It is with the life of that generation and not withgossip about this or that member of it that I am concerned.A new and inexcusable terror is added to socialintercourse when the confidence, the indiscretion or themalice of a dinner-table is industriously recorded andpublished; and it is still believed by some who weretrained in a tradition of reticence that intimate portraitsand studies should be withheld so long as the originalsor their friends can be offended or hurt by unsoughtpublicity. While a man of even thirty-three, spendingmost of his life in London, may have met more than afew of the statesmen and financiers, the sailors and soldiers,the artists, authors and actors who have now chiefplace in the interest of their countrymen, I feel thatit would be impudent for him publicly to scatter hisunsolicited opinion on those whom he has been invited[xi]to meet privately. This book will therefore be free fromwhat has been called an "index of improper names."
Few men can speak with knowledge of more thanone school, but there is little risk in the assertion thatthe natural history of the public-schoolboy is broadlythe same at all times and places. Withdrawn at anearly age from the dry-nursing of his natural guardians,he is flung into a vast adolescent society and left tostruggle through as best he may: his parents commonlyescape the embarrassment of explaining to him theelements of physiology, preferring that he should learnthem from the gloating confidences of other boys hardlyless ignorant than himself. Native chastity of soulkeeps some unsmirched, but most go through an uglyperiod of foul tongues, foul minds and sometimes foulpropensities which the school seeks to circumvent byvigilance and hard physical discipline. During the middlephase, this blind, misunderstood groping towardsmaturity comes to be gradually controlled; and, in thelast, the adult boy is seen as a clean-living, clean-speaking,rather solemn blend of scholar, sportsman and despot,very conscious of his responsibilities and zealous torepress the primitive exuberance by which he himselfwas afflicted two or three years earlier.
The changing and strengthening aspirations of a boyhave won as little space in all the crop of analyticalschool literature as have the vagaries of his religiousfaith or the evolution of his civic morals. The Victorians,indeed, in strict accordance with formula, loadedtheir hero with vague disquiet which was only relievedwhen he recalled that he had ceased to receive the sacraments;a later generation arrested him in full flight toperdition by intervening opportunely with a soul-steadyingpreparation for confirmation; the Catholicpropagandists habitually threw a sympathetic priestacross his path in the course of a holiday ramble; and,if there be a school literature of dissent, I doubt not butthat some harassed hero found peace in the practice ofCongregationalism. It was recognised, therefore, thatthe faith of childhood is not infrequently discarded atschool; it was assumed with less justification that boysundergo spiritual distress at such a time; and, as thehero of a novel is not expected to suffer as long or asacutely as any one in life, one or other of the conventionalescapes could always be chosen. It is hard to remembera book in which the hero sheds his belief in super-naturalreligion as lightheartedly as once he outgrew hisfaith in Santa Claus; and, even if it be assumed fromprivate knowledge and experience that many schoolboyheroes have passed through this spiritual transformation,it is harder to recall even one who has been describedas constructing a new system to take the placeof that which has been overthrown.
The sceptics of the last Victorian decade left schoolas agnostics; of their number, the more reflective setthemselves to fill the vacuum. As a boy, with a prospectof life too long to measure, has an equal distastefor the sentimentality of heaven and for the melodramaof hell, he probably concerned himself little with thecondition that he could only attain eternal life by believingin the divinity of Christ. Scepticism may haveforced him to doubt whether eternity was intelligibleand to be certain that it was undesirable; but his knowledgeof history and his taste for speculative enquirysuggested that eternity in another existence might beless important than the conditions on which his presentexistence was carried on: the ethics of Christianity weremore valuable, in his eyes, than its dogma.
Only in the dignified atmosphere of the Debating Society,when a general election had sent hundreds of radicalsto Parliament and proved that radicals existed, inhundreds of thousands, outside it, did radical policy geta hearing. Political interest revived sharply in 1905and 1906: more than ever did the rising politicians usetheir privilege of attending debates in the House ofCommons. It has been said that politics are made tolerablein England by the fact that hardly any one takesthem seriously except the politicians, who are for themost part not English; but they are dangerous foodfor the young in the expectations that they arouse andin the disillusionment that they entail. After nearlytwenty years of tory rule, the liberals in 1905 werehealed of their long domestic dissensions and assured ofa majority; the ministry so judiciously chosen by SirHenry Campbell-Bannerman was overwhelming in itsvaried strength; with the pacification of South Africaand the repatriation of the indentured Chinese labourers,the dark infamy of the Boer war and of acalamitous plunge into Rand politics were to be forgotten;social reform was sketched with a bold hand; amessage of peace and good-will was sent to the otherpowers.
