Public School Magazine, August 1901
“THE modern critic,” says Miss Marie Corelli, “is a raw, underfed youth, who knows nothing whatever of the subject he is talking about, and says a great many nasty things about his betters.”
I may stray in my quotation—I quote from memory, my collection of the gifted authoress is lamentably incomplete—but that is the general gist of her words. Let us apply them. I am a youth (more or less). I was not aware that I was raw, but I probably am, and underfed at the present moment (it wanting a clear hour to lunch), I certainly am. I know nothing whatever about my subject. My obvious course is, therefore, to proceed to say something nasty about my betters. And who are my betters? The writers of school-stories. Exactly. It must be patent to the least thoughtful person that it is far more difficult to write a good school-story than any other story. In a tale of the world outside the school gates (neatly put, that) the writer may draw upon two vast cisterns as it were, of “copy” to which the school-story writer has no access. These are love and adventure. The worst of school life, from the point of view of the writer, is that nothing happens. There is no light and shade. The atmosphere of school is all of one colour. Of course, if you are brazen enough to make your hero fall in love with the Doctor’s daughter or experience adventures like unto those of the mediæval swashbuckler, you may do so, and you may call the result “A Tale of Public School Life” or words to that effect. But can you look me in the face and tell me that you really think you have portrayed school life as it is? No, you shrink abashed, as I knew you would, and when you come to think the matter over quietly at home you will (or should) have such a fit of remorse as George Washington had when he gave himself away in that lamentable manner on a certain historic occasion you wot of.
Nor may you wield that pen of realism which has already made your name so famous in connection with your masterpiece “Idylls of the East End.” A time may come when a writer shall arise bold enough and independent enough to retail the speech of school as it really is, but that time is not yet. The cold gray eye of the public-who-holds-the-purse is upon us, and we are dumb. Rudyard Kipling went near to it, a gallant pioneer of the Ideal, but even the conversation of Stalky and Co. leaves something unsaid, not much, it is true, but still a something. But school-stories are not all of the Stalky type or the Eric type. These are rather extremes, and midway between the two comes the golden mean, represented, in my aggressive opinion, by Barry Pain. Probably five out of every ten of my gentle readers did not know that Barry Pain ever had written a school-story. As a matter of fact he has written three, one long and two short, and all first class and truer to life than anything that anyone has ever written anywhere. The long story is called “Graeme and Cyril.” I admit that the title is against it. It requires a bold youth to go to the library or the bookseller’s and say: “Bring me ‘Graeme and Cyril.’ ” One’s imagination can conjure up awful visions of “We have not got it at present, sir, but here are some other very nice children’s stories by Mrs. Annie S. Swan.” I have asked for it myself, certainly, and forced the whiskered potentate behind the counter to produce it, but I am not one who can be judged by ordinary standards. Where I rush in, angels might very well fear to tread.
To my mind the title “Two,” under which it appeared in serial form, is a far better one. But, after all, the book’s the thing. So the book be good, you shall call it “Frederick’s Friendship” an it please you. And the book is good, there is no questioning that. The atmosphere is just the right atmosphere, the various characters are life like, and, crowning praise of all, there is no bully. In this story the author re-introduces a character from the first of his two shorter stories, Cyprian Langsdyke, nicknamed “The Celestial,” who is perhaps the most cleverly-drawn character that can be found in the whole range of school fiction. “Never prepare Livy, is my motto in life,” said the Celestial on one occasion. “All Livy is divided into two parts. One you can translate whether you prepare it or not, the other you can’t translate whatever you do.” That is only one example of the way in which Mr. Pain holds the mirror up to nature.
Here is another: “The Head Master, the Old Man as they called him more in affection than irreverence.” How exactly this hits off the situation.
