three pairs of lovers with space

A LITTLE LEARNING BY EVELYN WAUGH

 

Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh (1903-66) was a prolific English writer who wrote several highly-acclaimed novels. A Little Learning (London, 1964) was intended as the first volume of his autobiography, but was the only one published.  Presented here is everything in it touching on Greek love.

 

Chapter Four. Education Begun

Describing his time as a day boy at a school in Hampstead, Middlesex called Heath Mount, which he attended aged nearly seven to thirteen from September 1910 to April 1917:

Evelyn Waugh as a schoolboy, 1913

Assistant masters came and went. By no means all of them had university degrees. Some liked little boys too little and some too much. According to their tastes they mildly mauled us in the English scholastic way, fondling us in a manner just short of indecency, smacking us and pulling our hair in a manner well short of cruelty.

Describing his friends at Heath Mount:

There was another boy, a particular friend of mine, who came early to grief, falling to his death in a Paris street from the window of a notorious pederast and drug-taker.[1]

On his elder brother Alec Waugh, attending public school at Sherborne:

My brother, as he has graphically described in his autobiography[2], got into a number of scrapes at school which culminated in his expulsion.[3] This I never knew until I came to read his account of them. My father was anything but secretive; Alec’s misdemeanours must have been constantly in his thoughts. He never mentioned them in my presence. When from time to time I heard echoes of scandal, I indignantly repudiated them.

Explaining why the old plan for Evelyn to follow his older brother to Sherborne had suddenly to be abandoned in the spring of 1917:

Alec Waugh (2nd left in the middle row) and the School House Thirds, Sherborne, 1914

Both my father and my brother have written accounts of the sensation and bitterness aroused by the publication of The Loom of Youth, my brother’s first novel, an undisguisedly autobiographical work describing his schooldays with a realism that was then unusual.[4] There were controversies in some papers and for my father many broken friendships. Its effect on me was that Sherborne was now barred to me. As soon as the book was accepted by its publisher, before it appeared, a new school had to be found for me in a hurry.

On his first day at his new school Lancing, 9 May 1917, when he was 13, Mr. Grenfell having been the headmaster of his prep school:

All ignored my existence. I had been given some highly mysterious hints on leaving Mr Grenfell of the danger of too friendly approaches from older boys. The warning seemed singularly inappropriate to my condition.

On the summer holidays of 1917:

Moreover, my father was agitated by alternations of distress and exultation at the reception of the Loom of Youth and deeply hurt by the alienation of many old Sherborne friendships.

On his second term at Lancing, late 1917:

There was an exceptionally large incursion of new boys among whom later I made many friends, but for their first two terms inflexible convention forbade all intercourse with them.[5]

 

Chapter Five. Education Concluded

On his last two terms at Lancing, when he was a house captain:

Apart from general malevolence and particular cruelty, we were not vicious. Public opinion was against sex, which was spoken of as ‘filth’. It was the subject of endless, tedious jokes but not of boasting. Whatever indulgences there may have been were kept private. Many senior boys, on the other hand, were infatuated with one or other of their juniors and played a restoration comedy of assignations, secret correspondence and complacent chaperones. I was susceptible to the prettiness of some fifteen-year-olds, but never fell victim to the grand passions which inflamed and tortured most of my friends (to whom I acted as astringent confidant).

On his father being sickeningly shocked to hear he had been “escaping from the House and going down to the sea-shore at night” during the summer term of 1921:

I wondered at the time how anyone at Sherborne could have walked to the seaside and supposed the temptations of a town different from those of the downs and the shingle. I thought my father was making a great ado about nothing. As I have mentioned above, it had been kept from me that my brother had been expelled from school. I did not know the circumstances until he published his autobiography forty years later. My father, I now realise, was in fear that I should repeat his history.

 

Chapter Seven. Two Mentors

On his two mentors at Lancing, the effeminate Francis Crease, who nurtured his love of calligraphy, and the young housemaster John Fergusson Roxburgh.

A December 1922 photo of J.F. Roxburgh, about to become the first headmaster of Stowe (1923-46)

J.F. did not at all approve of Mr Crease. I was present when they met in my House-tutor’s room when he said: ‘The Sage of Lychpole, I presume’ with apparent geniality, but he would not allow boys in his House to go to Mr Crease’s. Mr Crease, as I have said, was effeminate in appearance and manner; J.F. was markedly virile, but it was he who was the homosexual. Most good schoolmasters - and, I suppose, schoolmistresses also – are homosexual by inclination - how else could they endure their work? – but their interest is diffused and unacknowledged. J.F.’s passions ran deep. I do not think he ever gave them physical release with any of his pupils, but as distinct from the general, romantic pleasure of association with the young, common to the best of his colleagues, he certainly fell in love with individual boys. I was not one of them. I was small and quite pretty in a cherubic way. His tastes were more classical than rococo – ‘Greek love’ as the phrase was used by innocent scholars and clergymen before the Wilde trial - and he was then ardently attached to a golden-haired Hyacinthus. He gave this boy a motorbicycle from which he was immediately thrown and much disfigured, but J.F.’s love remained constant until the friend’s death in early middle age.

