Adventures Among Books, by Andrew Lang

The Boy

As a humble student of savage life, I have found it necessary to make researches into the manners and customs of boys. Boys are not what a vain people supposes. If you meet them in the holidays, you find them affable and full of kindness and good qualities. They will condescend to your weakness at lawn-tennis, they will aid you in your selection of fly-hooks, and, to be brief, will behave with much more than the civility of tame Zulus or Red Men on a missionary settlement. But boys at school and among themselves, left to the wild justice and traditional laws which many generations of boys have evolved, are entirely different beings. They resemble that Polynesian prince who had rejected the errors of polytheism for those of an extreme sect of Primitive Seceders. For weeks at a time this prince was known to be “steady,” but every month or so he disappeared, and his subjects said he was “lying off.” To adopt an American idiom, he “felt like brandy and water”; he also “felt like” wearing no clothes, and generally rejecting his new conceptions of duty and decency. In fact, he had a good bout of savagery, and then he returned to his tall hat, his varnished boots, his hymn-book, and his edifying principles. The life of small boys at school (before they get into long-tailed coats and the upper-fifth) is often a mere course of “lying-off”— of relapse into native savagery with its laws and customs.

If any one has so far forgotten his own boyhood as to think this description exaggerated, let him just fancy what our comfortable civilised life would be, if we could become boys in character and custom. Let us suppose that you are elected to a new club, of which most of the members are strangers to you. You enter the doors for the first time, when two older members, who have been gossiping in the hall, pounce upon you with the exclamation, “Hullo, here’s a new fellow! You fellow, what’s your name?” You reply, let us say, “Johnson.” “I don’t believe it, it’s such a rum name. What’s your father?” Perhaps you are constrained to answer “a Duke” or (more probably) “a solicitor.” In the former case your friends bound up into the smoking-room, howling, “Here’s a new fellow says his father is a Duke. Let’s take the cheek out of him.” And they “take it out” with umbrellas, slippers, and other surgical instruments. Or, in the latter case (your parent being a solicitor) they reply, “Then your father must be a beastly cad. All solicitors are sharks. My father says so, and he knows. How many sisters have you?” The new member answers, “Four.” “Any of them married?” “No.” “How awfully awkward for you.”

By this time, perhaps, luncheon is ready, or the evening papers come in, and you are released for a moment. You sneak up into the library, where you naturally expect to be entirely alone, and you settle on a sofa with a novel. But an old member bursts into the room, spies a new fellow, and puts him through the usual catechism. He ends with, “How much tin have you got?” You answer “twenty pounds,” or whatever the sum may be, for perhaps you had contemplated playing whist. “Very well, fork it out; you must give a dinner, all new fellows must, and you are not going to begin by being a stingy beast?” Thus addressed, as your friend is a big bald man, who looks mischievous, you do “fork out” all your ready money, and your new friend goes off to consult the cook. Meanwhile you “shed a blooming tear,” as Homer says, and go home heart-broken. Now, does any grown-up man call this state of society civilisation? Would life be worth living (whatever one’s religious consolations) on these terms? Of course not, and yet this picture is a not overdrawn sketch of the career of some new boy, at some schools new or old. The existence of a small schoolboy is, in other respects, not unlike that of an outsider in a lawless “Brotherhood,” as the Irish playfully call their murder clubs.

The small boy is in the society, but not of it, as far as any benefits go. He has to field out (and I admit that the discipline is salutary) while other boys bat. Other boys commit the faults, and compel him to copy out the impositions — say five hundred lines of Virgil — with which their sins are visited. Other boys enjoy the pleasures of football, while the small boy has to run vaguely about, never within five yards of the ball. Big boys reap the glories of paperchases, the small boy gets lost in the bitter weather, on the open moors, or perhaps (as in one historical case) is frozen to death within a measurable distance of the school playground. And the worst of it is that, as a member of the great school secret society, the small boy can never complain of his wrongs, or divulge the name of his tormentors. It is in this respect that he resembles a harmless fellow, dragged into the coils of an Anarchist “Inner Brotherhood.” He is exposed to all sorts of wrongs from his neighbours, and he can only escape by turning “informer,” by breaking the most sacred law of his society, losing all social status, and, probably, obliging his parents to remove him from school. Life at school, as among the Celtic peoples, turns on the belief that law and authority are natural enemies, against which every one is banded.

