Public School Magazine, November 1901
SINCE I last wrote (in the August Public School Magazine) upon the subject of School Stories, a young lady of my acquaintance who, though but twelve years of age, possesses a judgment and insight into human character upon which I rely, has accused me of talking rot. The expression, I hasten to add, is hers, not mine. The late Sophocles, in a similar emergency, being accused of madness, is said to have recited a little thing of his own to the Commissioners of Lunacy (or whoever the officials were who decided matters of that sort), and to have asked them whether a man who wrote that could have been mad. They debated the question hotly, and finally gave it as their opinion that, at all events, he did not appear to be dangerous. In the same fashion I will lay before a high-minded and enlightened public the following remarks, and ask them to judge me from them, and let me know the result (a postcard will do). Of that result I feel no doubts. Here, I say boldly, is sense, cut where you like.
It is in the conduct of the villain, or villains, chiefly, that improbabilities occur. The villain always has too much pocket-money, and he will spend it on gin. You can’t argue him out of it. “I am a bold, bad scoundrel,” he says, “and I can’t do anything right. I must and will have gin. Gin and billiards. Oh, yes, and a cigar; and it must be a bad one, too, because the public expects me to be ill after it.” It has always been a mystery to me—and what is a mystery to me will probably be an absolute baffler to most people—how school-story writers first got hold of the idea. There seems to be no middle course, either. You must either drink enough for six men and a boy, or else you must be a total and offensive abstainer. The person who, like the Bill Polter of whom the bard of Harrow Weald sings in the “Bab Ballads,” “takes his pipe and takes his pot, and drunk is never seen to be,” is absolutely unknown in school fiction. Except in “Stalky and Co.” I forgot Stalky for the moment. Even Mr. Talbot Baines Reed succumbs to the fatal fascination of drink. In the “Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s” one sees Loman as through a glass (of beer) darkly. His every movement is obscured by “stale fumes,” and he comes to roll-call with the regulation reel and hiccough which we know so well from Dean Farrar’s books. In these latter, it is perhaps unnecessary to inform the reader, alcoholic stimulants flow like water, and a perfectly sober character is distinctly the exception. It is a curious fact that the school stories with the most improbable plots are often the most readable. Take “The Cock House at Fellsgarth,” for instance. The whole story is one mass of improbabilities. A friend of mine said to me on the subject once, “The worst of the story is that there are so many absolutely impossible incidents. Nobody, even the Captain of the Modern Side (my friend was on the Classical), would send the captain of football a list of the people he wanted included in the team for the next match.” And who can deny that he had reason? If any of my readers can imagine the captain of football who would not faint on receiving such a communication, I should be glad to hear from him.
Again, also in “The Cock House of Fellsgarth,” one Rollitt is suddenly reminded on the afternoon of a match that he is down to play, whereupon he takes off his coat and plunges into the scrum in his every-day clothes. I have no wish to be vulgar, but I must say that if I were captain of a school football team I would prefer that a man played in nothing, rather than his ordinary clothes. Imagine, or try to imagine, such a thing happening in, say Rugby v. Uppingham, or Bedford v. Haileybury. You can’t do it. And yet Fellsgarth was supposed to be an ordinary school. It was in this very same match (a remarkable match; I wish I had been there), that the captain turned two of his men off the field at half-time for not playing up to their form. And yet, as I said before, you could not want a more readable story. The fact is, I take it, that one becomes absorbed into the atmosphere of the story and forgets to be critical.
The plot of another of T. B. Reed’s best and most exciting stories hinges upon an incident so improbable that the sudden shock of it almost makes the reader think it probable. It is one of those cases where the writer “bluffs” his audience, if the expression be permitted just this once. I refer to the “Master of the Shell,” where one of the masters, Mr. Bickers, is attacked, gagged, inserted in a sack, and placed in the boot-cupboard in the house of a fellow master by four of the boys. This is a reasonably bold situation for an author to devise, but, when a further complication is introduced by the fact that suspicion falls upon the master who owned the house which contained the boot-cupboard which held the sack which enveloped the master who was attacked by the boys, the reader is inclined to observe as the illustrious Captain Bagg did to the equally illustrious Mr. Baines Carew, “Hang it, come, I say, you know!”