If, by the time you have finished “Cyril and Graeme,” you are not panting to obtain a further glimpse of the Celestial, I refuse to have anything more to do with you, and I shall instruct my head-footman to refuse you admittance when you call at my address. If, however, you are capable of knowing a good thing when you see one, then I say “Rush to your bookseller’s and order ‘The Kindness of the Celestial.’ ” Incidentally you will obtain also Mr. Pain’s other school-story, “Una at Desford,” as well as some really grand tales that do not deal with school-life. But those, as you very justly remark, are other stories. Let us return to our sheep-fold. “The Kindness of the Celestial” is the best school-story that has ever been written. If anybody chooses to disagree with this opinion, is it not an occasion for pity rather than blame? I think so. “The Kindness of the Celestial” is a story built upon the beautiful central idea of a boy who, being aweary of the constant friction between himself and his form-master, determined to employ kindness in order to tame him. Anybody who has ever read any of Mr. Barry Pain’s works (say “Playthings and Parodies” or “In a Canadian Canoe”) will at once understand that he contrives to get much “innocent merriment” out of the various situations that arise. Finally, the Celestial presents the master with two cocoanuts, and, as it transpires that in order to obtain them he had to ignore such trivialities as bounds, the wrath of Olympus is about to descend upon him, when it also transpires that, besides the cocoanuts, he has managed to acquire scarlet-fever. In the excitement of this side-issue the matter is allowed to drop, and all ends happily. But the excellence of the story lies more in the telling thereof than its plot.
“Una at Desford” is another great story. Una is the Celestial’s sister, and comes to visit Desford after he has left. Mr. Pain permits four of his characters to fall in love with her, certainly, but there is none of the hero-and-doctor’s-daughter business about the story. The four do not tell their love. They let concealment like a worm i’ the bud feed on their respective damask cheeks. In the end it is discovered that Una is engaged to one of the masters. . . . “Well,” said Douglas, “I don’t see how any girl’s going to be happy with Wynne. Greek Testament with him is simply the hereafter.” “I hope you won’t think me conceited,” said Banks, “but really she never quite came up to my ideal of beauty.” “Oh, didn’t she? She’d be sorry to hear that,” observed Johnnie Dunham. “How would it be if we got some ferrets and went after rabbits?” And they are left on the point of rabbiting. What strikes the cynical mind, after reading Mr. Pain’s school-stories, is the irony of the fact that while he, who really does know the inwardness of school life and can put it into words, has only written three school-stories in his life, the great crowd of incompetents are turning out their caricatures as fast as their pens and a wholesome fear of writer’s cramp will allow them. And their work will be called “Stories for Boys,” or “Tales of Public School Life,” and yet the law makes no move to check them. Eh! mon, but it’s just awfu’! In such works, however, there is always in a way a restraining force, which seems to say, “Thus far shalt thou go in thy excesses, but no farther.” This force may be conscience, but is more probably the awe-inspiring effect of a good binding and good paper. The most hardened sinner shrinks from doing his worst under such conditions. His bully may do as he likes up to a certain point, but attempts on the hero’s life are strictly barred. It is only in the half-penny weeklies that you get the really unfettered school-story, where the villain, after his customary defeat, goes off to the local “public” and bribes a humble friend of the tramp persuasion with sixpence down and two goes of rum shrub to murder the hero outright. You can’t do this sort of thing in the circulating libraries. If, however, you do not care to subscribe to “Farthing Bits” or “Snappy Kag-nag,” and yet wish to read a really bad school-story, try and get hold of “Gerald Eversley’s Friendship.” At the risk of courting an action for libel, I really must say a word or two about that book, though I cannot do much more than repeat, with variations, the sound remarks of Mr. E. F. Benson, in “The Babe B.A.” Gerald is, to quote Mr. Benson, “a little beast aged about thirteen.” He spends most of his leisure time forming theories of life and wrestling with spiritual doubts—all this at the age of thirteen.
But there—the subject is perhaps, after all, too painful to dwell upon, so I will merely say that one of the chief characters is a good young master, with a secret sorrow, and that Gerald intends to commit suicide, but scratches the engagement at the last moment, and finally that Nature, realising that this is a time for action rather than words, provides him with a good, galloping consumption which carries him off. And with his death the story ends, as all school-stories should, happily.