The chapter of bullying among boys is one on which a man enters with reluctance. Boys are, on the whole, such good fellows, and so full of fine unsophisticated qualities, that the mature mind would gladly turn away its eyes from beholding their iniquities. Even a cruel bully does not inevitably and invariably develop into a bad man. He is, let us hope, only passing through the savage stage, in which the torture of prisoners is a recognised institution. He has, perhaps, too little imagination to understand the pain he causes. Very often bullying is not physically cruel, but only a perverted sort of humour, such as Kingsley, in “Hypatia,” recognised among his favourite Goths. I remember a feeble foolish boy at school (feeble he certainly was, and was thought foolish) who became the subject of much humorous bullying. His companions used to tie a thin thread round his ear, and attach this to a bar at such a height that he could only avoid breaking it by standing on tiptoe. But he was told that he must not break the thread. To avoid infringing this commandment, he put himself to considerable inconvenience and afforded much enjoyment to the spectators.

Men of middle age, rather early middle age, remember the two following species of bullying to which they were subjected, and which, perhaps, are obsolescent. Tall stools were piled up in a pyramid, and the victim was seated on the top, near the roof of the room. The other savages brought him down from this bad eminence by hurling other stools at those which supported him. Or the victim was made to place his hands against the door, with the fingers outstretched, while the young tormentors played at the Chinese knife-trick. They threw knives, that is to say, at the door between the apertures of the fingers, and, as a rule, they hit the fingers and not the door. These diversions I know to be correctly reported, but the following pretty story is, perhaps, a myth. At one of the most famous public schools, a praepostor, or monitor, or sixth-form boy having authority, heard a pistol-shot in the room above his own. He went up and found a big boy and a little boy. They denied having any pistol. The monitor returned to his studies, again was sure he heard a shot, went up, and found the little boy dead. The big boy had been playing the William Tell trick with him, and had hit his head instead of the apple. That is the legend. Whether it be true or false, all boys will agree that the little victim could not have escaped by complaining to the monitor. No. Death before dishonour. But the side not so seamy of this picture of school life is the extraordinary power of honour among boys. Of course the laws of the secret society might well terrify a puerile informer. But the sentiment of honour is even more strong than fear, and will probably outlast the very disagreeable circumstances in which it was developed.

People say bullying is not what it used to be. The much abused monitorial system has this in it of good, that it enables a clever and kindly boy who is high up in the school to stop the cruelties (if he hears of them) of a much bigger boy who is low in the school. But he seldom hears of them. Habitual bullies are very cunning, and I am acquainted with instances in which they carry their victims off to lonely torture cells (so to speak) and deserted places fit for the sport. Some years ago a small boy, after a long course of rope’s-ending in out-of-the-way dens, revealed the abominations of some naval cadets. There was not much sympathy with him in the public mind, and perhaps his case was not well managed. But it was made clear that whereas among men an unpopular person is only spoken evil of behind his back, an unpopular small boy among boys is made to suffer in a more direct and very unpleasant way.

Most of us leave school with the impression that there was a good deal of bullying when we were little, but that the institution has died out. The truth is that we have grown too big to be bullied, and too good-natured to bully ourselves. When I left school, I thought bullying was an extinct art, like encaustic painting (before it was rediscovered by Sir William Richmond). But a distinguished writer, who was a small boy when I was a big one, has since revealed to me the most abominable cruelties which were being practised at the very moment when I supposed bullying to have had its day and ceased to be. Now, the small boy need only have mentioned the circumstances to any one of a score of big boys, and the tormentor would have been first thrashed, and then, probably, expelled.

