“Good God, you don’t go and kill people because you don’t like them—nobody does. It would be stark insanity for [someone] to kill a girl because she got on his nerves a bit.”
Parents, why not send your children to Santley House School? Nestled in a charming Oxfordshire village, Santley House is the modern, experimental school for “more-or-less intelligent and more-or-less impecunious members of the middle and lower-middle-classes.” Here, youngsters are free to grow and learn at their own pace—if they live that long.
It’s not very clear how Everard Blatchington finds himself at parents’ day for Santley House, but what he sees that day disturbs him. The children complain of being underfed. A group of small boys bully their classmates and nearly burn the school down. Untrained teacher Josephine Wright slaps her student in the face. One teacher openly loathes her students, while another spends more time drinking than teaching. Headmaster Cromwell is oblivious to everything but his endless array of health fads, ranging from vegetarianism to nudism. (Everard’s wife Margaret is especially disgusted by the latter. “Imagine him with nothing on. All pink and buttery!”)
The school seems on the verge of self-destruction, with young Henrietta Zimmerman at the center of it all. The queen bee of the school, the fourteen-year-old provokes strong reactions in almost everyone she meets. When Henrietta ends up dead following an “accident” with some sleeping medication, Everard can’t help wondering what’s really going on at Santley House.
Scandal at School is a vast improvement over my only previous encounter with G. D. H. and Margaret Cole, the coma-inducing Poison in the Garden Suburb. Their usual detective, human cardboard cutout Superintendent Wilson, is mostly absent here, which raises the energy level considerably. Everard and Margaret have a puckish sense of humor that keeps the story moving along, even when it doesn’t always make sense. At times, however, it does seem like the authors are just making it up as they go along, without going back to revise the troublesome bits or drop in any foreshadowing for the great idea they had on page 250.
It’s clear that the Coles were really enjoying having a go at progressive education. One of Josephine’s job requirements is to wear trousers every day, so that visitors will be impressed by how advanced the school is.
But why wearing trousers should be accepted as a certificate of educational efficiency, I confess I can’t quite see. Then he goes on, and he finds that as it’s a jolly summer day, the children in their wisdom have decided not to work indoors, but “to carry on their outside activities.” I should have thought you could cut lessons to make mud pies without founding a whole new school and calling it “an educational experiment.” And then he says that all the dear little children make their own dear little rules. Oh, yes. And do all the dear little children obey their own rules? And are they the same rules? Or do they make one lot on Monday and a new lot on Tuesday? All the dear little children I’ve ever known would change their rules once an hour to suit their own convenience.
This is all very funny, but the book also shows the vulnerability of children in a boarding school. With its iconoclastic philosophies and dire finances, Santley House is a haven for the incompetent and untrained. As Everard points out, even if Henrietta’s death were truly accidental, it ought never to have happened. Leaving children to administer their own dangerous medications because the infirmary is understaffed is criminal neglect in itself. In the 1840s, Charles Dickens exposed just this sort of danger in independent schools aimed at those whose incomes did not measure up their ambition for their children. Nearly a hundred years later, very little had changed.
While it touches on serious matters, this is a light-hearted book. Few pretensions, either liberal or conservative, go unpunctured, though it’s more a case of gently poking fun, rather than scathing satire.
It’s a bit difficult to reconcile all this jolly fun with the characters’ casual attitude toward the death of a child. Henrietta certainly sounds like a little beast, but most teenagers are. Her father Walter “brought her up to be as cheeky and disagreeable as possible, and then jumped on her for doing what he’d told her to.” Only Henrietta’s stepmother Marcia has any sympathy for her, and she’s presented as a fool. The authors’ feelings seem to be entirely with Everard, who says approvingly,
“If there had to be a confusion about a sleeping-draught, they might have found a worse subject.”
“You’re pretty vicious,” said his wife. “Wanting to kill a child you hardly knew.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to kill her. I only said that I could think of children I less wanted to kill.”
It just seems a bit tough on a kid who’s been mistreated at home and at school, especially since Everard is later able to dredge up a great deal of empathy for an adult who’s done much worse than Henrietta.
A more baffling question is the book’s attitude toward the Jewish people, which is rather odd. Early on, there are a few lightly anti-Semitic remarks made in passing. One of the school’s donors is generous despite being “a Jew with a Scottish accent.” A teacher has “the most enormous nose Everard had ever seen on a non-Jewish face.” When a teacher’s wife, the refugee artist Felice Quentin, rhapsodizes about the “ugly old Jew” she’s obtained as a model, this is going too far even for Everard. Felice defends her attitude with a two-page monologue that stops the book dead. Its length and passion strongly suggest that it represents the authors’ own beliefs:
You think a Jew might not caricature a Jew—now, while people are persecuting Jews. But, my friend, to caricature is not to persecute. It is only to say, “Look, you are very ugly, and have a funny face. See how I can make it much funnier, with a touch here and a touch there, and a great many people will laugh at it.” He is a very ugly Jew. Must I say he is beautiful because he is being persecuted?
But I think you are saying that you mean Jews ought to say all Jews are good and beautiful, because Herr Hitler says that only Aryans are. I do not think so at all. That is to make yourself the same as the Nazis, only of the other kind, and so we all wallow together like pigs […] I know very many Jews who are ugly and unpleasant, more than you do, I expect, because you are not a Jew. And there must be many more that are more unpleasant that I do not know—in Poland, perhaps, even in Germany. I do not think they should be persecuted because they are unpleasant, but I do not think I should say that they are good and beautiful. I do not think, even if I could stop Mr. Tannerburn being persecuted by saying he was beautiful, I would do it. All I could say is, “See how you will destroy his charming ugliness.”
This is the kind of edgy take that makes some sense at first glance, but doesn’t really stand up to deeper inspection. It’s true that portraying the full spectrum of humanity involves depicting people as real, flawed individuals, regardless of their race, religion, or nationality. It’s also true that the Coles poke fun at English people from all levels of society in this book. However, the only other group that is singled out, specifically and gratuitously, are the Jews. (Aside from the mention of Scotland, which is intended to emphasize the humor of the Jewish “joke.”) Is referring to Jewish people as stingy and big-nosed really the level of sophisticated art that requires such an impassioned defense?
Felice is correct that freedom of speech is what separates democracy from fascism. But we also have the freedom to choose not to make cheap jokes about persecuted minorities. It’s hard to argue that your freedom makes you more enlightened than Hitler when you’re using it to say exactly what Hitler would.
I don’t want to overstate the level of anti-Semitism in this book, which ironically is not very high. The remarks quoted above are largely the extent of it. Uncomfortable as these moments are, they are few enough to skip over, though obviously they cannot and should not be overlooked entirely.
As a whole, however, Scandal at School is great fun and has made me eager to seek out more from the Coles. Now if only they could just get back into print.
Nicholas Blake, The Spectator 1936 (quoted by The Passing Tramp)
The Coles have paid much more attention to character than in some of their earlier books. The dialogue is consistently lifelike, the setting, too, is well done….Less convincing is the character of the victim….This weakens the motive….The plot, also, rather resembles a clockwork mouse: erratic in direction, and requiring too frequent winding-up.
Scandal at School (US title: The Sleeping Death) is out of print. Right now, there are two copies for sale.