Saturday, 7 May 2016

'The Fall of Doctor Onslow' - Frances Vernon

I have never understood how a person's sexuality is any of my business. Quite how, or more importantly, why it matters so much to some is beyond me. Judgement is passed then a verdict of 'it's not natural' proclaimed. This, of course, is utter nonsense. It is true that more members of the animal world are bisexual than they are homo or heterosexual. This draws the conclusion that homo sapiens are somewhat out of kilter with their fellow animals. That being so only proves the point that the shrinking few who claim it unnatural are in fact very wrong. It is very natural. This brings me back to my opening statement - it is none of my business nor for that matter, anyone else's what people do with their sex lives.

Of course, we live in a world that gradually, you might even say begrudgingly, is softening its austere views on sexuality. This wasn't the case during the Victorian age. At least not among the working class. It was subtly received, if equally disliked, by the Middle-Class who tended to be a little more ambivalent if no less judgemental.

It is 1858 and Doctor George Onslow, highly regarded and all set to climb the greasy pole of theocracy is headmaster of Charton, an English public school, one that had descended into the mire under the previous heads tenure only for the good clergyman to raise its standards back to accepted levels. His is the confidence of Achilles. 

He knows how his efforts in improving the school have not gone unnoticed. Both parents and the church hierarchy are impressed. The school is among the best in the land. Known for its reforms, its educational achievements and the pupils who leave its halls educated to the highest degree. Like Achilles, he has his weakness - his passion for boys.

The strength of this book, published posthumously in 1994, is the way in which the text matches perfectly the period it is set in - 1858. In other words, Frances Vernon manages to write as though she composed the novel in 1858 and not 1991. It feels less an artifice, more genuine. Her prose is of that era and not an attempt to replicate it.

Not only is this among some of the best books I have ever read, an overlooked classic, it has the hallmarks of having been written by a talent only just coming into bloom.

Frances Vernon committed suicide in July 1991. She was ever edging toward literary greatness. Now she is largely forgotten. A sin in itself greater than the one depicted within the pages of the book.

Vernon, based her story on homosexual John Addington Symonds who attended Harrow school during the 1850's. He described the place as where 'every boy of good looks had a female name and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow's 'bitch.'  Symonds also revealed that the headmaster had sexual relations with many of the young pupils.

This was not paedophilia as the boys in question were all of an age of consent, all above sixteen. These were homosexual acts. They were also an abuse of power.

In 'The Fall of Doctor Onslow' the central character, the Doctor, has four relationships with a selection of pupils over a period of time. It is with his affair with the young, beautiful, Arthur Bright that is his ultimate undoing. Onslow and Bright become lovers. To make matters worse the Doctor writes a note to his young love.

Bright shares this confidence with a friend, Christian Antsy-Ward, himself an admirer of his fellow male students, their lovely faces, their gorgeous forms, their manhoods when emboldened. Its is the ammunition by which to nail Onslow's coffin tightly shut.

This is a gripping story, a page turner and yet one that meets all the literary conceits of great characterisation but also a well-plotted story with the most divine of prose styles. Tension is maintained not only by the revelations that come to light when the father of Christian Antsy-Ward is given the letters by his son but also by having George Onslow's wife, Louisa's, faithful loyalty to her husband. Rather than being horrified her husband has taken not just a lover but a male, she is seemingly sanguine about the whole affair, relaxed even. It is her fear of losing position in society that concerns her. In fact, few are enraged by the homosexuality of the sordid business. They all take, as did Middle-class Britain in those days, relatively relaxed views. Their chief concern was the abuse of power used by a headmaster over his pupil, not the sexual act committed by both.

The Victorian Middle-Class, ever enamoured by classic literature, were all too aware of the 'Greco-Roman admiration of youth, of pederasty, of adult men falling in divine love with boys. The Victorians 'spun' this to mean loving the beauty of the boys but not physically engaging with them,  unconsummated but nonetheless lustful. 

The subject matter is something to get your teeth into as the developing plot and subplots twist and weave but also the discussions of Darwinism opposed to creationism.

I would recommend this book (hard to find so check out Faber Finds) to anyone who enjoys powerful works of literature. I would not recommend it to the sheep who bleat mild protests about the books contents. Those that make a point of indicating their finding narratives containing homosexuality something a tad distasteful, as they themselves, they insist on telling us, are perfectly formed specimens of the male gender with an intellect incapable of dealing with reality. Those fools are closet gays. Ignore them. Read this book.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

1 comment:

Cara H said...

In the United States, one might also check Abe Books and Better World Books. They both have a good track record of having hard to find books at affordable prices.

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