Only one story today, for it requires extra attention. I'll probably do the same in the next post, for Scott King's Modern Europe is more novella than short story.

Charles Ryder's Schooldays was not published until 1982, a year or so after the excellent, 11-part TV production of Brideshead Revisited. The title character is of course the narrator of that novel, and the story takes us back into his public school past. The school is the imaginary Spierpoint. We are told that it originated in the Oxford Movement.

It is not a satisfying trip. Perhaps this explains why Waugh didn't publish it (he died in 1966). For this reason, the story cannot be called a welcome addition to the canonical novel, though the two integrate well. Except for Charles's father, who makes a very brief appearance, none of the novel's delightful characters is present. There is a promising sixteen-year old socialist whom we'd like to meet further. His position to the rest of the boys is roughly that of Anthony Blanche: social outsider, sexually mature (by a certain standard), etc.: "My interests are entirely literary and political. And of course hedonistic." ("Oh" is all of Charles's reply.) And let's face it, Charles, especially the post-Sebastian, pre-conversion Charles, is unpleasant.

But it's worse than that. As Augustine remarks in the Confessions, in life we excuse faults in children that we do not excuse in adults. In Waugh's fiction, the reverse seems to be true. Adults behaving badly to other adults can be passed over as comedy, but children behaving badly to other children is cruel. (This may be true as a rule, since it involves greater injustice, and innocence despoiled and despoiling.) I'm not bothered by all of the ill-natured treatment: Jorkins's suffering is mild enough and seems common to almost everyone. But Waugh pours on the pathos with poor Desmond O'Malley.

The story seem plausible, however. Young Charles Ryder is not very different from old Charles Ryder. Already he is an introvert: cliquish, an artist, a diarist. Already he can be vicious when provoked, and already he has lost his faith. (Mr Ryder in the story is also consonant with the character in the novel, though his eccentricity is less developed in 1919.) But the beastliness in the boy is so much uglier than in the man. The meanness is interrupted with several more or less engaging passages: moments of genial humor and ribbing, accounts of life at Spierpoint, a chastely pathetic account of Charles learning of his mother's death (as a nurse in the last year of the Great War). There is also an unexpectedly deep moment in a moral-psychological conversation between Charles and Mr Graves, one of the masters, which may be the best thing in the story. In any case it seems analogous to the novel's concern with divine grace. The fact that Charles doesn't follow the master's advice is consonant with the novel, but it fails in terms of drama. In short, it is hard to appreciate this story without having read the novel, and even if you have -- and you enjoyed it -- you may very well be disappointed. ★★★☆☆

Posted
AuthorSeth Holler