Frederic William Farrar and His Novels for Schoolboys

By Rapple, Brendan A. | Contemporary Review, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Frederic William Farrar and His Novels for Schoolboys

Rapple, Brendan A., Contemporary Review

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.' While it is true that not all reviews of Eric were entirely unfavourable, its critical reception was distinctly mediocre compared to that accorded the more genial, less Evangelical, less sentimental Tom Brown's Schooldays. Nevertheless, though the latter work became more famous over the years and sold more copies, Eric itself was for long a bestseller, going through thirty-six editions in Farrar's own lifetime.

The novel attracted a devoted following often among those with little direct knowledge of England's public schools. In 1863, a South Carolinian girl, Emma Holmes, recorded in her diary that she had spent a Saturday morning reading Eric aloud and found it 'the most natural history of the trials and temptations incident to a boy's school life I have ever read. It is admirably written.'

Farrar drew heavily from his experiences as a schoolboy at King William's College on the Isle of Man in writing Eric. Shortly after the novel's publication, Farrar, told that his portrayal will be injurious to the school, writes that such an opinion is 'absurd . . . for the picture, as far as it is one, is highly flattered . . . the things that did go on there are really far worse than I have described.' The story's central theme is the gradual moral deterioration (hence the 'Little by Little' of the title) of the 'truthful, ingenuous, quick' though 'far from blameless' Eric Williams who is enrolled at Roslyn School. Eric at first behaves well, though he sometimes fails to do the right thing for fear of losing popularity. He gradually yields to more and more wrongdoing. Cleared of a false accusation of insulting a teacher, Eric earnestly tries to mend his ways. He courageously rescues his best friend Edwin Russell from drowning, though Russell dies a poignant death some time later. Overcome, Eric revolts from his wicked past. However, within a year he little by little resumes his bad habits. Above all, he fails to care adequately for his younger brother Vernon who is gradually being corrupted by a bad set. After appearing drunk at school prayers, Eric narrowly escapes expulsion by promising to reform. Still, calamities continue to ensue. Vernon is killed in a fall from a cliff. Soon after, Eric is falsely suspected of stealing money. Unable to face the suspicion of guilt he runs away to sea as a cabin-boy. After suffering terrible hardships he makes his way back to his aunt's house. Here he learns that his good name is secure at school, but also discovers that his mother in India, distraught at Vernon's death and Eric's disappearance, has died. Feeling responsible, Eric expires repenting his wicked ways. Emma Holmes, the South Carolinian diarist, notes that she shed tears at all these episodes: 'We feel as if we had lost dear boy friends.'

Eric is a late product of a long tradition of Evangelical children's literature, dominant themes of which had included the gloomy stressing of children's natural inclination to wrongdoing, the depiction of scene after scene of death, and the constant urging of the necessity to repent and change one's evil ways. It is an avowedly moral tale. Farrar informs us in his preface to the twenty-fourth edition (1889) that he wrote it 'with but one single object - the vivid inculcation of inward purity and moral purpose, by the history of a boy who, in spite of the inherent nobleness of his disposition, falls into all folly and wickedness, until he has learnt to seek help from above.' There are numerous authorial asides and reflections which are reminiscent of passages in Farrar's In the Days of Thy Youth (1876), a collection of his school sermons. For example, on the night when Eric first heard a schoolmate uttering indecent words in his dormitory he was deeply shocked and blushed scarlet. Farrar apostrophes him in a famous section: 'Now, Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together, and the scale of your destiny may hang on a single word of yours. Speak out, boy! Tell these fellows that unseemly words wound your conscience; tell them that they are ruinous, sinful, damnable; speak out and save yourself and the rest.' However, Eric did not and 'the moment passed by for ever; Eric had listened without objection to foul words, and irreparable harm was done.' A short time later, Farrar in an aside again criticizes Eric for his failure to disapprove of the dirty talk and preaches about an evil which he declares has brought many an English boy to perdition. The evil is nameless, though it is likely that Farrar is referring to masturbation.

The 1864 Clarendon Commission into the Public Schools saw the schools' principle faults to be an outmoded curriculum and an inadequate administration and use of endowments. Farrar, while also sympathizing with these conclusions, viewed their main problem to be still one of morality. Though improvements had been effected, he was adamant that much remained to be done and that it was the prime duty of teachers not merely to impart the principles of scholarly disciplines but to teach virtue and to help save their charges' souls. Farrar was greatly influenced by Thomas Arnold and the reforms, especially the improved moral tone, which he had helped foster in England's Public Schools. However, it is clear that Arnoldian reforms had not yet reached Eric's Roslyn. One of Roslyn's major shortcomings, according to Farrar, was the absence of the monitorial system, that 'noble safeguard of English schools,' the 'Palladium . . . of happiness and morality,' which Thomas Arnold also believed was a prime necessity for the good moral climate of a Public School. At the very least, monitors at Roslyn would have curtailed some of the bullying. They might also have aided Eric tread a better, more noble path. Nevertheless, though Roslyn is in a pre-Arnoldian stage it is odd, as the historian David Newsome points out, that it is Eric which presents a truer picture of Thomas Arnold's educational and moral ideals than does Thomas Hughes's tale which has done most to make Arnold's views known.

