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June 21, 2006

"There is something almost sublime about Fraser's capacity for self-contradiction": The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser

Posted by David Womersley

The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School
by Nick Fraser
Pp. 228. London: Short Books, 2006
Hardback, £12.99

This is the kind of book where the reviewer has to put at least some of his cards on the table at the outset. I didn't go to Eton, but my son did. So for five years I was on the parental margin of the school. I was deeply impressed by the quality of much of what is achieved at Eton (perhaps particularly its art and its music-making – aspects of Eton life which are overlooked by Nick Fraser). I also enjoyed the various picnics, parties and dinners that came our way: Eton is a very social and inclusive school.

My son had to surmount his share of the mundane obstacles which any boy will encounter wherever he goes. But he did so without fuss, and quickly learned how to make himself as comfortable, happy and productive as possible within a given set of constraints: a wonderful "transferable skill" (as educationalists now call it). When my son talks about Eton, which he does occasionally but far from obsessively, he recollects it with gratitude and pleasure, but without any sense of now being exiled from paradise (and, in any case, from time to time he goes back to play fives and the Field Game). He will readily say that he was extremely happy at Eton; but there was no anxiety of separation. He is now just as happy reading Classics at Cambridge.

Clearly, my son's experience of Eton was very different from that of Nick Fraser, who left school in 1964. But what exactly was Nick Fraser's experience of Eton? Having glanced at some of the press coverage of The Importance of Being Eton, and in particular having read the article Fraser published in the Telegraph on 27th May 2006 which culminates – if that's the right word – in an account of the beating he received at the hands (literally) of the then headmaster, Chevenix-Trench, I was expecting to read a hatchet-job. But in fact the message of this book is much more elusive than one might have anticipated.

A number of basic convictions are plain enough. In the first place, Fraser thinks that going to Eton somehow infected him, and that in order to disinfect himself he had almost to destroy himself with drink and emotional recklessness (a contention underlined by his recollections of his contemporary and friend, Patrick Wormald, the gifted and self-destructive Anglo-Saxon historian). But with what did Eton infect Fraser, when we get down to it? He certainly was not persecuted at school; he was elected into Pop, wasn't made to take part in the sports he disliked, wasn't obliged to join in the furtive couplings of the other boys whose inclinations lay in that direction, was by all accounts largely left to his own devices. Was it that for Fraser, the experience of being a (comparative) success at Eton threatened to transpose the rest of his life into the key of bathos? If so, then this is a particularly sublime example of Fraser implicitly subscribing to the myth of Eton which he avowedly wishes to scrutinise.

The achievements of Eton's schoolboys in many fields are often of very high quality. But they remain the achievements of schoolboys (a point of which Fraser is himself aware – some of his most acute perceptions about the school concern the way in which the boys are subjected to implausibly complimentary attention). There is still plenty for even the most garlanded Etonian to work on after they have left; and in my experience all except the most hopelessly self-intoxicated Old Etonians understand this.

Is the point not so much what Eton did to Fraser, as what being an Etonian still does to Fraser? Another thread running through the book is the nebulous hunch that somehow Eton does great (but subtle) damage to Britain, and that in virtue of being an Etonian Fraser is complicit in this. He records his thoughts on meeting Lionel Trilling, and his inability to fall in with what he senses as Trilling's admiration for Eton, his valuing of it as

the culmination of a genuine experiment in civilising gentlemen, mysteriously preserved:

I could tell him that already, as far as I am concerned, I wish this experiment to fail, totally and comprehensively.

But what harm, to descend to particulars, does Eton do? It takes no money from the state, is willing generously to share its facilities with the wider public, and relieves to a modest extent the burden on state schools by educating several hundred boys (I make an allowance here for the number of overseas pupils, whose education would not, in the absence of Eton, have to be met out of the public purse). True, it enjoys charitable status, but it does so because it serves a purpose – namely, education – which in England has always been recognised as charitable.

The resentment of Eton in some quarters cannot be pinned down to any material or tangible detriment which any individual suffers as a result of the existence of the school. It is rather that, in the excellence of the education it provides, Eton is a standing reminder of what can be achieved in the realm of secondary education. Naturally, in some quarters, this is an unwelcome reminder.

Fraser's title alludes, of course, to Wilde. There is not much in the substance of what he says to connect this book with The Importance of Being Earnest, but there is perhaps, at a more general and diffused level, an affinity here with the Wildean. It may be that a fin de siècle sense of being part of a cursed and liminal generation lies behind Fraser's complicated feelings towards his old school. When he was at school Eton was just beginning the process of transformation which turned it from being a school for the sons of certain families the academic shortcomings of which were disguised by the collegers into a much more academically-focused school which would, in fairly short order, supplant Winchester as the natural home for bright English boys. It must have been a confusing place when Fraser was there. That confusion leaves its mark on The Importance of Being Eton in the book's lack of any real thesis.

Nevertheless, despite Fraser's efforts to be balanced, it is difficult not to feel a trace of impatience with this book (and at times, of course, what looks like the effort to be balanced is simply an inability on Fraser's part to be effectively unfair). There is something almost sublime about Fraser's capacity for self-contradiction as he both deplores and exemplifies Etonian self-preoccupation. Early in the book he recollects his experience of cramming two dense Etonians for university entrance (he by now having left Eton for Oxford). The academic régime he established for his charges allowed plenty of time for what sounds like aimless rumination:

In between our studies they talked wistfully about girls, dances, holidays, voicing their own sexual frustrations in rainy Scotland freely. "I'm sick of wanking," observed Chas one morning. "Does one go on wanking all one's life?"
Closing this book, in which a defeated Old Etonian toys onanistically with his past, the answer which suggests itself to Chas's at once demotic and mincing question is "Maybe – if one lets oneself".

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Richard D. North's and Lincoln Allison's take on The Importance of Being Eton see: Richard D. North asks, why has Eton produced more environmentalists than any other institution? The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser and If you have the choice, send your son to LRGS rather than Eton, argues Lincoln Allison: The Importance of Being Eton: Inside the World's Most Powerful School - Nick Fraser.


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Is today Eton Day or something? I am glad to see the Social Affairs Unit is tackling the important issues which face us today - namely Eton and Etonians.

Posted by: Anon at June 21, 2006 04:35 PM
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