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   Chapter 4 BOYHOOD

Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 9627

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

He went to school at Clevedon, in Somersetshire, in 1882, at Walton House, then presided over by Mr. Cornish. It was a well-managed place, and the teaching was good. I suppose that all boys of an independent mind dislike the first breaking-in to the ways of the world, and the exchanging of the freedom of home for the barrack-life of school, the absence of privacy, and the sense of being continually under the magnifying-glass which school gives. It was dreadful to Hugh to have to account for himself at all times, to justify his ways and tastes, his fancies and even his appearance, to boys and masters alike. Bullying is indeed practically extinct in well-managed schools; but small boys are inquisitive, observant, extremely conventional, almost like savages in their inventiveness of prohibitions and taboos, and perfectly merciless in criticism. The instinct for power is shown by small boys in the desire to make themselves felt, which is most easily accomplished by minute ridicule. Hugh made friends there, but he never really enjoyed the life of the place. The boys who get on well at school from the first are robust, normal boys, without any inconvenient originality, who enjoy games and the good-natured rough and tumble of school life. But Hugh was not a boy of that kind; he was small, not good at games, and had plenty of private fancies and ideas of his own. He was ill at ease, and he never liked the town of straggling modern houses on the low sea-front, with the hills and ports of Wales rising shadowy across the mud-stained tide.

He was quick and clever, and had been well taught; so that in 1885 he won a scholarship at Eton, and entered college there, to my great delight, in the September of that year. I had just returned to Eton as a master, and was living with Edward Lyttelton in a quaint, white-gabled house called Baldwin's Shore, which commanded a view of Windsor Castle, and overlooked the little, brick-parapeted, shallow pond known as Barnes' Pool, which, with the sluggish stream that feeds it, separates the college from the town, and is crossed by the main London road. It was a quaint little house, which had long ago been a boarding-house, and contained many low-coiled, odd-shaped rooms. Hugh was Edward Lyttelton's private pupil, so that he was often in and out of the place. But I did not see very much of him. He was a small, ingenuous-looking creature in those days, light-haired and blue-eyed; and when a little later he became a steerer of one of the boats, he looked very attractive in his Fourth of June dress, as a middy, with a dirk and white duck trousers, dangling an enormous bouquet from his neck. At Eton he did very little in the way of work, and his intellect must have been much in abeyance; because so poor was his performance, that it became a matter of surprise among his companions that he had ever won a scholarship at all.

Photo by Elliott & Fry


E. F. Benson at Marlborough. Aged 15.

A. C. Benson at Cambridge. Aged 21.

R. H. Benson at Mr. Cornish's School at Clevedon. Aged 11.

I have said that I did not know very much about Hugh at Eton; this was the result of the fact that several of the boys of his set were my private pupils. It was absolutely necessary that a master in that position should avoid any possibility of collusion with a younger brother, whose friends were that master's pupils. If it had been supposed that I questioned Hugh about my pupils and their private lives, or if he had been thought likely to tell me tales, we should both of us have been branded. But as he had no wish to confide, and indeed little enough to consult anyone about, and as I had no wish for sidelights, we did not talk about his school life at all. The set of boys in which he lived was a curious one; they were fairly clever, but they must have been, I gathered afterwards, quite extraordinarily critical and quarrelsome. There was one boy in particular, a caustic, spiteful, and extremely mischief-making creature, who turned the set into a series of cliques and parties. Hugh used to say afterwards that he had never known anyone in his life with such an eye for other people's weaknesses, or with such a talent for putting them in the most disagreeable light. Hugh once nearly got into serious trouble; a small boy in the set was remorselessly and disgracefully bullied; it came out, and Hugh was involved-I remember that Dr. Warre spoke to me about it with much concern-but a searching investigation revealed that Hugh had really had nothing to do with it, and the victim of the bullying spoke insistently in Hugh's favour.