I always think that, except in an extreme case like the above, where the hero is obviously unfit to live, deaths in school-stories are a mistake. Do you know those beautiful lines of Max Adeler’s,
“We have lost our little Hannah
In a very painful manner,
And we often asked, ‘How can her
Harsh sufferings be borne?’ ”
That is always the sort of atmosphere a school-story death produces, a feeling that it is all quite too sad for words but you can’t help smiling. That is unless the death be very sudden. Sudden death is always good, but to make your hero die on a sunset evening, in a bath-chair placed under the big cedar-tree, looking o’er the shimmering waters of the lake and quoting extracts from obscure Greek poets is, I aver, a mistake. And the attitude of the friends and relatives of deceased calls to mind the conclusion of the verse quoted above, anent Hannah,
“When her death was first reported,
Her Aunt got up and snorted
With the grief that she supported,
For it made her feel forlorn.”
With a last hope of impressing the reader with the fact that my words have some meaning, I will put the case in another way.
A lingering, beautiful sunset kind of death is too big a thing to happen in a school-story. The worst thing that ought to happen to your hero is the loss of the form-prize or his being run out against M.C.C. There should be a rule to the effect that none under the age of twenty-one be permitted to die, unless he can get the whole affair finished in a space of time not exceeding two minutes. In any case the death should not be described. Let some competent person, or persons, find the body, as in “Graeme and Cyril,” where Cyril’s body is discovered in the cave by Graeme and the Celestial. There the situation is handled admirably. They find the body at the end of a chapter, there is a brief paragraph to the effect that Graeme gets brain-fever, and then the clock of the story is put on two or three years, and the scene shifted to Oxford, where the tale ends. The rules governing school-stories should be similar to those of Greek Tragedy. As everyone knows, in the Greek theatre all the deaths occurred “off.” You heard a shriek from inside what a printed placard assured you was the king’s palace, then from 20 to 40 Iambic lines from the man who was being murdered, describing who his assailants were and exactly how each of them was operating, and then silence. After that the reporter of the local newspaper, or a camera fiend, or some other responsible person, would come onto the stage and tell the audience everything, illustrating, where possible, with photographs. So with school-stories. Kill anyone you like who is not essential to the working-out of the plot, but kill him behind the scenes and let someone else tell a friend all about it.
The late Talbot Baines Reed was probably the most successful of school-story writers, in that he wrote a great many stories and all of them good, some infinitely better than others, but none weak. Where he failed in some degree was in the portrayal of his seniors. At first sight they seem right enough, but on closer examination they prove to be, in most cases, merely the back-ground for the juniors. They are somewhat artificial. They have their exits and their entrances, but the lime-light plays not on them but on the juniors. Take “The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s,” for instance. Ostensibly the interest lies in the doings of Greenfield and Loman, but in reality all the best part of the book is that which deals with the Guinea-pigs and the other juniors, exempli gratia the junior-school concert, which is just about as well described as anything can be described. Talbot Baines Reed was very fond of his junior, and often worked a junior club or society into his stories with effect. By far the best of his long stories, to my mind, was his last, “Tom, Dick and Harry,” which was as nearly perfect as it is possible for a school-story to be. Here the story is told by a junior, which gives the author still more scope for his special talents. The Philosophers’ club was probably suggested to him by the Guinea-pigs of his earlier book, but it is much more in evidence and much better. In this story, too, the seniors are more life-like, Pridgin especially, and Tempest. Wales, too, though he comes into the story hardly at all, being generally “heard without,” as it were, or only mentioned by one of the other characters, is wonderfully well-drawn. Redwood is a little more lay-figure-like, but still a great deal more human than most of the author’s former seniors. There is one passage which may jar on the hypercritical, to wit, in the description of the trial-match which opens the football season, where he mentions “the remnants of last season’s fifteen, amounting to eleven veterans only” (the italics are mine). One cannot help wondering how many old colours the school expected to have if they were not satisfied with eleven. Still, it is a small point. On the whole, though it is perhaps doubtful whether such a Demon Master as Mr. Jarman could be found at any Public School outside a work of fiction, the author’s picture of Low Heath is nearer to that of a real school than any of the many other schools of fiction with the exception of Kipling’s “Coll” and Barry Pain’s “Desford.” The name Low Heath is in itself an inspiration. I always think that a short story of Talbot Baines Reed’s, entitled “Eight Hours with a Kid” is one of the best pieces of work he ever did.
