My brother’s and my upbringing was unusual; mine in particular, since as a child I attended the same boy’s school as Temple: Peterborough Lodge on Finchley Road in Hampstead. The headmaster’s daughter, Cynthia Linford, and I were the only girl pupils. I don’t know how her Father had been persuaded to take me but it was Temple who had insisted that I enjoy the same advantages as himself. As I remember, or was told later, he had found I was being very poorly taught at my girls’ school: “Memorizing the names of headlands on the West Coast of Scotland when she doesn’t know that a headland is,” had been his indignant comment.
When I was nine years old my father, who had contracted tuberculosis, was ordered to Switzerland and we all went with him to Arosa. There and in Italy for two years, we children had a wonderful time skating, skiing, and bobsledding in winter, climbing mountains and swimming in the lakes and sea in summer. We spent part of each spring and summer on the Italian lakes and Riviera, where we “discovered” Portofino, as yet barely known to tourists. There the fishermen’s wives and daughters sat outside their whitewashed houses on steep narrow streets in the bright sunlight making the exquisite laces my mother loved to buy. Also there was San Frutuosa, lost little town approachable only by sea. One glorious summer we spent two months in Corsica travelling about that wild, romantic island in a horse-drawn carriage, but spending most of the time at Ajaccio where Temple and I swam naked on a deserted beach to which we walked along a road lined by marble tombs.
Rapallo, Santa Margharita and Sestri Levanti, Genoa and Milan, Pisa and Livorno, Lupano, Como and Lake Maggiore; driving by carriage and walking long stretches over the Simplon Pass from Domesdossela, whose hotel had, I thought, the unique name “Run to the Post” (courir a la Poste) but actually must have been Couriers of the Mail.
Bright unforgotten distant years of my most happy childhood spent in some of the loveliest places in the world, giving Temple and me lasting memories of beauty to carry with us the rest of our lives.
We attended no schools but were taught for an hour or two a day in winder by an old German-Swiss tutor in Arosa. Our father spending his days on a chaise longue on the veranda was always there to answer our questions and impart knowledge which we could never have obtained from a formal education. We read books and we listened and learned from the talks and discussions of our parents with friends and acquaintances from many lands in the cosmopolitan atmosphere in which my multilingual internationally minded father fitted so well. Since we were never repressed but only taught good manners Temple and I had no inhibitions to make us feel awkward or shy and speechless in the presence of our elders.
Unforgettable among my father’s friends in Arosa were Herr Lockhoff, a jovial Dutch artist and the dainty fair and smiling Baroness von Klockner from Dresden, who herself resembled one of that city’s famous porcelain statuettes. Lockhoff whose tuberculosis was incurable was to die soon after we returned to England. Irene von Klockner lived long but disappeared without trace in the senseless Anglo-American bombing of the open city of Dresden in 1944 which burned alive more civilians then the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Just before the Second World War, Mother and I were to meet her for the last time in London.
In late summer Temple and I climbed quite high mountains alone with a Swiss guide, once reaching the peak of the Aguille de Tour, ten thousand feet above sea level. In winter, besides skiing and skating and playing ice hockey, we took part with adults in the two and a half mile races on our bobsled named Mephistopheles, clad in white wool jerseys with red flannel devils on our chests and caps. Temple sometimes steered, but we won our notable victories when piloted by Mrs. Moreland, the sporting wife of a New Zealand doctor, with Temple and me as crew and a man called Bray as the “break.” I still have in my possession a silver beaker inscribed with our names on the memorable occasion when, in 1909, we won the Lucy Challenge Cup, to the amused surprise, friendly applause or outrage of the competing adult teams.
I cannot have made much, if any, contribution as “crew” to our triumphs, far out as I see myself leaning in an old photo as we rushed around the most dangerous corner of the course; or by energetically throwing my slight weight backward and forward to help accelerate speed on the straight. It was probably due to my brother’s insistence that I was permitted to participate in these races which actually filled me with a dread I never admitted to Temple, whose belief that anything he could do, I could do, too, spurred me on.
Writing to me a quarter of a century later from the Fiji Islands to congratulate me on the birth of my son in Moscow, Temple recalled my “winning that ice-axe for me” at Champex, where I had outraced the Swiss girls who competed in the two mile race around the Lake.
When my father was sufficiently cured to return to England Temple and I were left at school on the Lake of Geneva. The original intention had been to leave only Temple, but as usual I wanted to do whatever he did. As I recall, at Sestri Levanti on the Italian Riviera in 1909, I had become more and more restless, so that one evening after the usual happy day swimming and basking in the sun, I solemnly informed my parents that it was high time for me to go to school and start studying. Maybe it was the first stirrings of what my brother used to call my “Puritan conscience.” Or perhaps it was simply because the joyful, easy, carefree life we children had for so long enjoyed had begun to pall. As Swinburne wrote in Temple’s favorite poem, Faustine, To feed a while on honeycomb is sweet,” but man tires of the repetition of accepted rhyme.
So, when eleven and a half years old, I became a pupil at La Combe, Rolle on the Lake of Geneva, with my brother at school half a mile away across the fields at the Chateau de Rosey. By special dispensation I had the run of this school where I went for fencing lessons as well as to visit my brother.
The first summer of our separation from our parents I spent three weeks with Temple and the boys of his school in the Swiss Alps, dressed in boy’s clothes and climbing the same mountains as teenage youths. Mixing with English, German, French, Swiss, Italian, and other nationalities, soon learning to speak French fluently and German fairly well, I was little aware of national barriers. I acquired an international outlook which neither my father’s influence nor theoretical socialist teaching alone could have given me.
