Gilded Youth: Privilege, Rebellion and the British Public School by James Brooke-Smith

Gilded Youth: Privilege, Rebellion and the British Public School
By James Brooke-Smith
Reaktion Books, 2019, pp. 294

To each icon, its iconoclasts: so goes James Brooke-Smith’s excellent debut, Gilded Youth: Privilege, Rebellion and the British Public School. Few things are so emblematic of Britain as its elite schools and the posh culture that they export. Yet in the face of modern egalitarianism, why so? The key, Brooke-Smith holds, to understanding these self-fashioned bastions of “organic tradition and national heritage,” continually “at the center of national life,” lies in their own rebels.

“Winchester College, 1793. Sometime in early spring. More than forty senior boys have gathered in the Commoners’ Hall after evening prayers.” Outraged over the unfairness of collective punishment for individual transgressions, the boys “draft a letter in Latin stating their grievances and demanding an apology” of their Warden. When these entreaties are rebuffed, “a group of students, armed with clubs, attack an usher[.]” They proceed to “smash windows throughout the school and drag desks, chairs and wainscoting into the courtyard to burn.” Chaos in ascent, by the time the High Sheriff arrives the following morning, summoning after him the militia, the school gates have been blockaded, “the boys are gathered throughout the school buildings, armed with swords, bludgeons, sticks and stones,” and “four boys have loaded pistols[.]” Tensions simmer down after a few days, but further revolt would see mass student walk-outs and the Headmaster’s resignation. Such student revolutions had carried on since 1768.

Bolstered by the scandal of rebellion and roguery themselves, Gilded Youth is woven through with a sure knack for storytelling and eye for vivifying detail. In the light of the recent American and French Revolutions, the radicalism in deed and verse of Percy “Mad” Shelley, so dubbed at Eton, is imagined as “a riposte to the state forms of the institution, its unearned privilege, hierarchical authority and intellectual moribundity.” Indeed, blowing up a tree in his master’s garden, he must’ve had something of rebellion in mind.

Public schools having become by the turn of the 19th century “a byword for juvenile delinquency and aristocratic excess,” among the British public, the abundant entitlement of its pupils was repurposed. A new ethos disseminated by Rugby headmaster Thomas Arnold, so called “godliness and good learning,” championed “organized sports, physical discipline, surveillance, militarism and nationalism” and reimagined these schools as training grounds for an imperial ruling class, yoking entitlement to discipline. Open revolts ceased after 1851. And Shelley, model for those who felt defiance flicker in their hearts? He is now a staple “of undergraduate English Literature anthologies and” his “recumbent form adorns an official monument in the Oxford college from which he was expelled.” So go the iconoclasts to the icons.

Proceeding from the student revolts of the 18th and 19th centuries on through the ages to the present day, Gilded Youth maps well the pattern of rebellion absorbed. Boys’ unintelligible cribbing of Latin and Greek translation, and their elaborate gibberish of school slang, engendered the parodic nonsense writing of Lewis Carroll, and later the absurdism of Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python. Alec Waugh in The Loom of Youth tries reconciling the “athletic hearties” of Arnold’s Victorian manhood with their anti-type rebels, the “aesthetic intellectuals,” whose swish, off-beat circles, and subversive publications were embodied in the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and Harold Acton, author of the incendiary Eton Candle. Rather than disrupting schools, however, these scandal-rousing dandies often merely caused the incremental “modernizing” and “softening” of them with the creation of official literary societies. Most aesthetes would eventually ascend “into the upper reaches of the cultural establishment,” becoming BBC executives, top-bill artists, and editors at national papers.

The same fate awaited the counterculture of the midcentury. Lindsay Anderson’s film if…, imagining a modern public school uprising complete with machineguns, caused mutinous shockwaves upon its 1968 release. To nostalgic, anti-establishment effect, if… was lately described by old Etonian David Cameron as his favorite film.

A mixture of “alienation” and nostalgia mark the “world within a world,” which public schools and their rebellions represent to former pupils, and mark for Brooke-Smith the seeming inability to outdo or undo the system. In the present day an international vantage, pastoral care, and emphasis in business, sciences, and the arts prevail, but only, Brooke-Smith is firm in pointing out, as these entrench the interests of the elite. Communist old boys, state reform, even popular dissent: all have been weathered by this leopard changing one spot at a time, its latest being “cosmopolitan and ironic” alumni, who “appear to be pluralist and anti-elite.” Remind you of anyone?

Gilded Youth is our author’s own thorough, thoughtful, and articulate rebellion. Brooke-Smith acknowledges that he has “chosen to be more one-sided” in his writing and indeed his dislike of public schools, one of which he attended for a time, is evident. But for all his bias, dedicated research abounds. His prose flows with material from novels, government reports, memoirs, and more, and 33 pages of partial bibliography tail the volume. Whatever his convictions, the breadth of his knowledge and the earnestness with which he approaches his subject make Gilded Youth a fantastic read that cannot be dismissed.

—Wilson Shugart is a young writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. He is at work on his first novel, which is set in the UK.