 

Chapter Nine. In Which Our Hero’s Fortunes Fall Very Low


On his return in the summer term of 1925 to teaching at Arnold House, a prep school in Flintshire (whose headmaster was Mr. Vanhomrigh), a job he was thoroughly disillusioned with:

Returning to Mr Vanhomrigh’s was as bitter as my second term at Lancing. There seemed no prospect of surprise. In this foreboding I was wrong. A very surprising man, about ten years my senior, had come to take the place of the disgruntled Scotchman as second-master; a dapper man of sunny disposition who spoke in the idiom of the army. He later provided certain features for the character, ‘Captain Grimes’, in my first novel.[6]

Grimes and Pennyfeather, ie. Young and Waugh, sketched by Waugh for Decline and Fall, 1928

Grimes, as I may now call him, was conscientious in school; at dinner he treated Mrs Vanhomrigh with a benign condescension which left her dismayed but disarmed; after dinner he came with me to the village pub and drank copiously. The other habitués of the house spoke Welsh. Grimes and I spent many evenings together. At first he was something of a mystery to me. Not only was he paid more than the rest of us; he seemed to enjoy some private means and I was puzzled why he should choose to exile himself among us. But he was a man without deceit. His weakness (or strength) was soon revealed. After a week or two a whole holiday was ordained in honour of Mr Vanhomrigh’s birthday. It was no holiday for the assistant masters. The whole school was packed into charabancs in the early morning and driven to the slopes of Snowdon, where games were played and a picnic luncheon devoured and scrupulously cleared up. Great licence was allowed; boys and masters chased one another and scuffled on the turf. At length at nightfall we returned wearily singing. When it was all over and the boys in bed we sat in the common-room deploring the miseries of the day. Grimes alone sat with the complacent smile of an Etruscan funerary effigy.

‘I confess I enjoyed myself greatly,’ he said as we groused.

We regarded him incredulously. ‘Enjoyed yourself, Grimes? What did you find to enjoy.’

‘Knox minor,’ he said with radiant simplicity. ‘I felt the games a little too boisterous, so I took Knox minor away behind some rocks. I removed his boot and stocking, opened my trousers, put his dear little foot there and experienced a most satisfying emission.’

A memorable confession which, meeting him in after life, I found he had entirely forgotten. Such episodes were not rare in his chosen career.

Soon after the school-treat I had a letter from Alec confirming my appointment in Pisa. I gave my notice to Mr Vanhomrigh who accepted it without any expression of regret.

‘I never give notice,’ said Grimes. ‘It’s always the other way about with me. In fact, old boy’ (using a lapidary phrase which I later transplanted), ‘this looks like being the first end of term I’ve seen for three schools.’

In July 1925, towards the end of the same term, following two serious setbacks to his hopes for a more exciting future:

Arnold House, Llanddulas, Flintshire

Grimes sought to enliven me with stories of his own ups and downs; experiences that might have been taken for hallucinations save for his shining candour. Every disgrace had fallen on this irrepressible man; at school, at the university, in the army, and later in his dedicated task as schoolmaster; disgraces such as, one was told, make a man change his name and fly the kingdom; scandals so dark that they remained secrets at the scenes of his crimes. Headmasters were loath to admit that they had ever harboured such a villain and passed him on silently and swiftly. Grimes always emerged serenely triumphant. The catalogue was diverting rather than consoling. I envied him his unclouded happiness but not his exploits.

Describing how, just afterwards, he contemplated drowning himself, but changed his mind:

I turned about, swam back through the track of the moon to the sands which that morning had swarmed under Grimes’s discerning eye with naked urchins.

 

[1] The boy, Dudley Brown, “was revered by the other boys for his extensive knowledge of sex. […] the adult Brown was ultimately drawn to the lowlife, which he took to ‘like a duck to a pond’ according to [their schoolfellow, Cecil] Beaton, and at the age of twenty-two he committed suicide by throwing himself from a window in the rue Jacob.” (Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, 2016).

Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s

[2] The Early Years of Alec Waugh (1962).

[3] He wasn’t quite expelled, but required to leave at the end of the term in which a long-ended liaison with another boy came to light. This was the summer term of 1915 and he was then seventeen.

[4] The Loom of Youth, published in July 1917, was most critical of the cult of athleticism at public schools, but what was considered most shocking were the sparse (but unusually open for the era) references to amorous liaisons between older and younger boys. Since Sherborne was only thinly disguised as “Fernhurst” and its characters were easily recognisable, its publication was seen as a terrible betrayal by the school and many of its old boys.

[5] These sort of arbitrary restrictions on social interaction between boys, most often between boys different ages were typically introduced by public schools in the late 19th century in order to discourage homosexuality, the fear of age-discrepant friendships arising showing how conscious the schools were that Greek love was the form of ”immorality” most likely to arise. See the section on “demarcation” in the first chapter of Alisdare Hickson’s  The Poisoned Bowl. Sex and the public school (London, 1996).

[6] Decline and Fall, published in 1928, where much more is to be learned about Grimes. He also features under his real name of Dick Young in entries in Waugh’s diaries for May 1925 to April 1926. Young responded to his depiction in Decline and Fall by portraying Waugh as an alcoholic in his own novel about Arnold House, The Preparatory School Murder (written under the pseudonym Richard MacNaughton and published in 1934), where he is called Charles Erard.