Beneath its old-fashioned exterior, Ernest Raymond’s Tell England (1922) radiates transgression.
I really think I like Radley better than anyone else in the world. I simply loved being whacked by him.
This extraordinary confession comes in the first chapter of Ernest Raymond’s 1922 novel, Tell England. It is offered in the dormitory after lights-out, whispered to the schoolboy narrator, Ray, by his friend Doe. Radley is their teacher, a tall, strict, athletic history master. You’d be hard-pressed to find a school story, or indeed a school, that didn’t go in for hero-worship, but Doe’s ardor overruns even that cup. Unlike Alec Waugh’s contemporaneous The Loom of Youth, which sought to expose the sexual and emotional realities of life in a boys’ school, Tell England is an old-fashioned, innocent, fundamentally Edwardian school story, a strange place to find such an extravagant declaration.
Raymond wrote more than sixty novels, but his most popular by far was this, his first. Though panned by critics, it was reprinted fourteen times in 1922, became a movie in 1931, and by 1939 had sold 300,000 copies. Today, though, Tell England is largely forgotten. From its psychological and sexual cluelessness to its glorification of military sacrifice, the novel can feel tediously dated. It’s an odd hybrid, half public-school novel, half paean to World War I. It includes all the trappings of the classic school story: athletics, classical learning, chivalry, Anglican Christianity, romantic friendship, and, of course, corporal punishment. Like most school stories, it is a narrative of character development. After its young hero enters the school at the bottom, he learns the ways of its world, undergoes trials, and grows into a leader.
Within this framework, Radley is a stock character, the idol-teacher who assists the hero’s progress. Thomas Hughes cast the mold with Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), featuring a fictionalized Thomas Arnold as its legendary headmaster. Tom Brown focused explicitly on character development, and it established a particular direction for that development: from amoral boy to Christian gentleman. Some later novels laid out a different trajectory, for instance Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899), whose heroes develop, under the influence of their headmaster, “the Prooshan Bates,” into clever agents of empire. In E. R. Braithwaite’s To Sir With Love (1959 novel, 1967 film), teacher Mark Thackeray wins over failing inner-city students, inspiring them with a combination of adult respect and unconventional curriculum. The quintessential American example might be Mr. Keating, who in The Dead Poets Society (Tom Schulman’s 1989 original screenplay) leads his students from deadened conformity to Emersonian free-thinking.
Fictional teachers such as these may be more famous than Raymond’s, but none is as bold with his pupils as Radley, and none is described with the odd and oddly frank language Tell England employs. Which is part of why this novel is so startling, and so curious. Raymond’s prose, in its artlessness, lends his characters an unguarded quality, even (to modern readers weaned on ironic distance) veering into the untoward. Doe’s pronouncement about Radley seems unfathomable today outside some Fifty Shades scenario, but while there’s a strong—and as Raymond later admitted, unconscious—river of homoeroticism running through the novel, Doe and Ray’s affection for their teacher does not fit neatly into erotic categories. Our reflex for viewing human relations through a sexual lens—attraction, orientation, sublimation, identity, power, or otherwise—tends to overlook other, more fundamental, aspects of humanity, just as our contemporary idea of the idol-teacher as one who bucks the system tends to overlook more radical notions of authority. Tell England’s scenes between Radley and the boys are the most charged in the novel, possibly more charged than such scenes in any school story. But this is no homoerotic S-and-M saga. Nor is it a tale of triumph over repression. It’s something more unexpected, and more transgressive.
Take the classroom scene that provokes Doe’s confession: Ray and his friends are taking advantage of a substitute teacher when Radley unexpectedly returns.
A sudden silence, and every boy sits awkwardly in his place. Radley’s tall figure stood in the room: and the door was being shut by his hand. I kept my eyes fixed on him. I was changed. I no longer felt disorderly nor impudent … I dropped into my natural self, a thing of shyness and diffidence … I was about to be ‘whacked,’ I knew; and, though I did not move, I felt strange emotions within me. Certainly I was a little afraid, for Radley whacked harder than they all.
When Radley appears, he brings a silencing authority. This may be par for the course with an august teacher, but Radley’s authority includes the nearly supernatural ability to change Ray. This change not only dispels Ray’s misbehavior but also returns him to his “natural” self, to a state of greater integrity and authenticity. And this authority, let’s not pretend otherwise, is amplified by Radley’s power to inflict physical punishment—and his sure determination to do so. Ray does not, perhaps cannot, expand upon the “strange emotions” he feels, but since he is only “a little afraid,” it’s clear that there is more at stake than physical pain.
Classroom discipline scenes are a dime a dozen in school stories, but Ray’s reaction is somehow … off. Tom Brown openly rebels against the flogging he receives from Arnold, Stalky and his friends take stripes in their stride, other fictional schoolboys face punishment with some mixture of resignation, anger, shame, or pride—but “strange emotions”? Ray’s thoughts get even weirder as his mind escapes “down a wildly irrelevant course,” wondering whether he can ever grow as tall as Radley. As bonkers as this reverie sounds (and is!), it’s not quite as irrelevant as Ray claims, for it introduces the pertinent question of growth, and by extension moral growth, into this conventional scene of school discipline.
