The World of School

John Bayley

  • The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and his Friends by Humphrey Carpenter
    Weidenfeld, 523 pp, £17.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 297 79320 9
  • Osbert: A Portrait of Osbert Lancaster by Richard Boston
    Collins, 256 pp, £17.50, August 1989, ISBN 0 00 216324 1
  • Ackerley: A Life of J.R. Ackerley by Peter Parker
    Constable, 465 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 09 469000 6

Dean Farrar, the theologian and Harrow schoolmaster who in 1858 brought out the best-seller Eric, or Little by Little, later produced the almost equally popular St Winifred’s, or The World of School. There are a surprising number of novels, mainly but not all English ones, which could use the same subtitle. The Waves, or The World of School, War and Peace, or The World of School, A Passage to India, or ... ? Brighton Rock? Le Grand Meaulnes? A clear case would be Brideshead Revisited, where Brideshead is obviously the name of the school itself.

Even today, almost everyone has the school experience, at whatever sort of institution; and although it is no longer so obsessional and so long-lasting as it could once be, it may still determine the individual outlook more than most care to own. The sense of belonging or not belonging, important for Bloomsbury or for the Brideshead Generation written about by Humphrey Carpenter, is less significant than the initial and basic instinct to opt out, or the passionate wish to opt in. As a template and exemplar of getting on in the world, school can either be a negative experience or one so positive that it determines all subsequent behaviour. A writer of genius marked by it sees the world through its eyes ever after: Tolstoy, who never went to school, had its experiences not academically but socially. The intensely emulative goal was doing the real right thing – becoming, in the eyes of disciples in the Lower Fourth, the really superior person, not saint, not sage, but outcast, self-abandoned.

Waugh had the same school-world dreams in social form, and they continue to exercise a fascination – crude, perhaps, but potent. His popularity shows, among other things, how those with the instinct to opt out have a keen relish for opting in at second hand. The true devotees of Greyfriars have never left home; no stigma attaches to being a secret fantasy-snob and no one minds being bullied in a book. But Christopher Sykes, who saw much of Waugh in the Army, and who remained a warm friend, had to remark in his biography that ‘to the naturally weak he was as merciless as he had been in his bullying schooldays ... it always utterly disgusted me.’ Nonetheless when the bien-pensant today says that he or she dislikes Waugh as a man and loathes his attitudes, but admires him as a writer, the attempt at judicious distinction need not be taken seriously. Waugh appeals to the aggression, insecurity and romanticism of ordinary people, having, as it were, a school holiday from caring about the welfare state. Indeed Thatcherism is partly his legacy, day-dream turned into a gross sort of reality, for Thatcherism officialises the world of school inside the state. This accounts for Thatcherism’s never fully admitted popularity. A headmaster like Kinnock, who will give the boys anything they ask for, is not likely to found a successful academy, but the sneaking admiration for the flogging headmistress has become – as have the bully-boys of the Remove and those who have made it to Pop or the Sixth – an actual element in our political ethos.

Never basely shrewd, but not with much real humour, however swollen his sense of fun, Waugh would hardly have been amused by this bizarre democratisation of his Brideshead fantasies. In a brilliant analysis – perhaps the best thing in his book, absorbing as it all is – Carpenter reveals as if accidentally the world of school inside the beau monde of Brideshead, and its rhapsody on high Catholic society. Waugh, as the hero Charles Ryder, longs to be with the real in-group; and the artist in Waugh creates Ryder’s more obviously vulgar, because successful, doppelgänger, Rex Mottram, who has a Thatcherite vision of the attainability of all the distinguished things that Waugh/Ryder secretly knows he will never achieve. Carpenter points out that Rex, like Waugh himself, accepted instruction in a matter-of-fact way, without bothering with the niceties of theology or belief. The point was to get in, or try to.

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