So long ago and far away and yet so well remembered, the two years I spent at school in French Switzerland were one of the happiest periods of my life.
At first I was the only English girl at La Combe and later one of two. I was also the youngest. The majority of the pupils were German girls in their middle or late teens “finishing” their education by studying the French language, literature and culture. The atmosphere was not unlike that of my home environment; studious, tolerant, kindly and with equal emphasis on study and physical fitness. We skated in winter, swam and rowed on the Lakeof Geneva in summer; bicycled and went for long walks, picked narcissi in the fields near Montreux on spring expeditions to such historic sites as the Chateau de Chillon. For a fortnight each year the whole school moved to the Alps, where we climbed mountains and trod the lovely green valleys studded with flowers between the mountain peaks, picking Edelwiss on the few occasions we found this rare flower and chanting French songs. Indelibly imprinted on my mind is a vision of the glories of an Alpine sunset as I stood shyly among my new companions somewhere in the mountains, on the first evening of this happy holiday tentatively attempting to join in the singing.
Sport at La Combe was regarded as a pleasure, not a duty, and study – really hard study – was expected of us all ensured mainly by pride in achievement. Most of the girls came from middle-class German Rheinland andRuhr families which had made sacrifices to give them their year or two of “finishing school” in Switzerland. In contrast to the English school where I went later, it was considered shameful at La Combe not to work hard and take advantage of the opportunity afforded us to learn all we could from teachers who loved to teach and whom one hated to disappoint.
The headmistress of La Combe, Mademoiselle Marthe Dedie, was a cousin of Monsieur Henri Carnal, the headmaster of my brother’s school, and everyone expected them to marry. A handsome woman, I remember her best for the marvel of her long, lustrous and luxuriant black hair which reached almost to her feet and which she braided in thick coils in a crown on top of her head. Perhaps she was too strong-minded and independent for Monsieur Henri who was himself as handsome as a movie star and eventually married an American heiress.
The Chateau de Rosey in later years was to become a favorite school for gilded youth from all over the world, including the present Shah of Iran and other royal personages, besides sons of wealthy American families. In my day it had only one American pupil, a youth of about seventeen whose name I have forgotten, but whom I remembered because of the various troubles he got me into. He took me riding in his newly acquired automobile and promptly ran us into a stone wall. On another occasion he so outraged me by kissing me that I seized his best Panama hat and doused it in the fountain in the Chateau de Rosey courtyard. Once he induced me by the bribe of a carton of Nestle’s Swiss chocolate bars to carry a note from him to one of the girls at my school.
This shameful episode is the more inexcusable because, when Temple and I were first left at school in Switzerland, our parents arranged credit for us at the grocery store in Rolle. Unlike Temple, I had refused this opportunity to buy chocolates or anything else, not wishing to enjoy special privileges denied to the other girls at my school. Yet in my second year I succumbed to the lure of a dozen large chocolate bars as the price for delivering a love note, or maybe an invitation to an assignation, to one of my classmates from a rich, young American. I never really liked him but he tempted me and I fell.
This incident is one of the most painful recollections of my childhood because of the feeling of guilt it gave me for long afterwards. I realized that I had betrayed the trust reposed in me by Mademoiselle Marthe who, because my brother was there, permitted me, unlike the other girls at La Combe, to visit the Chateau de Rosey whenever I wished.
My favorite among Temple’s classmates was Jimmy Reiss, an intelligent witty and sophisticated Jewish boy from Manchester who was to remain my friend for many years. I still have a photo of him in a Chateau de Rosey performance of “Le Chapeau de Paille d’Italie” – a musical farce, two lines from which I was to remember all my life when enjoying myself too much. “Mon cher mais c’est atroce/Nous faisons touses Les jours la noce.” Which roughly translated means: My dear it’s terrible, we’re having a ball every day!
A decade and a half after our school days in Rolle, I was tempted to marry Jimmy because I was very fond of him and he was well-to-do, while I by that time was exceedingly poor. Temple used to say how nice it would be to have a brother-in-law with a wine cellar, and Jimmy and I had much in common. But in the 20’s in London I had not given up my hope of romantic love. Besides, Jimmy seemed too “bourgeois” for me much as I enjoyed his company. He never did marry and probably had grave reservations in courting me since he thoroughly enjoyed his foot-loose life. But he was to give me help and comfort when I returned from Russia in 1936 with my political hopes and personal life alike shattered.
La Combe today, although still a more modest establishment than the Chateau de Rosey, has likewise become a fashionable modern school, as I found when I briefly revisited it in 1953 when driving through Switzerlandfrom Germany to Italy with my son. The bedrooms now have running water and there are plenty of bathrooms, whereas in my day we each of us took our turn once a week for a hot bath in a cold outhouse. But the same solidly constructed, cream-colored, two-story, many windowed building still stands looking out upon the same distant view of the Lake of Geneva shimmering in the sunlight. The same sentier leads along the railroad line to the Chateau de Rosey along which I trod or bicycled so often.
There is the same tinkling of pianos in practice rooms; the same calm, studious atmosphere; the same lovely gardens shaded by ancient trees; the same flagstoned terrace in front of the main building where we sat in late afternoon embroidering or stitching as we listened to reading aloud of French classic literature. And, no doubt, there is the same curriculum demanding the same conscientious study and endeavor as in the days of my childhood, when we walked up and down in the early morning in the open air learning our grammar lessons from Larousse or memorizing French prose pieces, before classes began.
