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24 December 2012

For the sake of a little loose arithmetic

[Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of bullying and the physical abuse of children.]

I've been reading Stalky & Co. by Rudyard Kipling, and it's got me thinking about the British boarding school system. (Something I do fairly often, really. Side note: while it's obviously out of period, I also highly recommend Stephen Fry's childhood memoir Moab is my Washpot for many amazing scenes of fucked-up boarding school life.) Stalky and his friends are holy terrors of teenage boys who seem to spend most of their time playing elaborate pranks on their teachers and fellow students.

I don't normally find behavior like this charming, and in fact, I don't find it charming here, exactly. Yet my sympathy remains with the main characters despite the fact that very similar behavior in Harry Potter annoys me no end. I spent some time thinking about this and came up with the following conclusion:

In Stalky & Co., the boys really feel like underdogs, persecuted and bullied not only by other students and their teachers, but by the entire structure of the British educational system. There is, for example, a section in which the boys are punished and humiliated for copying each other's homework by being kicked out of their study and forced to return to the dormitory's common room. The boys are incandescent with outrage because it is, get this, traditional to split up the homework load between students sharing a study. And it's impossible for me as a reader to really blame them despite my perhaps excessively sincere belief in the value of education and academic integrity, because very little of their work seems to have any point to it besides training them to unquestioning obedience. Kipling actually says so explicitly in the poem that opens the collection:

This we learned from famous men,
Knowing not its uses,
When they showed, in daily work,
Man must finish off his work--
Right or wrong, his daily work--
And without excuses.

It is a huge, overarching, internally inconsistent, arbitrary and arbitrarily enforced system, and yet it is enforced brutally and utterly without mercy, supported by bullying and abuse of power at every level (except, of course, for the beloved, wise, twinkling headmaster--some things never change). The boys' refusal to do their homework begins to feel like an fierce, stubborn, and compelling defense of the self.

(A large portion of Stalky and his friends' schooling is devoted to Latin. They attend a school which specifically trains boys for the army. When are they going to use Latin? I'm not even sure the irony is intentional when, in the final story about their army careers defending the Empire (full of classic Kipling racism), Stalky totally amazes all his friends by actually knowing Pashto and Punjabi. This is instrumental, even life-saving, a dozen times in the course of the story, and yet the knowledge is presented as a quasi-magical feat of greatness, typical of the amazing Stalky--certainly not something you might consider formally teaching to officers!

Here's what Anthony Fletcher says about Latin in Growing up in England: The Experience of Childhood 1600-1914:

There are two important respects in which the schooling of the seventeenth century set the pattern of educational practice to 1914 and beyond: it was gender segregated and it was based on a remote classical tongue, which held no intrinsic interest for most boys and which there was no good reason for them to learn. Yet Latin became the badge of class privilege. Walter Ogg suggested that Latin was in fact a puberty rite, intended to provide a difficult and painful initiation into an exclusive adult society. Latin beaten into boys was becoming, by 1660, the crucial foundation of a whole class and gender system that provided a revised basis for English patriarchy. It was the male elite’s secret language, a language which could be displayed as a mark of learning, of superiority and of difference.)

In Harry Potter, on the other hand, J.K. Rowling tries to make us feel for the poor trio, besieged by Slytherins and unfair teachers on all sides, subject to arbitrary discipline and cruelty--but at the same time Hogwarts is presented as a beloved home for its students, a charming wonderland whose curriculum is not only literally magical, but 100% relevant to Harry's life of evil-fighting. Both things simply cannot be true simultaneously, just as Gryffindors cannot both be the underdog Quidditch team AND win every match against the overfunded Slytherins.

Stalky & Co., despite its beloved headmaster, really doesn't pull any punches with just how awful boarding school life can be. In one story, the boys place a dead cat under the floorboards of a neighboring dormitory because the teacher who is head of that house has encouraged his students to begin a bullying campaign against Stalky et al. centering around the accusation that they smell.

In "Moral Reformers," the boys teach some bullies a lesson because an adult asks them to, saying that he himself is powerless to intervene effectively). Beetle describes the bullying he experienced himself as a younger student: "[They] kick their souls out of 'em, and they go and blub in the box-rooms. Shove their heads into the ulsters an' blub. Write home three times a day--yes, you brute, I've done that--askin' to be taken away."