In theological circles, character development is often understood in terms of sanctification, that is, the deliberate molding of the human character to more closely resemble Christ’s. While Raymond’s schoolboys do not explicitly aspire to be more like Christ, they do aspire to be more like Radley, a teacher they revere and a person they like “better than anyone else in the world.”
Radley interrupts Ray’s daydream with the command to come forward: “You know you ought to be caned, so you’ll thoroughly enjoy it. In fact, being a decent boy you’d be miserable without it.” Radley’s analysis does not appear ironic. Rather, he seems to be reaching back to the root of enjoy, the Latin gaudere, “to rejoice.” Radley expects Ray on some level to rejoice in his punishment because Ray knows he deserves it, knows it is just. And “being a decent boy,” sensible of justice, Ray will ultimately be “miserable” without the physical trial—depressed, yes, but also wretched, poor, needy, and needing mercy.
Ray is not soppy enough to express direct enthusiasm, but his description of the caning employs cricket language to express admiration for Radley’s form (“what a first-class hitter he was”). Ray’s esteem seems part hero-worship (wanting to be like Radley), and part a love of who Radley is himself—here, someone whose presence can transform Ray and inspire in him a love of justice and reconciliation, whatever the cost.
There’s a difference between Radley and the modern idol-teacher, and that difference has to do with physicality. Radley exercises his authority not only with words and psychological appeals, but also with physical acts. These acts (corporal punishment, or strong handling generally) provoke an intimacy that is exceptional, leaving Ray and Doe longing for Radley’s attention, even when this attention is severe and inconvenient.
Later in the novel, when Ray is happily ensconced in a cheating scheme, Radley calls him to his room and asks point-blank how it’s all working. Ray resists—both the call to betray his friends and Radley’s charisma—but “then—quickly—Radley grasped me by the elbow and looked straight down at me. For a second I … tried to pull the elbow away. His grip, however, was too strong, and I yielded.”
Radley is stronger, and when he uses his strength, Ray’s response is to yield. The same could be said of an encounter between a bully and his victim—overpowering, yielding—but the tenor here is closer to vigorous metaphysical surrender, the kind that runs through poets such as John Donne—perhaps best in Holy Sonnet 14 (“Batter my heart, three person’d God”)—or Gerard Manley Hopkins in “Carrion Comfort” (“Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod”). Both sonnets present a forceful God, one the speakers invite into fatal contest with their rebellious wills.
Ray, arm still imprisoned, observes, “The way in which he took hold of my elbow, my willing submission of the army to his grasp told me that something was given by him and taken by me.” Here is a relationship both intimate and physical, charged yet chaste, one whose purpose now seems to exceed the psychological or even the moral. Radley takes hold of Ray’s elbow with superior force, but Ray’s submission is “willing.” And it is the quality of the grasp (with force) and the tenor of the submission (not forced), that tell Ray something about what is going on between them. Ray has given over “the army,” his whole array of self-will and rebellion. How is it, then, that Radley is cast as the giver?
In a later encounter, Ray shines light on the paradox by calling Radley’s touch “sacramental.” This is not a word Raymond uses lightly, especially since he was, at the time of writing, a practicing Anglican priest. The Book of Common Prayer, in its catechism, defines sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” For Radley’s touch to be sacramental, it would need to signal, in human form, a divinely given grace. But the catechism also says that sacraments are “a means whereby we receive” that grace. Radley’s touch, then, is not merely symbolic, but also effective. His handling of Ray not only signals a movement of grace but is also the “means whereby” this gift is dispensed. Radley’s touch is forceful, at times hard and inflicting punishment, at times gentle; it is sudden, unexpected, relentless. It is a touch given by someone strong, perhaps unreachably strong. Radley is more, then, than a hero; he is a pointer toward and a channel for the truth beyond—a God also very high and very perfect. Someone also unpredictable, a God of surprises, of wrath and of mercy. A God who changes anyone who enters his presence. An authority beyond this world, one that draws us into—not away from—a deeper and more authentic self.
With this one word, Raymond has unexpectedly raised the stakes and extended the direction of his hero’s development—beyond Christian gentleman or even free-thinking adult—toward an increasingly “natural,” increasingly human being in communion with a redeeming God. No wonder these scenes feel so loaded, and no wonder they radiate transgression. They violate no sexual or political boundaries, but they trespass, even more gravely, on the illusion of self-directed humanity.
As surprising as it is to arrive at sacramental theology from Doe’s flamboyant disclosure, a metaphysical perspective provides the most coherent reading of Radley and Ray. Alluring, confusing, countercultural, counter-logical, upending the things of this world, these scenes stand enticingly against our contemporary idols of self; they oppose our ambition to make of ourselves what we will, our rejection of any authority but our own, and our interpretation of physical force as a personal annihilation. Tell England says otherwise. Its schoolboys, ardently wrestling with their teacher, might be offspring of Hopkins, whose heart “would laugh, cheer” since he “kissed the rod”:
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
H. S. Cross is author of a novel, Wilberforce, published this fall. Born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, she was educated at Harvard College and has taught at Friends Seminary, among other schools. She lives in New York.