It is generally supposed that “Eric” and “St. Winifred’s” are books with a good deal of improbability in them; but as a matter of fact, most of the incidents are merely probabilities somewhat too richly flavoured for ordinary consumption. Apart from the question of drink, there are very few really impossible situations. It is quite conceivable that Harper and Jones might have dressed up as ghosts, though why they should think it worth the trouble is a deeper question. It is equally conceivable that Vernon Williams should have fallen over the cliff and killed himself. Nay, the reader cannot but admit that it was a graceful act. There are only two conspicuously impossible items; firstly, the breaking open of Mr. Paton’s desk and the burning of his manuscript; secondly, the pelting of Mr. Rose with crusts.
To take the first case. Most of us have probably been a little annoyed with members of the staff in our time. I myself have often felt that it would have been a privilege to have broken open a master; but it never occurred to me to break open his desk. There are so many safer ways of showing one’s displeasure. A squeaking desk will cause infinitely more anguish than the destruction of one’s life-work, and any desk may be made to squeak by a simple loosening of a nut. A child of ten, as they say in the advertisements, may master it in ten minutes.
Then that matter of the crusts. In the first place it is, to say the least of it, improbable that such a thing would have occurred, though Mr. Rose certainly deserved it. I have been singularly tempted to throw something at Mr. Rose myself. But the real improbability lies rather in the fact that so many of the crusts hit him. We are expressly told that the lights were all put out before the shooting began; and yet some wonderful practice was made. One feels a certain glow of pride as one thinks that it is from these spirited lads that the British army of the future will be recruited. There will not be much to find fault with in the national marksmanship then. No, sir!
Some time ago I was passing a shop, and my eye was attracted by a halfpenny paper with a school story on the front page. I read it eagerly till a policeman advised me to move on. One of the incidents was a fight with pistols in a form-room. When I got to this I took the constable’s advice, thanked him for it, and told him I wished he had spoken sooner. The whole affair filled me with a vague, sad wonder as to what the author’s idea of a Public School really was. I noticed that he was described as the writer of “The Boys of Babingley,” “The Lads of Lorringford,” “The Youths of Yorkville,” etc. It was that “etc.” that troubled me. How many more of this type of story had he written? And did his heroes fight with pistols in all of them? I wondered which of the Public Schools he had been to. It was probably not Eton, Winchester, or Harrow. I am almost certain they do not do that sort of thing there. Perhaps he left early.
There is one school story—I forget the title—which contains an episode which I am at something of a loss to classify. It is not an improbability, nor is it a probability. Perhaps outrage would be the best term for it. A boy has been playing football. He lies awake at night on purpose to tell his father about it, and when that gentleman arrives, these horrible words fall from his lips: “Father, I got a touch to-day,” and his father congratulates him upon it, though if he in any way resembles the humble writer of this article, the precise meaning of his son’s remark is to this day a fearful and insoluble mystery to him.
P. G. Wodehouse.
August P.S.M.: Wodehouse’s article “School Stories” is on this site.
young lady of . . . twelve: Probably either Joan (b. 1888) or Effie (b. 1889) Bowes-Lyon, who with their sister Ernestine (b. 1891) were the dedicatees of Wodehouse’s first novel The Pothunters, serialized in the P.S.M. in 1902. Wodehouse was a family friend and surrogate elder brother to the three girls, recording snippets of their conversation in his notebooks to add verisimilitude to his young female characters.
the bard of Harrow Weald: W. S. Gilbert, whose home Grim’s Dyke was located in that northwest London suburb
Bill Polter: For once Wodehouse’s memory of Gilbert’s work fails him; the character name and the title of the Bab Ballad are “Bob Polter”.
Captain Bagg . . . Baines Carew: Gilbert’s Bab Ballad “Baines Carew, Gentleman”
Links to other stories mentioned:
Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling
The Cock-House at Fellsgarth by Talbot Baines Reed
The Master of the Shell by Talbot Baines Reed
Eric, or Little by Little by F. W. Farrar
St. Winifred’s; or, The World of School by F. W. Farrar