From the 11th century to the 19th not a single Eric was to be found in England, according to the Harrap Book of Boys’ and Girls’ Names. Then in 1858 the schoolmaster Frederic Farrar, not yet a dean, published that passionately morbid tale Eric, or Little by Little. This was the book which, in the face of much mockery, put the wind up two generations of youth. Parents, seizing the wrong end of the stick, at once saw Eric as the ideal baptismal name, to the ultimate dismay of its recipients. Of Eric Gill, Robert Speaight says that being called Eric ‘might not unfairly be described as starting life with a handicap’. The Great War showed what handicapped Erics were made of; in 1918 my cousin Eric, up from Biggin Hill in a two-seater fighter, overhauled – little by little – a homing Gotha bomber and contributed to its destruction. It is unlikely that more recent Erics – Ambler, Sykes, Shipton, Heffer – oozed shame when signing their names.
John Betjeman, in Summoned by Bells, agonises over Farrar’s ‘mawkish’ and ‘oh-so-melodious’ book through which runs a schoolboy sense of impending ‘Doom! Shivering Doom!’ The doom which Betjeman and his contemporaries at Marlborough dreaded was no more than that of icy baths, bullying, fagging, swishing or (improbably) being hauled ceiling-wards in a basket, drenched in ink and treacle, but the doom facing Eric and his classmates was that of idiocy and early death. Such was the reward of a practice which, according to a sermon by Dr Rowlands, head of Roslyn School, led inexorably to Kibroth-Hattaavah. Dr Rowlands did not explain exactly what Kibroth-Hattaavah was, nor does Ian Anstruther in his well-judged introduction to this reissue of Eric; he assumes that we all know our Fourth Book of Moses, which reveals it to be some sort of discreditable landfill for ‘the people that lusted’ (in fact, the Israelites who ended up in it had been lusting excessively after meat and fish, but why spoil a good story?). Farrar says, in oh-so-melodious commination:
Kibroth-Hattaavah: Many and many a young Englishman has perished there! Many and many a happy English boy, the jewel of his mother’s heart – brave and beautiful and strong – lies buried there. Very pale their shadows rise before us – the shadows of our young brothers who have sinned and suffered. From the sea and the sod, from foreign graves and English churchyards, they start up and throng around us in the paleness of their fall. May every schoolboy who reads this page be warned by the waving of their wasted hands, from that burning marle of passion where they found nothing but shame and ruin, polluted affections, and an early grave.
The eponymous Eric, or Williams to his classmates, the spirited son of a missionary, discusses the unspeakable vice with Edwin Russell, Roslyn’s paladin sans reproche. ‘My father said it was the most fatal curse which could ever become rife in a public school,’ Russell says. It is not only blackguardly, but deadly. When Eric asks why masters ‘never give us any help or advice on these matters’, Russell replies: ‘I for one think them quite right not to speak to us privately, unless we invite confidence.’ Anyway, they ‘cannot know’ what the boys are saying and doing. Russell is ‘that noblest of all noble spectacles . . . an honourable, pure-hearted happy boy, who, as his early years speed by, is ever growing in wisdom and stature, and favour with God and man’. Innocent of sin, he is yet marked down for early death. Bright-eyed Eric starts off as a reasonably noble spectacle, but comes under the influence of the corrupted Ball, who has tasted of the Tree of Evil and speaks ‘from the platform of advanced iniquity’. Ball’s lesson for dormitory number seven is ‘Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil!’ Eric lies in his bed writhing in torment as he listens to Ball’s incitement to give evil a try-out, afraid to rebuke him for his ‘foul words’. Eric, in Wildean terms, can resist everything but temptation and, all too soon, he flings aside ‘the shield of prayer and the helmet of holiness’; that is, he goes with the flock. He has yet to be ‘taken up’ by the older boy Upton, who will escort him on sorties to the Tree of Evil; and in due course he will himself ‘take up’ a young rascal called Wildney, whom he describes as ‘a regular little sunbeam’.