I can still recite the opening passage of the piece by Alphonse Daudet which begins: “Les chevres de Monsieur Seguin s’en allez tous dans la montagne,” telling the tale of the beautiful little white goat who, despite the love and care lavished on her, was eventually gobbled up by a wolf because like Monsieur Seguin’s other goats she would not stay in his lush pastures but sought adventure in the mountains.
So unchanging, widespread and influential are the disciplines of French education and the patterns of French culture that, in Algeria in September 1963, driving in the countryside where goats abound and conversing with my young Arab Moslem chauffeur, I started to quote the above passage and found that he, too, had learned by heart the same Daudet story about Monsieur Seguin’s beloved little white goat!
Our places in school each week were determined by the “Dictee” which started classes. By my second year I was often at the top, and always near the head of the class, being able to take French dictation almost without spelling mistakes. I had perforce learned French fast since during my first year there was only one other girl who spoke English. Her name was Gretel Muthmann and her mother was an Englishwoman who had married a German velvet manufacturer from Crefeld in the Ruhr. Gretel helped me and cherished me like an older sister and we have remained close friends until today, in spite of the two wars which split our worlds into contending halves, and in which she suffered both physical and mental anguish.
Whenever I now cross the Atlantic to Europe I visit Gretel, my oldest friend in all the world. During the Second World War she lost her husband and was twice bombed out of her home in Cologne where she practiced as a dentist. After taking refuge with relatives in East Germany she fled before the Red Army with her teenage daughter who was wounded by machine gun fire from an American plane. At the Elbe, in 1945, like so many other thousands of German women and children seeking escape from the Communist terror, they had waited in vain for permission from the U.S. Army to cross over. Luckier than most, thanks to being able to claim kinship with relatives in England, Gretel and her young daughter were eventually permitted to cross over the Elbe to safety. And her English relatives helped them with food packages to survive the hunger years which followed during the Allied Occupation.
Gretel’s daughter, Liligret, is today the only woman musician in one of West Germany’s most famous orchestras. Gretel herself is slowly dying from an incurable disease, having been finally laid low after her long and gallant fight to survive the vicissitudes of her life.* Today I remember her best in the role of Cyrano de Bergerac as performed at La Combe before an audience which included the staff and boys of my brother’s school, the townsfolk of Rolle and leading representatives of the landed aristocracy of the vicinity. Gretel gave a superb and unforgettable performance as the swashbuckling Gascon hero of Rostand’s famous play, shocking some of her audience by her fluent colloquial use of French swearwords which she added to the text. The play was not in any case one calculated to uphold the chaste principles of a school for young daughters of the respectable middle classes. Gretel, carried away by her exuberant interpretation of her role, and fortified by champagne, made it even less suitable. But she brought the house down in roars of applause.
- Gretel, whose married name was Mohr, died after the type was set for this book.
It is not possible to remember what one was like in childhood. Nor are the memories of old friends reliable since they are prejudiced in one’s favor. But perhaps one’s best aspirations are mirrored in what one would like to believe is true according to their recollections. When visiting Gretel in Braunschweig in 1960 I asked her to help me understand myself and the course of my life by telling me what kind of a child I was. She said: “Even as a little girl, you seemed to me to be motivated by a passion for justice.” Which reply, I realize, may be due not so much to Gretel’s recollection of me at La Combe, as to the books I have written.
Gretel was not the only friend of my childhood days in Switzerland whom I still know, or with whom I have renewed contact in recent years. Following the publication of The High Cost of Vengeance** in the U.S. in 1940 and in Germany two years later I received many letters from Germany thanking me for having written this book in which I pleaded for justice and mercy for the defeated Germans and argued that only the Communists would profit from the dismantlement of German industry. Among the hundreds of letters I received from Germany several said: “You must be the Freda Utley we once knew at La Combe.” Thus, forty years afterwards, I renewed contat with German friends of my childhood.
** The Henry Regnery Co. Chicago, Noelke Verlag, Hamburg.
Best of all was to receive word from Madmoiselle Marthe Dedie, already in her eighties, congratulating me on the publication of The High Cost of Vengeance, and telling me she was proud that I had been one of her pupils when I was a child.
On the other side of the ledger, I was attacked and smeared as “pro-German” or even as an apologist for the Nazis, by most “liberal” and even some conservative publications in America. It was then considered outrageous to insist that the Germans were no more inherently wicked or aggressive than other peoples, nations or races. I, with my experience of the kindness of my schoolmates at La Combe could not believe in the myth of German beastliness, and I knew too much history to accept the theses of Germany’s
Peter Blake, himself of German Jewish origin, (and today editor of Architectural Forum in New York) game me much consolation when he wrote in Don Levine’s Plain Talk: “It is said that cruelty is the result of fear; perhaps Freda Utley’s great compassion is the result of her courage.”
I should like to think this is true but in fact my compassion for the Germans arose from my own experience. Having myself not so long before lived under the shadow of terror in Stalin’s Russia, I understood how dreadful had been the situation of the Germans under Hitler. Unlike most Americans or English I knew that the subjects of a totalitarian state cannot revolt, without outside help, and that the Germans during the war had had no choice but to fight for their country under the Nazi regime, or submit to Communist conquest. “There but for the Grace of God go I” was a precept I could never forget after my experiences of the terrible compulsions exerted on its subjects by the modern totalitarian state.
