The British boarding school—vestige of a bygone era—reminds us that it was once possible to come of age in an insular world where one’s education and circle of influences were tightly controlled. The bildungsroman—journey of a male becoming himself, growing into who he will be—is ideally set in the boarding school. The all-male school is also besot with an abundance of institutional misogyny: innocent men, in isolation from the temptresses of the world, are allowed to flourish into leaders. Femininity is scarce in even the literary versions of these schools, as are any models of women as homemakers, mothers or lovers. The boarding school is written as a necessary ordeal of the English gentleman; it is synecdoche for the harsh, male-controlled kingdom the boy must grow up and conquer, learning and eventually dominating within an orderly hierarchy. In the realm of these novels, it is men who run the things, and men who must sort out the world’s problems, free from the encumbrance of females.
This view of the boarding school as island of masculinity is shown prominently in two disparate works of literature from 2015: H.S. Cross’ novel, Wilberforce, and also in Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. Wilberforce is a coming-of-age novel set in the 1920s in an all-male British school. Cross, an American, writes a school as nuanced and secretive as J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts, yet the parallel to Rowling’s work ends at basic comparisons of scenery. Cross brings a contemporary sensibility to her novel of Morgan Wilberforce’s fraught development. Facing the death of his mother early in his time at St. Stephens Academy, Wilberforce makes a name for himself and finds his place within the hierarchy of school. This is easily done, and though some mishaps by the younger students involve him in a tangential way, Wilberforce figures out how to navigate within the system to suit his needs; his days are mostly free of reprimand. Wilberforce bizarrely merits mentorship from a professor whose influence is slightly questionable in motive, but it becomes Wilberforce’s liaisons with other male students that eventually define his time at the school. Initially preyed upon by a nefarious older boy, Wilberforce questions his own sexuality, and it is carelessness related to expression of his sexuality which eventually lands him in hot water with the headmaster.
The repressed male sexuality that runs through Wilberforce, contrary to the ideals of the British boarding school, is also central to Helen Macdonald’s reading of the goshawk-obsessed life of T.H. White. White, author of The Once and Future King, becomes pivotal to Macdonald’s study as she tries to find steady ground after her father’s death in her memoir, H is for Hawk. While most of Hawk centers on Macdonald’s own grief, it is grief contrasted with the angst she discovers in White’s life. It becomes White’s history—a life of sexual repression that began in his youth and continued into his time as a headmaster at Stowe, another British boarding school—that Macdonald relies on to guide her through her exploration of loss and burgeoning relationship with her own hawk. In each work the school is symbolic of the uncaring world, of a Western sensibility that wants to classify people—specifically males—in a binary way. Its primary job in each is to beat out individuality, curiosity, and, cruelly, the feminine. Though their plots differ as much as two books could, both Wilberforce and H is for Hawk delicately examine the tension of a life cultivated under such terms. In each work, the grief over losing a parent guides the protagonist’s actions; while Helen Macdonald—and White—find salvation in nature, Morgan Wilberforce finds it in the selfless agape love of a father figure.
In [White’s] “England Have My Bones,” Macdonald tells us:
White wrote one of the saddest sentences I have ever read: “Falling in love is a desolate experience, but not when it is with a countryside.” He could not imagine a human love returned. He had to displace his desires onto the landscape, that great, blank green field that cannot love you back, but cannot hurt you either. When, on their final meeting, he confessed to the writer David Garnett that he was a sadist, Garnett blamed White’s years of flogging at school. “He was an extremely tender-hearted and sensitive man,” Garnett wrote, who had “found himself always in the dilemma of either being sincere and cruel, or false and unnatural.”
Through Macdonald, the reader comes to understand White as a product of a merciless educational system. Macdonald identifies not with White’s harsh upbringing, but with his inability to express himself—to be himself—in a world that would not allow him his feelings or homosexual identity. Macdonald, overcome with grief, feels a deep connection to White’s stifled feelings. Through his journey in nature, she comes to understand the place of the hawk in helping her to heal. She is afraid, but so is White:
But for all his demonstrations of bravado and skill, Mr. White, Mr. Terence Danbury White… was terribly afraid. He was twenty-nine years old, had been a schoolmaster at Stowe for five years and a writer for seven, but he had been afraid as long as he could remember.
