Review by Hayden Thorne
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.
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.