In 1952 and subsequent years when again visiting Germany, I found some of the dimly remembered friends of my childhood in comfortable circumstances, while others had barely survived the Nazi era, the war, and its aftermath. But our class of 1911 still managed to meet, occasionally, at some place on the Rhine. Moving spirit of these reunions, until she died in 1959, was the fair haired, blue-eyed and still comely Liselotte Euler, from Bielefeld, who had written in my “Birthday Book”:
Tout change dans ce monde
Vie, plaisir, climat
Seul, mon amitie pour toi
Ne changera pas.
Liselotte’s son, at the age of sixteen, had been mobilized during the last months of the war and taken prisoner by the French, who sent him to do forced labor in the Lorraine coal mines where he was overworked and underfed for two years before being set at liberty. Visiting her together with my Prussian friend, Count Joachim Kalckreuth who had for four years been a starved prisoner of the Russians in worse conditions, we both vainly tried to persuade Liselotte’s son that he should adhere to the West. He repeated the German equivalent of the American expression, “I’ve had it. Don’t talk to me about democracy, or try to tall me there can be anything worse than being a prisoner of the French.”
In contrast to Liselotte’s bitter young son, there was Else Wollstein-Stolberg, who had been my companion at weekly riding lessons in Geneva, and who being Jewish, had suffered terribly during the war. She and her non-Jewish husband, who stuck by her, had survived, thanks to peasants, who hid them in a “fowl house,” to use her own English description of their refuge. I was deeply moved when Else thanked me for having written The High Cost of Vengeance and glad to learn that her husband had been reinstated in the important job in the Cologne Municipality from which he had been ousted by the Nazis.
I was in my thirteenth year when, in 1911, I left La Combe to return to England. The four years I had spent on the Continent at an impressionable age were to have a lasting influence on my outlook. They were golden years of happy memories of a time when the world had seemed a most friendly place and I was little aware of national barriers created by ignorance, price and prejudice. Never in the future would it
be possible for me to think that my own country, or any other country, was the repository of all virtues, or to believe that “my country right or wrong” is an admirable sentiment. “Menschen sind menschen,” as t he Germans say – meaning that humanity the whole world over is much of a muchness. In short, my “Continental Interlude” had for good or ill given me an international outlook for the rest of my life. Like Tom Paine, who said, “Where liberty is not, there is my country,” I came in later years to identify myself with those struggling for freedom and justice anywhere or everywhere on the globe.
No doubt I was spoilt at La Combe. Not only because I was a precocious child among teenagers and for most of the time the only English girl. There was also the fact that my parents were then rich, or seemed to be so, since my father spent his money as easily as he them made it. No other parents in those days came to visit their children in Switzerland in an automobile driven across the continent. As Gretel has told me, my handsome father and my beautiful mother dressed to perfection, made a terrific impact on La Combe, which gave me a special status of which I was totally unaware.
I remember only that the special privilege I asked for, by cable to my parents during my first days at La Combe, was that I should not be compelled to consume soup or drink wine at dinner!
How strange this sounds today when I like nothing better than wine with my meals! In those days on the continent half a century ago the purity of water was not taken for granted even in Switzerland, and wine, or wine and water, was the customary drink for young and old.
My father and mother, besides ensuring my freedom from alcohol later interfered with the disciplines of La Combe by objecting to the system which was so effective in forcing us all to learn French. This system seemed abhorrent to my liberal parents because it entailed “spying” and “denunciation.” There were some dozen “billets” which one passed on to anyone one heard speaking their native tongue – meaning generally German but in my case English. Anyone in possession of one of these tokens at mid-day dinner time was kept in to write in full every conjugation of a French verb – which task, including I, thou, you and it as well as we and they in every tense, took most of the afternoon.
My parents’ moral objections to this most efficacious system for forcing us all to learn French eventually persuaded Mademoiselle Dedie to abandon it for a short time during my last year. Instead of a hectic scramble to get rid of the “billets” before noon, we were put on an honors system of reward. Once a week, anyone who could get up and say “Je jure devant tout le monde” – swear to the world – that she had not spoken anything but French for the past seven days, received a cheap paper copy of some master piece of French literature. By this time French had become almost my native tongue so that it was all too easy for me to collect a book every week, thus acquiring a small library of French classics. The rules were therefore changed in my case to ensure that I should speak German, which I spoke very imperfectly. This created such confusion that the new system was abandoned before I went home to England.
Temple had not been as happy at the Chateau de Rosey as I at La Combe. He had come “to hate the food, the cold and the discomfort” and with the departure of Jimmy Reiss and his Latim master, Mr. Hammond, he would have “no one in the whole world to talk to.” Suggesting that Hammond be engaged as his “tuteur” Temple then aged fifteen wrote:
I find him one of the nicest men I know, he is very interesting and very
well read, an atheist, a liberal and his socialism is the same as ours, and
he is not at all fast. He does not want at all a big salary. This is my
suggestion, not his.
Following our return to England our situations were to be reversed. I was to endure four generally unhappy years at boarding school in England. Temple escaped a “public school” education and was tutored at home before enjoying a year at Cambridge University before the 1914 War.
Chapter 4 MY ENGLISH SCHOOL
The plunge from Switzerland into the frigid, unkind and alien atmosphere of an expensive English boarding school no doubt helped to lay the psychological foundations for the militant communism which, a decade later, was to supplant the vague academic socialism of my early youth.
Prior’s Field, Godalming, Surrey, had been founded by Julia Huxley, granddaughter of the renowned Dr. Arnold, Headmaster of Rugby, niece of the poet Matthew Arnold, wife of Leonard, son of the famous Thomas Huxley, and mother of Aldous and Julian Huxley of future fame.* Mrs. Huxley was dead, but her school headed by Mrs. Burton Brown, had been selected by my parents on the confident assumption that it would provide as congenial an atmosphere as La Combe, where I had been educated beyond my years while uninstructed in several basic subjects. Instead, it proved to be no better than a British “public school” for boys.
