Unsentimental education — Book Review

11 March 2006
The Times and The Sunday Times

IS THERE ANYTHING new to say about public schools? Some great books have been written about them, most notably Evelyn Waugh’s hilarious and devastating satire Decline and Fall (1928) and William Golding’s fable about public school morality, Lord of the Flies (1954). These classics, and a raft of others, portrayed these revered, eltitist institutions as hotbeds of bullying, buggery and snobbery.

And these three quintessential themes shape Michael Fishwick’s novel Sacrifices. It offers multiple, elliptical perspectives on a stern man, Christopher Hughes, headmaster of Meniston, a fictional public school in the southwest of England. When Hughes wrote a love letter to a male pupil, public scandal ensued. After the local MP, a covert enemy of the headmaster, became involved Hughes had to leave his post and died a broken, disappointed man. Having sacrificed so much for the school, he was totally rejected by it.

The novel opens with his funeral, described by his daughter Alice, who idolises him. Alice explains her strange relationship with her father — she was educated at the school, one girl among many boys, and went on to teach there. An affair with another teacher, Daniel, ended when she became pregnant and her father insisted that she finish the relationship and have an abortion; she jilted Daniel but gave up the baby for adoption.

Her story ends abruptly. It is clear that she is holding a great deal back. We then learn that Daniel has become an embittered teacher in a seaside town, has another child who lives with him, but is divorced. His life is uneventful, dreary; it seems that his experiences at Meniston have broken him.

This is a recurring theme. No one escapes the curse of Meniston. Next up is the Polish matron, a surrogate mother to the woebegone Alice who was pushed out by the scheming Hughes after he realised her influence on his child. Her digressive narrative is followed by the perspective of the deputy headmaster, Alex Rainsford, and his gay son, Luke, who is attempting to become an actor in London having had a “Meniston” education. Both have been rendered emotionally dysfunctional by their time at the school. Finally comes the story of Hughes’s wife. We learn of her devotion to her husband, his increasing distance from her as he becomes more consumed by his life as headmaster, her love for the deputy head and her shock at learning that her husband had a lifelong affair with a part-time music and English master.

Don’t be cross with me for giving away the ending — the plot is not really the point of this novel. It is almost incidental. The reader knows the ending at the very beginning; the pleasure lies in savouring Fishwick’s prose. He has a real gift for capturing the different voices of the characters involved with Hughes’s life: the creepy daughter, the depressive wife, the loving but frustrated matron, the actor and the lost, lonely teacher.

While Fishwick reprises familiar themes, characters and settings, he does so with some skill. This is a literary, melancholic novel that should interest any devotee of “public-school” fiction.

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