‘Everyone seemed to have a copy’
Rachel Hassall looks back to the novel that shook Sherborne School
Published in December ’16
A ‘love letter to Sherborne’ may well be how Alec Waugh described his first novel, The Loom of Youth, whose 100th anniversary since publication will be celebrated in July 2017, but at the time of its publication it caused a scandal at the school. Written by a seventeen-year-old boy in just seven and a half weeks – six months after he had been expelled from Sherborne School – the novel presents an unsentimental view of the life of the public schoolboy just before the outbreak of World War 1.
A member of the famous Waugh dynasty, Alec Waugh was born in Hampstead on 8 July 1898, the son of the publisher and writer, Arthur Waugh, and elder brother of Evelyn Waugh. As Evelyn Waugh would later paint a picture of his own decadent and hedonistic university days in Brideshead Revisited, so in 1917 Alec presented in The Loom of Youth a candid portrait of his four years at Sherborne School, complete with tales of boys cheating in exams, talking slang and having crushes on other boys. As a result, The Loom of Youth was banned at many schools, although actor John Le Mesurier later recalled that although the book was banned at Sherborne, everyone seemed to have a copy.
Arnold Lunn, whose novel The Harrovians had earlier caused a similar controversy, later told Alec that he thought Sherborne should have handled the situation as Harrow had done, by not banning the book but instead placing it on a special shelf in the school library ‘with other obscene works only to be read by the sixth form with special permission.’
Alec Waugh had arrived at Sherborne in September 1911, aged 13, and, like his father before him, boarded at School House. In his biography, Alec wrote, ‘I loved school life. I might well have seemed the very boy for whom the public school system was designed – gregarious, sociable, as keen on his work in form as on his prowess on the field’. He added, ‘It is strange that I of all people should have been in constant conflict with authority, that I should have left under a cloud, that within two years of leaving I should have been struck off the list of the Old Shirburnian Society for writing a novel of which an influential critic said that it was likely to prove “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the public school system”. ’
Alec later revealed that it was the ‘simultaneous explosion’ of two events in 1913 which triggered his rebellion against authority. The first event was the publication in July 1913 of Arnold Lunn’s The Harrovians, and the second in Michaelmas term was the arrival on the school staff of S P B Mais. For the fifteen-year-old Alec, The Harrovians was a revelation, ‘It explained us to ourselves,’ he later wrote. Already a published author, Mais was also a frequent contributor to discussions in the press on educational reform. He brought to Sherborne a much-needed breath of fresh air and encouraged his pupils to question everything, from the cult of athleticism in public schools to whether a classical education was still relevant. It is therefore hardly surprising that Mais would later be accused of having written The Loom of Youth himself.
During the remainder of his two years at Sherborne, Alec came increasingly into conflict with other schoolmasters, many of whom he later lampooned in The Loom of Youth. At the suggestion of his father, Alec had changed the names of the characters in the novel, but to anyone who knew Sherborne, they were still instantly recognisable. Alec later presented the school with a list of the characters with their real identities, although a few today still remain a mystery.
The hurt and betrayal felt by the school’s staff as a result of the novel is revealed in the letters they wrote to Alec and his father. In October 1917, the headmaster, Nowell Smith (‘The Chief’), wrote to Alec, ‘I have in the past fought painful battles on your behalf with better men than you or I will ever be: but since your vanity does not stick at cruelty and disloyalty – and indeed seems to blind you to their existence – I take my leave of you, though I cannot help wishing you well, however much you may condemn the wish.’ Godfrey Mohun Carey (‘The Bull’) wrote to Alec’s father, ‘As for the caricatures of colleagues – some of whom I care for much, and others less so – I resent them. For myself, I care not one damn that I should be represented as one who has worked for and cared for nothing but games, “to whom a missed catch is as the fall of Namur”! My ideals have been high, though, God knows far more than usually unattained. Yet I have tried throughout 20 years to help boys to be manly and simple-hearted and keen in everything. Are you surprised that – with others – I feel well-nigh heartbroken to see the work I’ve given my life for broken? I have lived & longed & toiled for the good of the School I love – & I don’t seem at present to have much heart for building it up with worn-out tools. May you be spared pain, who have also loved this Sherborne of ours.’
Alec’s schooldays did not end in the glory he had always envisaged. In June 1915, it was discovered that he had been involved in too intimate a friendship with a boy from Carey’s house and the Headmaster suggested that he should leave a year early at the end of that term. As a result, Alec did not receive the English Verse prize he won that term for his poem, ‘Flanders’, or the 1st XI batting cup for his season’s average of 32.5. However, he was able to right this wrong in the novel where, in the closing chapter, Gordon Caruthers (Waugh) is presented with his cups by the headmaster at the end-of-term prize-giving.
Leaving Sherborne at seventeen, Alec needed his headmaster to sign his commission papers but, partly as a punishment, Nowell Smith suggested that instead Alec should join the Inns of Court OTC. Ironically, as a result of this decision it was during the spare time that Alec had while training with the OTC at Berkhamsted in January to March 1916 that he was able to write the novel. He said later, ‘Had I taken a commission straightaway, I should probably never have written The Loom of Youth. When should I have had the time?’
The impact of World War 1 on Sherborne School was immense. Over 220 former pupils lost their lives during the conflict, including six of the boys featured in Alec’s novel: George Baker (‘Akerman mi’), Leonard Hooper (‘Armour’), Henry Turrell (‘Burgoyne’), Richard Hodgson (‘Ferguson’), Edward Fenn (‘Hazelton’) and John Wyatt-Smith (‘Whitaker’) all died before the age of 25. The school’s fallen are remembered today on the school war memorial designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.
Alec survived the war. Having received a commission in the Dorset Regiment, just a week after The Loom of Youth was published by Grant Richards Ltd on 19 July 1917, he was instructed to join the BEF in France. Attached to the Machine Gun Corps, Alec was posted to the Somme, north of Bapaume, and in early September 1917 his company was in reserve at Passchendaele. In March 1918, Alec was captured near Arras and spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps at Karlsruhe and Mainz, the story of which he later told in The Prisoners of Mainz.
Meanwhile, back in England, The Loom of Youth became a best-seller and, although during his lifetime Alec wrote more than forty books, he did not achieve such success again until the publication of Island in the Sun in 1955. The Loom of Youth brought Alec to the attention of the literary world. The archive reveals that Siegfried Sassoon sent a copy to Robert Graves and that Rudyard Kipling had been heard praising the novel. Alec also received letters of congratulation and support from Arnold Bennett, Robert Graves, Arnold Lunn, Somerset Maugham and HG Wells.
However, for Sherborne the wounds took longer to heal and it was not until 1933 that Alec and his father were welcomed back to the school, although in the meantime Evelyn had been sent to Lancing College rather than Sherborne, as previously intended. Later, Alec sent both of his sons to Sherborne and in 1965 he presented the school with the manuscript of The Loom of Youth, together with two albums of correspondence and press cuttings, saying that he was very happy to think that it should have ‘come to rest at last in the shadow of the abbey that inspired it’. These invaluable resources tell the story of the novel’s publication, the controversy it caused at Sherborne and the national debate it sparked into the need for educational reform.