Education: Passed/Failed Sarah Dunant, Novelist and Broadcaster

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The Independent Online
SARAH DUNANT, 48, is a novelist and broadcaster. Briefly an actress, she has been a radio producer and presenter. She presented The Late Show on BBC2 from 1989 to 1995. Her novels include Birth Marks, Under My Skin and Fatlands, for which she won the Silver Dagger Award. She is currently writing a screenplay of Transgressions, which was published last week in paperback. Her next novel, Mapping the Edge, is out early next year.

A Flora marathon? My central memories of Flora Gardens, my primary school in Shepherds Bush, are of a vast number of corridors - and of the headmistress, Miss Heron, who made you aware that there was a big game at stake here and you had to play it. My post-war generation was taught by women with such dedication and commitment that it really does not surprise me that we grew up to become feminists.

At the eleventh hour? My father, who was very intelligent, had left school at 14, and I always felt that one of the best things I could do for him was to achieve what he had been denied. When I was born, my parents were living in a bed-sit opposite Godolphin and Latymer Grammar School and our sights were set on that. During my 11-plus, when I was showing a tendency to write too much for too long, I remember Miss Heron standing over me and looking up at the clock and looking down at me. I went on to the next question.

Great Scott! Godolphin and Latymer had a huge hall with the names inscribed of people who had got scholarships, going back to the dawn of time, and in the first form we used to stand next to them. I used to read them during assemblies. I liked the fact that the buildings were very old. When I was 13, Miss Scott walked into the room and taught us the Tudors. She must have been in her fifties but she looked about 99, with her hair scraped back in a bun. Whatever she said, I listened. I went into O-levels knowing I wanted to do history.

Don't mention the Gallic War! I got my eight O-levels; I had discarded science and I scraped through Latin O-level by learning by heart vast chunks of Caesar's Gallic Wars. In my A-levels, I got an A in history, an A in ancient history, an A in art (with a history paper) and a B in English - spectacular results which astonished everybody, myself most of all. I did think seriously about a combination of drama and history at Bristol but Berenice Goodwin, the art teacher, said, "Don't do it; you can always act afterwards." She was very influential in my trying for Oxbridge. I took the Newnham entrance exam.

When I came back, the headmistress asked, "How did it go?" and I said, "They never mentioned the Latin!" I got in.

The Mummy's course? I went au pairing to the West Coast of America. Then, having been in what was in 1969 just about the most exciting place in the world to be, I found it hard to settle down in Cambridge, which seemed like walking into an Egyptian mummy's tomb.

Must the show go on? I did plays every term and in my last two years I was in the Footlights, the girl who went to the Edinburgh Festival.

A lot of my male friends were getting the nod that it would be fine if they just concentrated on theatre. Two months before the first part of the tripos, I went to my director of studies and said, "I'm committed to being an actress." She was very tough: "These places for women are few and far between and people would give their eye teeth to be here," she said. (It was only in the year after I left that the first of the men's colleges opened its doors to women.) "If you don't get a 2:1, I'll want to know the reason why!" This was another piece of the best advice I ever had. I didn't give up the current play, but I scaled back; I realised that it wasn't OK to pretend that work didn't matter. I graduated with a 2:1.

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