Review: The Loom of Youth by Alec Waugh

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Review by Hayden Thorne

BOOK DESCRIPTION:
And if the modern reader after turning a page or two finds his attention held and wants to go on reading it will mean that this book has become at last what in fact it was always meant to be—a realistic but romantic story of healthy adolescence set against the background of an average English Public School.

REVIEW:
Alec Waugh (older brother of Evelyn Waugh of Brideshead Revisited fame) wrote The Loom of Youth when he was seventeen-and-a-half-years-old. He was, he admits in his introduction, lost in nostalgia as well as rebellion. He’d been expelled from his school – Sherborne School in Dorset – for engaging in homosexual practices, i.e., a mild flirtation with a younger boy. He remains the only student to be expelled from Sherborne.

Part (perhaps a great part) of the book’s notoriety rests on its matter-of-fact treatment of homosexuality among public school boys, the other part being Waugh’s scathing attack on the public school system.

If potential readers pick up this book all agog over boarding school romances, they shouldn’t hold their breath. I myself, being a fan of schoolboy romance, was sorely disappointed with – not to mention baffled by – the controversy, given the extreme brevity of the “infamous gay theme.” Then again, I’m a reader from the 21st century – hardened and liberal – who wouldn’t even blink at the sight of same-sex couples holding hands or kissing publicly, smack dab in the middle of downtown Berkeley.

As for the novel’s gay angle? Not only does it take place toward the end of the book, but it also covers a whopping half a chapter. Half a chapter. It resurfaces afterwards in – and, yes, I counted – two sentences total in reference to Gordon’s romantic friendship with Morcombe. To get there, one has to slog through several chapters of fascinating, humorous, and excruciatingly tedious accounts of Gordon Caruthers’ life in Fernhurst.

On the whole, the book is well-written – wonderfully so, given Waugh’s age when he worked on it for six weeks. In this case his perspective greatly helps the novel’s satiric edge, having enjoyed and loved his school years, only to have them taken away from him over something so natural as the development of a deeper friendship with another boy. As master after ineffectual master parade across the pages, nearly all of whom become victims to the students’ pranks, one can almost imagine Waugh in his army uniform, grinning insanely as he scribbles down his criticisms of the public school system.

Waugh’s writing style is strong and natural, vividly descriptive and certainly dripping with a sly sense of humor. It’s very easy to be taken in by his cheeky observations, but it can also be a tiresome exercise in redundancy.

In exploring Gordon Caruthers’ school experiences from the moment he sets foot in Fernhurst as a thirteen-year-old till he leaves at nineteen, Waugh indulges – too much, I think – in recounting moment after moment, term after term, year after year, ad infinitum. Classes, sports, dorm life, pranks, ragging, cribbing, quarrels with masters – while at first these provide readers with an interesting first-hand, detailed account of public school life, after several chapters of the same thing, one feels his energy tapped and his brain frozen. In fact, I found myself skimming through all the football and cricket matches because while they demonstrate Waugh’s love for the sports, they really add nothing much to the story other than to stoke Gordon’s determination to rise to the top by his final year in school.

The novel’s redeemed in its final quarter. It’s largely because Gordon grows up, and he’s exposed to things other than sports, and he stops almost all of the silliness he used to indulge in with his friends. He’s exposed to poetry and things that go well beyond the superficial reach of sports and other academic goals. He meets Ferrers, a new master who stirs the pot with his modernist ideas. He develops a romantic attachment with Morcombe though he doesn’t quite understand what it is. He begins to question so many things, and the veneer of superficial schoolboy triumphs grows dim.

Much of the impact of the final chapters centers on England going to war against Germany. All of a sudden, schoolfriends and many of the younger masters are dropping out in order to enlist in the army. School life is affected by the war, and paradise suffers a sharp tug back down to earth. There’s a strong, poignant, elegiac undercurrent that runs through the last part of the book, and when Gordon finally leaves Fernhurst, it becomes a bittersweet moment. I was moved so much by the final chapters that I had to skim through the first part of the novel to let things sink in. Waugh’s purpose becomes clear, and all one has to do is to set the first few chapters next to the final ones, and he can see how far Gordon has traveled in his development. Suddenly all those horrible, tedious moments of dragging oneself through chapter after chapter of similar scenes and interchangeable characters are forgiven and forgotten – for the most part, that is.

