Authors: Michael Campbell
LORD DISMISS US
With a new introduction by
Lord Dismiss Us
by Michael Campbell
First published London: Heinemann,
First Valancourt Books edition,
by Michael Campbell
by Dennis Drabelle
Published by Valancourt Books, Richmond, Virginia
All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without prior written consent of the publisher, constitutes an infringement of the copyright law.
Cover by M. S. Corley
A school visitor inquires, ‘Are some of these children as romantic, to put it politely, as one reads in books?’
‘More so,’ replies a master.
The school being visited is Weatherhill, the setting for Michael Campbell’s vibrant, superbly plotted, and heart-breaking novel
Lord Dismiss Us
. Tucked away in the English countryside, Weatherhill consists of
male students, ranging from pre-pubescent boys to nearly grown men of
, along with their masters (i.e., teachers) and support staff. Although not on a par with Eton or Harrow, Weatherhill has its own pride and traditions, its own bad cafeteria food, and, naturally, nicknames for its most colourful masters and students. During their six-year sojourns, some Weatherhillians get so wrapped up in the place that the outside world exists on a lower plane. Not least among the causes of this ingrown fervour is that romance between students has become commonplace.
For the majority of those taking part, the affairs are casual and opportunistic; for others, though, they are serious rehearsals for later life. Weatherhill’s longtime headmaster, dead before the novel gets underway, ran a loose ship; the other masters also turned a blind eye. But the new head, a martinet named Crabtree, thinks he sees and knows all. Treating the school as a vehicle for his ambitions, ‘the Crab’, as he is called behind his back, makes a priority of stamping out romance.
Mind you, we are not talking about paedophilia. To be sure, the chaplain likes to gather a cadre of dirty students for his weekly tea (‘dirty’ in the sense of coarse and messy) but does not lay a hand on them. With few exceptions, the affection in this novel is boy-on-boy, which Campbell treats matter-of-factly, without leering. Two complications make the affairs potentially troublesome, though: the headmaster’s rigidity and the participants’ emotional immaturity.
After an opening section in which Campbell takes the reader on a leisurely, sometimes rollicking tour of the school and its denizens, the novel shifts into high gear when a big man on campus, the handsome and brainy Terence Carleton, teams up with Nicky Allen, who is a year behind him, to lead Weatherhill to victory in a cricket match. United by their triumph, the two boys get physically close when, in the crowded car bringing them back, Allen winds up perched on Carleton’s knee. So begins a mutual crush that, since Allen is also a looker and a leader, makes them a power couple. If this strikes you as unlikely, think of a comparable duo who carried on at St Alban’s in Washington, D.C., during the early
s, as detailed in Gore Vidal’s memoir
: Jimmie Trimble, the admired athlete, and Vidal himself, the budding writer.
Under the illusion that their love is a well-kept secret, Carleton and Allen leave notes to each other with the help of a signal: putting one hand in a pocket means go look for a message in the designated hiding place. But their fellow students have caught on, and so has one of the masters, Eric Ashley, who is in the coils of torment as his own homosexuality catches up with him. At the same time, the Crab has deputized his odious daughter to snoop around. Ultimately, though, Carleton and Allen will have to contend with forces even stronger than others’ disapproval: their own faults and inexperience.
Campbell himself went to a public school (the British term for a private boarding school), albeit in his native Ireland. His family had recently been ennobled, and a few years before his death in
, at age
, he became the fourth and last Baron Glenavy. (In
Lord Dismiss Us
, the Crab’s vision for the school includes enrolling
more ‘honourables’.) After graduating from Trinity College, Dublin
, Campbell had gone to work at the
and moved to London, where, he recalled, he ‘wrote most of the London Letter column six days a week for nine years’. He resigned and took up fiction-writing; his four novels before
Lord Dismiss Us
are witty but minor, and so is the one that came after it.
Lord Dismiss Us
represents his best claim to be remembered.