In all political relations an Irishman interprets patriotismto mean his love for Ireland; in all relations withthe British Government Ireland is offered, a year toolate, what she would have accepted thankfully a yearearlier. When English political parties are vying withone another to press upon Ireland a remedy for whichthe time has passed, it is hard to recall the days whencoercion bill trod on the heels of coercion bill and"twenty years of resolute government" was proposed asthe blunt, common-sense method of curing a nation thataspired to independence: Ireland turbulent, it was said,was unfit for self-government, Ireland at peace nolonger wanted it. In two hundred and fifty years Englandhad tried every expedient, from the Cromwellianmassacres to the Wyndham land act, with the exceptionof just that political autonomy which she blessed sofervently when it was won by Greece and Italy, Bulgaria,Servia and Roumania. Still the Irish dreamedof a national destiny, still the imperial genius of theEnglish bled Ireland slowly to death. More than acentury after the act of union, a conservative ministrydiscovered that perhaps the Irish really desired to controltheir own fate; and the twenty years of resolutegovernment ended in an abortive scheme of devolution.It is true that Mr. Wyndham, a great scholar, a greatergentleman and one of the greatest friends that Irelandever had, was denounced, betrayed and left to die heartbroken;his work lived after him; and, when the Liberalparty returned to power in 1906, it was agreed, thoughnot admitted, by all that some concession must be madeto the Irish demand for home rule; all in turn now prescribemilk, when brandy is required, and brandy, whenoxygen alone will save the patient's life.
Perhaps by reason of its size, the House escaped ordefied any effort to impose a uniform spirit or code.Its members were indeed united in such practises asdressing for the theatre and in such conventions as ageneral disinclination for the society of other colleges;but this was largely because they were numerous enoughto provide every one with the friends, the clubs and theinterests that he required without seeking them abroad.Rival foundations charged them with superiority andsectionalism; but, if they had ever made a claim forthemselves, it would only have been that they allowedtheir neighbours to live unmolested. There was no Sunday-evening"After," at which the whole college met;no concert; no "Freshmen's Wine." All were left freeto choose their friends and to pass their time as theyliked, provided that they did not offend against publictaste or make a nuisance of themselves to their neighbours.
The emancipation in being allowed to choose friendsand amusements is hardly greater than the latitude inarranging the work of three or four years. A mathematicalscholar is, indeed, not expected to read the ModernLanguage School; but for the commoner there isalmost unlimited range of optional subjects to take andvaried lectures to attend. Here is a further step inemancipation and responsibility: when a man has satisfiedthe bare minimum demanded by authority, he mustwork out his own salvation; there is a point at which,if he will not read for himself, it is not worth any one'swhile to compel him. Many of those who kept a politicalgoal ahead of them elected to study Modern History,for which it may be asserted that in scope andvariety, in the volume of reading, the mental disciplineand the practical benefit of knowledge and perspectiveit excels even the final school of Literæ Humanioreswhich has been for so long the peculiar glory of Oxford.Touching the ancient world at one end and modernpolitics at the other, interlaced with geography, economics,political science, law and modern languages, itdoes indeed exclude natural science and Asiatic languages,but it excludes little else.
So little sense of superiority clouds the brain of mostOxford men that they are humbly grateful, their wholelife through, for their good fortune in spending threehappy years, howsoever little distinguished, in the mostbeautiful of all kingdoms of youth. No city in the worldhas been so decreed, constructed, endowed and orderedfor the benefit and enjoyment of the boys who therereach a privileged manhood. The university returns itsown members to parliament and preserves order amongthe undergraduates by means of the proctors and theirsatellites; the vice-chancellor's court stands betweendebtor and creditor; and a member of the corps diplomatiquein a foreign capital is hardly more "extra-territorial"than the undergraduate at Oxford. This ispartly the law and partly the custom of the constitution;but to the visitor it is less impressive than that the entireeconomic and social dispensation should have for objectthe comfort and happiness of three thousand men betweenthe ages of eighteen and twenty-two. The colleges,their gardens and pleasances; the river and itsbarges; the theatre and clubs; the shops and streets; allhave been designed on the presumption that Oxford containsno women and that the men are of an age that neverchanges. In their midst there are, indeed, "townees,"but even the shops at which they buy their meat are notsuffered to desecrate the beauty of the High; there arestraggling acres of houses in North Oxford, but theyexist in the undergraduate scheme as unwelcome destinationsfor a duty call on Sunday afternoons in winter;the undergraduate horizon is bounded by Christ ChurchMeadows and the Broad, by Magdalen Bridge and Carfax;their world consists of those who live within theselimits. 2b1af7f3a8