FINAL NOTE: The copy I have has strange misplaced periods, by the bye. They pop up here and there, often in the middle of sentences, which threw me off again and again. I don’t know if that’s a printing issue that’s specific only to my edition (2007 BiblioBazaar), but it’s worth a quick heads up.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

5 Responses

  1. I apologise that I haven’t commented on this review, but I’m half way through the book, and it’s affected me already. I’m touched by the subtle mentions of homosexuality–that the masters ignore but even 13 year olds are aware of.

    It’s rather ironic that A Waugh survived the war, perhaps if he had not, the book would have had more attention.

  2. You wrote:

    “He’d been expelled from his school – Sherborne School in Dorset – for engaging in homosexual practices, i.e., a mild flirtation with a younger boy. He remains the only student to be expelled from Sherborne.”

    I think that your source may be mixing up events here. Waugh was expelled from Sherborne School’s alumni association (see below), and it’s possible that’s the unique event your source has in mind. As far as I know, nobody has ever claimed that Waugh was the only student who was forced to leave Sherborne; he implies quite the opposite in his novel.

    Technically speaking, Waugh wasn’t expelled from Sherborne (though it amounted to that); he was asked to leave at the end of term. I gather from a similar incident in G. F. Bradby’s 1913 novel, The Lancaster Tradition, that this was a fairly common way at the time of kicking students out of public school without making their offences a public scandal.

    There’s a passing sly reference to Waugh’s punishment in Chapter Two of The Loom of Youth, when one of Gordon’s friends chews him out for taking unnecessary risks in defying authority (in reference to Gordon sneaking out at night to attend a carnival): “What’s the use of it if you go and get sacked? Of course, they might keep you on, and ask you to go at the end of the term to save your face. What would your position be then? You would be bound hand and foot, powerless to do anything. Life would slip past you. You have got to be above suspicion.”

    For those who are interested in the autobiographical aspects of The Loom of Youth, another interesting and little-known novel by Waugh is Roland Whately (1922). The novel’s title character attends the same school as Gordon (i.e. Sherborne) and ends up being asked to leave because of immoral sexual conduct – that is to say, he’d kissed a girl.

    “There is, of course, in this not the least suggestion of expulsion,” writes the headmaster to Roland’s father. “Roland will leave at the end of the term with many of his contemporaries in the ordinary course of events. And he will become, if he wishes, as I hope he will wish, a member of the old Fernhurstian Society” – a nicely ironic statement, because Waugh was expelled from the Old Shirburnian Society, i.e. the school alumni association.

    “It is a cruel shame,” comments Roland’s mother afterwards, “that a boy’s whole life should depend on a thing he does when he is seventeen years old.”

    Waugh has more to say about his time at Sherborne in his autobiography, The Early Years of Alec Waugh (available online for a fee), in his 1922 nonfiction book, Public School Life (available free online; romantic friendship is mentioned in the chapters entitled “Morality and the Romantic Friendship” and “The Leaving Age with Regard to Morals”), and in his 1954 introduction to “The Loom of Youth” (available free online). His story collection Pleasure, which I haven’t read yet, evidently includes a story about a romantic friendship in a public school. One the more remarkable facts about The Loom of Youth is that Waugh’s father was the one who submitted the novel for publication; the reasons why are explained in Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family, written by Evelyn Waugh’s grandson. In Evelyn Waugh: A Literary Life (relevant sample online), David Wykes speculates on how Alec Waugh’s experiences at Sherborne may have influenced the literary career of his brother Evelyn.

  3. Will someone please tell me where “lifelong garments woven on the loom of youth” arises?

  4. Mr. Meghie, if you’ll do a Find search on “woven” in the online edition–

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18863/18863-h/18863-h.htm

    –you’ll find three passages where that image is used. The plot is rather complex; I’m not sure I can sum up the character development which that image alludes to.

  5. Mr. Meghie, if you do a Find search on “woven” in the online edition of the novel–

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18863/18863-h/18863-h.htm

    –you’ll find passages where that image is used. The plot is rather complex; I’m not sure I can summarize the character development that the image refers to.

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