How Dickensian was your boarding school? That this question, hotly debated between ages 13 and 18, persists in my peers’ seventh decade says much about their schools’ capacity to permanently shape their sense of self.
Does it say more? Rereading portions of Bugles & a Tiger (1956) and The Road Past Mandalay (1961) by John Masters makes me think it does.
What does ‘Dickensian’ mean when applied to a boarding school?
When classes began a week after I arrived at Kent School, I noticed all sixth formers – seniors – carrying green paperbacks: A Collection of Essays by George Orwell. At once stupefyingly bored and hopelessly confused by my third form assignments, I took refuge in the library where I found a copy.
The first essay, ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’ began:
Soon after I arrived at Crossgates (not immediately but after a week or two, just when I seemed to be settling into the routine of school life) I began wetting my bed. I was now aged eight, so that this was a reversion to a habit I must have grown out of at least four years earlier.
That’s the worst affliction you can suffer in boarding school. Death, you’d pray for – fruitlessly.
The litany of travails – cold showers in slimey baths, awful food, bullying by fellow students, canings from masters, petty but significant cruelties by the headmistress – Orwell unleashes thereafter can’t in total match the consequences of bed wetting. Still, ‘Such, Such’ is ‘Dickensian’ described.
In 1960 the essay staggered me. If the author peed his bed, why was I different? Here was someone who’d suffered my fears with considerably more reason than I had.
Until today, it did not occur to me that Orwell and his peers enjoyed the same debate about their Dickensian childhoods. The essay following ‘Such, Such’ is ‘Charles Dickens’.
The message about human nature could not have been clearer. Especially since fagging was still in practise – albeit unsanctioned – at Kent. The wonderful High Church chapel services seemed an opportunity to pray for mercy to a god our priests insisted was listening, though all evidence was to the contrary.
So how Dickensian was Kent in the early 1960s? Enough so I snort derisively at whiners from resorts like Andover and Exeter and St. Paul’s who apply the adjective to their school days.
But in truth, a less felicitous adjective better applies: Kiplingesque.
My mother was born and raised in the housemaster’s apartment in Gilman House at Phillips Exeter Academy. She graduated from Northfield and taught at Rosemary Hall. She knew boarding schools. And boys – she had four of them.
Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899) she insisted I read the winter before Kent. It wasn’t easy. It’s a very English book about boys’ lives almost inconceivable today. At 10 or so they’d been sent ‘home’ from India to a boarding school where they’d be prepped for Imperial service.
For all its hilarious stories of mischief and clashes with authority, Kipling intended Stalky to be in dead earnest. Loyalty and moral clarity: those characteristics coupled with intrepidness secured the Empire and its social structure – with the ‘public schools’ (the UK’s elite private boarding schools) at its heart.
For all its schoolboy subversiveness, the reverence for just authority – even when it meant a caning – is at Stalky’s center. Kipling dedicated the book to his headmaster at the United Services College, not to the soldier Stalky became.
In its haunting epilogue, Kipling’s narrator – a character most take to be him – denies their schoolboy leader is unique.
‘That’s just where you make the mistake,’ I said. ‘India’s full of Stalkies – Cheltenham and Haileybury and Marlborough chaps – that we don’t know anything about, and the surprises will begin when there is really a big row on.’ [Links added.]
Fifteen years later in 1914 came the ‘big row’. The surprises were awful. They included the loss of Kipling’s son, Jack, on the Western Front.
Born in 1914 into an Indian Army family, John Masters graduated from Wellington. Like the three Kipling cites, it was founded in the early Victorian era to train military officers and civil servants for imperial service.
A best selling novelist, Masters is, I suggested in my last post, better remembered for his memoirs of service in the Indian Army from 1934 until 1945. His picture of training at the Royal Military College (now Academy) Sandhurst reads like Stalky. Not by accident.
As much as the faculty and staff, the students enforced moral standards. Wrote Masters in Bugles and a Tiger (1956):
…I wonder whether these [cadet-initiated] punishments did good or evil. The R.M.C. had no such doubts. There was a Law, in Kipling’s sense, and it was to be obeyed. A G.C. [‘gentleman cadet’] found pilfering small things from another cadet’s pocket was tarred and feathered, horsewhipped across four hundred yards of lawn, and thrown into a freezing lake. He left.
It requires little imagination to reach from Sandhurst and the United Services College to the tropical island of The Lord of the Flies. The institutional structure and culture makes the difference. But consider this:
…The honour system as practised at West Point … was unknown, and we should have regarded it as the height of caddishness … for … one cadet is expected to report the dishonourable actions of another. Our world was divided into two camps, us, and the enemy…. Against the enemy no holds were barred. The code … had nothing to do with rules, regulations, and laws.
Cheating, which caused trouble for so many members of the West Point football squad a few years back, was recognized as a form of work and had its own customs. It was permissible, indeed almost laudable, to cheat if that was your only hope of … getting your commission…. It was not permissible to cheat in the hope of improving an already secure position, and most especially not in order to get a reward…. [It] was my duty, at an examination, to put my worked papers in such a position that a desperate neighbour could look at them…. Whether he did look or not was his business. And if he was stupid enough to get caught, that was his business, too. Damn it, a chap had to be good at something!
General (later Field Marshall) William Slim, in whose 14th Army Masters would fight in Burma, began his military career in 1912 by enrolling in Birmingham University’s Officer Training Corps without being a student. Found out during WW I’s early days, he kept his commission.
Defeat into Victory, Slim’s brilliant memoir of the Burma campaign, is also one of the great books on management and motivation. As with Masters and Kipling, his keys to life were loyalty and trust.
Slim filled for Masters – and all the men he led – the moral center Kipling’s headmaster supplied. They could believe in him. That bond was personal, of the type only built through management by walking around. Very rarely did he call an officer back to headquarters. He went to the officer he wanted to consult.
‘For King and Country’ rates hardly a mention by any of these writers. Slim and Masters rose through Gurkha regiments comprised of Nepalese mercenaries for whom the personal was all.
It is no accident, I believe, that Kipling gave the schoolmaster, on whom Stalky & Co. exact an adolescent boy’s dream revenge, the last name of ‘King’.
No one can have experienced boarding school life without developing a deep ambivalence about what he learnt from it.
Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984: they speak to how wrong the inmates can go when running the asylum or when the asylum falls into evil hands. Boarding school verifies the novels’ horrible possibilities.
At the same time, the fruitless chapel prayers taught boys to trust their instincts and their peers and to rely on just – if not omniscient – human authority. If nothing else, one learnt the skills to create justifiable hope.
In this, it was not Dickensian at all.
1. All references to ‘Kent’ are to the then (1960-64) Boys School. At the Girls School, then four miles away up a mountain, I am sure many of the English public school practises which the Boys School observed weren’t introduced.
2. The title is an unacknowledged quotation from William Blake’s poem, ‘The Echoing Green’ (1789). Of which, more anon. The essay was not published during Orwell’s lifetime. It’s not among his greatest, I judge. But its first sentence is.
3. In the UK version of the essay, ‘Crossgates’ is ‘St. Cyprian’s’. So notes Sonia Orwell & Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell: In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950, vol. IV (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), p. 330n.4, which follows the British texts. I’m appalled Collected Essays is now out of print. A desert island item, if ever there was one.
4. George Orwell, A Collection of Essays  (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1981), p. 1.
5. Id., pp. 48ff.
6. John Masters, Bugles and a Tiger  (London: Cassell & Co., 2002), pp. 35-66.
7. Id., p. 49.
8. Id., p. 51.