Wizz for Molesworth: British private schools and the making of ‘character’


How might a series of children’s books published in the 1950s provide insights into the character of today’s privately educated political leaders?

It can be unwise to revisit your childhood enthusiasms, but in this post I’m going to discuss an exception to that. Several months ago, in search of lockdown joy, I re-read the most well-thumbed book of my middle childhood, Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s The Compleet Molesworth – first compiled in 1958, and reissued (perhaps surprisingly for some) as a Penguin Classic in 2000. Set in a minor private school in the 1950s, the four books that make up the ‘compleet’ edition are written (and comically mis-spelt) in the voice of Nigel Molesworth, a resistant schoolboy victim of a system that some continue to see as the epitome of a World-Beating Education. Rather than being disappointed, I found myself laughing uncontrollably, and I was compelled to ration my reading for fear of finishing the books too quickly.

ToppMore recently, I came across a current Amazon bestseller, Richard Beard’s Sad Little Men: Private Schools and the Ruin of England. Although his main focus is on the private schools of the 1970s and 1980s, Beard quotes the Molesworth books throughout – and maintains that, far from being dated and irrelevant, they describe a system that has remained largely unchanged ever since. Beard addresses the iniquitous and divisive social consequences of this system; but his more contentious assertion is that it also works on a psychological level, to produce a kind of personality (or ‘character’) that is still very apparent in many of our privately educated political leaders. Boris Johnson and his predecessor David Cameron – both former pupils of Eton, one of the UK’s leading private schools – are prominent examples, he suggests. Without denying their brilliance as comic entertainment, it’s possible that the Molesworth books might have something more serious to tell us today.

Private schooling and equity

Around 7% of children in Britain attend private, fee-paying schools, which are independent of the state system. (For reasons that would take too long to explain, some such schools are confusingly termed ‘public’ schools. I will be avoiding this terminology here.) Defenders of such schools tend to maintain that this is a relatively small percentage, and that critics are disproportionately preoccupied with the issue – although one could equally well argue that the status of private schools has long remained an unmentionable topic in British politics. Despite evidence that a large majority of the public disapproves of the inequities of the system, proposals for serious reform have rarely gained much traction.

Kynaston GreenWhy is private schooling still an issue in Britain? The answers to this have been laid out in several recent books, of which Francis Green and David Kynaston’s Engines of Privilege is probably the best example (you can find a short summary of its key arguments here). Firstly, there is the inequity of schooling itself: Green and Kynaston estimate that, on average, three times as much money is spent on educating children in private schools as compared with state schools. (Note that this is an average: annual fees for the ‘top’ private schools are in the region of £35,000, as compared with spending of around £5-6000 per pupil in state schools.) Private schools have much smaller class sizes and vastly better facilities, and the consequences of this in terms of children’s educational achievement are predictable: children from private schools are significantly more likely to achieve the examination scores that are required for entry to elite universities.

The second reason follows from this. Former students of private schools are massively over-represented in elite jobs and positions of influence, for example in politics, in the civil service, in the judiciary, in the military and in areas of the media such as journalism. Figures obviously fluctuate over time, but Green and Kynaston note that former private school pupils account for half of the cabinet, half of senior civil servants, and three quarters of judges, army generals, and so on. More than half of Britain’s leading journalists attended fee-paying schools. Despite all the rhetoric about social mobility, access to elite employment in Britain is grotesquely unfair and undemocratic, and (aside from anything else) this represents a vastly inefficient waste of human talents.

Welcome backNevertheless, the abolition of such schools, or their full integration into the state system, seems unlikely, even in some future socialist utopia (Corbyn’s 2017 election manifesto stopped well short of this). In the 1970s, after a lengthy process of public debate, Finland abolished private education, and subsequently climbed to the top of the international league tables (although there were obviously many other factors in play here). While some assert that people should be free to spend their surplus wealth in whatever way they choose, others argue that education is not just another commodity. What is clear is that in the UK private schools enjoy considerable tax advantages and exemptions consequent on their status as charities (this alone has been valued at £2.5 billion per year): in some cases, they actually pay lower taxes than state schools. The state also pays for the training of private school teachers. Writers like Melissa Benn, along with Green and Kynaston, have proposed several viable options short of abolition – although at present even these seem well beyond the bounds of political possibility.

