british boarding schools -- 7/21/15

Today's selection -- from The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst. British boarding schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s were places where the boys were largely unsupervised in the boarding houses away from class and organized clubs and sports. The results were unsupervised hazing of younger schoolboys by the older ones, which was often extended into forced sexual relations. The trauma of these experiences makes its appearance in much British literature, notably including Robert Graves' 1929 memoir Good-Bye to All That. Charles Dodgson [who we know better as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland] found this out for himself in the mid-1800s:

"What Lewis Carroll was also forced to recognize at [the Rugby] school ... is that not every difficulty could be resolved as neatly as a mathematical problem. Whereas his brother Wilfred was a 'keen sportsman' who' achieved distinction as an oarsman' and was 'one of the best shots of his day', the kind of sports Carroll enjoyed, such as croquet, involved calculating angles and vectors rather than smashing into other boys, and these were not likely to make him popular at the school that had invented the modern game of rugby football. Violet Dodgson is probably right to claim that her uncle 'worked hard and avoided games as far as possible'. What he couldn't avoid was the ritual humiliation of being the sort of boy who ends up being picked last for a football team, or is told to field on the cricket boundary so that he can be kept away from the ball.

"Evidence that he was thought of as something other than a sporting idol comes from another school textbook, this time a copy of Xenophon he acquired in November 1846, in which he wrote his name and another hand added 'is a muff', before repeating the insult at the top of the page: 'Dodgson is a muff: The word's general meaning of 'A foolish, stupid, feeble, or incompetent person' was sharpened in school contexts to mean the sort of boy who was clumsy or inept at sports (a 'muff' also referred to a dropped catch at cricket), and it could be deployed in either an affectionate or a more hostile manner. In Thomas Hughes's 1857 novel Tom Brown's School Days, written in celebration of his time at Rugby under Arnold, Bill the porter is fondly chaffed as an 'old muff,' while the delicate new boy Arthur is openly laughed at as a 'young muff'. In fiction, of course, young muffs like Arthur were usually protected by stout-hearted heroes like Tom Brown, who saves him from the bullies and then follows Arthur's saintly example by saying his prayers every night beside his dormitory bed. The reality was usually far less reassuring. Another delicate new boy, this time a real one, left a full diary of the months he spent at Rugby before his early death, and it makes unhappy reading. Entering the school on 28 August 1846, seven months after Carroll, John Lang Bickersteth was not only frail and good at mathematics, but also remarkably pious -- one of his diary entries reads 'A man buried today -- a warning to me' -- and he suffered accordingly. Sad and friendless from the start, he was accused of being 'mean and stingy' for not buying any pictures for his study, and was teased mercilessly by the other boys. During one especially bleak evening, he had a dog repeatedly set on him. By mid-September, his diary had collapsed into exclamations such as 'O God, sustain me!' and by the end of the following January he had died at home from a fever.

"There is no evidence that Carroll suffered as badly as this, but as an adult his references to Rugby were few and cool in tone, stating only that no 'earthly considerations would induce me to go through my three years again', and 'the hardships of the day would have been comparative trifles to bear' if only he had been 'secure from annoyance at night'. There was no shortage of possible 'annoyances' in a shared dormitory. Collingwood notes that the older pupils would sometimes remove the blankets of the younger ones, leaving them to shiver through the night, while blankets also featured in a popular form of torture that involved tossing the smaller boys up in the air and letting them fall to the ground. (In Tom Brown's School Days this is a favourite pastime of Flashman, the school's chief bully, who also enjoys roasting boys in front of the fire like chestnuts.) However, the text Carroll probably had in mind is Paradise Lost, which describes Adam and Eve 'asleep secure of [i.e. safe from] harm' before Satan tempts them and they fall. Did Carroll experience something similar? Rugby's dormitories were certainly known as places where sexual activity took place; a history of the school published in 1856 included an oblique reference to 'petty perversions', which could mean anything from masturbation to full-blown affairs. For some boys, sexual knowledge could be just as traumatic as actual sexual activity: the chapter on 'Dormitory Life' in F. W Farrar's popular schoolboy tale Eric; or, Little by Little (1858) describes an evening of fun that starts with a game of leap-frog, but quickly descends to 'indecent talk', leaving one boy, who urges his friends to stop, feeling 'as if I was trampling on a slimy poisonous adder'. In case the metaphor is not sufficiently clear, Farrar explains that another boy listens in on the smutty conversations and becomes 'a "god, knowing good and evil"' -- another Adam who falls because of the temptations of a snake-like creature.

"Whatever Carroll overheard or witnessed at Rugby, it appears to have confirmed his sense that innocence was a special preserve of childhood that was constantly in danger of being breached. Once that occurred it was gone for ever: childhood was a paradise with gates that all too easily swung shut and locked behind you. Only in a story like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland could they be reopened a crack, as Alice glimpses 'bright flowers' and 'cool fountains' at the end of a dark passage, and then shrinks even smaller to enter 'the loveliest garden you ever saw'."


Robert Douglas-Fairhurst


The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland


First Harvard University Press Edition


Copyright Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, 2015


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