The novel is replete with striking observations and brilliant characterizations. Consider one of Ashley’s generalizations about the students: in the classroom, they can be collectively amusing, but outside it, taken one by one, not so much. ‘It was the surface or the particular in people that was precious,’ he reflects. ‘These children had developed none.’ (When Ashley encounters an exception to this rule, it proves to be his undoing.) The unhealthiest relationship in the book has nothing to do with the students. Indeed, it features adults of the opposite sex: Mrs Crabtree’s masochistic pursuit of the chaplain, who can’t abide her but continues to dazzle her with his inspired preaching. Their scenes together are marvels of comedy blended with pathos. Campbell can also bring a minor character to life with a few brushstrokes. A strapping servant girl wears her hair in a mop that falls over her eyes: ‘She could look out, but nobody could look in.’
Lord Dismiss Us
was published in
, the year English law was amended to decriminalize homosexuality between consenting adults. Change was in the air, and few previous novels had paid so much attention to schoolboy sex – a highly charged subject even today – without flinching in the end. But the novel’s gay content is far from the whole story, as one episode among many can show.
Late in the term, Carleton and Allen find themselves cast as lovers in the school musical, with Allen playing the girl, in drag. This ought to be a jubilant occasion for them: a perfect excuse to portray in public what they have been feeling in private. Instead, their acting pains them in a way I mustn’t spoil. Suffice it to say that the scene would also work if one actor were male and the other female – Campbell is showing us how real life and art can collide and interfere with each other. As Iris Murdoch blurbed when the novel first came out, it is ‘
, which all novels profess to be about, but hardly any are’.
This is not the first time that an American publisher has revived
Lord Dismiss Us
as a neglected classic. In the current era of sexual freedom and fluidity, though, chances are better than ever that this splendid novel will get the wide audience it deserves.
has been a contributing editor of
The Washington Post Book World
. He is the recipient of a National Book Critics Circle’s award for excellence in reviewing and is the author of
The Great American Railroad War
LORD DISMISS US
‘Ah, hah! You pampered Asiatic jades!’
Eric Ashley flung wide the door of the classroom, and struck a Tamburlaine attitude, throwing his gown back over one shoulder and cracking an imaginary whip. He adopted a sneering expression, with his eyes fixed upon two boys in the front row. The veins at either side of his impressive forehead throbbed.
‘You are twenty-five minutes late,’ said Carleton. ‘As usual.’
‘And you won’t bluff us by shouting,’ added Johns. ‘This is costing our parents money.’
The pose remained, but his eyes had moved over the room.
‘Where is Master Steele? Or did he go forth into the big rude world?’
‘He didn’t,’ said Carleton. ‘He’s been out looking for you. As usual. We can’t be bothered. It’s too boring. Anyhow, he came back and said you hadn’t slept in your room. The Pedant’s taking Latin next door, and he told him to go off and tell the new Head. We decided you hadn’t an idea when Term began and were probably off in Rome or somewhere.’
‘Knowing your predilections,’ said Johns.
There was silence. He stared at Johns: and for a moment they were afraid that the subject had become too tender.
‘And how does the creature know whether my room has been slept in or not slept in?’
‘Matron let him in,’ said Carleton; and all ten of them laughed.
Ashley ran his fingers through his straight, blond hair, breathing through tight nostrils.
‘Into my boudoir?’
‘Yes. Through the dispensary.’
‘There is no such entry, you servant girl.’
‘Of course there is. Didn’t you know?’ said Johns.
Ashley picked up the book with which they had all been supplied, saw that it was
, and said fiercely – ‘
est Venus toute entière à sa proie attachée
‘I hope that has no relevance,’ Carleton remarked.
‘Witty fellow,’ said Ashley, moving over to the window which looked out on to herbaceous borders and lawns, and upon the low house opposite. In the relaxed atmosphere of the end of last Term, someone had affixed to its pink-tiled roof an enormous notice – ‘Pedant’s Palace’ – referring to the distinguished Housemaster who lived there. Ashley’s gaze was abstracted, but even so he registered mild surprise that the notice remained in place. He then observed Steele walking along the path between the borders.