Andrew Home is another who rarely fails to do well in school-story writing, whether long or short. His short stories possibly contain his best work, notably one, whose title I forget, which introduced a German master and the Scotch uncle of one of the members of the German master’s class. The only part of it that I remember definitely is the sentence “Eh, mon, but ye’ve a queer accent wi’ ye’re Eenglish,” which, when you come to think of it, is about the best thing one could say to a German master, and is such stuff as catch-phrases are made of.
One could name scores of writers of to-day who are capable of writing good school-stories but who devote themselves to more mundane topics. Conan Doyle, for instance, Eden Philpotts (who wrote “The Human Boy,” an excellent set of school-stories but not Public School stories), E. F. Benson, Inglis Allen, and many others.
They let concealment like a worm i’ the bud feed on their respective damask cheeks.*
* P.G.’s first use of the Twelfth Night bit: “She never told her love, but let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud, feed on her damask cheek.”
Graeme and Cyril follows two boys through childhood, prep school, and at 16 to Desford (based on Pain’s own Sedbergh). Cyril is clever, neat and hungry for popularity, while Graeme is rough, honest and unselfconscious. The boys grow apart as Graeme pursues football and Cyril pursues social success. The story appeared first in Chums under the title “Two.” Athaeneum wrote: “. . . a more healthy and a more natural story of school we cannot remember having seen since Tom Brown’s schooldays, and this is high praise indeed. Mr. Pain seems to know his boys; his characters live and he tells his story, which is full of very lively interest, in a brisk unaffected way that boys will be much pleased with.” In “The Kindness of the Celestial,” Cyprian Langsdyke, of Desford, is called “The Celestial” by other boys because of the ‘inscrutable wisdom behind his narrow slanted eyes.’ P.G.’s later Psmith’s mocking personality is reminiscent of Langsdyke.
Barry Pain (1864–1928) was journalist, poet, writer and editor. In 1889, Cornhill Magazine’s editor, James Payn, published his story “The Hundred Gates,” and shortly afterwards Pain became a contributor to Punch and joined the staff of the Daily Chronicle. He was editor of Today in 1897, succeeding Jerome K. Jerome. First known as a parodist and writer of light fiction, Pain was discovered by Robert Louis Stevenson, who compared him to De Maupassant.
The Kindness of the Celestial and Other Stories: A dozen stories, mostly about middle-and working-class characters, their dialogue animated by the kind of Socratic irony that was the author’s specialty.
‘I will merely say that one of the chief characters is a good young master with a secret sorrow.’
This is P.G.’s first use of the phrase “secret sorrow” — ‘She hideth close within her breast her secret sorrow’s root’ — from Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet [the source for the Shakespeare play], and he liked it so much he described someone a character once as a ‘pterodactyl with a secret sorrow.’
P.G. would have had to have known that Rev. James E.C. Welldon was master at Dulwich from 1883 to 1885 and headmaster at Harrow School until 1898. His only book of fiction was Gerald Eversley’s Friendship: A Study in Real Life from 1895. From Saturday Review of July 20, 1895: “Mr. Welldon . . . has absolutely nothing to tell about schoolboys, religion, politics, or love . . . destitute of a single original idea, devoid of humor . . . we resent this attempt to palm off upon the public a perfectly commonplace and conventionally dreary homily under the guise of a novel about schoolboy friendship.”