There was no “fagging” nor infliction of corporal punishment by seniors on juniors, nor hazing of the weak by the strong. Instead there was mental, or perhaps one should call it social, bullying equally effective in enforcing conformity. Such offenses as studying hard, showing originality in dress or any peculiarity of speech or behavior, were punished by mockery or contempt and, worst of all, the loneliness which comes from alienation from the community, particularly hard to bear when one is homesick. Realizing I was having a bad time my parents offered to remove me during my first year, but, thinking that Prior’s Field was typical of English schools, I saw no point in this and decided that I must endure it.
- In Ronald W. Clark’s book, The Huxley’s, McGraw Hill 1968, there are many pages about Prior’s
Field where Aldous Huxley was a pupil when seven years old together with the original six girls.
I was handicapped from the start by my slightly foreign accent as well as by my un-English upbringing. My “r’s” were French “r’s” and I recall my acute embarrassment when made to stand up to say “stirrup” over and over again, unable to pronounce it in an English accent while the whole class laughed.
Other disadvantages due to my lopsided education abroad had to be overcome. At La Combe there had been no mathematics classes, only optional bookkeeping courses for older girls. So although I had a wide-ranging acquaintance with French and English literature and considerable knowledge of European and ancient history, when it came to arithmetic I did not even know what LCM (Lowest Common Multiple) or HFC (Highest Common Factor) meant. And with regard to geometry and algebra, I had to start from scratch. Since I also knew no Latin, I was assigned during my first term to the lowest form with the youngest girls in the school.
Because I had acquired the habit of study, and was blessed with an excellent memory, I quickly caught up and rapidly advanced from class to class winning more prizes than anyone else, and arriving ahead of my time at the sixth, or top form.
My scholastic achievements counted for less than nothing in the opinion of my classmates, who gave me the nickname of “Brainy,” in no complimentary sense. After I was chosen for the tennis and swimming teams which competed with other schools I was tolerated, if never fully accepted, as a member of Prior Field’s “ruling class.” But I continued to be a non-conformist. I won a prize for botany because collecting specimens of wild flowers enabled me to go for walks and escape playing cricket. La Crosse, which was played in winter, I enjoyed, but I only made the second team. I had from the first refused to wear a black or brown ribbon to bind up my hair, preferring a colored one to match the smocks which we wore over the regulation white blouses and skirts into which we changed each evening from our daytime grey tunics.
Accustomed at La Combe to associate with girls older than myself on terms of equality, I had no inkling of my social misdemeanor when, at the beginning of my residence at Prior’s Field, I talked at length with two older girls sitting together on the “horse” in the gym at a Saturday night dance. This “horse” I should explain, was a leather upholstered contraption above which we vaulted with varying degrees of success during our daily mid-morning’s gymnasium exercises which included climbing up bars and ropes besides marching and running in step. All of which muscle-building and posture exercises were one of the best sides of the curriculum.
My sins against the social code, at first unconscious, became deliberate. The spirit of rebellion was awakened in me as I opposed the social hierarchy and the conventions of my school. In later life the girls of Prior’s Field came to symbolize for me the “imperialist British bourgeoisie:” class conscious, insensitive, sublimely self-assured, scornful of learning, and confident in their divine right to order the universe.
The profound changes brought about by two World Wars and England’s loss of her Empire have since my day transformed the atmosphere of English private schools, as also the composition and outlook of English ruling circles. But, “the Establishment” as it is now called, endures.
I made some friends but they were either rebels like myself or passive non-conformists, or victims of ‘the system,’ whom I tried to help or protect after I had myself achieved the status of a prefect. One among the former was Margaret Waley, cousin of Arthur Waley, the famous sinologist whose translations of Chinese poems are widely known. Margaret, however, was one of those rare characters who are impervious to their environment. She walked alone and did not care whether she was popular or not, whereas I yearned to be liked and appreciated, although unable to make the concessions necessary for social acceptability.
Among other friends there was Nora Buchan-Sydserf – an unforgettable name – who, being Scotch, was better educated than most English girls, and had an amused contempt for the “sassenach” hierarchy which ran our school. Small and wiry with beautiful long, naturally curly golden hair and bright blue eyes, Nora’s appearance was marred by a brace on her front teeth, prominently displayed as she laughed in unconfined enjoyment of her mimicry of the silly pretensions of the “tyrants” who dominated our lives. Tough, intelligent and witty, and still alive today, she was one of those who, in Voltaire’s phrase, see life as comedy because they think, instead of as the tragedy it seems to those who mainly feel.
Another well remembered friend, with whom I have kept some contact over the years, was Dorothea Bluet from Buenos Aires. A short, fat girl with mousey straight hair and pale round face with no pretensions to beauty except for large sparkling black eyes, she was to marry a rich rancher and is today a happy grandmother in the Argentine. Neither “brainy” nor athletic, Dorothea was amiable and full of fun and uninhibited either by her teenage roly poly figure or her inferior status as “colonial” British. I can still see her in my mind’s eye, dumpy, small body shaking with laughter, white teeth gleaming, eyes twinkling and moon face crinkled with mirth as our small group sat on the grass in a secluded corner of the playing fields on the edge of the woods sheltering violets, bluebells and primroses, in Surrey in the springtime after lunch. Here we played the “truth” game, asking each other searching, embarrassing questions which one was honor bound to answer unequivocally.
