Death by Horace . . . the tear-stained school stories of Frederic W. Farrar

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 . . .

Portrait of Frederic William Farrar (

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 Littlea 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.

A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857)
A reformed cribber: Harry East in Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)

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.

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Kennedy Reading the Examination Questions, illustrated by Stanley Berkley

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.

St Winifred's, or: The World of School
St Winifred’s, or: The World of School (1902 edition: London: A&C Black).

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.


Sugar and spice and all things nice . . . Laura Orvieto’s Italian Ambrosia

Dorota Bazylczyk takes us back to Italy this week, with further reflections on the delicious writings of Laura Orvieto.  — Elizabeth Hale

Laura Orvieto was an expert in “sweetening” stories of antiquity for contemporary Italian children. One way she did this was by putting the elements of Italian cuisine into her mythical stories. In her Storie di bambini molto antichi we can find many references to Italian food, drinks, sweets, traditional and regional products.

The best example in this context may be a chapter in which the author describes the story of Hebe. We read there that at Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding party, ambrosia had a taste of:`

The Food of the Gods on Olympus
Italy Attributed to Nicola da Urbino Dish: The food of the gods on Olympus, 1530 Majolica, Istoriato style Donation collection: Mr. J.W. Frederiks 1994. Licensed to share:

…violette e foglie di rosa, di fiori d’arancio, di crema alla vaniglia, di mandorle pestate con lo zucchero, di panna montata con i cialdoni e di liquirizia alla menta[1].

…violets and rose leaves, orange blossoms, vanilla cream, almonds grated with sugar, whipped cream with cialdoni and liquorice flavoured with mint.

Doesn’t it sound delicious?

The flavors of the drink of Gods, described by Orvieto, are strongly associated with many Italian traditional products. Recalling those particular elements, the author wanted to make it easy for young readers, to imagine the situation of an Italian celebration day, full of typical sweets and fresh ingredients (in this case a wedding day). In addition, she decided to recall the products logically related to the characters, that had taken part the ceremony, so in this case with Hephaestus, a god connected with the region of Sicily.

Let’s take a closer look at the Italian tastes of Orvieto’s ambrosia

Cannoli from Palermo
Cannoli from Palermo, by Claudio Longo,

I cialdoni siciliani are the typical Sicilian cakes, covered with almond grain and stuffed with ricotta cream (type of cannoli). The choice of these sweets by Orvieto is appropriate to this specific situation – Hephaestus earlier lived inside a Sicilian volcano, so he could have tried them himself 🙂




Confetti Assortiti
Confetti Assortiti, by Kate Hopkins.

almonds and sugar are also not an accidental products while describing a wedding. In Italy, the famous sweets associated with this occasion are called confetti – those are dragées-almonds covered with sweet sugar shells. Their roots reach back to times of ancient Rome, but in those days honey was used instead of sugar.  I Confetti have a symbolic meaning – each color represents a different occasion (eg, azure blue for the birth or baptism of a baby).  It is also important what amount of them we offer to somebody (they usually should be packed in bomboniera) (5 confetti for riches, happiness, long life; 1 confetto for a unique event).  Sicily has its own type of confetti, called confetti con mandorla di Avola, which means that they are made from the specific type of almonds, that come from the city of Avola;

Pastiglie Leone by Graeme Maclean
Pastigli Leone by Graeme Maclean, reproduced under licence through

 liquorice flavoured with mint can refer to the very famous Italian sweets made for example by Amarelli company, or – what is more likely – to the liquorice Due Sicilie (the name refers to the ancient Italian Kingdom) related to the southern Italy, made since 1957 by the Pastiglie Leone company.

And of course, lemons and oranges are the fruits strongly associated with the Sicilian region. Those are also ingredients present in many traditional Sicilian wedding dishes. In the context of ambrosia, we can also recall a famous Sicilian orange liqueur – Arancello.

Italian flavours as literary treatments . . .

Italian flavors described in Storie di bambini molto antichi are one of the literary treatments that helped Orvieto to anchor the mythical stories in Italian children’s imagination. By approximating the “ancient tastes” to young readers, she emphasized two important aspects of food – its importance in every child’s life and its huge role in Italian culture. Thanks to the stories of Orvieto, kids were able to start to perceive Italian cuisine – their important cultural signifier[2]as an a centuries-old element of a great importance. They could also look at the figures from the ancient world as people similar to them, who like the same flavors and who like to celebrate equivalently. The modern illustrations made by Rita Petruccioli, included in the edition of Storie di bambini molto published by Mondadori (2014), additionally emphasize the Italian aspect of Orvieto’s mythical food. It is apparent that the illustrator decides to continue the concept of the Orvieto, placing on Aphrodite’s and Hephaestus’ wedding table, an additional Italian element – Panna cotta – one of the world’s most famous Italian desserts nowadays.

Rita Petruccioli's modern illustration of the gods' banquet
Rita Petruccioli’s modern illustration of the gods’ banquet (courtesy of the artist).

Thanks to the references to Italian cuisine, Orvieto’s text gains even bigger importance for today’s readers – it starts to function not only a source of knowledge about the myths, but also about the specific elements of Italian regions – their traditions, dishes, local products etc. It is amazing that reading Orvieto’s Storie di bambini molto antichi today, we can still become the witnesses of “continuity of taste” and we can still start to perceive Italian cuisine as an element that combines modern times with antiquity in the most delicious way.

[1] Orvieto, Laura, Storie di bambini molto antichi, Mondadori, 2014, Milano, Italy, pp. 45.

[2] Kara K. Keeling, Scott T. Pollard, Critical Approaches to Food in Children’s Literature, Routledge, 2012.



Dorota Bazylczyk is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, at the University of Warsaw.  Her PhD is funded by the ERC, through the Our Mythical Childhood project.  She is working on the function of mythology in Italian children’s literature.  It is my great pleasure to introduce her work here, in the second of a small series of posts on Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), a pioneer in retelling mythology for young Italians.    In her next post on Orvieto, Dorota will discuss Orvieto’s use of nursery rhymes and poetry. . . .