Reviews 2010

Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence

Public School Literature, Civic Education and the Politics of Male Adolescence. Jenny Holt. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. 270 pages. £55 (hardback).

In her exploration of the dynamic between public school literature, male adolescence and citizenship, Jenny Holt proposes the public school story as a source through which to examine developing ideas about adolescence and citizenship. She studies the genre from the second half of the nineteenth century through to the aftermath of World War I, arguing that the evolution of the public school story coincided with the expansion of the sociological concept of adolescence. Awareness of adolescence as a stage of development distinct from childhood became more evident in the later decades of the nineteenth century and in turn, its perceived rationale as a time during which the values of citizenship were to be learnt became more visible in various cultural paradigms. The upper-class adolescent male, considered a potential future leader in society, is of particular importance to those who want to shape and influence the social landscape, and the substance of his education is therefore of particular significance.

Holt draws together an impressive range of material through which to examine the social history of the period along with personal memoirs of public school life and a diverse range of fictional narratives. Using an interdisciplinary methodology she is able to explore the various, often contradictory discourses which inform the period under discussion and demonstrate how they are visible in public school literature, producing what she refers to as a “heteroglossic patchwork of voices and influences that portrayed adolescent subjectivity in some very contradictory ways” (58).

The work consists of a general introduction which considers the concepts of “adolescence” and “citizenship” and the elusive nature of these terms. This is followed by six further chapters which explore in detail various examples of public school literature and their relationships with the shifting social mores that influence understandings of male identity. While Holt concentrates on a genre of literature which is associated with the upper classes, she stresses the changes taking place in society that result in increased middle-class influence. The effect becomes visible in the genre as a whole, which she goes on to substantiate through textual analysis. Further, she considers the implications of a diverse readership which was to include the working classes, raising questions about agency for fictional protagonists that potentially lead to tensions in the narratives. While upper-class boys were to embrace citizenship by being active leaders for the future, the working-class adolescent was to be a “good” citizen by following and upholding the laws and regulations of the Land. The protagonist of stories intended for working-class boys was politically inactive, what Holt describes in a later chapter as “an introverted and often burlesque figure preoccupied by his personal moral universe but not engaged with bigger social problems” (156).

Chapter one considers the subject of youth as symbolically representative of social progress and this theme continues in various forms throughout the book, as Holt examines the impact of changing cultural paradigms alongside different authorial approaches within the genre. Chapters Two and Three explore the fictional works of Thomas Hughes and F.W. Farrar respectively, demonstrating the impact of diverse authorial influences on adolescent citizenship in fictional texts. Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) presents the adolescent as an active citizen, engaged in his individual development, which is part of a larger social growth. In comparison, Farrar presents a much less optimistic picture of adolescent agency in Eric, or Little By Little (1858), following a doctrine which tries to combine various incompatible discourses (Romanticism, Evangelicalism, and Darwinism). The consequence is a fictional protagonist ultimately without agency, unable to take control of his own life.

A particularly effective chapter explores changing social attitudes towards discipline and corporal punishment and how this is impacted by the relationship between citizenship and social class. Holt argues that fictional texts take on distinct purposes in relation to discussions about discipline depending on their intended readership; novels written for the upper-class boy act as sites for debate about corporal punishment, where fictional protagonists actively question school discipline regimes. In contrast, novels intended for working-class youth were “part of the disciplinary mechanism that aimed to stem unrest and protect the status quo” (155).

Throughout the course of the work Holt deftly re-enforces the significance of the threat which male adolescents are perceived to present to the stability of society, particularly boys from working-class landscapes. This comes to the fore in Chapter Five as she outlines what she considers to be the implications of the “National Efficiency” movement on attitudes to male identity. A fear of moral and physical degeneracy at the end of the millennium saw an increased emphasis on biological determinism, eugenics, and social Darwinism. Holt suggests that this leads to a suppression of various boyhoods, most notably the feminized youth who is now stigmatized with the classification of homosexuality.

To conclude Holt considers the aftermath of World War I and its impact on the genre. She suggests that individual authors no longer had a consistent message, which is further supported by disparate voices in other social configurations in relation to male adolescent citizenship. Examining a number of works by adolescents themselves she concludes that the impact of war, “breaking bonds of trust between adults and adolescents, turns young people into the ultimate deconstructionists” (227). As such it makes a return to didactic tales, with the intention of reform, impossible.

Jenny Holt’s study is impeccably researched and well constructed. Although much has previously been written about the school story, the fusing of genre and male adolescent identity with the question of citizenship presents an opportunity to reconsider the fictional texts from a somewhat different perspective and as such is a thought provoking piece of research. While I would have preferred a more structured introduction to guide the reader into each of the chapters, this is a minor issue. Holt’s work is a commendable addition to the Ashgate series of Studies in Childhood, which continues to grow in scope and quality.

Michele Gill
Newcastle University, England