Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Scene on a Tennis Court from 1912

(From McGill archives. RVC tennis players.)

Scene 2: The tennis courts west of  Royal Victoria College of McGill, a monumental five story limestone structure resembling more a luxury railway hotel than a seminary, with an entrance off Sherbrooke Street with a seven arched loggia and crenellated balustrade, and many, many steps leading up to it.

Two young women in crisp white duck middy blouses over long ankle length skirts, black kerchiefs at their necks, white laced sneakers on their feet and large wooden tennis racquets on their laps, sit on a bench and await their turn on the court.

“Warm up!” orders a lady coach from the back of the court.

“Yes, Miss Cartwright,” the girls answer in tandem.

They stand and begin stretching out their legs. 

One girl is tall and slim-boned, the other shorter, with a trim muscular build and broad coat hanger shoulders that make her waist, uninhibited by stays for the time being, seem smaller than it is.

The tall girl has medium dark brown hair with few highlights tied up in a bun and pale skin, because she is an indoor, studious type and the shorter girl has long strawberry-blond hair laced with golden threads and because she is an outdoor type her hair is tied back in a ponytail.  She also has applied a liberal amount of Hains Skin Balm to her face to protect her skin from the sun and wind.

The shorter girl has blue eyes, an upturned nose and a pink rosebud mouth; the tall girl has hazel eyes, on the greenish side, a broad face with prominent cheekbones, a long tapered nose and a wide mouth with thinnish lips and beautiful straight teeth as white as milk.

The tall, serious girl is Mathilda Jenkins; the shorter golden girl is Penelope Day.

They are strangers to each other. They have just been slapped together for the first time, in the very first P. E. class of the year, an absolutely random act that will have serious implications for the future.  I promise.

But life is like that, isn’t it?

“Aren’t you excited?” asks Miss Day. “This year we get to take classes on campus with the men.”

She sighs an extended stage sigh as she stretches her right leg out at an outrageous angle demonstrating uncommon flexibility. “I just know I won’t be able to concentrate and I will fail out before I get my degree.” And, then, she touches her nose to her knee.

“They are just pimply boys for the most part,” replies Miss Jenkins, looking less elegant attempting a similar, less ambitious stretch. “Hardly worth our consideration.”

“And when we walk to class,” continues Miss Day, undaunted by the previous remark and rolling her right shoulder, “Up Sherbrooke and through the McGill Green, I plan to stick out my tongue when the boys sing their silly songs mocking us women students.”

“It’s just a few upperclassmen who do that. Smart Alek’s. I’ve already taken classes on campus. It is no big deal.”

“How is that?”

“Because I took Botany last year and the laboratories are all on the main campus.”


“Miss Derick’s laboratory, where no male student dare mock us women students, us Donaldas.”

“Oh, yes, the Science Lady. I don’t take Botany. I study modern languages,” says Miss Day.  “German and Italian.  It will be useful when I travel the world in the circus,” and, to prove her point, she performs a cartwheel so deftly that the coach doesn’t even notice.

“I take Botany and Geology and Natural Sciences. I want to be a pharmacist when I graduate. My father owns a pharmacy on the edge of Westmount and St. Henri. Your father?”

“My father travels,” Miss Day answers evasively. “He and my mother are away in Europe for two whole years. “

“What’s he doing there?” asks Miss Jenkins, not taking the hint.

“He’s in diplomacy. In Serbia. You’ve heard of that place?”

Yes, Constantine and iconoclasty and that Prince, What’s His Name… I can’t recall. I took History two whole years ago.

“Yes, I agree,” says Miss Day, “What’s the use of going to college when you forget everything you’ve learned the day after the final exam?”

“We’re not here to learn to be human encyclopedias. We’re here to learn to think for ourselves,” counters Mathilda, her voice rising an octave or two.

“I don’t want to think for myself. No one likes people who think for themselves, especially women,” says Miss Day provocatively, with a pretty pout on her lips and a deliberately vacuous look in her eye.

Miss Jenkins does not know what to respond. She cannot tell if Miss Day is joking or not. She has a mind to end the conversation there, for ever and ever, because life is too short to waste on the shallow, but she is puzzled by this girl, this Penelope Day.

So she continues, being provocative in her turn, “I would imagine you’d learn Italian and German faster travelling in Europe with your parents.”

“Well, my parents don’t agree. That’s why they’ve plunked me in this horrible prison.”

“The College is more like a fancy hotel than a prison, I think,” says Miss Jenkins.

“A fancy prison is still a prison” replies Miss Day. “And how would you know? You live at home!” And then she breaks out into song.

“I’m only a bird in a gilded cage,

A beautiful sight to see,

You may think I’m happy and free from care,

I’m not, though I seem to be.”

'Tis sad when you think of her wasted life…

 “And on school break,” continues  Miss Day in a normal unconfrontational tone,  “I have to stay with my crazy old Aunt, Lady Dulcette, in Long Island. I’m in her care. She’s the patroness of the Long Island Farm for Wayward Girls, don’t you know?  She makes these girls work out in the fields with spades and buckets. I’ve seen pictures.”

“What are they in there for?”

“I don’t know. For smoking cigars in the lobby of the Waldorf Astoria, I guess. Or for wearing a hareem skirt on the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Penelope has read about these incidents in the Social Notes of the newspapers.

She suddenly changes the subject because she starts to feel lonely. “What are your extracurriculars?”

“Debating team. Yours?”

“Hockey and tennis”

“You are good at sports then?” asks Miss Jenkins, although she’d already figured it out watching the nimble creature perform her warm up.

“Very,” replies Miss Day.

“Only debating, you?  No sports.”

“No sports. Miss Hurlbatt is giving a citizenship course, though, so I’ve signed up.”

 “Citizenship. Sounds dreadful. And with that humourless old cow from England.”

Now it is Penelope’s turn to write off Miss Jenkins as a boring and dull type.

“Don’t you know?” asks Mathilda. She lowers her voice for no reason. “Citizenship is code for suffrage.”


“Woman suffrage. Votes for women. Certainly, you’ve heard about that?”

“Yes, sort of.”

“Miss Hurlbatt is a leader in the Montreal Movement and rumour has it she knows Mrs. Pankhurst personally from her days in London. Miss Derick, too, is involved and a host of other Donaldas – old ones who graduated ages and ages ago.

“You’ve read about Mrs. Pankhurst and her militants, haven’t you? In the newspapers.”

“No, not really. I stick to the society and fashion pages. And sports pages.”

“Well, consider taking Hurlbatt’s course. It might be more interesting than you think.”

“Citizenship! Ick. I would rather join La Société Francaise and recite Victor Hugo in front of the pigeons in Phillip’s Square.”

“Miss Day and Miss Jenkins.  You are up next,” shouts Miss Cartwright using her palms as a megaphone and the girls’ conversation ends there, which is good as it was taking a dangerous turn.

Proper young ladies in 1910 do not discuss politics.

“Yes, Miss Cartwright,” they both reply as the players on the court stop playing and walk up to the net to shake hands.

“Our turn,” says Miss Jenkins to Miss Day. “Please be kind.”

“And you don’t be lazy and let me win too easily,” replies Miss Day. “There’s nothing I hate more.”