Review: Lord Dismiss Us by Michael Campbell


Review by Hayden Thorne

Weatherhill is a minor English public school, and it is the last term of a school year. A new headmaster, Mr. Crabtree, has arrived, determined to restore the school’s slipping reputation for producing leaders of men and, above all, to crack down on the “moral laxity” he fears is rife. He embarks upon a program of reform, trampling heedlessly on sensitivities, and, in his earnestness, produces often farcical results. There is a particularly hilarious episode when, in an attempt to woo the boys from “unnatural ways,” he invites a girls’ school for tea and tennis.

The public tragicomedies that Crabtree sets in motion are paralleled by the private ones that overtake both Carleton, a student about to go up to Oxford, and Ashley, a brilliant young teacher who was, not so long ago, a pupil at Weatherhill.

Among the memorable supporting characters are the headmaster’s neurotic wife; his abominable adolescent daughter; the school chaplain, the Reverend Cyril Starr, with his attendant coterie of young favorites, the Starlings; and the dispassionate housemaster, Dr. Rowles, who “met the new creatures with a puzzled amusement and said goodbye to the old without much regret…”

Campbell’s novel is one of those brilliantly-written books that I relished from cover to cover but can’t get myself to reread. Despite its occasional flashes of wit, humor, and romanticized vision of same-sex love, it’s a downright soul-draining reading experience. It’s a painfully haunting book, more tragic than comic, with hardly enough room for a reader to surface and recover from its exploration of human nature, morality, and an ignorant establishment that seeks to set things right.

The characters are varied and colorful, with some more detestable than others, some nobler than others, some more humane than others. For all those, however, every one of them – except perhaps for Jimmy Rich, Carleton, and Nancy – is haunted by the past and as such struggles to be a natural part of a severely controlled (and therefore abnormal) environment. These ghosts from the past rear their heads whenever masters and students cross paths, either on the cricket field or the classrooms, the dormitories or the more secluded corners of Weatherhill. Despite their close physical proximity, therefore, many characters fail to connect with each other again and again, exacerbating misinformation, misjudgments, biases, etc. They are, in short, a miserable group, doomed to make the same mistakes again and again – with tragic results in some cases.

Campbell tells their stories with the utmost care, taking his time in not only exploring the inner world of the major players, but also the developing and extremely complex relationships between them and/or their pasts. The physical environment as well enjoys a nice, drawn-out examination, with wooded areas, hills, dormitories, and chapel nicely detailed without being overbearing. It’s a terrific contrast he creates, painting a pastoral in Weatherhill the school, while peopling it with a pretty fascinating albeit wretched bunch of masters and students alike.

That devotion to detail, however, also contributes to some of the book’s flaws, the most problematic being the third person omniscient POV that Campbell takes. Yes, it’s a very effective strategy in establishing all of the characters, their histories and present situations, their thoughts and feelings, almost all of which the others don’t know. However, it proves to be a bit of an encumbrance when it comes to reeling me in and getting me fully interested in the story, since I was trying to follow too many characters at the same time. It took me several chapters of puzzled reading before Ashley and Carleton’s stories began to rise above the rest more concretely.

Ashley, to me, is the most problematic character – not because of his issues (and the man’s got some pretty hefty baggage), but because of the heavy-handedness with which Campbell chooses to explore them. At times Ashley’s wallowing in self-pity and anger becomes a bit wearing, and I found myself tempted to skip over his introspective scenes whenever I began to feel depressed, which was quite often whenever he stepped into the picture.

The romance between Carleton and Allen – and, I suppose, between any given pair of boys in the book – is presented as the supreme expression of platonic love, which is one of the ongoing themes in the novel. There’s a line that ought not to be crossed, and once physical pleasure works its way into the picture, everything falls apart – to Carleton, at least. The romance is both beautiful and exasperating as hell. It appears much nobler because of its horribly idealized (and therefore more delicate) nature, given the atmosphere of intense paranoia that Mr. Crabtree creates in Weatherhill the moment he steps in as the new headmaster.

While we’re shown the results of such a romance between Carleton and Allen, much of it’s already foreshadowed through the older characters – Dr. Rowles, Ashley, the chaplain, among others. It’s a set of sad results we’re given, made so by the passage of time within the confines of Weatherhill. Escape is the only answer, and Carleton’s literary dreams offer him his only chance of not being another casualty of his school.

This is a wonderfully multilayered novel – rich in insight, comedy, romance, and utter misery. I’d kill to read a sequel, if only to see things set right between certain characters, but I suppose life rarely ever works that way. I love this book, but my heart’s too shattered for me to read it again.

Buy the book: Amazon, Amazon UK

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