A friend of my own was travelling lately in a wild and hilly region on the other side of the world, let us say in the Mountains of the Moon. In a mountain tavern he had thrust upon him the society of the cook, a very useless young man, who astonished him by references to one of our universities, and to the enjoyments of that seat of learning. This youth (who was made cook, and a very bad cook too, because he could do nothing else) had been expelled from a large English school. And he was expelled because he had felled a bully with a paving-stone, and had expressed his readiness to do it again. Now, there was no doubt that this cook in the mountain inn was a very unserviceable young fellow. But I wish more boys who have suffered things literally unspeakable from bullies would try whether force (in the form of a paving stone) is really no remedy.

The Catholic author of a recent book (“Schools,” by Lieut.-Col. Raleigh Chichester), is very hard on “Protestant Schools,” and thinks that the Catholic system of constant watching is a remedy for bullying and other evils. “Swing-doors with their upper half glazed, might have their uses,” he says, and he does not see why a boy should not be permitted to complain, if he is roasted, like Tom Brown, before a large fire. The boys at one Catholic school described by Colonel Raleigh Chichester, “are never without surveillance of some sort.” This is true of most French schools, and any one who wishes to understand the consequences (there) may read the published confessions of a pion — an usher, or “spy.” A more degraded and degrading life than that of the wretched pion, it is impossible to imagine. In an English private school, the system of espionnage and tale bearing, when it exists, is probably not unlike what Mr. Anstey describes in Vice Versa. But in the Catholic schools spoken of by Colonel Raleigh Chichester, the surveillance may be, as he says, “that of a parent; an aid to the boys in their games rather than a check.” The religious question as between Catholics and Protestants has no essential connection with the subject. A Protestant school might, and Grimstone’s did, have tale-bearers; possibly a Catholic school might exist without parental surveillance. That system is called by its foes a “police,” by its friends a “paternal” system. But fathers don’t exercise the “paternal” system themselves in this country, and we may take it for granted that, while English society and religion are as they are, surveillance at our large schools will be impossible. If any one regrets this, let him read the descriptions of French schools and schooldays, in Balzac’s Louis Lambert, in the “Memoirs” of M. Maxime du Camp, in any book where a Frenchman speaks his mind about his youth. He will find spying (of course) among the ushers, contempt and hatred on the side of the boys, unwholesome and cruel punishments, a total lack of healthy exercise; and he will hear of holidays spent in premature excursions into forbidden and shady quarters of the town.

No doubt the best security against bullying is in constant occupation. There can hardly (in spite of Master George Osborne’s experience in “Vanity Fair”) be much bullying in an open cricket-field. Big boys, too, with good hearts, should not only stop bullying when they come across it, but make it their business to find out where it exists. Exist it will, more or less, despite all precautions, while boys are boys — that is, are passing through a modified form of the savage state.

There is a curious fact in the boyish character which seems, at first sight, to make good the opinion that private education, at home, is the true method. Before they go out into school life, many little fellows of nine, or so, are extremely original, imaginative, and almost poetical. They are fond of books, fond of nature, and, if you can win their confidence, will tell you all sorts of pretty thoughts and fancies which lie about them in their infancy. I have known a little boy who liked to lie on the grass and to people the alleys and glades of that miniature forest with fairies and dwarfs, whom he seemed actually to see in a kind of vision. But he went to school, he instantly won the hundred yards race for boys under twelve, and he came back a young barbarian, interested in “the theory of touch” (at football), curious in the art of bowling, and no more capable than you or I of seeing fairies in a green meadow. He was caught up into the air of the boy’s world, and his imagination was in abeyance for a season.