If that healthy organ, the Boy’s Own Paper, not launched till 1879, had been available at Roslyn, could it have helped to dispel ignorance and stem turpitude? It could not; nor could the excoriated penny dreadfuls, nor the long-running saga featuring the rambunctious Jack Harkaway. Dr Gordon Stables, who was a sort of agony uncle for the Boy’s Own Paper, knew what boys got up to but dared not define it. ‘Ah, boys, boys, what a glorious thing is self-mastery!’ is as near as he got. His ideal young male was ‘a man strong enough to roll over a bullock on the emu plains of Australia with one blow of the fist’. Such prowess was not to be gained by thinking in bed, a temporary cure for which was ten grains of bromide of potassium taken for a fortnight. Stables held that ‘a long, solitary walk’ did more harm than good. Nor was a walk with others necessarily any better; companions to be avoided were those ‘whose haggard eyes flash desperation and betray pangs’ (boys like the debauched Eric). It might have helped the haggard youth of Roslyn to self-conquest if, on one of their lawless excursions from school, they had been able to visit one of those dubious medical museums of the times. There used to be (perhaps still is) one preserved at Blackpool, which had a large bust of The Great (or was it The Old?) Masturbator. He was a figure of terrifying pustular decay, resembling an infinitely corrupt Ottoman caliph.
Eric, or Little by Little was reprinted some fifty times, but has been off the shelves for many years. The justification advanced for its reissue, not to be disputed, is that it is ‘essential reading for anyone trying to come to grips with 19th-century England’; an England unchallenged by ‘youth culture’, when adolescents were happy to wear top hats like their elders. As Anstruther points out, the fierce evangelistic morality of Eric came as a counter to the muscular Christianity of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, which was published the previous year. Both books were to be inescapable hand-outs at prizegivings for decades. Eric’s publishers, A. and C. Black, failed to advertise it, to the irritation of its author. Reviews were on the whole favourable (‘A work of great power and ability’, the Spectator said), but ‘all of them made the point that sensitive boys, at that certain age when nearly men, might be upset by the veiled warnings of the dire results of sexual activity, both physical and emotional.’ The Saturday Review was caustic, complaining that ‘everything is served up with tear sauce.’ Blackwood’s said: ‘a more utter failure can hardly be conceived; 19 out of 20 schoolboys would pronounce it “bosh”; the 20th would find it “spooney”.’ Rather than offer a more extended glimpse of these reviews, Anstruther chooses to give us a chapter-long notice from a Dutch publication. It is a reminder that Eric had its foreign following: Eric, ou Petit à Petit and Erich, oder Schritt für Schritt.
Frederic Farrar was a master at Harrow when he wrote Eric, having previously taught at Marlborough. As a boy he had attended King William’s College on the Isle of Man, an institution which took offence at close resemblances with scenes and incidents in the book. John Addington Symonds, who was head of a house at Harrow when Eric appeared, has put on record his youthful ‘disgust and loathing’ at the ‘incredibly obscene’ talk and wall-to-wall depravity he witnessed there. Farrar cannot have failed to be aware of what might be going on when he heard distant shouts of ‘Cave!’ He served under Charles Vaughan, the headmaster who left suddenly after being detected in an affair with a pupil, and was so terrified of exposure by the angry father that he refused the consolatory offer of a bishopric. ‘Perhaps,’ Anstruther writes, ‘this is the simple answer; that, faced with an overwhelming disgust at the widespread evil throughout the school and the widespread lack of interest on the part of the staff, Farrar decided to do what he could to reform it.’ Farrar himself said that he wrote the book as a very young man in an earnest attempt to improve public school morality. But, in a distancing mood, he also wrote that ‘accident made me an author,’ giving the impression that Eric was the mere product of a moment of leisure. If so, it is surprising that a busy cleric who turned out some seventy books, including a bestselling Life of Christ, could find enough moments of leisure to write three more school books in the same vein, all exuding, as A.N. Wilson says in The Victorians, ‘unwholesome sexual feeling like tightly-lidded pressure-cookers giving off steam’. He retained enough interest in Eric to tinker with it and cut out some of the slop. ‘Kiss me, Eric, as though I were a child and you were a child’ became ‘I wish you were my brother,’ and ‘Wildney quietly sitting on Eric’s knee by the study fire’ was altered, not a moment too soon, to ‘Wildney quietly sitting by the study fire.’ Farrar was cross with Kipling for such references in Stalky and Co. as ‘we ain’t goin’ to have any beastly Erickin’. D’you want to walk about with your arm round his neck?’ Kipling apologised, saying he had not intended any gratuitous insult – ‘Your years and your position in the English Church alike forbid the thought of that.’ By then Farrar was Dean of Canterbury and had served as a royal chaplain. He was an evangelical preacher of such eloquence and fervour that congregations swarmed to hear him.