Others I remember are the older girls who befriended me during my first year at Prior’s Field, Beata Crook and Phyllis Vickers. Beata who looked rather Rossettish inspired me to make such efforts in my attempts to play the violin that I became a minor member of the school orchestra – an achievement which filled me with greater pride than my success in classes, although each time I played my heart palpitated with the dread engendered by my consciousness of my inadequacies as a musician.
Phyllis, after a brilliant career at Cambridge University became a Factory Inspector in the Labor Ministry and was a most helpful friend in my days of poverty in London during the 1914 war.
I was on good terms with Margaret Huxley, sister of Julian and Aldous. I remember her brothers only as young men who, on the rare occasions when they spent a weekend at the school from which they derived their income, sat in state at the headmistress’ table at Sunday dinner.
As I write and call to mind these and others who were my friends at Prior’s Field, I wonder whether my years there were really as unhappy as I used to think.
During my last year I even became friendly with the girl we called “Carrots,” a tall superbly built redhead with a freckled face, snubnose, bright blue eyes and engaging smile displaying perfect teeth, who was both the all round athletic champion and head girl. Her name was Mary Cooper, and I had originally hated her as the “boss” of the school and embodiment of all I most disliked at Prior’s Field. Carrots, whose leadership I had for long defied, was extremely nice to me after the descent of my parents from affluence to penury. This is perhaps not so strange because today I can appreciate the virtues as well as the defects of the erstwhile British ruling class. As my brother Temple was to write two decades later from Suva, despite our being “intellectuals” we both liked “the barbarian English from the best schools.”
Let me not forget in recalling my school impressions of half a century ago, my tennis partner, Marjorie Clemence Dane. A tall, sturdy blond girl with few, if any, intellectual or political interests, but with a good brain and a headstrong and romantic temperament, she was to become my close friend years later in London.
The only child of a “widow of high degree” – at least in her mother’s own estimation – Marjorie had never met the “lower classes” until I stayed with her one summer in Sidmough in Devonshire in the early Twenties. Accustomed from childhood to fishing and sailing whenever I could, I naturally made friends with the local fishermen, and Marjorie and I spent many a night “mackerel drifting,” and helping to haul in the nets at dawn.
To me this was just the kind of sea-going holiday I had enjoyed in childhood. But to Marjorie it was romance. She fell in love with a fisherman who was squat and dark and muscular and almost ugly except for his large, black, long-lashed eyes – inherited perhaps from some Spanish ancestor cast upon the Western shore of England after the defeat of the Armada.
“Ern” Jenkins was not very bright and his political opinions of the day depended on whether he had just read the Conservative “Daily Mail” or the Labor “Daily Herald.” He was far less interesting and attractive than “Stan” Harris who could neither read nor write but who had opinions he had thought out for himself, and whose physique was that of a legendary Norseman or Greek God. Stan was married to a wonder girl called Kathie who was pretty and witty and well educated and who never let the hardships of a fisherman’s wife get her down. They had a charming child called Peggy and theirs was a happy, life-long love. Both of them recur often in my story since they became and remained dear friends long after Marjorie and Ern had parted.
Marjorie’s mother called in the Bishop of London to try to stop the marriage and took her on a sea voyage round the world on a luxury liner to cure her of her infatuation. It was all in vain. Although, as my brother observed at the time, if Marjorie’s mother had not skimped on this voyage and had taken her on a P. & O. instead of a Japanese boat, she might have met a man who would have made her forget poor Ern.
Marjorie had 500 pounds a year of her own – a not inconsiderable income in those days. She could afford to play at the simple life in a comfortably appointed cottage in Sidmouth after she married Ern. He, unfortunately, had all the “petty bourgeois” prejudices of the respectable British working class and this ruined their marriage. Marjorie had fallen in love not so much with him as with his way of life. But as soon as they were man and wife, he stopped her going out fishing with him at night, insisted on her wearing a hat and stop wearing shorts or slacks, and in general made her life so dull that she yearned to return to London.
Eventually they divorced with Ern keeping the house and being paid quite a bit of “alimony.” Marjorie later married my college friend, Robert Ryan, a clever, sensitive and poetical Irishman in delicate health. This proved to be a most happy marriage, but he dies soon after.
I owe much to Prior’s Field. Not only did my experience there temper and steel me to resist and defy the powers which at all times and places in all societies endeavor to enforce conformity by one means or another. The teaching was also excellent. The trouble was that neither the headmistress nor the staff, with the exception of the games mistress, had much influence outside the classroom.
History, which was my favorite subject, was particularly well taught. At Prior’s Field in my early teens I learned more history, ancient, medieval and modern, than most American college students. We were also given some understanding of political realities and the facts of power, so conspicuous by their absence in liberal academic circles today. For instance, it was impressed on me that Magna Carta which in later centuries came to be the Great Charter of English freedom, was nothing of the sort in 1215, at Runnymede. It marked instead, as I learnt at Prior’s Field, the success of the feudal aristocracy in wresting back from a cruel and foolish kind its own special privileges – then called “liberties” – curtailed by Norman kings seeking to establish a strong central government ensuring law and order and the protection of the weak against the strong. It was not until many centuries later that Manga Carta was transformed into a charter of liberties for all Englishmen. (In parentheses, I must here remark that a minor lesson impressed on me at Prior’s Field is nover to mix Latin and English by calling the Great Charter Magna Charta – a mistake so general that typists or typographers almost always get it wrong.)
