Book review by George S: This is a book about what happens in a celebrated public school, very set in its ways, when a new headmaster arrives, intent on reform. It is very much a book about teachers – the students only have minor walk-on parts.
G.F. Bradby (1863–1947) was the son of the headmaster of Haileybury College; he was educated at Rugby School , and after obtaining a first at Oxford, retrned to Rugby as a teacher and stayed there until his retirement in 1920. He had plenty of time there to observe the staffroom politics, which are the subject of this novel.
Chiltern School is an ancient foundation, which had been transformed into a leading public school by the great reformer Dr Lanchester in the eighteenth century. It now has the strongest of social reputations, though its academic standards, we gather, are not particularly high. The new reforming head, Mr Flaggon, is appointed almost by accident. The governors are considering three candidates, two of whom have the backing of powerful factions. There is an impasse between the supporters of these two, so Flaggon is chosen as a compromise who will offend nobody. In the event, however, many of the senior teachers, are only too willing to be offended. They have had it easy under the rule of Mr Gussy, a learned and rather other-worldly man who was easy to manipulate. The new broom creates friction.
What I enjoyed in this book was its depiction of staffroom types – the self-confident tyrant who assumes that he is always right, the cynic, the well-meaning, the defensive. Nearly half a century ago I taught in two schools just as they were being converted to being comprehensives under new heads, while many old-timers resisted any changes. The backbiting, the obstruction and the defence of consolidated positions described in this book all ring true, as do the staff meetings where entrenched positions are taken up, innovations are deplored and compromise seems impossible.
Bradby casts an ironic eye over various factors in school life – the teachers, the governors, the teachers’ wives, and the parents. There is a very funny chapter where the new head consults a representative gathering of parents about what they want from their children’s education, and receives a wonderful collection of absurd answers. The choicest comes from Ladt Bellingham, who explains at length that ‘Nature is always beautiful,’ and that ‘nursed on the great bosom of nature, beautiful children will grow up into beautiful men and women.’
The arch obstacle to Mr Flaggon’s success is the senior housemaster, Mr Chowdler, a combative man who is used to having his own way. For years his booming voice had easily intimidated Dr Gussy. This description of Chowdler gives an idea of Bradby’s keen eye for human foibles:
Mr Chowdler owed his reputation for strength, not to any breadth of view or depth of sympathetic insight, but to a sublime unconsciousness of his own limitations. Narrow but concentrated, with an aggressive will and a brusque intolerance of all who differed from him, he was a fighter who loved fighting for its own sake and who triumphed through the sheer exhaustion of his enemies; a Term in which he did not engage in at least one mortal combat was to him a blank Term.
I especially like the description of Chowdler on the touchline when his house is playing football, ‘with a flushed face and protruding eyes, shouting in a voice that dominated all others’ instructions to his team which they ignore, because he has never quite grasped the rules of Chiltern’s idiosyncratic football, which is different from the game played at other schools.
For Mr Chowdler, ‘the Lanchester tradition’ means keeping things exactly as they are and avoiding any innovation. The new head discovers that this attitude had led to complacency and worse. He discovers that evil things are happening in some of the boarding houses – presumably a euphemism for homosexuality, though this is never explicitly named. When this leads to his expulsion of boys from Chowdler’s house, the final conflict is sparked, and it resolved only by a governors’ meeting as absurd as the one that elected the new head in the first place.
Bradby wrote three other novels. I have read two and enjoyed them greatly, but this is the best. I think that anyone who has spent time in a school staffroom will enjoy it.