And yet the continued existence of private schools has a significance that goes well beyond the numbers of children who attend them. Over the past 25 years, under the guise of developing a ‘free market’, the state education system in Britain has become steadily more stratified. More recently, the approach to ‘discipline’ and ‘character education’ adopted by most private schools, along with significant elements of their traditional curriculum, have increasingly been aped by schools in the state sector, on the spurious grounds that this will improve social mobility.  And, as I’ve mentioned, we continue to be ruled by schoolboys educated at the most elite and expensive private schools. Optimistic rumours of the democratisation of Britain, or of the declining power of its upper classes, would seem to have been overstated. While elite private schools continue to be the model for education, and a major formative influence on our public life, true equality will be forever deferred.

The making of ‘character’

Aside from these arguments, there is a further aspect of this issue that is particularly flagged up in Beard’s Sad Little Men. His primary concern is specifically with boarding schools rather than private schools more broadly – and he makes a strong argument (if we needed one) about the psychological damage that such schools inflict on children who are sent away from home at seven or eight years old. Beard is himself a product of this system, and his book is essentially a memoir rather than a work of history or sociology: it’s possible that he veers a little too far towards self-pity (a stronger dose of Molesworthian comedy would have helped).

Beard bookThe concern about what such schools do to children has been addressed by several psychologists, most notably Nick Duffell, who leads a counselling organisation for what he calls boarding school ‘survivors’. As Beard and others suggest, the private boarding school is (in Erving Goffman’s term) a ‘total institution’, which operates through fear of authority, subordination to absolute rules, and intense competitiveness among its inmates. Sexual abuse is, in this respect, just one of the most brutal manifestations of this wider culture. The popular image of such schools as happy holiday camps – not least in Harry Potter’s ‘Hogwarts’ (of which more later) – certainly belies this.

Beard argues that children survive in this context by developing a kind of character armour: they learn to be robust, to repress emotion and to appear self-reliant. Yet these schools also cultivate a profound arrogance, a sense of superiority and contempt for others (not least women, ‘foreigners’ and ‘the lower orders’). Having been effectively abandoned at a young age, such children come to believe that everything is temporary, and that nothing really matters except winning the competition: shamelessly bluffing, ’winging it’, deceitfulness and charlatanism provide means of getting through – and once exposed, any weakness or negative outcomes can be simply laughed off. (This may be starting to sound familiar…).

These are genuine concerns about the welfare of such individuals, but the broader issue here is to do with how these psychological traits are carried into adulthood, and (given that such children are effectively an elite-in-training) the implications of this for public life. What Beard calls this ‘murky part of the national character’ is arguably writ large on the political stage – not just among the products of the system themselves, but also those who seek to rival them in gaining access to power. While boarding schools might represent the most extreme case, many of these arguments apply to the products of private education more broadly.

These political implications are amply identified by writers like Beard and Duffell (whose most recent book is entitled Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion). We should be wary of psychoanalysing politicians, but Boris Johnson’s private boarding school upbringing is apparent in much more than his occasional use of Latin, his ironic cod-pomposity and his carefully-coiffed ‘boyish’ haircut. This allegedly ‘charming’ persona increasingly seems as though it is all he has to fall back on, as his personal mendacity, incompetence and corruption are now routinely on public display. Johnson’s childhood image of himself as ‘world king’ epitomises the arrogant sense of entitlement that such schools encourage: to say the least, they do not seem designed to produce democratic representatives of the people. Of course, there’s much more to say about how Johnson’s brand of right-wing conservatism has come to be legitimated, but what some perceive as his personal ‘charisma’ is undoubtedly a significant factor.

Revisiting Molesworth

It would be tempting to allocate parts in the Molesworthian universe for many leading Conservative politicians – not only Cameron and Johnson, but also grotesques like Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Fabricant and Nadine Dorries. (There’s a Molesworth fan account on Twitter that does this pretty well, so I’ll refrain.) Despite their many dated aspects, Willans’ and Searle’s books do contain some curious contemporary echoes…

DownNigel Molesworth first appeared as a character in occasional columns written by Geoffrey Willans for the humorous adult magazine Punch in the late 1940s. He later transferred to the children’s magazine The New Elizabethan, with illustrations by Ronald Searle, who had recently enjoyed considerable success with his St. Trinians comic strips, set in a girls’ private school. In 1953, at the instigation of Searle’s publisher, Max Parrish, the two were invited to produce the first of what became four books: Down with Skool! appeared in good time to become a Christmas bestseller in 1953, and was followed by How to be Topp (1954) and Whizz for Atomms (1956). The final book, Back in the Jug Agane, was published in 1959, just after Willans’ untimely death from a heart attack, aged 47. (The ‘jug’ is an English slang term for prison.)

