English schoolboy stories, and adventure stories, were my staple reading during my own schooldays. The school library could by accessed on only one day each week and I used to wait eagerly for it. Favorite adventure heroes were Bulldog Drummond, Biggles, Gimlet and the splendidly named Shark Gotch. As for the English schoolboy stories, there were so many of them that I can’t remember them all these years later. What I still remember vividly is the pleasure they gave me. In this, I was hardly alone. Schoolboys all over the British Empire , all over the British commonwealth, used to revel in them. Recently, I found that they were popular in other parts of the world , even America.
For those who are not familiar with this genre, perhaps a little explanation may be useful.Tom Brown’s Schooldays,the first book in this category , appeared in 1857. It was written by Thomas Hughes ( 1822-1896) as a model tract for his own schoolboy son and was an immediate and thumping success. In it Tom Brown, after a bad experience at a private school, joins Rugby, a public school,and becomes friends with Harry East. Both boys join forces to stand up to the school bully, Flashman. The headmaster , Dr. Matthew Arnold ( a real life character who propagated the ideal of ‘muscular Christianity’ ), wanting to harness Tom’s high spirits, charges him with looking after a frail new boy, Arthur. Tom does this with success. The book , and others like it, offer an idealized account of public school life : absorbing accounts of games,schoolboy pranks, camaraderie among boys, and quintessentially English happenings such as hare-and- hounds, paper trails, cricket matches, tuck shops,hampers from home, flogging etc.Distinguishing elements of these stories are, ” a magisterial doctor in charge of the school, a good boy patiently enduring unjust imputations, a bad boy luring schoolfellows into peril, a small clever boy who must confront big, stupid school bullies,the unhealthful temptations of the tuck shop, lower class adults preying on schoolboys who have been oversupplied with pocket-money, the cribbing of translations during prep, and a moral day of reckoning on the last page for all concerned.” *
The success of Tom Brown’s Schooldays spawned an entire new genre of fiction and some of its practitioners were prolific indeed : Charles Hamilton, writing under 26 known pseudonyms, published no fewer than five thousand stories ( five thousand! ) , many of them full length serials. His best known creation , Billy Bunter, was a departure from the usual schoolboy hero. Bunter, was a fat, cowardly , bespectacled slob who was always looking for a good feed and would go to any lengths to get it. Most of these authors are long forgotten but there are a handful who also became well-known for their other endeavours : E.M. Forster, George McDonald Fraser ( author of the Flashman novels), Benjamin Disraeli ( later Prime Minister of England), James Hilton ( Goodbye Mr. Chips, and later a successful screenwriter), Cecil Day-Lewis, and E.F. Hornung ( a brother-in- law of Arthur Conan-Doyle and creator of Raffles, the gentleman-thief ).
Not a few of the authors became school masters after having attended public school themselves. We humans tend to look back fondly on the days of our youth and perhaps that is why these stories are so idyllic.
The reality was , in fact, far different. The shoolmasters were not always so learned and admirable. Not infrequently they were sadistic ; flogging was rampant , more for their personal jollies than a deserved punishment. The relationship between upperclass boys and their juniors was based on fear and bullying and , one suspects, the beginings of homosexuality. Older, more powerful upperclassmen at the top of the school would each select a favorite from the younger boys to dance attendence on them and carry out menial tasks such as polishing their shoes or keeping theit sporting gear in good nick. These youngsters were called their ‘ fags’ and I wonder if that is the basis for the pejorative term that later came into parlance.
The horrors of World War I brought an end to this phase of schoolboy fiction. Where previously, authors tended to look at their schooldays through rose tinted spectacles, after WWI, there was a reaction against elitism that led to a more realistic depiction in schoolboy fiction. Characters were more nuanced, not wholly good, nor wholly bad. However, these post war stories while closer to the truth were far less successful, commercially as well as artistically. They were not what the public wanted to read, never mind the truth.
As I was writing this post, I began asking myself why I found these stories so absorbing. To a schoolboy in India, the milieu they describe was foreign , but since I attended a ” convent” school, i.e. a Jesuit run school , it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. I suppose what I found attractive was an environment in which boys were ‘free’ for the most part from the resrictions imposed by interfering adults. After all, isn’t it the same fascination that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn hold for generations of American youngsters? Other plusses were the absorbing descriptions of cricket , rugby and other games in which virtue always triumphed as indeed they did away from the playing field in these books.
There was a certain innocence to these books and to all childrens books of that era which is missing in modern childrens fiction. Perhaps today’s juvenile literature is more realistic and prepares children better for the adult world . I don’t think it is as much fun and I do think it makes our children grow up too soon.
* This quote and indeed much of the information in this post was culled from an excellent little book English Schoolboy Stories, an annotated bibliography of hardcover fiction by Benjanin Watson. The Scarecrow Press. ( 1990). I picked it up at a book sale at the library and I’m glad I did.
P.S The British definition of private and public schools is quite different from ours. In England, a private school was run for profit by a single master with the help of hired help. Public schools were endowed non-profit institutions which however did charge hefty fees from most pupils who generally lived on the premises during the school year. Public schools include the most prestigious schools such as Eton and Harrow, which are akin to exclusive American private schools such as Exeter and Choate.