Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence

Jenny Holt. Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence. London: Ashgate, 2008. ISBN 9780745656623.

Reviewer: David Beagley

The influence of Harry Potter is enormous.  Any doubts that he is not just a passing fashion but a tangible agent for real social change can be swept away by a couple of lines from the US based Boarding Schools Directory’s website:

After the first Harry books appeared on the scene in 1997, there was a surge in boarding school enrollments. Suddenly, children wanted to move into their own Hogswarts and find friends like Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley. It marked the end of a ten-year decline in enrollments. The British actually had to build more boarding schools and expand existing ones.

"I think it was the Harry Potter effect," said Nick Ward, chairman of the Boarding School Association of Great Britain and headmaster of the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook, Suffolk. "I think it takes more than a young boy being a wizard to make up someone's mind, but one thing the books have done is promote to children the idea that boarding schools can be exciting places."

Since Tom Brown’s Schooldays in 1857, the ethos of the British boarding school (or, more accurately the British Public School – an ironic name for a system based on exclusion, hierarchy and subjugation) has provided the framework for a highly defined and consistent genre of stories.  Billy Bunter’s Greyfriars, Abbey School, Chalet School, Malory Towers, and now Hogwarts, have all been exciting places, seeing crimes solved, games won, heroes triumphant, bullies defeated and, most importantly and emphatically, values maintained.

The role of these stories during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as creators of a popular view of the schoolboy, the adolescent and even the nature of education, argues Jenny Holt, was far out of proportion to the actual number or place of the schools in society.  Yet, as Harry Potter shows, the image of the gentleman schoolboy overcoming the odds to win for the benefit of all is still a potent construction.

Holt positions these stories in the wider context of the definition of Adolescence as a distinct stage in the social evolution of the child into the functioning adult.  By presenting, in the stories, the school as a microcosm of Victorian Britain, “a miniature world ruled (at least in part) by boyhood statesmen” (p. 2) clear, though problematic, civic values could be transmitted and the experiences that were supposed to prepare boys for their destined roles in society could be displayed.

While the stories focused almost entirely on the offspring and manners of an already established elite, their audience was far wider.  Yet the glamour of the imagined lives of the Lower Fourth and the Fifth Form and the Prefects’ Common Room not only appealed to readers across the British classes but set in place perceptions that drove sociological and legislative structures around general schooling for decades.  Holt notes that the British Board of Education recommended in its 1910-11 report that every elementary school library should have a copy of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, following C.M. Yonge’s 1887 advice that “though the sphere is so different from that of the elementary school-boy, his tone may be raised by it.”

Such historical sources and references are well used throughout this study and provide a strong basis for the discussion.  An extensive bibliography is listed, though principally of historical and sociological works.  The texts on literature tend to be more descriptive of an element’s place in the period than of its role as an agent of change.  For instance, Dennis Butts (on the social context of literature) is not mentioned, but Paul Rich (on the strength of boys’/men’s groups – school, club, Masonic lodge) is.

Thus, this study’s consideration of the school stories is more in terms of their conceptualising of codes of citizenship and behaviour, than their aesthetics or their literary construction of personal identity.  Holt emphasizes that this was not just an age of British Imperial expansion but also of the growth of radical movements like Social Darwinism, Marxism and Fabian Socialism, the Suffragette movement, and even fin-de-siecle Nihilism.  The influence of such ‘ways of looking’ is her principal focus, from the early Evangelical influences on educationists such as Thomas Arnold through the physicality (and links to sexuality) of Herbert Spencer, to the colonial soldiering ethos of Kipling.  The social engineering function of both schooling and adolescence (and thus the stories as participants) is traced from “an active paradigm, based on the idea that the individual adolescent was training to fight for his political beliefs in the real world, to a passive model, where duty and obedience were the priorities.” (p. 234)

Harry Potter is well outside the scope of this study, but much of the ethos of the Victorian boarding school remains at Hogwarts.  One can almost hear Sir Henry Newbolt’s lines from Vitae Lampada “But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks -/"Play up! Play up! And play the game!" as Neville leads the charge at the end of Deathly Hallows.  Harry might be allowed to be an individual but the rest of the students still follow the Sorting Hat’s plea to unite as a school to Fight the Good Fight.  St Trinian’s was probably more of a challenge to that Victorian ethos than Hogwarts!

Holt’s study is primarily of sociological and educational thinking, and really only uses the school stories as exemplars.  Still, in literary terms, it reinforces the power of story to affect society, though not always for the best.  It is an important addition to the literature of this genre.


David Beagley

Volume 13, Issue 3, The Looking Glass,September/October, 2009

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"Review: Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence"
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