I thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hadn’t particularly expected to. I thought that, being a Victorian (it was published in 1881) boys’ school story, it’d be full of preaching and violent bullying, but there was no preaching, and the bullying was no worse than it is in most later school stories. It was really good fun!
There are three main characters, and three main storylines. Oliver Greenfield, a Fifth Former, is wrongly accused of cheating in a scholarship exam, but the other boys eventually realise that they’ve got it wrong and that Oliver is actually a jolly good fellow. Stephen Greenfield, Oliver’s little brother, is a new boy finding his way in one of the junior forms. I love the relationship between the two brothers. The masters barely get involved at all, even when there’s obviously something serious going on, but Oliver steps in when he sees Stephen being attacked by bullies, and Stephen rallies his crowd of juniors in Oliver’s defence when the rest of the school unjustly sends him to Coventry. Then there’s Edward Loman, a Sixth Former, the real cheat, who lets Oliver take the blame, falls into drinking and gambling, gets into debt with a local publican, and – the end’s a bit tropey! – runs away, gets caught in a storm, and is rescued by, of course, Oliver … but sees the error of his ways, as bad boys/girls in school stories always do!
The idea of the challenge was to read a book about a pupil writing a book/play/newspaper/magazine, and, although it’s a minor storyline, one of the other Fifth Formers in this produces a newspaper called “The Dominican” – which sounds more like Punch than the usual type of school magazine, being full of sarcastic articles about other forms and other pupils! Only one copy, so it goes in a wooden frame, and somehow survives without being torn or otherwise damaged.
Getting back to the more general storyline, there’s very little preaching. The only time religion really comes up is in a letter from the Greenfield boys’ mother. The morality’s all about the schoolboy code of behaviour, and school traditions are also a very big thing. The boys in Oliver’s form all belong to one of two fraternities, the Guinea-Pigs and the Tadpoles, and the big feast they have after a cricket match is an annual tradition, not a spontaneously-planned jolly jape of the sort found in Enid Blyton books.
Sport features a lot, as you would expect. Annoyingly, “football” is used to mean rugby (I was going to say “rugby union”, but this was pre-split!). Proper football, which public schoolboys would call “soccer”, isn’t mentioned! Cricket is also mentioned. Unusually for a school story, we don’t get one of the heroes scoring the winning try or run – the big rugby match against a county side is lost, and the big cricket match is drawn. There’s also plenty of fighting, but most of it’s more “boys will be boys” fisticuffs than actual nastiness, apart from one unpleasant incident in which Loman beats up Stephen Greenfield – who is then hailed as a hero by his classmates.
And, of course, there’s the fagging system. As well as being asked to make tea, polish boots and the usual stuff, the younger boys are sent out on errands into the nearby town. It’s very different to the mid-20th century girls’ boarding school stories in which no-one’s supposed to leave the premises without permission from a teacher. The boys even go down the pub … although that’s how Loman gets into bother. The town’s called Maltby, but I think it’s meant to be a fictional town rather than Maltby near Rotherham.
The masters are just barely involved at all. One of them steps in when Stephen’s obviously struggling with his work in the early days, but that’s about it. The headmaster, seeing Stephen’s bruised and battered face after Loman’s beaten him up, realises than an older boy’s attacked a younger one, but does nothing about it. Even when the boys all show the school up in front of a load of visitors, by hissing when Oliver gets his scholarship prize at Speech Day, nothing’s done. Nor do the captain and the monitors intervene very much in what’s going on. It’s not the sort of public school that’s seeking to train boys to run the Empire and sees older boys bossing younger ones about as training for that. Loman does go to Australia for a while, but it’s as a farmer rather than as an administrator. Oliver Greenfield becomes a barrister rather than a soldier or a bigwig in the Indian Civil Service, and his best friend Wraysford becomes a Cambridge don.
And they do actually work quite hard! Getting good marks in exams is not seen as being uncool, and boys who do well are seen as bringing credit to their forms, rather than being sneered at for being swots or geeks. Where it goes wrong in when part of a scholarship exam paper goes missing, and Oliver, who was seen near the headmaster’s study at the time and later wins the scholarship, is wrongly suspected of taking it. Everyone turns on Oliver, apart from Stephen and the rest of the Guinea-Pigs, which is really horrible. OK, it’s not physical violence, but being shunned by everyone else, and accused of something you haven’t done, is probably worse than a smack in the mouth.
Oliver, a bit like Katy Carr, doesn’t seek to prove his innocence, but just lives it down – the difference being that Katy was accused by a teacher and the other girls didn’t believe any of it, whereas poor Oliver is ostracised by his classmates and by most of the other boys as well. His behaviour’s very noble, and that and his success in another exam persuade the others that they’ve been wrong about him, but I’m not sure how realistic it is. Even more bizarrely, when the missing paper is later found inside one of Loman’s books, by the headmaster, in front of the entire Sixth Form, nearly everyone accepts Loman’s claims that he didn’t take it and had no idea how it got there!
Loman eventually runs away, because of the financial trouble he’s got into, gets caught in a storm, is rescued by Oliver – with a bit of help from Stephen – and becomes seriously ill. That’s all a bit tropey, as I said, but we do later learn that he’s made a full recovery and is now leading a decent life. Oliver has become a successful barrister, and Stephen is now the school captain. Hurrah!
Just a couple of other things. The forms are very confusing! Twelve-year-old Stephen is in the Fourth Junior, i.e. the Lower Fourth, which makes sense, but there only seems to be one Fifth Form and one Sixth Form, so the 12-year-olds are only two forms below the 16-year-olds. On a totally different note, I was quite chuffed to learn that Talbot Baines Read was a cousin of Edward Baines, of History of the Cotton Manufacture fame. And also that there was a TV adaptation of The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s in the 1960s, with the bloke who played Tom Howard in Howards’ Way playing the headmaster.
All in all, I really enjoyed this! And it’s available either for 99p on Kindle or free on Project Gutenberg.