I’ve written before about the school stories in The Magnet, and the way that Frank Richards (Charles Hamilton) manipulated his large cast of schoolboy characters each week to create dramatic situations raising often quite complex ethical issues. These would be resolved according to a morality that was usually conventional, but not unintelligent.
In October 1918 there are a pair of stories, A Case of Conscience and His Country’s Call (Magnet Library Nos 559 and 560) that are particularly interesting. A slightly mysterious new boy has come to Greyfriars – Dick Hilary. The classmates of the Remove are very surprised when the new boy will not stand up for himself. Bolsover Major, the class bully, picks on him and finds he offers no resistance. After this show of unmanliness, the upstanding members of the form – Harry Wharton and Company – decide that he is a “funk” and will have nothing to do with him.
“I am not a funk.”
“Well, you’re acting jolly like one!”
“I suppose it looks like that.”
“It does!” said Wharton drily. And the Captain of the Remove quitted the study, and returned to No. 1, puzzled and repelled.
Those lowest in the class pecking order – the reprobates Skinner, Stott and Snoop – decide that they can bully Hilary with impunity (Skinner delivers a white feather to Hilary’s study.) The deeply unprincipled Bunter, too, is delighted to find someone he can feel superior to (“Billy Bunter was a great fighting man if the other party was afraid.”)
It is gradually revealed that Hilary’s father is a Conscientious Objector, currently in a prison farm on Dartmoor, and that Hilary is trying to live up to his father’s principles. Skinner (“the cad of the Remove) goes so far as blackmail – Hilary buys his silence about his father for two pounds. Eventually everyone knows about it. Harry Wharton and his friends disapprove of conchies, but realise that there is something admirable about sticking up for your principles. The less elevated members of the class, however, use the revelation as a new justification for bullying.Throughout the episode, Hilary is presented as misguided but dignified:
“I am proud of my father,” said Hilary. “Whether he is right or wrong, he is sincere; and I will neither criticise him myself nor allow you to do so, Skinner!”
“Oh rats!” said Skinner mockingly.
Hilary’s problem is that Greyfriars is not only solidly behind the war effort, but also that it is a place where conflicts tend to be settled by physical means.
“He doesn’t look like a coward, either,” said Wharton, ruminating. “He may be a bit potty – perhaps brought up among cranky people with queer ideas. Good Little Georgie in the story book used to let fellows punch him, you know, and only smiled sweetly, and gave them his nice sweet apples.”
“Well, some idiot may have taught the kid along those lines – you never know,” said Harry, laughing.. “If he’s been taught to be a silly prig, he’ll soon get it knocked out of him in the Remove, that’s certain.”
The dissonance between Hilary’s principles and schoolboy reality finally becomes too much for Hilary. Goaded beyond endurance, he finally stands up to the bully Bolsover, and proves his worth in a long boxing match. He is defeated by the larger boy, but earns his respect:
“Look here, kid, you’ve got pluck, though you’re a silly fool. And -and I’m sorry I said anything about your father.”
After the fight, Hilary is no longer an outcast, so the basic pattern of the story is the standard one found in Warwick Deeping’s The Conscientious Objector (in The Storyteller in 1917). A pacifist is brought to recognise that his cranky ideas don’t fit the imperfect world we live in. In the Greyfriars story, however, the pacifist is given more dignity than in Deeping’s, and has a chance to make it clear that his views are sincerely held.
The sequel story next week makes this even more explicit. The sneaks and bullies are still picking on Hilary, but he is now strongly defended by the decent members of the form, who recognise that he has courage and loyalty. “Chap must stand by his pater through thick and thin,” one of them acknowledges.
The author goes out of his way to make his young readers aware of the plight in which conscientious objectors could find themselves:
“I hope your father’s well, ” said Harry Wharton.
“I – I hope so,” said Hilary in a low voice. “But men of his opinions are not treated gently. They die under it sometimes. It makes me uneasy when I don’t hear from him.”
“I suppose it would,” agreed Bob. “I suppose they have rather a hard time. Not much easier than being in the ranks?”
“Harder, said Hilary quietly. “I’m afraid there are some who have dodged service by professing such opinions; but those who are sincere feel their position very keenly.”
A letter comes to Hilary saying that his father is coming to meet him a little way from the school. The bullies intercept the message, and intend to capture the conchy, to tar and feather him. They are prevented by Harry Wharton and Company, but the big surprise is that Hilary’s father is now in the uniform of a private soldier. As Huree Jamset Ram Singh remarks: “The excellent and ridiculous gentleman has heard his country’s calland joined upfully. The congratulation is terrific.”
This ending is hardly credible, but helps Richards to make the point that those who want peace should join “the great struggle that was to mark the end, perhaps forever, of brutal militarism.”
So the story comes down against pacifism, but comes down even more strongly against bullying. It is made clear that the cads pick on a conchy because he is someone they can bully, and that the patriotic justification for this is shabby. Bunter, Skinner, and the other lowlife of the class use a rhetoric that they have probably picked up from Horatio Bottomley or other demagogues, and this is shown up as tawdry by the decency of Harry Wharton and his friends, who can disagree with the ideas while respecting the boy who holds them.
The popular press during the War is often accused of encouraging of stupid unthinking patriotism, but this is a good example of a popular medium being used to encourage measured and sane attitudes towards the War.