A review of Fielding Gray by Simon Raven, London, 1967
The wrong kind of schoolboy liaison *****
Set in an unnamed boys' public school in the months following Germany's surrender in May 1945, Fielding Gray appears to be highly autobiographical, as, like his eponymous protagonist, Raven was expelled from such a school (Charterhouse) for homosexual activities despite similar scholastic and cricketing prowess. He also had a understandably loathed father.
Seventeen-year-old golden schoolboy hero Fielding conceives lustful and vaguely romantic feelings for "not clever" and "not handsome" Christopher Roland, his own age, to whom any explanation of his love is impossible due to his being "of very conventional outlook and not pervious to ideas." He has hope nevertheless because convention at their school took in "the notion of the 'pash' which any boy might entertain for another, usually a younger one."
"From the age of thirteen and a half," Fielding had amused himself "with a variety of boys and without any ill effects," but his tentative pursuit of Christopher ruins their lives. Their only amorous encounter is wrecked by Christopher's premature over-excitement and such love as Fielding had felt for him evaporates with Christopher's consequent loss of innocence, leaving only a little intermittent lust. Aided by a rich assortment of fascinatingly obnoxious characters, from these small beginnings things spiral out of control until Fielding's once-assured plans for a worthwhile life are permanently wrecked.
So what really went wrong? Apart from the generous and worldly Senior Usher, Fielding is the only likeable character, his nicest friend Peter Morrison delivering the coup de grâce out of priggishness. But Fielding too is flawed, his aspirations not nearly matching his talents. It is entirely in keeping with his shallow hedonism to love unworthily, and it is this that is his undoing.
Love affairs between older and younger boys were a common occurrence at all the public schools until a generation or so ago. As Morrison says, the boys "get a lot of pleasure from one another ... it's not what two boys do together in private which does the permanent damage, but the hysterical row which goes on if they get caught," a state of affairs still very much the case today whenever there is a significant age difference, ironically so as it was the difference in age which was the source of the passion for both parties and the reason it tended to be beneficent. Typically a younger boy hero-worshipped and sought to emulate an admirable elder one (like Fielding), who responded protectively with his greater wisdom and knowledge. Such relationships could easily be equal the only way which matters for love to succeed: equality of need for one another.
But Christopher was untypically not a younger boy. His liaison with Fielding was, like the more usual pederastic affairs, unequal, but in an obstructive rather than beneficent way. The inequality between them was permanent and unbridgeable, being based on a considerable difference in intelligence. Fielding's appeal lay in the illusion he could impart his brilliance to one too stupid to benefit from it and Christopher's lay in his easily swept-away innocence, a feeble substitute for beauty and vulnerability. Had Fielding instead bestowed his love on a 14-year-old equal to himself in intelligence and good looks, he could have done some real good, and (again, provided they weren't caught) enriched their lives instead of ruining them.
Ironically, a sexual liaison between two 17-year-old boys today would hardly raise any adult eyebrows as long as it was consummated outside school grounds, whereas the more traditional affair between boys a few years apart in age would be far more harshly condemned than before. Fielding Gray thus illustrates the blinkered stupidity of our age in refusing to consider the inner dynamics of beneficent love affairs rather than their outward conformity with the most superficial indications of equality.
Mercifully no reviewer seems yet to have claimed this is a "gay" novel, but as this is inevitable should Raven's books regain the popularity they deserve, I had better make it clear it is not. Fielding is just as interested in gaining heterosexual experience and Morrison rightly assumes homosexuality for boys usually "does not become a permanent taste, because they grow up and go out into a wider world which offers richer diversions."
Fielding Gray is definitely well worth reading for Raven's invariably witty and acute observation of human frailty, but anyone hoping for a more characteristic or moving story of schoolboy passion towards the end of its long heyday is recommended to try Roger Peyrefitte's Special Friendships instead.
Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe, 13 Oct. 2013.
Comments of general interest will be collected at Letters To The Editor (some editing may be involved)
Bernard 30 August 2021
Fielding Gray is one of the best of Simon Raven's many novels (An Inch of Fortune is another) and very rich and juicy it is too. For all of 'Special Friendships' bittersweet charm that you mention, Raven is arguably better at conveying the full prep-and-public-school experience of so many boys (Peyrefitte is also a wonderful writer, but I can see why his book isn't in print today - it's rather hard to get through, lovely as the sentiments contained therein may be).
Raven writes wonderfully about late '40's and early '50's English public schools - something that not many other writers have done - and Christopher Roland, Fielding's beloved, is not in fact quite as dim as you suggest, just hyper-conventional like so many upper-middle class English boys of the time. The 'ten minutes of indifferent batting, and an eternity of love' that Fielding experiences, while contemplating his willowy and flannelled young schoolboy friend on the cricket pitch, is just one of many sentences that make this a book to remember.