Archive for January 6th, 2011

January 6, 2011

Talbot Baines Reed, The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s

My regular column about out of copyright books, for Kindle magazine (whose decision for this issue to do a huge Assange-glorifying story without mentioning the charges against him is one I’m not too pleased with). I cheated a bit – The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s is one of the books I covered in my thesis and so pontificating about its relationship to the genre was all too easy. Still.

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It is generally believed that the first school-story was Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I’m not sure I agree. Origin stories for genres are tricky. Genres don’t just spring fully formed as from the head of some writer or the other – tropes from books get used and reused until they coagulate into a particular form.

If there is such a thing as the first book in a genre, perhaps it ought to be the first book that knows it is being written within a genre. By that argument a strong contender for the first real school-story is Talbot Baines Reed’s The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, published in 1881.

Before Baines Reed, a young reader in England might have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the story of how young Tom grows up and becomes a credit to Rugby school. It’s sometimes preachy, but it has its moments. This hypothetical reader might also read Dean Farrar’s Eric, which tells of the prolonged downfall of a sinning schoolboy. It would be terribly depressing were it not so heavy-handed. A few decades later Kipling’s Stalky & Co. would mock the book for its ridiculous sentimentality. With The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, things changed.

The book tells the story of the Greenfield brothers at St. Dominic’s school. Stephen, the younger brother, is a new student. Oliver is in the fifth form of the title, and is taciturn, honourable, and a good sportsman (the stuff literary heroes are made of). As Stephen negotiates the difficulties of public school life for the first time, Oliver finds himself falsely accused of wrongdoing and shunned by his classmates. Meanwhile, led by the magnificent Anthony Pembury, the members of the fifth have created a wall magazine in which they mock the doings of the sixth form.

As a school-story fan it’s fascinating to see how much Baines Reed borrows from his major predecessors. The long descriptions of sports matches, the ragging of new boys, the idealized headmaster are all there. The downward spiraling of the real culprit is the sort of thing Farrar might write – though Baines Reed’s characters are allowed the possibility of redemption, rather than prolonged, gloomy deaths. But equally it’s interesting to see how closely the book corresponds to the pattern that most later school stories would follow.

Most importantly, it’s fun. Like most of Baines Reed’s work, The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s was published in The Boy’s Own Paper. The good end happily, the bad are punished and the reader learns a Valuable Moral Lesson, but considering the tenor of a lot of his contemporary children’s writers, Baines Reed did a good job of not shoving that aspect of it down his young readers’ throats. It’s easier to see this book as a forerunner to the Frank Richards or Enid Blyton school stories than it is to imagine Tom Brown’s Schooldays in that role.

Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement of all was the inclusion of Anthony Pembury; sharp, funny, and no good at sports. Characters like this do not usually pop up in the school story, but one rather like Pembury appeared in 1909 in a school story titled Mike. The character’s name was Psmith, and the author was a young man named P.G Wodehouse.

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