Molesworth is a pupil at a less-than-illustrious preparatory boarding school called St. Custards. The headmaster, Grimes, is constantly on the lookout for ways of making additional money out of the hapless parents, while also supplementing his income by running a whelk stall. Notable among the motley and largely incompetent set of staff is Sigismund Arbuthnot, the ‘mad maths master’, whom Molesworth strives to defeat in his copious fantasies. The books also feature a range of other pupils, including Grabber (the Head Boy), Fotherington-Thomas (the school goody-goody), Molesworth’s ‘grate friend’ Peason and his annoying younger brother Molesworth 2.

Nigel himself is a kind of rogue or trickster, constantly struggling to get one back against adult authority, or at least to escape its clutches. He is a poor student and useless at sport, and his spelling and punctuation are comically erratic. Nevertheless, his battles with teachers reveal him to be quick-witted and smart. He is an irreverent, cynical truth-teller, and a practitioner of the absurd. He is not so much an anti-hero as a mock hero – and indeed he regularly satirizes his own failures and vulnerabilities. In some respects, like his contemporary Richmal Crompton’s William Brown, he is also a parody of boyish masculinity – not least in his disdain for ‘GURLS’ (often rendered in horrifying capital letters), which is shown to be largely motivated by fear.

New ElizabethanUnlike most children’s books set in schools (of which more below), the Molesworth books do reflect elements of their times. As Britain slowly emerged from post-War austerity, there was an element of official optimism embodied in publications like The New Elizabethan – a trend which Molesworth occasionally satirizes. There are frequent discussions of space travel (most notably in Whizz for Atomms), as well as references to the Cold War. A great many of Molesworth’s fantasies involve parodies of the then-new medium of television, especially Westerns, crime series and science fiction, as well as popular children’s books, toys and crazes like Davy Crockett caps. The books themselves might be seen as part of the emerging fashion for satire, best represented at this time by the radio comedy The Goon Show (1951-1960), to which Molesworth is probably somewhat indebted – although they pre-date the true satire ‘boom’ of the 1960s.

A school story?

To some extent, Molesworth can be located in a long history of children’s ‘school stories’, all set in British private schools, which dates back as far as Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857). Examples that were popular during the 1950s and 1960s include Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter books (1908-1965, and subsequently on stage and television), several Enid Blyton series, most notably Mallory Towers (1946-51), and Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings series, which began in 1950 and continued (amazingly) until the early 1970s. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books (1997-) are the best-known inheritors of this tradition (and scholarly fans have noted the appearance of the name ‘Hogwarts’ on a couple of occasions in Molesworth).

Molesworth as teacher

In a horrible fantasy, Molesworth imagines his future self as a teacher.

The long-running popularity of such series may seem curious, given that the large majority of their readers were unlikely to have attended an institution remotely like the schools they depict. (Even the elements of Blairite modernisation at Rowling’s Hogwarts fall short in this respect: how much more interesting and radical would it have been to set Harry Potter in a local comprehensive?) In many cases, teachers play only marginal roles in such stories, and (as with Blyton’s books more generally) the absence of parents allows children to enjoy adventures independent of adult supervision: the Billy Bunter and Jennings series, for example, are set in and around schools, but they are not really about school in the sense of teaching and classrooms.

Even so, most of the books I’ve mentioned are keen to extol the virtues of private schooling. The settings are idealised, and the teacher characters (where they appear) are almost always upstanding, well-intentioned and caring. The narratives are driven by didactic, moralistic values, and threats to the social order are quickly resolved. In line with the ‘character-building’ that Richard Beard describes, the emphasis of these books is on cultivating ‘muscular Christianity’, imperialistic values, and a belief in the ultimate wisdom of adult (teacherly) authority.

By contrast, Molesworth parodies and satirizes this whole approach, and comprehensively trashes it. St. Custards is, to say the least, a rather less salubrious and upstanding institution than Tom Brown’s Rugby, for example, or Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. The Headteacher is a sleazy money-grabber, and his staff are variously lazy, hypocritical, venal, sadistic and stupid. Facilities at the school are much less luxurious than its prospectus promises: it is frequently compared to a prison. Lessons (especially Latin) are absurd and irrelevant; discipline is brutal and arbitrary; and most of the pupils are far from upstanding and well-behaved.