History as taught in most American schools and colleges only briefly scans, or passes over as dark ages of little or no interest to the modern world, the millenium between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Rennaissance and Reformation. This general ignorance of medieval history seems to me the main reason why Americans in general, despite their good will and desire to help, fail to appreciate the problems of government in “underdeveloped” or backward countries. “Democracy” in such countries almost inevitably entails giving a free hand to the rich and powerful, just as in Thirteenth Century England, Magna Carta meant restoring to the Barons their “liberty” to oppress their vassals and serfs without fear of the Crown oppressing them or bringing them to justice.
Many years after, lessons I learned at Prior’s Field, and subsequently at London University, enabled me to realize that China in the aftermath of the war against Japan was at about the same stage of political development as England and France in the Middle Ages, when the great need was for a strong government to enforce law and order and defend the country against its external enemies.
It seemed to me absurd and self-defeating for America to demand “democratic” government in China, when the real need was for an effective administration able to curb the centrifugal forces and enforce reforms. As I wrote in my book, Last Chance in China:*
To call the Kuomintang Government “Facist” is the very reverse of the
truth. Its powers are not limitless but far too limited. In war it lacks
entirely the simian efficiency of the Nazi, Japanese and Soviet States.
It interferes with the individual too little, not too much. Its sins of
omission are far greater than its sins of commission. Its gravest fault
is the ineffectiveness of its administration, and its failure to force
through necessary reforms. It is too soft, not too hard.
Naturally, my political realism in writing that “an economically and politically backward country such as China requires an authoritative administration,” called down on me the opprobrium of American “liberals” who accused me of a preference for tyranny even while they themselves were equating willingness to collaborate with Communists as the hallmark of a “democrat.”
Owing to this confusion or the ignorance of most Americans of history prior to 1776, we “lost” China. This is a later story which I tell in my 1951 book The China Story.** Here I have digressed to show that in spite of my own foolishness in drifting into the Communist camp in the late Twenties, I never quite forgot fundamental historical lessons learned half a century ago at Prior’s Field.
* Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis, 1947.
** Henry Regnery, Chicago, 1951.
On the other side of the ledger, so to speak, I remember a talk given to us in 1913 by Mrs. Burton Brown, in which she compared Lloyd George’s reforms with those of the Gracchi who had been murdered for their attempt to remedy social and economic injustice and thus ‘save the Republic.’ Conservatives who fail to see the need for change and the remedy of abuses pave the way for dictators who abolish all our liberties.
“B.B.,” as we called our headmistress, was a great teacher and a scholar who related the lessons of the past to the present. She was a liberal in the true and original meaning of that much abused word, but also a realist without illusions concerning the facts of power and the basic motives of men, ancient, medieval or modern.
Few among her pupils appreciated her great qualities or liked her much. She was a big, heavy, majestic woman with a rugged masculine countenance, thick eyebrows and heavy jowels, who inspired awe, not affection. She was too remote to know how little effect either her teachings or her personality and high-minded precepts had on the conduct of her pupils. We were all afraid of her, and it was with a beating heart that we obeyed a summons to her book-lined, chintz-curtained study whose French windows looked out on a garden glorious in early summer with deep blue delphiniums and other brilliant flowers. Even I, one of her favorite pupils, vividly recollect that to be called to B.B.’s study in the early morning made my heart palpitate with nameless dread.
B.B.’s daughter, Beatrice (whose shortened name of Bice we pronounced bitch) was a thin-lipped spinster with an artificial smile who was actively disliked for what we instinctively recognized as only a veneer of sweetness, light and charity covering her lack of warmth and humanity, and the conceit which then as now is the besetting sin of class conscious liberal intellectuals.
“Bice” gave me individual instruction in Greek to enable me to acquire sufficient knowledge within a year to pass the Cambridge “Little Go.” She spent most of the time trying to inspire me with a vision of Socrates in the false image of a non-conformist parson. The fact that I actually passed Cambridge University’s entrance examination at the age of sixteen, in Greek as well as Latin, was due to my excellent memory. I memorized the English translation of Plato’s Apologia and Zenophon’s Anabasis, and learned just enough Greek to recognize which passages had been given for translation. However, I owe it to “Bice” that I learned by heart some lines from Plato’s account of the death of Socrates in the original Greek, which I can still recite by rote.
My knowledge of Latin, unlike my Greek, was not synthetic. I really learned Latin at Prior’s Field, thanks mainly to our Classics teacher, Miss Richards. She was a neat, small, reserved woman with a well-developed sense of humor who never curried popularity, or like the games mistress and some others, sought to stimulate endeavor by arousing inordinate affection – a “pash” to use our word for the unhealthy, adolescent adoration of pupil for mistress in our exclusively feminine society. I remember Miss Richards although I have forgotten the names and faces of other mistresses at Prior’s Field, because she was an inspired teacher who could make even Latin grammar and composition interesting, and the reading of Roman poetry and prose an absorbing pleasure instead of a chore.
I can no longer read it with ease, but my good grounding in Latin syntax and logic, and the clarity of expression required by the exigencies of the Latin tongue, together with my earlier French education, taught me to endeavor to express my thoughts succinctly and logically instead of taking refuge in the verbosity and ambiguity, or mushiness, which in our day and age enables many writers to hedge on their convictions. I do not pretend that my writings have measured up to classical standards, but I have always endeavored to express my meaning clearly and unequivocally.
Long before I want to Prior’s Field my thoughts and aspirations had been colored by Greek and Roman myths, legends and history.