Part of the reason for Eric's success was its popularity among Victorian parents. Its depiction of the constant moral struggle faced by adolescents and its stress on the necessity to foster godliness and good learning undoubtedly recommended it to adults as a desirable text and suitable present for their children. It is not so clear that it was invariably liked by boys. Blackwood's in 1861 stated quite categorically that it was 'certainly not popular' with schoolboys. Many were probably deterred by its insistent didacticism and preaching. Numerous others, as the century advanced and as the maintenance of sang-froid and a stiff upper-lip became essential qualities for Victorian males, must have looked askance at Farrar's constant display of emotion and sentimentality. As The Saturday Review contemptuously complained: 'everything is served up with tear sauce.' After, a reading of Eric one might easily be persuaded by the biographer Hugh Kingsmill's observation that Farrar was 'the most complete exponent of mid-Victorian emotionalism in one of its most important branches.' Boys kiss boys and declare their love, albeit a fraternal one, for each other; it takes little for them to break down weeping; they preach to and pray for each other. Clearly, the Roslyn boys bear little relationship to those better known Public Schoolboys, whether in fiction or real life, who invariably maintain a strict code of independence and self-restraint. However, it should be noted that Farrar himself acknowledged that this emotionalism was excessive. In a letter to his friend E. S. Beesly he wrote of Eric."The lacrimosity is, I know, too much, and arises from the state of mind in which I wrote it.' He is almost certainly referring to his depressed state after the death of his mother. In addition, the novel's melodramatic preoccupation with death, especially the depictions of the angelic death-bed scenes of both Russell and Eric and the fatal accident of Eric's younger brother Vernon, were probably not to the taste of many young readers. Moreover, Farrar who had scant interest in sport, gives little attention to games in Eric. To the countless boys brought up during the second half of the nineteenth century, when games' mania pervaded Public Schools and descriptions of games became an essential ingredient of most school novels and stories, the absence of sports in their fiction must have been a real deterrent.

Farrar published other novels of schoolboy life, St. Winifred's; or, The Worm of School in 1862 and The Three Homes: A Tale for Fathers and Sons in 1873. His 1859 novel Julian Home: A Tale of College Life was set at university rather than Public School. These books, just as Eric, were distinguished by an emphasis on the vanquishing of evil by virtue, on the inevitable success accompanying hard work and study, on moral and spiritual rectitude. Over and over Farrar displays a patent didacticism and a tendency to depict his characters as mere exemplars of virtue or vice. Rarely does he miss an opportunity to preach and sermonize. Still, while some readers, even in an age less cynical than ours, must have been a trifle irked by the priggish, self-justificatory personalities of many of these novels' characters, there is no doubt of the books' popularity. St. Winifred's went through twenty-six editions by Farrar's death and was translated into French and Romanian; The Three Homes sold over thirty thousand copies in eighteen editions; and Julian Home also went through multiple editions.

Nevertheless, even before the close of the Victorian era there was a distinct falling off in interest for Farrar's particular brand of literary style, content, and message. His son Reginald Farrar, writing in 1904, was well aware of the change in temper: 'If, Reader, you dislike idealism, and cannot tolerate books written "with a purpose," . . . Eric and St. Winifred's are not for you. No cynic, and no mere worldling, was ever wholly in sympathy with Farrar's work; and the clever modern public-school boy is but too often an amateur of cynicism . . . He detests emotion, sneers at it in others, and stoically suppresses it in himself.' Whether or not the late twentieth century schoolchild is an emotion-repressing cynic, there is little doubt that today Farrar's novels for the young are virtually unknown among the age group for which they were intended. Manifestly, they have failed entirely to retain any of the interest still afforded such contemporary children's works as Dodgson's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Kingsley's The Water-Babies, or Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. And even if the name Eric, or, Little by Little is nowadays recognized among adults, it is a recognition more likely than not accompanied by a knowing, ridiculing sneer. Literary tastes inevitably change and it is now the fate of Farrar's children's works that their appeal is almost solely limited to the scholar and academic.

Brendan Rapple is a librarian at Boston College in Massachusetts.

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