Home » Ideas » The Rise and Fall of the School Story

The Rise and Fall of the School Story

Among the most treasured possessions in my study, gathering dust but re-read from time to time, are my bound volumes of The Captain magazine. They are a good selection, amounting to about a quarter of the total, of the output of the magazine during its existence between 1899 and 1923 and they’ve been around pretty well all my life. The Captain was part of a stable of magazines founded in the 1890s by Sir Frederick Newnes who had made a fortune from Tit Bits, arguably the first genuinely mass publication, which he had unleashed in 1881. The most famous magazine of this portfolio was Strand which published most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories though it did not introduce them. Because the two magazines looked alike and The Captain was aimed at a younger audience it was nicknamed “the Junior Strand”. It had a subtitle: a magazine for boys and “old boys”.

The Captain contained many kinds of feature for boys including articles on technology (cameras and engines in the early days, crystal sets towards the end) and worthy articles on potential careers. There were also a lot of sports coverage confined entirely to amateur and elite sport: the magazine claimed to have introduced the idea of the “athletic editor”, its first being C.B.Fry and its last Harold Abrahams. But a great deal of the content was novel-length serialised stories in the classic Victorian fashion. Many of these were adventure stories almost invariably set on the frontiers of Empire or the Wild West. But the absolute stalwart, amounting to half the total, was the school story; “boys and “old boys”” meant public schools. This was an exponentially growing market: when the Clarendon Commission reported on the role of the public schools in national life in 1864 it recognised only nine institutions, but by the end of the century there were over two hundred. They were exclusive by self-definition, defined by the Headmasters’ Conference which excluded merely “private” schools which did not make the grade as well as preparatory schools for younger boys and, of course, state schools.

It is now reckoned that there were around ninety stories set in boarding schools which were published between 1790 and 1857, but few people read them and they are almost entirely forgotten. Then along came Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes’ fictionalised memoir of his time at Rugby School in the 1830s. It was a huge hit and thoroughly in tune with its times because people wanted to read it as a story, but it was also taken seriously in its implications for education. It was read all over the Empire and the United States, but it was translated into all major languages and was hugely influential in Japan. It also had a very particular impact in France where a young aristocrat, Pierre De Coubertin, read the translated version and set off on what was literally a pilgrimage to Rugby in 1883. As is often the case with apostles there was a great deal which De Coubertin misunderstood about the situation, particularly about Arnold’s role in the development of organised games, but what was much more open to interpretation was that what Hughes had reported from Rugby was a revival and modernisation of chevalerie which was an antidote to the gray evils of commercialism and socialism which had hitherto seemed to be the only alternative futures for western civilisation. What he originally conceived as the Jeux Arnoldien became the Modern Olympic Games and according to his memoirs De Coubertin was giving Rugby and Arnold credit for them even at the end of his life.

As well as his influence on education and sport Hughes initiated a literary genre, the school story which became the principal reading matter of many people under twenty throughout the Anglophone world with a parallel development in girls’ stories. In 1940 George Orwell complained about this dominance in his essay “Boys’ Weeklies”; to Orwell the ubiquity of these stories, read by millions who had never clapped eyes on a boarding school, had a deeply conservative impact. For all the horrors of the twentieth century the world portrayed in the Gem and the Magnet was eternal; 1940 was no different from 1910 because, ” . . . there is a cosy fire in the study . . . The King is on his throne . . . Everything will be the same forever.”

The principal ingredients of the stories persisted from the outset: plucky heroes, bullies to be vanquished (the dreaded Harry Flashman in the original), great sporting contests, disputes settled by honest fist fights, modest rule-breaking and the issues arising, corporal punishment accepted stoically and God-like headmasters who are benign but peripheral. But if you read Tom Brown and follow it with a Captain story you realise that the spirit of the tales has changed entirely. In the original the author deeply admires “the Doctor” who is attempting to reform the school. He is central to the message but peripheral to the plot because the school is effectively run by the Lev√©e of senior boys. The situation is overtly political with the boys openly discussing the merits of their “old ways” as opposed to the Doctor’s reforms. Arnold was evangelically religious, an anti-imperialist and radical social reformer. Insofar as the two Toms (Hughes and Brown) are converted by him it is to something deeply anti-capitalist and opposed to the status quo. In the Captain stories, however, the status quo is never questioned, the Empire is portrayed as the best thing that has happened to the world and the principal characters are conservative, snobbish and racist. Thus the irony of Arnold and Hughes giving a major impetus to a movement – the growth of the public schools – which came to embody everything they disapproved of. But there is no need for me to dwell on this irony because it is the major theme of Lytton Strachey’s essay on Arnold in Eminent Victorians. It is also curiously parallel to the irony of George Orwell’s life. Arnold and Orwell have it in common that they died young and at the same age:, Arnold on his forty seventh birthday, Orwell a couple of months younger. But it’s also true that they both became patron saints of movements quite hostile to their own outlook: Orwell was a democratic socialist who is now quoted in anti-Communist and anti-√©tatiste arguments a hundred times for every time he is quoted as a socialist.