This is a common enough thing, and rather a melancholy spectacle to behold. One is tempted to believe that school causes the loss of a good deal of genius, and that the small boys who leave home poets, and come back barbarians, have been wasted. But, on the other hand, if they had been kept at home and encouraged, the chances are that they would have blossomed into infant phenomena and nothing better. The awful infancy of Mr. John Stuart Mill is a standing warning. Mr. Mill would probably have been a much happier and wiser man if he had not been a precocious linguist, economist, and philosopher, but had passed through a healthy stage of indifference to learning and speculation at a public school. Look again, at the childhood of Bishop Thirlwall. His Primitiae were published (by Samuel Tipper, London, 1808), when young Connop was but eleven years of age. His indiscreet father “launched this slender bark,” as he says, and it sailed through three editions between 1808 and 1809. Young Thirlwall was taught Latin at three years of age, “and at four read Greek with an ease and fluency which astonished all who heard him.” At seven he composed an essay, “On the Uncertainty of Human Life,” but “his taste for poetry was not discovered till a later period.” His sermons, some forty, occupy most of the little volume in which these Primitiae were collected.

He was especially concerned about Sabbath desecration. “I confess,” observes this sage of ten, “when I look upon the present and past state of our public morals, and when I contrast our present luxury, dissipation, and depravity, with past frugality and virtue, I feel not merely a sensation of regret, but also of terror, for the result of the change.” “The late Revolution in France,” he adds, “has afforded us a remarkable lesson how necessary religion is to a State, and that from a deficiency on that head arise the chief evils which can befall society.” He then bids us “remember that the Nebuchadnezzar who may destroy our Israel is near at hand,” though it might be difficult to show how Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Israel.

As to the uncertainty of life, he remarks that “Edward VI. died in his minority, and disappointed his subjects, to whom he had promised a happy reign.” Of this infant’s thirty-nine sermons (just as many as the Articles), it may be said that they are in no way inferior to other examples of this class of literature. But sermons are among the least “scarce” and “rare” of human essays, and many parents would rather see their boy patiently acquiring the art of wicket-keeping at school than moralising on the uncertainty of life at home. Some one “having presented to the young author a copy of verses on the trite and familiar subject of the Ploughboy,” he replied with an ode on “The Potboy.”

“Bliss is not always join’d to wealth,

Nor dwells beneath the gilded roof

For poverty is bliss with health,

Of that my potboy stands a proof.”

The volume ends with this determination,

“Still shall I seek Apollo’s shelt’ring ray,

To cheer my spirits and inspire my lay.”

If any parent or guardian desires any further information about Les Enfans devenus celebres par leurs ecrits, he will find it in a work of that name, published in Paris in 1688. The learned Scioppius published works at sixteen, “which deserved” (and perhaps obtained) “the admiration of dotards.” M. Du Maurier asserts that, at the age of fifteen, Grotius pleaded causes at the Bar. At eleven Meursius made orations and harangues which were much admired. At fifteen, Alexandre le Jeune wrote anacreontic verses, and (less excusably) a commentary on the Institutions of Gaius. Grevin published a tragedy and two comedies at the age of thirteen, and at fifteen Louis Stella was a professor of Greek. But no one reads Grevin now, nor Stella, nor Alexandre le Jeune, and perhaps their time might have been better occupied in being “soaring human boys” than in composing tragedies and commentaries. Monsieur le Duc de Maine published, in 1678, his OEuvres d’un Auteur de Sept Ans, a royal example to be avoided by all boys. These and several score of other examples may perhaps reconcile us to the spectacle of puerile genius fading away in the existence of the common British schoolboy, who is nothing of a poet, and still less of a jurisconsult.

The British authors who understand boys best are not those who have written books exclusively about boys. There is Canon Farrar, for example, whose romances of boyish life appear to be very popular, but whose boys, somehow, are not real boys. They are too good when they are good, and when they are bad, they are not perhaps too bad (that is impossible), but they are bad in the wrong way. They are bad with a mannish and conscious vice, whereas even bad boys seem to sin less consciously and after a ferocious fashion of their own. Of the boys in “Tom Brown” it is difficult to speak, because the Rugby boy under Arnold seems to have been of a peculiar species. A contemporary pupil was asked, when an undergraduate, what he conceived to be the peculiar characteristic of Rugby boys. He said, after mature reflection, that “the differentia of the Rugby boy was his moral thoughtfulness.” Now the characteristic of the ordinary boy is his want of what is called moral thoughtfulness.

