Britain is in crisis! A mighty national challenge looms! The nation’s very sovereignty hangs in the balance!
The populace is divided and confused. The political leadership is—as it usually is—an uninspiring clique of dithering seat-warmers and time-servers, none of whom has ever had his peace disturbed by an original thought, seasoned—as it usually is—with a sprinkling of criminals and lunatics. Will no-one come forth to save the situation?
Yes! Up from out of the political ranks emerges one man willing to seize the moment. With origins in the monied upper class (along with with an American connection), educated at one of the premier old boys’ boarding schools, with a respectable track record in both legislative and executive office, our man knows his way around political high society.
He is, however, a somewhat dubious character, widely regarded by those who follow public affairs as at best, to borrow Christopher Hollis’s comment on Evelyn Waugh, “not quite a gentleman,” and at worst a self-promoting and reckless adventurer of no fixed principles.
Still, even his severest critics allow that he is something of a fascinator, an eloquent speaker with a well-stocked mind and a ready wit, author of several books and innumerable fragments of opinion journalism—a character of the type people form strong opinions about one way or another, but whom no-one can quite ignore.
Johnson himself has been doing his best to help us make the connection: one of his books is a biography of Churchill, published in 2014 for the fiftieth anniversary, the following year, of Churchill’s death. Did we really need another biography of Churchill by 2015? Probably not, but Boris Johnson gave us one anyway, in what one is bound to suspect was an act of, yes, self-promotion.
Under the circumstances it would not be surprising to see a new surge of interest in Churchill. Heck, the sesquicentennial of Churchill’s birth is only five years away. Book publishers are already flipping through their Rolodexes looking for historians, I feel sure.
Here is an early entry in the field: Churchill’s Headmaster: The “Sadist” Who Nearly Saved the British Empire, by Edward Dutton. It is an oddity in the vast bibliography of Churchilliana, concentrating on less than two years of the infant Churchill’s life, 1882-1884.
Churchill spent that time, aged not-quite-8 to 9½, as a pupil at St George’s school in Ascot, 25 miles west of London. This was a boarding school for boys with about 40 fee-paying pupils.
In Britain this kind of establishment is called a “prep school,” because it prepares its inmates for entry, usually at age 13, to the big old boys’ boarding schools—confusingly to Americans called “public” schools, though they are entirely private—like Eton, Harrow, and Winchester.
These public schools have been educating Britain’s high elites for four hundred years. Boris Johnson attended Eton, the twentieth Prime Minister to have done so. Churchill went to Harrow—after, of course, prep school: that year and a half at St George’s followed by three and a half at another place.
(George Orwell immortalized the prep-school experience in his 1947 essay “Such, Such Were the Joys.” That was a different school, however, and thirty years on from Churchill at St George’s; and some of Orwell’s classmates accused him of having colored up his account for dramatic effect.)
Why concentrate on such a brief period of Churchill’s early life? Dutton has two aims. First, he wants to rehabilitate Churchill’s headmaster at St George’s, who has received a mostly-bad, sometimes very bad, press from Churchill’s innumerable biographers, and from Churchill himself. Second, he has a point to make about the development of Churchill’s personality and the consequences for twentieth-century British history.
The headmaster’s name was Herbert Sneyd-Kinnersley. Born 1848 into a good old (but not aristocratic) English family, he attended a public school (Rugby, Harry Flashman’s alma mater) followed by Cambridge University, where he got a law degree. After graduation he spent six years as a schoolmaster before starting his own school in 1877—the school that, via a name change in 1880, became St George’s.
The school had therefore been in business for five years when Churchill showed up. Sneyd-Kinnersley’s headmastership continued for two years after Churchill left. Sneyd-Kinnersley died suddenly from a heart attack in 1886, aged only 38.
The main charge against Sneyd-Kinnersley is the one given in the book’s title: that he was a sadist. Churchill himself wrote in his autobiographical work My Early Life:
I am sure no Eton boy, and certainly no Harrow boy in my day, ever received such a cruel flogging as this headmaster was accustomed to inflict on little boys who were in his care and power.
The swishing was given with the master’s full strength and it took only two or three strokes for drops of blood to form everywhere and it continued for fifteen or twenty strokes when the wretched boy’s bottom was a mass of blood.
Churchill, who was a very naughty boy indeed, certainly came in for some of these floggings. It all sounds appalling to our modern sensibilities, but there are questions that can reasonably be asked.
Was Sneyd-Kinnersley worse than other prep-school headmasters of the 1880s? Are the often-quoted witnesses—including Churchill himself—reliable? Are there contradicting, pro-Sneyd-Kinnersley accounts? And: To what degree did Sneyd-Kinnersley’s actions contribute to Churchill’s withdrawing from St George’s in the Summer of 1884?
