Tuesday, March 07, 2006

H.F. Ellis: Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth

If the name A.J. Wentworth rings a bell, it's because I wrote about H.F. Ellis's books on 19 January 2006. I said then that I had enjoyed the first two in the A.J. Wentworth series, and that I would hunt down the third.

Well, now I've found it. Not without difficulty. Swan Song of A.J. Wentworth was published by Severn House, a UK firm which specialises in books for libraries, in 1982. It's a slim little book, only 116 pages. As before, it is the first-person account, as 'edited' by H.F. Ellis, of certain incidents in the life of Mr Wentworth, who has recently retired after some forty years of service in what in England is called a boys prep. school. Which means a private, fee-funded school for boys aged about 8 to 13.

The third Wentworth book is very similar to the others. In other words, as I said in my first post, what we have is very quiet, dry, English humour about a man who is self-important, a bit of a bumbler, and who, if one wishes to be kind, might generously be described as accident prone.

In this book the humour is spread very thin indeed, and no one would read it, I suspect, unless they had either taught in, or been educated in, a school such as Mr Wentworth's Burgrove House. In my case I taught. But even with the right background, I have to admit that the material is definitely weak. The book is not one that I can recommend to the general reader.

Why then do I bother to mention it at all? Well because it gives me an opportunity to pay a small tribute to all the A.J. Wentworths of this world.

Somewhere around the middle of the nineteenth century, it became pretty much standard practice for the aristocracy, and the wealthier middle classes, to send their sons to boarding schools. Often, boys left home at 8, for their prep. school, and at 13 went on to what in England are called public schools, which again means a private, fee-funded school. The 'best' public schools may reasonably be called world famous: Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Marlborough. But there are perhaps a couple of hundred of good ones, and, if you care to, you can find a list of them here.

Schools, of course, require teachers, and teaching is not to everyone's taste. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century -- and perhaps up to about 1975 -- it was possible to find in almost every school at least one man who conformed to a greater or lesser degree with the Wentworth template.

Of course, the fictional Wentworth is an exaggerated picture, particularly in relation to his clumsiness. But there he is: a bachelor (though certainly not gay); scholarly in his subject; serious, but not without a sense of fun; as a teacher he is often a source of amusement to the boys, but able to maintain discipline and keep their respect, despite that. Hard working. Loyal. Very, very English. Old-fashioned in his values and manners. A churchgoer, but not particularly devout. And, at the end of his forty years of service, just a little bit lonely; and, quite often, rather badly off financially.

Perhaps the archetypal Wentworth figure is the one created by James Hilton in his 1934 novel, Goodbye Mr Chips. This was filmed, with great success, with Robert Donat in the lead. And curiously enough it was also the subject of a television version in 2002, starring Martin Clunes. Slightly surprising, perhaps, that a modern producer should have chosen to revive this old piece, but that in itself is testimony to the lasting power of the story, and the appeal of the Chips/Wentworth archetype in English life.

In real life the Wentworths often had quite a difficult time. They would have done their bit in the war (World War I or II); then they returned to the school and took up where they left off, hoping that everything would be just the same as before. But of course it never was. They were resistant to change. They preferred formality in all things. If they were extremely lucky, they would be taken in hand, in their fifties perhaps, by a warm-hearted widow who could see that it was not too late, even now, to make something of them. And thereafter they would often blossom (as Mr Chips did).

As the years passed, the world changed, and the Wentworths' time had gone. They began to appear dinosaurs. Out of time and out of place. And they either changed to conform with the world, with very great reluctance, or they retired. Now I doubt whether they are to be found at all -- or, if they are found, they have undertaken some sort of genetic modification.

I myself have known many a Wentworth and I have good memories of them. And so when I read the passage, towards the end of Swan Song, in which Mr Wentworth, at the very end of his very last term at Burgrove House, goes and has one last look at his classroom, it quite brought a tear to my eye. For in the classroom he meets one of the small boys who has been something of a trial to him. Here is an abbreviated version of the conversation which then ensues:
Whom should I see ferreting about in his desk but young Mason of all people.

'Not gone yet then?' I asked him.

'No, sir. My father can't get here much before three.... I say, sir, I'm sorry if I've been rather, well, a bit tiresome at times, sir.'

'I've known worse,' I said gruffly.

'It's been fun, sir, hasn't it, all the same?' he said.

'It has indeed, young fellow,' I agreed. 'It has indeed.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting, and very useful reading. - Thanks.
Merry Christmas, and a
Happy New Year ! Best Wishes, J.D.M. in Norfolk, U.K.