One of the most successful and influential writers of school stories when The Captain began was Fred Swainson and in 1900 the magazine ran his story Acton’s Feud alongside a Boer War tale, The Three Scouts. The story is specifically set in 1898: John Acton is a wealthy, handsome, clever and athletic boy – we might call him an “alpha male” – who has come late to St. Amory’s having been educated largely abroad. Selected for the “socker” (sic) XI against a visiting adult team he commits what we should call a “professional foul”. The skipper, Phil Bourne, is appalled by this breach of the unwritten code: he “cuts” Acton and refuses to award him a “cap” – though he continues to select him. Acton responds to this by running a popularity campaign among the younger boys implicitly discrediting Bourne while at the same time befriending Bourne’s younger brother, Jack, and introducing him to a demi-monde of gambling and nightlife. Eventually, the decisive incident is when Bourne spots a runaway carriage containing a terrified beautiful woman. At great risk to himself he skilfully controls the carriage and saves the lady. Of course she turns out to be Acton’s mother and the two boys become firm friends, a villain redeemed rather than banished in the Flashman style.

In Feud there is no longer a debate about values. There is a code (old chap) and if you don’t know it you’re in the wrong. Nobody explains to Acton what has gone wrong. His weakness – and his excuse – is foreign background. The South Asian students in the school are despised not by the bad guys, but by the supposed good guys and described by words unprintable in the twenty first century. The lower classes are “guttersnipes” and to be avoided. I think it is impossible to ignore the choice of name for the eponymous character: Lord Acton, distinguished writer and politician – he of the pithy quotation about power, was still alive at the time of writing. He was really John Emerich Dalberg-Acton, born in Naples (and later died in Germany), Liberal, Roman Catholic and with connections to half the countries in Europe. He was everything, in short, that Swainson would have found threatening.

It is as if the Doctor’s enemies have recaptured his citadel falsely using his name. The key word to understand is “gentleman”. Arnold wanted his pupils to be Christian gentlemen defined by a Christian code of purpose and discipline. His compromise with the boys was that they could continue their games provided they were codified and excluded “ungentlemanly conduct” – the phrase has echoed down the rule books of sport ever since. De Coubertin translated “gentleman” as chevalier rather than gentilhomme because, as another French aristocrat in search of an acceptable future, Alexis De Tocqueville, had explained, even though in England and the USA most men aspired to be gentlemen Moliere and the revolution had rendered gentilhomme risible in France. But by the time of The Captain “gentleman” in England was simply a matter of social class, used in the constitutions of numerous amateur sports organisations to ban or limit the participation of lower class players. Paradoxically, by the time of The Captain sport had become about winning. “Tom’s Last Match” was a defeat and there didn’t seem to be anything untoward about that; in The Captain heroes always win in the end just as they do in American sports movies.

Acton’s Feud contains much that would offend even the most conservative sensibilities in our own times, but, curiously, it seems to have inspired a work that does not, because it is still in print. P.G.Wodehouse always said that it was Swainson’s story that inspired him to try his own hand at the school story and his The Lost Lambs was serialised by the magazine in 1908. It is a deeply subversive piece. Its heroes, Mike Jackson and Rupert Smith, have arrived at Sedleigh school having already been removed from other schools for poor behaviour and performance. They are non-conformists and even cricket refuseniks and they respond to authority with trickery and disdain. Wodehouse uses a form of ironic reference to the genre as the characters discuss what kind of characters they are:

Smith (having just met Jackson): Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School or the Boy who is Led Astray and Takes to Drink in Chapter 16?

Jackson: The last for choice . . . but I’ve only just got here so I don’t know.

It is impossible to imagine Tom Brown or Phil Bourne talking like this. But, of course, our two heroes turn out to be very good chaps and awfully good cricketers. And Wodehouse fans will have realised that among the infuriating traits of the languid and arrogant Smith is his insistence that his name is spelled “Psmith” with a silent “P” (“as in Pshrimp”). The Lost Lambs was later republished as Mike and then Mike and Psmith; there are several sequels and Psmith remains one of the greatest creations of one of the greatest comic writers of the twentieth century. Arguably he is one of a long line of jester-heroes which includes Prince Hal (in Shakespeare if not in history), the Scarlet Pimpernel, the cinematic James Bond and practically any character played on screen by Errol Flynn, David Niven or Cary Grant.

But if the tradition of the jester-hero thrived the same cannot be said of the school story itself. Unavoidable, according to Orwell, in 1940 they had all but disappeared by 1960. One of the most prolific producers, Percy F. Westerman, who wrote 178 hardcover stories for boys, had turned his attention to naval stories. They were really, if vaguely, out of tune with their times – and most writing over the last six or seven decades has given the traditional boarding school way of life a very bad press (though I enjoyed it and I’ve never laughed so much as we did at school). But the precise and undeniable cause of the demise was television. I speak as a kind of cultural retard: from 1957 I was a boarder at Lancaster Royal Grammar School which, like many other schools, had specifically molded itself in imitation of Rugby – the headmaster had been a housemaster there. We didn’t have a television so I only heard about Hoss in Bonanza and Fancy Smith in Z-Cars from day boys. I continued to read school stories (often from second hand bookshops) which actually resembled the world I knew. But, despite several versions of Tom Brown, television was more democratic and never took to prefects as it did to cowboys and policemen. I should add that I also read the D.C.Thompson comics, The Rover in particular, which Orwell had praised as “more modern”. They certainly offered a different class perspective: while reading The Captain I hated “guttersnipes”, but while reading The Rover I hated “toffs”.

The decline of the school story carries an important ryder. My children and grandchildren, none of whom went to boarding school, preface questions to me with, “You know when you were at Hogwarts . . . “. Harry Potter is Tom Brown with magic, chums and bullies all over again, suggesting that the interest in young people in a closed world behind stone walls may be interesting after all.

Lincoln Allison September 2021, amended June 2022

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Critic in March 2022 under the title “Tom’s Curious Heirs”. It draws largely on a longer academic article I wrote some years ago which focuses more narrowly on the history of the Captain magazine.)