‘Ah, hah, Judas s’approche.’
‘Are you speaking of the Senior Prefect?’ said Johns.
‘I hope you’re not seeing visions again,’ said Carleton.
‘Did you return that book, you pale, puerile Protestant?’
‘The account, by that good fellow and saint, the Abbé Duval, of the smiling vision of Saint Catherine of Compostella, twice seen by him in the foliage of a plane tree at Chalons-sur-Marne.’
‘Of course I did. Ages ago. I didn’t believe a word of it.’
‘Are you going to teach us French now?’ inquired Johns.
Steele entered. He was the Senior Prefect. He intended to make a career of the Army.
‘Oh Sir, you’re here.’
‘Our time is short for idle gossip. Where have you been, child?’
‘Well, Sir, you weren’t . . .’
‘Sit down, Steele, dear boy. You have worked hard for the public good, and must be weary. Tell us about your odyssey. Did you have the great fortune to encounter our New Headmaster?’
‘Not just now, but . . .’
Ashley made a gesture with an open hand in the manner of the Comédie Française.
‘I knocked on the study door, but there was no answer.’
‘Ahh. What mystery have we here?’
met him, Sir?’ The question came from the back.
‘No, my dear Petty. I have not. I returned this morning from Assisi. From Assisi, Carleton.’
‘How was Saint Francis?’
Ashley stared him in the eye, and breathed, but could not resist a smile. It was startling when it happened – a transformation. A smile of great charm. An ageing troubled spirit became a good-looking, fair-haired young man of twenty-four.
Carleton, encouraged, and pleased, as they all were, added: ‘That explains the empty boudoir, anyhow.’
But Ashley had moved towards him, taking the gown from off his shoulder, and was striking Carleton with the end of it, and saying, ‘You are an impertinent child.’
Carleton caught it.
‘Let go, Carleton.’
They were pulling at the gown.
‘Let go, Carleton.’
Ashley turned scarlet, and the two veins stood out, and he shouted: ‘I shall have you
Carleton let go.
Ashley moved away, and returned to the window. He was recovering. He swept his gown over his shoulder, Roman style, and looked out, with his eyes wrinkled up against the light. He seemed, again, far older than his years. He sniffed, and tweaked his nose with two fingers.
‘What exactly happened to the Horrors?’ asked Johns.
‘When a man devotes his life to Herodotus he deserves a better name,’ said Ashley.
‘He was supposed to be devoting his life to
,’ said Carleton.
‘So he did. So he did. The dear, sweet old man.’
‘We hardly ever saw him,’ Johns pointed out.
‘He was ever present. Some day even
will understand, Johns.’
‘We know he died in the Vacation, but how?’ asked Carleton.
‘Are you Agatha Christie’s favourite nephew, sir? Is it important, damn you. His heart gave up. He had one, poor man. He had one.’
They sat watching his cheekbones agitating, in profile. Carleton especially could see that there was much there, but like the others he ascribed it to an adult world. It was remote, and beyond reach. Nevertheless, sympathy, and curiosity, drew from him a remark that
daring: ‘He once said you were brilliant.’
A little spasm went over Ashley’s profile. He continued to gaze through the window. Then he turned slowly and looked at Carleton with an empty expression.
‘To all of us.’
Ashley examined them all, but they did not feel that he was seeing them.
‘Pah!’ he said, and turned and picked up a piece of new chalk from his desk. He wrote on the blackboard the word ‘The’, and the Class roared it out in unison as he did so. Again they loudly declaimed the words, one by one, as he wrote them ornately in a circle – ‘The birde has flowne.’
Then they cheered, as he hurled the chalk at the back wall and swept out of the room.
A tinny bell was ringing for the eleven o’clock break and the classrooms were emptying into the long sunny corridor, down which steamed Jimmy Rich, looking like the People’s Choice. His teeth were smiling and flashing. His black hair, parted down the middle, swooped up in waves. He had a dimple in his square chin. He should have been wearing a gown, for class, but he was not. His sports coat was flaming orange and purple. His shoes of burnished gold clacked loudly on the red-tiled corridor. The boys were scattering before the wave of his approach. They were asking him if there was to be cricket that afternoon, but he was laughing them off.
