In which we take a short turn through the school stories of Frederic W. Farrar (1831-1903), clergyman, botanist, educator, to see how a little Latin can be a very dangerous thing . . .
In my other life as a Victorianist, I became fascinated by the work of Frederic W. Farrar (1931-1903) . Farrar was an educator, a scholar, a writer, and a clergyman, who taught for some years, and along the way became a Chaplain to Queen Victoria.
Eric, or: Little by Little, a cautionary tale of school life
But he may have been best known to everyday Victorians as the author of Eric, or Little by Little (1858), a keenly-felt cautionary tale of injustice and miseducation at a private school on the Isle of Man. Eric, became one of the best selling children’s books of the mid-nineteenth century, and whose reputation lingered long into the twentieth
The British education system was in flux at the time Farrar wrote Eric. Public schools (where traditionally the upper-middle classes, gentry and aristocracy sent their suns) were joined by an outcropping of private schools, built to cater to the sons of the expanding middle class. The education in all of these schools could be patchy: cheating, bullying, corporal punishment, all were rife. From 1861 to 1864, the Clarendon Commission was established to look into the situation (the reports are a fascinating insight into nineteenth-century education). Nineteenth-century school stories are full of tales of woe, often connected to the Latin classroom. Latin was the subject most people had to study, whether they liked it or not, whether they had aptitude for it or not, and many did not.
Cribbing and Cheating
If you wanted to cheat at your Latin, you could buy a ‘crib,’ which was a facing-page translation, from which you could crib, or steal the meaning of your text. School stories often make mention of boys caught cribbing. Some of them are bad boys, who are characterologically inclined to cheating. Some of them are good boys, constitutionally unable to deal with the approach to learning Latin, who resort to contraband to get by.
Farrar is both disapproving of and sympathetic to these boys. Obviously cheating is wrong. But he also believes that the system was creating the need to cheat.
The eponymous Eric doesn’t need to cheat: he’s bright enough to manage his translations on his own. But a misunderstanding with a hot-tempered teacher means that he is suspected of cheating, and his own hot temper, pride, and misplaced (in Farrar’s view) loyalty to his fellow students, mean that he doesn’t point to the real culprit. Things go from bad to worse for Eric, who ends up running away, taking work on a boat, and dying from overwork and ill treatment. A cautionary tale indeed, and a fascinating book.
Peeking at exams in Julian Home: a Tale of College Life.
Farrar followed Eric with Julian Home: a Tale of College Life (1860). Here, an honourable boy, Julian, the type of scholarly student one dreams of teaching, or of being, copes with the snob factor in his life as a scholarship student at ‘Camford,’ a thinly described Oxbridge university. His friend Kennedy, brilliant but nervy, lacks Julian’s manly stamina, and gets caught up in cheating. He reads the exam questions that his tutor has left lying on his desk, and is then blackmailed by another student who has witnessed him. The anxiety and guilt lead him to the brink of suicide, before the ghost of his dead mother knocks the gun out of his hand. Melodramatic, perhaps, but reflective of the real stresses of education, where there was often much at stake.
That heathenish language . . . the death of Dubbs in St Winifred’s or, The World of School
St Winifred, or the World of School (1861) is my favourite of the three. Here, we meet Walter Evson, an intelligent boy who has been home schooled, and has a wide range of knowledge of the natural world that his school life at St Winifred’s does not foster. He becomes resentful at the stringencies of rote-learning, and, clashing with his teacher, commits the unforgiveable sin of burning the manuscript of this teacher’s scholarly book.
Through Walter, Farrar shows the perils of a one-size fits all education: Walter, an intelligent student is cramped by the education on offer. His friend, Johnny Daubenay, aka ‘Dubbs,’ is not so lucky. Dubbs does not have the ability to memorize his Latin, and ends up hopelessly behind, with each day’s failed homework mounting up and causing disaster for the morrow.
Following a walk up a nearby mountain, during which the boys are caught in a sudden storm, Dubbs catches a fever. And as he lies on his sickbed, he deliriously tries to memorize his Horace.
the poor boy fancied himself sitting under the gas-lamp in the passage as he had so often done, and trying to master one of his repetition lessons, repeating the lines fast to himself as he used to do—
“Hac arte Pollux et vagus Hercules,
Enisus—enisus arces—enisus arces attigit igneas,
Quos inter Augustus—
“How does it go on?—[i]
Dubbs’s nurse tries in vain to make him stop ‘a-repeating that there heathenish Latin.’ But Dubbs lies there, ‘still humming fragments of Horace lines, sometimes with eager concentration, and then with pauses at parts where his memory failed, at which he would grow distressed and anxious’. (250). Eventually Dubbs dies, a tragic casualty of a flawed education system that has fatally weakened his constitution, and turned his mind.
Latin is a language, dead as dead can be . . .
Farrar’s works were known for their ‘lachrymose’ qualities. They are a sub-genre of Evangelical Victorian novels for young readers, part of a tradition in which writers preached the good word; they are also novels of ideas: in this case ideas about the education system: about how Latin should be taught, to whom it should be taught, and about what happens when it goes horribly wrong.
— Elizabeth Hale
[i] Frederic W. Farrar, St Winifred’s or the World of School. London: Ward, Lock & Co., 1920. 250.