The readers of Eric were expected to take in their stride untranslated quotations in Greek, Latin, German and French. Such passages appear not only as epigraphs but in the conversation of the boys, Eric included. Dialogue is often excruciatingly stilted and no less excruciating are the author’s apostrophisings of his hero (‘Now, Eric, now or never! . . . Speak out, boy . . . Virtue is strong and beautiful, Eric, and vice is downcast in her awful presence’). Yet the narrative is strong enough to sweep the hypnotised reader along. The incidents that appear in Eric are the staple of a thousand school stories, including those in the Magnet and Gem fifty years on. Farrar certainly has it in for Eric, who is punished not only for his sins but for those of others. Twice he is caned for implication in cribbing conspiracies into which he has been reluctantly drawn. He is caned again for laughing in church at the antics of a grasshopper on a woman’s hat. For insulting his ever sympathetic master Walter Rose, a deep-dyed Christian, he is made to apologise in front of the full school. Unable to resist peer pressure, he swears and smokes cigars. A sudden popularity envelops him when, on a coastal stroll, he rescues the doomed Russell from a rising tide; the same tide in which he will later find floating the body of his younger brother Vernon, whom he has failed to shield from vicious overtures. Seen to be drunk at prayers (so drunk that at roll-call he answers ‘Yes, sir’ instead of ‘Adsum’) he is ordered to be expelled, a penalty rescinded after much grovelling. Worse is to come. Blackmailed by the publican who supplies the boys with brandy (the drug-dealer of the day), Eric is discovered tampering with a locked box containing cricket money. In the tradition of Victorian scamps he runs away to sea, where he finds what a real flogging with a rope’s end is like. On his return he learns that news of his misdeeds has brought about the death in a faraway land of his mother, not the sort of mother to excuse a blackguard son as a ‘loveable rogue’. Overcome by impacted guilt and terminal remorse, he himself falls dead, the fourth death in the book. ‘Let none of you think his life has been wasted,’ Walter Rose tells the mourning school. Instead of invoking a vision of Eric’s pale, wasted hands waving from Kibroth-Hattaavah, he says that they will meet their ‘dear departed brother in a holier and a happier world’. Farrar, apostrophising to the end, exclaims: ‘Poor Eric! I do not fear that I have wronged your memory.’
Farrar was uneasy about the way discipline was enforced at Roslyn. It could present a singular spectacle. The admirable but sorely tried Rose, having flogged the bully Brigson until he rolls whimpering on the floor, orders him to take on his back each of the boys he has led astray so that they in turn may be caned. Unlike the bully, the pick-a-back boys neither wince nor cry. Afterwards, penitent, they execrate the bully and give cheers, three times three, for the wielder of the cane. Did not something very similar happen at Eton after Dr Keate had flogged eighty boys in one day? Much better than a system which produced this sort of orgy, in Farrar’s view, was the monitorial way of maintaining discipline, which he finds space in Eric to defend. The monitorial method had come some way since it was introduced into the Bell and Lancaster church schools earlier that century, when its more visionary advocates claimed that with its aid a single master could control a thousand pupils. (In the Lancaster schools the practice of ‘basketing’ dullards, so feared by Betjeman at Marlborough, was conducted by the monitors, who invited the rest of the class to jeer at ‘the bird in a cage’.) Farrar described the improved monitorial system, in which senior boys ensured fair play, as a ‘noble safeguard’, a Palladium of happiness and morality, preventing bullying, upholding manliness and enlisting boys on the side of the honourable and just. Not all who were admitted to this Palladium took such a kindly view, as innumerable memoirs have shown.
At Roslyn School parental intervention could be effective in confounding bullies. When Eric, initially, was a day boarder, his missionary father, on leave, lodged nearby and often watched the boys at play. One day, seeing a bully in action, he advanced with ‘the riding crop which he happened to be carrying’ and gave the offender ‘by far the severest castigation he had ever undergone’, finally flinging him aside with a ‘phew of disgust’. Sensibly, no action was taken against the angry man of God who happened to be loitering by a school playground with a riding whip.