He lives in simple obedience to school traditions. These may compel him, at one school, to speak in a peculiar language, and to persecute and beat all boys who are slow at learning this language. At another school he may regard dislike of the manly game of football as the sin with which “heaven heads the count of crimes.” On the whole this notion seems a useful protest against the prematurely artistic beings who fill their studies with photographs of Greek fragments, vases, etchings by the newest etcher, bits of China, Oriental rugs, and very curious old brass candlesticks. The “challenge cup” soon passes away from the keeping of any house in a public school where Bunthorne is a popular and imitated character. But when we reach aesthetic boys, we pass out of the savage stage into hobbledehoyhood. The bigger boys at public schools are often terribly “advanced,” and when they are not at work or play, they are vexing themselves with the riddle of the earth, evolution, agnosticism, and all that kind of thing. Latin verses may not be what conservatives fondly deem them, and even cricket may, it is said, become too absorbing a pursuit, but either or both are better than precocious freethinking and sacrifice on the altar of the Beautiful.

A big boy who is tackling Haeckel or composing virelais in playtime is doing himself no good, and is worse than useless to the society of which he is a member. The small boys, who are the most ardent of hero-worshippers, either despise him or they allow him to address them in chansons royaux, and respond with trebles in triolets. At present a great many boys leave school, pass three years or four at the universities, and go back as masters to the place where some of their old schoolfellows are still pupils. It is through these very young masters, perhaps, that “advanced” speculations and tastes get into schools, where, however excellent in themselves, they are rather out of place. Indeed, the very young master, though usually earnest in his work, must be a sage indeed if he can avoid talking to the elder boys about the problems that interest him, and so forcing their minds into precocious attitudes. The advantage of Eton boys used to be, perhaps is still, that they came up to college absolutely destitute of “ideas,” and guiltless of reading anything more modern than Virgil. Thus their intellects were quite fallow, and they made astonishing progress when they bent their fresh and unwearied minds to study. But too many boys now leave school with settled opinions derived from the very latest thing out, from the newest German pessimist or American socialist. It may, however, be argued that ideas of these sorts are like measles, and that it is better to take them early and be done with them for ever.

While schools are reformed and Latin grammars of the utmost ingenuity and difficulty are published, boys on the whole change very little. They remain the beings whom Thackeray understood better than any other writer: Thackeray, who liked boys so much and was so little blind to their defects. I think he exaggerates their habit of lying to masters, or, if they lied in his day, their character has altered in that respect, and they are more truthful than many men find it expedient to be. And they have given up fighting; the old battles between Berry and Biggs, or Dobbin and Cuff (major) are things of the glorious past. Big boys don’t fight, and there is a whisper that little boys kick each other’s shins when in wrath. That practice can hardly be called an improvement, even if we do not care for fisticuffs. Perhaps the gloves are the best peacemakers at school. When all the boys, by practice in boxing, know pretty well whom they can in a friendly way lick, they are less tempted to more crucial experiments “without the gloves.”

But even the ascertainment of one’s relative merits with the gloves hurts a good deal, and one may thank heaven that the fountain of youth (as described by Pontus de Tyarde) is not a common beverage. By drinking this liquid, says the old Frenchman, one is insensibly brought back from old to middle age, and to youth and boyhood. But one would prefer to stop drinking of the fountain before actually being reduced to boy’s estate, and passing once more through the tumultuous experiences of that period. And of these, not having enough to eat is by no means the least common. The evidence as to execrable dinners is rather dispiriting, and one may end by saying that if there is a worse fellow than a bully, it is a master who does not see that his boys are supplied with plenty of wholesome food. He, at least, could not venture, like a distinguished headmaster, to preach and publish sermons on “Boys’ Life: its Fulness.” A schoolmaster who has boarders is a hotel-keeper, and thereby makes his income, but he need not keep a hotel which would be dispraised in guide books. Dinners are a branch of school economy which should not be left to the wives of schoolmasters. They have never been boys.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 22:03