his way up from a trades person to a gentleman before meeting Charlotte's mother, Margaret Shaw. When he and his son left to try their luck in Australia, Margaret found out she was pregnant. Joshua returned home as soon as he could to marry her, though it seems they did not live together for very long. By the time Charlotte was 16, both of her parents were dead.
Imagine living in Victorian England as an illegitimate female orphan whose parents had separated before they died. Today, that child would likely have a counselor to help her work through such trauma. Mason did not. It makes me like her all the more that she managed to pull herself up by her bootstraps to not only make something of herself, but to start a revolution in education.
Margaret continues the biography by describing Mason's experiences as a pupil teacher on scholarship (something looked down upon by those in the upper echelons), which was an extremely stressful job with long hours. It did not take long before Mason began to show signs of burnout, anxiety, and depression. These would become almost constant issues for the rest of her life. They manifested themselves as physical illness--headaches, digestive problems, the inability to attend to anything requiring sustained mental effort, and a desperate need for solitude. While Margaret seems to insinuate that Mason used these "illnesses" to get out of things she did not want to do, I disagree. I suspect the child suffered from what we call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though I am not a mental health professional. This, I think, made her question her own abilities; it made her feel very vulnerable and insecure, and I don't think she ever fully got over it. Of course, medicine was not then what it is now, and so she was diagnosed with some obscure heart problem that required that she rest and not over-exert herself. Margaret mentions that "Obscure troubling symptoms would periodically dictate complete rest between bouts of frenetic activity" (p. 137) until she finally learned to abide by a humane life rhythm as she got older.
She did eventually earn her teaching certificate, which boosted her seemingly fragile confidence. During her years at Worthing and then at Chichester, she was searching. She detested the government school schemes of competition, grades, and payment by results, but what else was there? I loved watching Mason's philosophy evolve from a germ of an idea to a fully fledged teacher education program, curriculum, and practicing school through this book. I had not realized that her ideas were plagued with criticism for being too "vague" and that it took almost to the end of her life before it was articulated clearly.
The next part of the book is all about Mason climbing the social ladder by winning respect and support from Ladies and keeping her background hidden. Somehow, this sounds a bit devious and does not sit right with me, but I suppose it may be true, as these people had the power to make her message heard. However, Mason was not a lady of leisure; she had to work in order to support herself. It was through her lectures to teachers that her vision began to truly take shape. She had studied Pestalozzi, Froebel, Rousseau, Locke, and classical figures along with Ruskin, Arnold, and Wordsworth. Each of these, of course, influenced her philosophy. How could they not? But while Margaret seems to believe that this negates the claim that Mason was a pioneer with an original philosophy of education, I disagree. She rejected just as much as she took from each of these. But the biggest thing I think Margaret missed is the overall framework for Mason's philosophy: The Trinity itself. That is the glue that holds the whole thing together. Whatever ideas she took from others had to fit squarely inside this framework, making this, in my opinion, a truly original work.
We follow Mason in her move to Ambleside and through the inception of the PNEU. As with any organization, there were disagreements and broken relationships as it grew and refined its vision and mission. Were they classical, or were they progressive, or were they something else entirely? This must have been difficult for an introverted person who hated conflict, but Mason persevered. She learned to lean on others according to their gifting and to work according to her own. Henrietta Franklin was a high-class socialite who could go toe-to-toe with anyone, and Mason let her. Elsie Kitching was a nurturing figure who guarded Mason from social situations that were likely to be taxing, along with much of the minutiae of administration. This left Mason free to write, and as she wrote her ideas became more clear even to herself. She also enjoyed guiding the pupil teachers as they learned her methods.
What I think Margaret did brilliantly in her book was to let the reader know when she was writing from facts found in artifacts and when she was using her thorough knowledge of Victorian society and her imagination to fill in the numerous gaps. In these instances, her speculations are at least plausible. Although there were a few spots with which I took issue (such as the conspicuously unexplained statement that Mason had "Sapphic tendencies" on p. 262), by the end of this book I did feel as though I knew Mason at a deeper level. Where Cholmondley made her somewhat ethereal, Coombs succeeded in making her fully human. That is something I think Mason herself would appreciate. All in all, this book is a tremendous contribution to the Mason community, and I recommend it highly.