Frederic William Farrar and His Novels for Schoolboys

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Frederic William Farrar (1831-1903) matched most other Victorian sages in the variety of his intellectual and practical endeavours. A priest in the Church of England, a consummate classical philologist, and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, Farrar spent much of his life in school-mastering. From 1855 he taught at Harrow School and in 1871 took over the Head-mastership of Marlborough College from A. G. Bradley. Farrar was particularly interested in curricular concerns, holding that the prevailing approach to teaching Latin and Greek, mainly the stressing of grammar as well as the composition from English into the ancient languages, was counter-educational and, in addition, was failing to imbue in pupils any real appreciation of the culture of Greek and Roman civilization. In 1867 he edited an influential series of papers by distinguished authors, entitled Essays on a Liberal Education. His own contribution was an incisive attack on some of the absurdities perpetrated on schoolboys in the name of classical education. His main point was that the very long time devoted to teaching composition in school would be far better assigned to such subjects as comparative philology, history, modern languages, English language and literature. Unusual for a cleric Farrar consistently promoted the claims of science, strongly believing that an understanding of the laws and phenomena of nature is an essential attribute of any true education. He was himself a proficient scientist, his main endeavours revolving about linguistic research. His 1860 An Essay on the Origin of Language, based on Modern Researches, Especially on the Works of Renan so impressed Charles Darwin that he proposed Farrar for a Fellowship of the Royal Society. He was elected in 1866. Farrar, in turn, thought so highly of Darwin that he arranged for his burial in Westminster Abbey over the objections of many ecclesiastics. He also preached Darwin's funeral sermon.

Farrar was also a prolific writer of religious studies. His 1874 The Life of Christ was especially popular. In 1876 he accepted Disraeli's offer of the post of Canon of Westminster and Rector of St. Margaret's, London. It was during the following years that Farrar, distinguished scholar and literary figure, former head of one of England's most prestigious schools, and now priest in a busy London parish, became one of the most popular preachers of the nation. After appointment as Chaplain of the House of Commons in 1890, Farrar in 1895 was made Dean of Canterbury. One of his major accomplishments during these years was the highly successful restoration of the Cathedral. Developing muscular atrophy towards the end of the century, Farrar died on 22 March, 1903.

Yet if Farrar is remembered today it is most likely as the author of the novel Eric, or, Little by Little: A Tale of Roslyn School, published in 1858. This work, a melodramatic story of Public Schoolboy life, for years rivalled Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays, published a year earlier, in garnering the Victorian public's readership. From its first appearance Eric caused controversy. Shortly after its publication The Saturday Review indignantly observed, 'We can scarcely imagine a less healthy book to put into a boy's hand.' The Quarterly Review in 1860 complained that the story and personages were unlikely and that 'if the contact of evil had effects as deadly, as certain, and as durable as [Eric] represent[s], the world would be one mass of contamination.' Blackwood's the following year was most severe: 'A more utter failure . . . can hardly be conceived. Seldom has a book been written with such an excellent intention, by a scholar and a gentleman, which is so painful to read.' Charlotte Yonge in her 1869 survey of children's literature dismissed Eric as 'that morbid dismal tale . . . which we hope no mother or boy ever reads, since it really can answer no purpose but to make them unhappy and suspicious, besides that it enforces by numerous telling examples that the sure reward of virtue is a fatal accident. …