Teachers 2Teachers

Searle’s illustrations are crucial to this. Unlike the broadly ‘realist’ style of illustration in contemporary school stories like Jennings or Mallory Towers, the images here are deliberately exaggerated and caricatured. Searle creates a gallery of grotesques, that sometimes verge on the macabre. As I’ve found in exploring other texts about childhood from the 1950s, this offers a distinctly dark and even disturbing underside to what is often seen as the conformity and stability of the period.

Furthermore, the Molesworth books are not really ‘stories’. They occasionally contain short narratives (often in Molesworth’s fantasies, for example of Ancient Rome or of time-travel); but they mostly take the form of documentary guidebooks or handbooks written for the benefit of the novice pupil. As such, Nigel is not only a participant in the world he describes, but also a distanced, and indeed cynical, observer of it: at times, he seems to adopt the stance of an anthropologist detailing the curious ways of British private schools. Down with Skool! for example, purports to be ‘a guide to school life for tiny pupils and their parents’: its title page promises that the book ‘contanes full lowdown on skools, swots, snekes, cads, prigs bullies headmasters cricket foopball, dirty roters funks, parents masters wizard wheezes, weeds apple pie beds and various other chizzes – in fact THE LOT’ (the intermittent punctuation here is also a regular feature).

CompleetRather than stories, the books contain diagrams, lists, letters, playscripts and advertisements, along with parodic versions of documents like school reports, prospectuses and textbooks. There is no sequential ‘plot’ or character development, and there are frequent digressions from the main focus. The books can be opened at random and read for as long as one wishes, rather like a comic or a magazine. If there are literary forbears here, they would be writers like Lawrence Sterne or Jonathan Swift, rather than the novelists of classic nineteenth century realism.

Scholars of children’s literature generally dismiss school stories (especially the more popular ones) as crude and formulaic. Unfortunately, Molesworth has not escaped this general denigration and neglect. The books merit one passing mention in Peter Hunt’s monumental two-volume encyclopaedia of children’s literature, for example. (I have found only one scholarly essay, in the form of a good Master’s dissertation by Elizabeth Walker, which applies Bakhtin’s theories in an interesting and debateable way!)

Of course, one could well ask whether these books are really children’s literature at all – a question that obviously begs a much broader debate. As I’ve mentioned, Molesworth originated in the adult magazine Punch, and the general tone of the comedy (irony, sarcasm, parody, satire) is arguably more ‘adult’ than the slapstick or tiresome wordplay that many children’s writers tend to favour. There are certainly elements here that would make little sense to children. Some of the documents and genres that are parodied would not be especially accessible to them, and there are even ironic references to the likes of T.S. Eliot, Proust and Schopenhauer, as well as the then-modish existentialist philosopher Colin Wilson. And yet, insofar as we can tell, the books were extremely popular with child readers. As I’ve mentioned, they were my favourites for several years during my own childhood: thankfully, my own school was quite different from St. Custard’s, but there were undoubtedly elements of the books that spoke directly to my own experience, and indeed to my emerging sense of humour.

EscapeIn many of these respects, the Molesworth books could perhaps be described as subversive. For the most part, they clearly take the child’s point of view. They mock and challenge adult authority. They undermine the official adult-centric values of traditional school stories; they represent teachers as (at best) ignorant and pathetic; and they make nonsense of private schools’ own marketing claims and educational ideologies. They also question the idealization of childhood: the daily lives of Molesworth and his cronies are largely seen as mundane and boring, although his frequent escapes into fantasy are also absurd and laughable. (In this respect, the books look forward to Sue Townshend’s popular Adrian Mole books, which began in the 1980s.) Nigel himself is occasionally a rebel, but more frequently a fool who exposes and mocks the vanity and hypocrisy of those who hold power.

And yet this apparent subversion has its limits. As Richard Beard describes, the refusal to take things seriously is itself characteristic of the mindset of the British private school pupil (and, it should be said, particularly the private school boy). Ridicule, mockery, sarcasm and banter are his stock-in-trade: they provide a means of demonstrating superiority, as well as a kind of defence mechanism that will help him to overcome the feelings of vulnerability that occasionally threaten to intrude. It troubles me that David Cameron and Boris Johnson probably find Molesworth as amusing as I do. And while Molesworth deserves to be eternal, Johnson is a joke that is no longer funny at all.

Johnson Eton wall game

Johnson and colleagues on the team of the Eton Wall Game

1 thought on “Wizz for Molesworth: British private schools and the making of ‘character’

  1. Pingback: When is a children’s comic subversive? | David Buckingham

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