One of the first books Temple and I read was an abridged version of Chapman’s translation of the Iliad and Odyssey, with illustrations by Flaxman copied from Greek vases. The garden of the Hesperides, the siege ofTroy, the wanderings of Ulysses and Aeneas, the battles of Marathon and Salamis – the whole beauty and wonder of Greek myth, legend and history, had given me visions from childhood of a lovely land of marble temples and sunlit seas where men first dispelled the mists of superstition, ignorance and fear.
But until I came to Prior’s Field I had no more than a romantic vision of the glory that was Greece or of the lasting contribution made by Rome to the foundations of Western civilization.
Thanks to Mrs. Burton Brown, I also acquired some appreciation of the connection between art and religion, politics and philosophy, truth and beauty. One evening a week in the winter and spring terms, “B.B.” lectured to us on Greek, Roman, and Renaissance art. Her lectures were illustrated by slides, and although I can recollect little of what she said, I can still visualize some of the photographs of temples, statues and pictures shown to us on the screen. Mrs. Burton Brown gave me the small measure of understanding of art of which I am capable, together with a deep and enduring appreciation of the Greek genius and its lasting influence.
Temple always said that my artistic tastes depended on my political and ethical values, meaning that I had no pure aesthetic appreciation of art. Which is no doubt true and explains why I have no appreciation of most ‘modern art’ which to me conveys only confusion. Seeking and admiring clarity of thought and expression, I can see no sense in pictures without meaning, or whose meaning is deliberately obscured.
The classical influences of my childhood and youth stayed with me all my life. For some twenty years, until her death in 1963 at the age of 93, I was privileged to count Edith Hamilton among my friends. This outstanding American classical scholar comforted and encouraged me in Washington decades after I was a child at Prior’s Field when I was cast down by the failure of my best books. She chided me gently, saying that if one is determined to “witness to the truth” as one sees it, it is inconsistent to yearn for the fruits of the transitory success which come to those who seek popularity. “The excellent becomes the permanent,” she wrote, quoting Aristotle, in her inscription to me in one of her last books.
Edith Hamilton also tried to instruct me as to how to get my views heard by a wiser presentation than was my wont.
Mrs. Burton Brown’s lectures on history and art compensated for much else lacking at Prior’s Field. Now that I am much older than she was when I listened to her with rapt attention, I recognize my debt to her teaching and can forgive her for having failed me at a critical period in my life.
I was one of her favored pupils, not because she had affection for me, but on account of my scholastic record. I won more prizes each year for proficiency in more subjects than anyone else. I even won a prize for Divinity, although I was a free th inker, exempted from church attendance. I acquired a leather bound volume of Meredith’s poems, which I still possess, for general knowledge of the Bible, in April 1913, when I was fifteen years old and in class VB. (Lower Fifth) The following term, summer 1913, I won the school “Essay” prize for a dissertation on Machiavelli. This time the book given me was Cary’s translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” which was a more fitting choice as my reward than Meredith’s “Poems” may seem as a Divinity prize. In my essay on Machiavelli, I argued that there was not really such a disparity as generally supposed between the Florentine’s advice to tyrants, as expressed in his “Prince,” and his eulogy of Republican Virtues in his “Commentaries on Livy” – the Roman classical historian. As I saw it, when fifteen years old, men are usually ready to condone, or even approve, actions taken by their state or country which they condemn when taken by an individual, so that what seemed admirable “virtue” in the Romans was regarded as wickedness in an individual Italian prince.
I wish I still had this old essay of mine. All I can now remember is its main argument that Machiavelli’s precepts for Princes – his description of how tyrants maintain their power, which came to be called “Machiavellian,” – was not different in essence to the precepts and practices of the Roman Republic or modern nation states.
Mrs. Burton Brown, expecting that I would reflect glory on Prior’s Field by future academic achievements at Cambridge University, gave me special facilities for study. She lent me books and during my last year installed me in a room of my own in the hospital annex where I could read late or early instead of being subject to school rules. But in the end she let me down so badly that she did more to awaken my budding revolutionary outlook than anyone else in my early life.
When the war5 came in 1914, my father was ruined. I was sixteen and had just passed the entrance examination to Cambridge University. Mrs. Burton Brown, confident that I would win laurels for Prior’s Field, gave me a year’s free schooling. I began working in the Cambridge “Higher Local,” an additional examination which women candidates were also required to pass, but it soon became clear that I should not be able to take advantage of the scholarship which I was almost certain to secure, because my father would be unable to contribute anything to my support. Instead of arranging for me to go to London University – where, as I learned years later, I could have obtained a scholarship sufficient to enable me to continue my studies – “B.B.” cast me off, as no longer of any interest or value to Prior’s Field. Nor did she let me down gently.
She made it brutally clear to me that my presence at Prior’s Field was no longer desired, and caused me acute shame by letting it be known that I was at school free because my parents could no longer afford to pay my fees. When I passed the Cambridge “Higher Local” with flying colors “B.B.” reserved her congratulations for the girl who had passed with lower marks but had the financial means to continue her education.
Today, six decades later, I remember the shock and disillusionment of the discovery that Mrs. Burton Brown had never had any personal regard for me, having all along been concerned only with the academic laurels I was expected to win for her school. After I was precluded, on account of poverty, from being of any value to Prior’s Field, she cast me off without compunction or compassion.
Thus in the summer of 1915, I left school with few regrets and some bitterness, thanks to the personal experience which taught me that the social system could fling one into poverty from security, and prevent one from continuing one’s education whatever the proof of one’s mental qualifications.