Hugh describes how the facts became known in the holidays, and how my father in his extreme indignation at what he supposed to be proved, so paralysed Hugh that he had no op

portunity of clearing himself. But anyone who had ever known Hugh would have felt that it was the last thing he would have done. He was tenacious enough of his own rights, and argumentative enough; but he never had the faintest touch of the savagery that amuses itself at the sight of another's sufferings. "I hate cruelty more than anything in the whole world," he wrote later; "the existence of it is the only thing which reconciles my conscience to the necessity of Hell."

Hugh speaks in his book, The Confession of a Convert, about the extremely negative character of his religious impressions at school. I think it is wholly accurate. Living as we did in an ecclesiastical household, and with a father who took singular delight in ceremonial and liturgical devotion, I think that religion did impress itself rather too much as a matter of solemn and dignified occupation than as a matter of feeling and conduct. It was not that my father ever forgot the latter; indeed, behind his love for symbolical worship lay a passionate and almost Puritan evangelicalism. But he did not speak easily and openly of spiritual experience. I was myself profoundly attracted as a boy by the ?sthetic side of religion, and loved its solemnities with all my heart; but it was not till I made friends with Bishop Wilkinson at the age of seventeen that I had any idea of spiritual religion and the practice of friendship with God. Certainly Hugh missed it, in spite of very loving and earnest talks and deeply touching letters from my father on the subject. I suppose that there must come for most people a spiritual awakening; and until that happens, all talk of emotional religion and the love of God is a thing submissively accepted, and simply not understood or realised as an actual thing.

Hugh was not at Eton very long-not more than three or four years. He never became in any way a typical Etonian. If I am asked to say what that is, I should say that it is the imbibing instinctively of what is eminently a fine, manly, and graceful convention. Its good side is a certain chivalrous code of courage, honour, efficiency, courtesy, and duty. Its fault is a sense of perfect rightness and self-sufficiency, an overvaluing of sport and games, an undervaluing of intellectual interests, enthusiasm, ideas. It is not that the sense of effortless superiority is to be emphasized or insisted upon-modesty entirely forbids that-but it is the sort of feeling described ironically in the book of Job, when the patriarch says to the elders, "No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you." It is a tacit belief that all has been done for one that the world can do, and that one's standing is so assured that it need never be even claimed or paraded.

Photo by Hills & Saunders


IN 1889. AGE 17

As Steerer of the St. George, at Eton.

Still less was Hugh a typical Colleger. College at Eton, where the seventy boys who get scholarships are boarded, is a school within a school. The Collegers wear gowns and surplices in public, they have their own customs and traditions and games. It is a small, close, clever society, and produces a tough kind of self-confidence, together with a devotion to a particular tradition which is almost like a religious initiation. Perhaps if the typical Etonian is conscious of a certain absolute rightness in the eyes of the world, the typical Colleger has a sense almost of absolute righteousness, which does not need even to be endorsed by the world. The danger of both is that the process is completed at perhaps too early a date, and that the product is too consciously a finished one, needing to be enlarged and modified by contact with the world.

But Hugh did not stay at Eton long enough for this process to complete itself. He decided that he wished to compete for the Indian Civil Service; and as it was clear that he could not do this successfully at Eton, my father most reluctantly allowed him to leave.

I find among the little scraps which survive from his schoolboy days, the following note. It was written on his last night at Eton. He says: "I write this on Thursday evening after ten. Peel keeping passage." "Peel" is Sidney Peel, the Speaker's son. The passages are patrolled by the Sixth Form from ten to half-past, to see that no boy leaves his room without permission. Then follows:

My feelings on leaving are-


Foreboding of Wren's and fellows there.

Sorrow at leaving Eton.

Pride as being an old Etonian.

Certain pleasure in leaving for many trivial matters.

Feeling of importance.

Frightful longing for India.



It was characteristic of Hugh that he should wish both to analyse his feelings on such an occasion, and to give expression to them.

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