Saturday, 16 August 2014

Early Flowering in Cornwall: Amazon Review of Scholarship by Edmund Marlowe

I hope Edmund Marlowe will not mind, but I have taken the liberty of posting his review at Amazon here for others to see.
"This moving story of sensitive Pip Cox's years as a boarder at The Rocks, a fictional prep school in Cornwall, is apparently otherwise only loosely fictionalised autobiography. Though it covers the full span of Pip's time there in the 1960s, most of the story concerns his last year, when he was twelve, and his deeply affecting friendship with slightly younger Sacha in the year below. The author has a remarkable memory of the atmosphere of prep schools and the emotions of young boys which he makes excellent use of, so that by the time we reach the love story at the heart of the novel we are well immersed in the details of life at The Rocks, whether special or mundane. 
On one significant point, I am puzzled. The average age at which boys reach the critical stage of puberty where reproduction is possible has dropped steadily from sixteen in the 19th century, when prep schools were invented, to below thirteen today. The invention is indeed sometimes said to have been occasioned by the need to segregate sexually-innocent pre-pubescents from their lustful elders. As late as 1986, the average age was 13.4. The 12-year-olds of The Rocks, however, were in 1968 at least as developed as boys today (they had to wash away the evidence of masturbation). Their headmaster even tells them a Victorian stable boy their age was "more than capable" of making a woman pregnant, which I suspect was actually impossible.
Why does this matter? The story hinges entirely on the deep suspicion of apparently everyone at the school that Pip's friendship with Sacha was sexual and so immoral on little more grounds than that Sacha was in the year below. The principal characters all conclude (rightly as it turns out) that Pip is queer and it is this perception he was nastily different that poisons the end of his time there.
This image of prep school as so sexually charged is so alien to my own as to demand explanation. Yes, pubescence at mine lent the emotions and friendships of many 12-year-old boys a new intensity, and a few engaged in fondling, but that is all. Boys at my prep school and those of my friends who had reached spermarche were either non-existent or unique. We never heard a suspicion of any boy being queer. The authorities never gave the slightest discouragement to age-discrepant friendships. It is in fact hard to see the rationale for such a taboo at prep school. It sometimes existed at public school because the still androgynous beauty of 13-14 year-olds could bring them to the erotic attention of female-starved older boys to a degree that adolescents with more developed manliness could not.
All these things depicted at The Rocks were by contrast so familiar to us at public school that a friend is convinced Pip's story has been transposed from one, which I doubt because the depiction of prep school otherwise rings so true. Is it possible that the author, having soon later established his sexual orientation and tormented by the sadness unjustly inflicted on him, has read too much into the earlier sexual consciousness of his peers and even himself, easy enough to do? Or is it possible that the headmaster who so brutally attacked Pip and his friendship was by his misplaced and exaggerated suspicion himself guilty of importing into the school an untypical hysteria about sex? Or was extra maturity another bonus of the location, which gave Pip "the typical Rocks look, long-legged and suntanned by years of days in the Cornish sun"? I wish I knew.
None of this in the least detracts, however, from the heart-wrenchingly poignant depiction of loss, which is the author's crowning achievement.
Edmund Marlowe, author of Alexander's Choice, another pubescent boy's love story."
As I have stressed many times, Scholarship is a work of fiction but it is heavily influenced by my own memories of my time at prep school down to the incidents and dialogue that I can recall.

Were age-discrepant friendships discouraged? This is perhaps where I have taken a liberty with facts, I do not recall a deliberate separation of boys because there was a large difference in age, but I do recall that generally it was the boys who policed this aspect. As I was the youngest boy in my year, I drifted between being at the top of the year 'below' or being at the bottom of my real year so I had friends in both years, I recall being an exception, by and large friendships were contained within one's year.

It was very generous of Edmund Marlowe to write a review, I was particularly pleased to see the review from an author whose work I admire.

No comments:

Post a Comment