Whether Stalky & Co.'s portrayal of the British boarding school system is accurate has apparently been a matter of some debate ever since the stories were first serialized in the 1890s. Isabel Quigly, in her introduction to the Oxford edition of the stories, includes a number of contemporary reactions that are well worth reading (my favorite for its sheer classism and snobbery: "Only the spoiled child of an utterly brutalised public could possibly have written Stalky & Co.").

Edmund Wilson, in his essay on the stories, adduces evidence from the memoirs of the boys on whom Kipling based M'Turk and Stalky. G.C. "M'Turk" Beresford "insists the fagging system did not exist at [their school]; that the boys were never caned on their bare shoulders; and that Kipling, so far as he remembers, was never caned at all except by a single exceptional master." [Graphic caning scenes appear repeatedly in the stories.]

Lionel Dunsterville, the boy on whom Stalky was based, on the other hand, later included in his own memoirs the following memorable passage (as quoted by Wilson):

I must have been perpetually black-and-blue. That always sounds so dreadful...But the truth of the matter is, any slight blow produces a bruise...And with one or two savage exceptions, I am sure that the blows I received as a result of bullying or legitimate punishment were harmless enough...Kicks and blows I minded little, but the moral effect was depressing. Like a hunted animal I had to keep all my senses perpetually on the alert to escape from the toils of the hunter--good training in a way, but likely to injure permanently a not very robust temperament. I was robust enough, I am glad to say, and possibly benefitted by the treatment.

Certainly Kipling's portrayal of boarding school life is more or less consistent with others I've seen. But of course, those portrayals were all written by...well...writers. Nerds, in other words, who by virtue of being a minority rarely escape some form of unpleasantness in school. In a boarding school system, where there is no escape to one's own home and limited supervision by adults...well, that's not going anywhere good.

There's a bit in A Room of One's Own where Virginia Woolf talks about an awkward moment in Jane Eyre, where Charlotte Brontë pauses Jane's narration of events for an impassioned page or two of introspection which begins, "It is vain to say that human being ought to be satisfied with tranquility."

If one reads [her] pages over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.

I don't agree that being privileged in every way necessarily makes one a better writer--just to name one easy example, it would be pretty difficult to write well about oppression--but it's interesting to compare that to this little aside which appears abruptly in the middle of Vanity Fair:

Who is there among us that does not recollect similar hours of bitter, bitter childish grief? Who feels injustice; who shrinks before a slight; who has a sense of wrong so acute, and so glowing a gratitude for kindness, as a generous boy? and how many of those gentle souls do you degrade, estrange, torture, for the sake of a little loose arithmetic, and miserable dog-latin?

This site makes the further point that "in a novel which deals with the Battle of Waterloo [...the schoolboys'] fight is one of the most violent actions presented."

As Edmund Wilson says of Stalky in his sum-up:

Stalky & Co.--from the artistic point of view, certainly the worst of Kipling's books: crude in writing, trashy in feeling, implausible in a scries of contrivances which resemble moving-picture "gags"--is in the nature of an hysterical outpouring of emotions kept over from school-days...

However "accurate" the lurid picture of bullying and violence may be (and let me tell you, the "Corporal Punishment" section of the Wikipedia entry on Eton makes for interesting reading), it is clearly true to many boys' emotional experience. And yet people sent their children, generation after generation. Did they forget how bad it was? Did it seem normal to them?

Or was it simply that it was, as Walter Ogg suggests, a rite of passage? Maybe if your son wasn't tortured for his ten most formative years, he'd be outcast for the rest of his life, while all the other upper-class boys had banded together in communal suffering. How could he read popular novels, get a job, run for Parliament, etc. etc., with his experience so removed from every man of his own social status? If you didn't force him to learn Latin, how many jokes would he never understand?

How strange is it, really? I hated high school bitterly and benefited very little from it in any intellectual sense, nor did I ever have more than one or two friends at a time after most of my closest friends dropped out sophomore year. Yet when my parents offered to home-school me, I rejected the suggestion vehemently.

What do you think? What would you have done as a Regency or Victorian parent of little boys?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"What do you think? What would you have done as a Regency or Victorian parent of little boys?"

I don't think I'd have been in the right social class to send my child to that sort of a school, even if I'd wanted to.

4:39 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Laura--good point! My family was also entirely composed of peasants in that era. I should have specified, "if you were the upper-class parent of little boys."

10:13 AM  

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