Memories of Bygone Eton

Memories of Bygone Eton

MEMORIES OF BYGONE ETON. By Henry S. Salt. (Hutchinson)
ETON AND ELSEWHERE. By M. D. Hill. (Murrey)

Some men are born rebels. To put it, perhaps, more correctly, some persons experience such repressions in very early childhood that in later life their reactions are against all authority. Whether they are judged to be enlightened spirits, fighting against ignorance and corruption and convention, or iconoclasts, striking at all that is sacred and hallowed by human experience, depends on the circumstances of each case—and, perhaps, on the prejudices of the judge. Most people will agree, however, that in the oral or written expression of himself your good rebel rarely avoids a certain bitterness.

Now Mr. Salt may, without offence, be ascribed to the ranks of rebels, and Mr. Hill admits to loving a fight for fighting sake. But in their criticisms of the faults of their school there is very much love and very little bitterness. Mr. Salt, who speaks of an Eton which has long since passed away and of queer customs and personalities which mean nothing to present Etonians, has naturally more to criticize. His book contains much which has already appeared elsewhere in magazines and newspapers and also in his earlier book, “Seventy Years among Savages,” It is notable that a great deal of the bitterness of the true rebel, which spiced his incidental comments on Eton in a book devoted mainly to the glorification of rebellion, drops out when he writes with his thoughts wholly on the school which he loves. It is true that he cannot avoid some of his old obsessions. He trots out again the story that, at some period before 1864, the Eton Beagles hunted a fox with three pads. But he does not say again that beagling is a “miserable practice” or repeat that “Eton had always been a home of cruel sports.” He takes the much more sensible ground for attack that, with buildings and allotments, wire, railways, and motor traffic beagling near Eton does not give the hare a fair chance. The true defence of beagling was that it took one into the open country instead of a stuffy fives-court, even if (at a much later time than Mr. Salt’s) one could get a court to play in. To those who had no such chances and no aptitude for games it was a joy to get away from the street, to be under the wide sky on Dorney Common, or to see the woods of Ditton in the distance, even if, very occasionally indeed, a hare was broken up. Let Mr. Salt bide his time. When villas fill all the space between London and Maidenhead there will be no beagling because there will no hares.

Mr Salt, like so many of his generation, being “anti” one belief or institution, became “anti” everything: hunting, fishing, shooting, meat eating, vivisection, organized religion, patriotism, Latin verses, top-hats, alcohol—all are explicitly or implicitly condemned. Some of these are likely to survive—nowadays to label a man a “Tory” is not enough to damn him, as Mr. Salt disposes of Dr. Warre. But some of his attacks have had more success, for instance, on top-hats and Latin verses. And here is Mr. Hill also rebelling against them, but in rather a different spirit. No longer purely destructive, the later generation does not think itself bound, because it objects to one thing imposed by authority, to declare war on all authority and all convention. Mr. Hill, for instance, is not driven by vegetarianism because he finds the school eating too much; he does not proclaim himself a free-thinker because the chapel services are dull—he suggests improvements. He notes the growth of kindliness and toleration among the boys (in spite of the persistence of “blood-sports”) and does not feel that he can foster that growth by laying rod and gun aside. He realize that nature is beautiful even when bloodstained—witness the description of the osprey, observed when he was fishing in Scotland:—“Suddenly he swooped and rose up again with a sea-trout in his claws . . . What greater joy could a man have than to see this thing? “ Mr. Salt would have founded an Anti-Osprey League on the spot.*

All the same, Mr. Hill he feels strongly (as about unhygienic clothes) can hit out strongly from the shoulder. But he can appreciate the other point of view—he can even see the arguments for the top-hat—and he feels bound to produce alternatives to take the place of what he wants to see abolished. He suggests a compromise in the matter of clothes: the boys should wear flannels and loose collars on week-days and the present Eton dress on Sundays. Surely this has all the faults of compromise. It would emphasize the full dress as exceptional and exotic, and it would impose on the parents a large extra expense to provide a uniform which would be rarely used. If the change is to come there need be no half measures.

Both Mr. Salt and Mr. Hill attack the tutorial system, including the deadening effect of “pupil-room.” Much has been done to widen the curriculum since Mr. Salt’s day, but Mr. Hill complains that, in spite of all the new subjects, the “intellectual élite” of the school “is still preponderatingly classical.” He admits, however, that of 250 “specialists” in the school in January, 1928, 106 took history, 55 classics, 46 science, 42 modern languages and 11 mathematics. Surely such figures show a reasonable latitude to the diverse taste of boys? Surely the tyranny of Latin verses, of which Mr. Salt complains, is overpast? If the majority of the “intellectual élite” still take classics, may not those who believe in a classical education hope that their ideal is being attained, that the classics are no longer forced, as a rigid system on all, whether fit or not, but that the best brains seek, and seek voluntarily, Rome or Greece?

The battle of the Ancients and the Moderns is perpetual. But the outsider, reading these two books on Eton, would say that the problem of reconciling the adversaries is in a fair way to be solved. He will note how many of the abuses described by Mr. Salt have passed away: how Eton thought and life have broadened, how manners are softened, but among masters and boys; he will realize how much of the change is due to the influence on thought generally of such original minds as Mr. Salt’s and Mr. Hill’s. But he will wonder how a school reputed to be the home of convention could produce two such unconventional types. And, if he is on the side of Ancients, he will claim that, in their case at any rate, a classical education did not deaden originality.

*Salt addressed this sophism some forty years before this 'review' in Animals' Rights: Considered in Relation to Social Progress – website editor

Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 1928, p. 820