In the antique and innocent 1980s, a girl could make it all the way through high school without ever seeing a pornographic magazine—at least this girl did—which left movies and books as the source of erotic information. And the movies that had interesting sexual content, like, 9 1/2 Weeks, A Room With A View and Purple Rain—were legendary. One of the strangest and most magical entries in this canon, for me, was Another Country, the story of two boys’ affair at an English boarding school, with the boys played by Rupert Everett and Cary Elwes. (Everett already being a source of obsession from the Judith Krantz miniseries, Princess Daisy, but I digress). The combination of gorgeous boys, forbidden love and the English pastoral setting has left me with a soft-spot for English boarding-school romance, which is how I picked up Wilberforce, by H.S. Cross, a flawed but wonderful novel from FSG, published in 2015.
Wilberforce is the story of a 17-year-old attending a third rate English boarding school in 1926, who is plagued by sexuality, loneliness and the half-formed urges to be a good man. He seems mostly ordinary, somewhat athletic, handsome enough, considered bright but lazy by his teachers, but as the novel progresses his situation becomes more precarious. His mother has died, his father retreats into grief, the school itself with its old-fashioned codes of honor and behavior has been undermined by the cynicism following the first World War (and presumably by the loss of a generation of men to be masters; most of the teachers are ancient). Tragedy, by the time it strikes, seems inevitable.
A well-written, high-stakes world of caning, gay sex, boarding-school hideouts and rugby drama is my cup of tea. The first older-boy sadist/villain is named Silk Bradley (!), and Wilberforce’s obsession with the older, magnetic Spaulding is the stuff of legends. But, though I’m focusing on the fun bits here, the author is aiming for high literature, more The Secret History than Princess Daisy. Wilberforce is haunted by tides of emotion, premonitions of darkness, has beautifully detailed memories and flashbacks. His perspective is rich and sometimes intensely overblown in a teenage way, but I liked that. Here’s a passage after he’s deliberately tackled Spaulding in rugby (the reader doesn’t know yet why), that displays some of the drama and pleasure of Cross’s prose:
Now in his mouth the aftertaste of blood, in his chest the dread of life turned ill, and in his bones the shock of impact—savage, fatal—with Spaulding.
Or, here’s a memory, richly detailed:
His mother never made him drink foul things. She always put in honey so being ill didn’t have to be worse than it was, she said. When he couldn’t keep things down, she gave him boiled sweets and ice, hammered to shards in a tea towel.
I also thought the novel’s qualities as a historical fiction were pretty good. The characters’ psychology didn’t feel modern, nor did the dialog. The writing had a kind of dry humor on topics like boarding-school discipline and Victorian pornography that worked well as a historical voice.
And as the action amps up in the first half of the book, Wilberforce becomes a page-turner.
So, then, I was puzzled-baffled-disappointed by what went wrong in the second half. After a school holiday the previous threads are largely dropped, a major character disappears and another appears to fulfill his narrative functions, and some annoying conceits arise, like a chapter where Wilberforce literally sees and talks to two versions of himself, one bad, one good. What I really wanted to know was, How did this book get bought by FSG in this shape? Could it possibly have been bought on a proposal? Why didn’t it get a much better edit? Was the writer difficult to work with? Did people run out of time? All of the above?
There are the bones of a great story in here…. there is a great story in here. But [spoilers, sorry] after the boy Wilberforce madly loves dies in front of him, he returns to school and starts flirting with a bar-maid? Right away? His sexuality which has basically seemed sympathetic and reasonable until this point suddenly becomes pathological? It’s all a muddle. I understand that he wants spiritual redemption, but not the sense that the narration thinks he needs it badly enough to bring in a Bishop, as Cross does.
It seems like at some point a decision was made that the story is the redemption of a character gone totally off the rails, when the story I thought I was reading was about a lonely kid trying to survive an insane boarding school.
So, I liked a lot of things about the writing, but for me this book didn’t work.