‘Now then, lads. Now then, lads. Stand away now. Eric!’
Ashley, who was walking between the herbaceous borders, with boys rushing past him, halted and looked round in perplexity, closing his eyes a little because he had short sight.
‘Well, me bold Eric. And where have
been?’ asked Rich, placing a large hand on Ashley’s shoulder and unwittingly moving him along at a faster pace than before.
Ashley felt the indignity; yet it was both odd and pleasing that this being from another world evidently sensed something human in himself.
‘We are buffoons again,’ he said.
‘Cheer up,’ said Rich, releasing him. ‘The first day’s the worst.’
‘Or are we?’ said Ashley. ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ It was an open question from his beloved Yeats.
know you were supposed to be here, yesterday, me lad?’
Rich had Captained Ireland at rugby. A great hooker. Protestantism had compelled him to teach the game at an English public school.
‘I was not apprised of that,’ said Ashley.
Rich laughed, and shouted after a passer-by who had leaped over one of the borders – ‘Off the grass, boy!’
There were imitations behind them, of ‘Off the grass, me boy!’
‘Your cheerfulness makes me feel ill,’ Ashley murmured.
‘You can thank Nancy for that.’
Ashley glanced at his companion. It was so rare – such openness, such proud and childlike love.
‘I understand your good Matron has been admitting people to my boudoir.’
‘Ha, ha, haah!’
Rich’s laugh was an explosion. His large but remarkably liquid frame quivered.
‘Don’t tell that to Crabtree. He gave us half-an-hour each on morals yesterday.’
‘You mistake my meaning,’ said Ashley. ‘Ah, no. No, no. The Matron too?’
‘Joker,’ said Rich. ‘No, not Nancy, God love her.’
Ashley found it strange that Rich was a good ten years older than himself – and the Matron older still. Rich had arrived last Term and this late romance had bloomed slowly, under daily scrutiny by two hundred boys and a staff of twenty odd; though less so by the latter, because a Games Master was a person slightly out of line.
‘Anyhow, you’ve missed nothing. He told us to tell you he wants to see you at half eleven.’
A vine as old as the School formed an arch. They had passed under it and were walking between more borders. There was an ancient mulberry in the centre of a lawn, which had just been cut, to greet those returning, by a septuagenarian named Gregory. And there were two old pear-trees against a reddish wall.
It was properly civilised, Ashley thought, and antique; but it smelt of captivity. It was not a university garden.
The hoped-for Cambridge lectureship had gone to a well-known English poet. He had visited Assisi to see the Giottos again and to talk with his good friend, Father Paolo Mancini.
‘You’re an odd lad, Eric. You haven’t even asked me what he’s like.’
The buildings ahead were taller and grey. The bright classrooms and Pedant’s Palace were the New Buildings, and these the Old. Boys rushed past towards the Dining Hall where milk and biscuits were being served. Ashley did not see them. He saw an elderly, gentle man, by name Greville Wilks, translator of the complete and final Herodotus; one who strangely resembled his late, dear father.
‘It seemed of small import,’ he said.
‘What! Are you kidding? There’ll be changes all right. You’ll see.’
‘Classic situation,’ said Ashley. ‘Dear Mother of Christ.’
Rich was confused; also a little embarrassed, being an Irish Protestant.
A narrow gate led away into the Quad.
‘Au revoir,’ Ashley said, with a slight bow.
‘Don’t be late now or you
be in for it.’
‘Have no fear.’
Ashley went through the gateway, and once in the Quad was reminded that this elegant forum for a young and dangerously live community was dominated by a Memorial to the Dead. The mown lawn and bank mounted to a stone cross, set against the trees of the distant wood.
He suffered a clouding of the spirit; a sense of absolute futility.
But it passed. The day was as sunny as Italy, and he was curious to see his bedsitting-room, his partial home; particularly since it must contain a door that he had not yet spotted.