Chapter 4 Odyssey of a Liberal Freda Utley
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.
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 Sidmouth 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 wonderful 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 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 died 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 king 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 Magna 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 never 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 1947 book. Last Chance in China:*
To call the Kuomintang Government “Fascist” 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.
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 went toPrior’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 of Troy, 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 won’t. 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 thinker, 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 war 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 for 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.
*ln Ronald W. Clark’s, book. The Huxleys, 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.