Dutton gives over many, many pages to these issues, all tending to exonerate Sneyd-Kinnersley from the worst of the general charges against him.
Churchill’s parents withdrew the boy from St George’s at last for health reasons, transferring him to the more salubrious Brighton, a seaside town where the family doctor lived. The school’s policies on corporal punishment seem not to have been a factor, or not much of one. The most Dutton will allow is that:
If Sneyd-Kinnersley had treated Churchill very slightly differently—either less physically harshly or with more concern for his health—then there would have been no Churchill, or, at least, no Churchill as we know it. He’d have grown up to be a far more cooperative, altruistic character. And as we will now see, if that had been the case then there would likely have been no World War II as we know it, no bankrupting of Britain, no collapse of the British Empire, and no descent into many of the problems which Britain faces today.
That leads off into Dutton’s final three chapters, in which he offers a debunking of the myth of Churchill as a national hero and a restatement of Pat Buchanan’s thesis in Churchill, Hitler, and “The Unnecessary War” (minus the Oxford comma) that it would have been better for Britain to stay out of both World Wars, and that Churchill was instrumental in their not having done so.
From there on we get full-bore anti-Churchillism. One of the section headings is actually “Churchill the Barbarian.” Churchill was, Dutton tells us, “a high-functioning psychopath,” and so on. He needed to be “‘broken’ into an English gentleman.” Sneyd-Kinnersley was just the chap to do it, but he “got the balance slightly wrong.”
What to make of this?
Dutton’s rehabilitation of Sneyd-Kinnersley is persuasive. He notes, for example, that while both Roger Fry and Harry Kessler wrote graphically about flogging at St George’s, neither was actually flogged. On hearing of the headmaster’s death, Fry wrote that “although he never inspired me with much respect he was, I think, kind-hearted on the whole.”
And while the strenuous beating of small boys on the buttocks with birch twigs indicates psychopathology to a modern observer, and Victorian schoolmastering likely did attract some abnormal characters—including perhaps some on Sneyd-Kinnersley’s staff—nobody in the 1880s thought the way we do about such things. The headmaster seems, indeed, not to have been a sadist. At worst, his was a case of arrested development—Peter Pan syndrome.
As to the anti-Churchill stuff, I don’t personally mind it. As I said, with a figure as large as Churchill it’s hard not to take sides. I myself, growing up in England in the middle decades of the last century, heard both sides at full volume.
Meanwhile, in the other ear, I was getting the dominant social narrative, as encapsulated by celebrity historian A.J.P. Taylor in his 1965 tome English History 1914-1945, which we undergraduates all read when it came out. Taylor described Churchill therein as “the saviour of his country.”
(And yes, children: There really was a time, not so very long ago, when “celebrity historian” was a thing.)
I don’t buy the book’s main thesis, though. “If Sneyd-Kinnersley had treated Churchill very slightly differently” then Churchill would “have grown up to be a far more cooperative, altruistic character”? Really? How could we know this? How could Sneyd-Kinnersley have known it? Does it accord with what the human sciences today tell us about the path of development from child to finished adult?
My Dad’s stock response when faced with a counterfactual hypothetical was: “If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.” I’m afraid Dutton’s main thesis inspired the same reaction in me.
It is also at odds with our current understandings about personality development. Heritability increases with age. Yes, the childhood personality is very plastic; but once adult independence sets in, the personality reverts to a form largely ordained by our genes, like a shape-memory alloy. Could some slight extra concern on Sneyd-Kinnersley’s part, or a few more (or a few fewer: Dutton isn’t altogether clear on this) beatings have changed this trajectory for Churchill? I doubt it.
And Dutton’s approach is doubly peculiar because one of the book’s strengths is the author’s comprehensive knowledge of the human sciences. Life History Strategy (also known as r-K Theory); evolutionary psychology; Big Five personality theory; the roots of pedophilia; Vico’s Social Cycle Theory; … there is intellectual depth here of a kind not often found in popular biographies and histories. I wish it had been put to better service.
The book held my attention none the less, as an engaging curiosity. Certainly the author can’t be faulted for lack of diligence in research: he has read everything about his subjects. There is a huge bibliography and a decent index.
There are also odd incidental factlets to tease one’s attention. Long after Sneyd-Kinnersley’s passing, for example, St George’s became a boarding school for girls aged twelve-plus. Queen Elizabeth’s great-grandaughter Princess Beatrice, now thirty years old and favored for the next royal wedding, attended St George’s; she was elected Head Girl in 2006. And Beatrice’s great-great-grandfather Algernon Ferguson was one of Sneyd-Kinnersley’s pupils! So the wheel turns.
I wish Edward Dutton success with the book, and I await with interest his investigations into the development of Boris Johnson’s personality and its effect on history.