Through Macdonald’s memoir we see fear that’s conquerable; whether the fear comes from decades of strict rearing at the hands of schoolmasters, or an overwhelming wave of grief, it can be overcome if one chooses the natural world over the human one. Nature provides a way out of human pain.
The same sense of grating frustration that White and Macdonald feel in Hawk can be seen in Morgan Wilberforce’s overwhelming grief as expressed in Wilberforce. In each book, life is a long exercise in prolonged suffering, usually because one cannot fully express feelings fundamental to one’s being. “The trouble with life was that it would go on,” Wilberforce says. In Wilberforce, St. Stephens, the school, is not nearly as damaging a place as Stowe is to White. Yet because of its nature, because it is a boarding school with strict rules and restrictions for young men, Wilberforce pushes against the confines of his life at St. Stephens. He can’t deal with the loss of his mother, and thus looks to love (and sexual exploration) with the boys of his school and a local pub owner’s daughter as he tries to define the nature and expression of his identity. Part of what makes Cross’ work so nuanced is how she teases out Wilberforce’s unsure feelings over a prolonged period of time. Cross allows Wilberforce’s awareness of his sexuality to emerge as a result of his complex experiences; nothing is oversimplified. His intimate experiences range from erotic to bumbling, and Cross’ sure understanding of character allows us to see how grief at an early age can alter and overwhelm development.
Grief creates a significant sense of absence in both H is for Hawk and Wilberforce. As Macdonald says, “We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.” Life for Helen Macdonald is, as much as it is for T.H. White or Morgan Wilberforce, a test. To each of them, the audacity of continuing to live after a loved one dies is almost unforgiveable. Macdonald looks for company in her grief—first in White’s writing, and eventually with her hawk. But “[s]hocking loss isn’t to be shared,” she tells us prophetically, “no matter how hard you try.” Wilberforce takes a different tack and sublimates his grief; he is younger and less in touch with his feelings than Macdonald (it’s worth noting that he is of a different era, too, when males everywhere would have been discouraged from expressing grief or weakness). He thinks of the loss of his mother:
He tried to remember a time without it, but that time belonged to the other life, the life full of life, when they brought her breakfast in bed on her birthday, when his father kissed her in front of them, when her laughter overflowed everything, like the icing on the cake she made for herself and let him—but he couldn’t think such things or he would shortly cease to breathe.
It isn’t until his conversations with the Bishop in the latter third of the novel that we—and Wilberforce—begin to see just how much Wilberforce is impacted by his mother’s death and his subsequent alienation from his father. Wilberforce’s impulsive and reckless actions are, in the world Cross creates, a direct result of the absence of parental love. Within the confines of Cross’ narrative, the only salvation for Wilberforce is for someone—the Bishop—to stubbornly and wholesomely love him.
Wilberforce and H is for Hawk diverge most greatly in terms of how their protagonists find their salvation. Macdonald and White both find peace in nature, by letting go of assumptions about what the world expects them to be (or feel), and by observing nature, they come to a place of peace—or if not peace, then at least peaceful coexistence with difficult emotion. “White was engaged in a battle to civilise the perversity and unruliness within himself,” Macdonald says. In Wilberforce, Cross injects a contemporary sensibility that feels almost psychoanalytical. Wilberforce engages in long conversations with the Bishop, another mentor figure whose love becomes a stand-in for his own mother and father’s absent love. In both cases, it is the protagonist’s willingness to surrender that allows him or her happiness. Macdonald says, “Keats called [this] your chameleon quality, the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.’” The Bishop’s care for Wilberforce is patterned on a God-as-father-figure model, which fits with his occupation, yet as Cross mixes this with contemporary ideas about sexuality and expression of love, she creates some of her most spellbinding work. Wilberforce finds salvation once he allows someone to parent him; whether this is a spiritual love or not is irrelevant. Wilberforce needs to be a child, and once he is treated as such he can develop into a man.
“If you want to live,” Wilberforce’s father tells him, “sometimes you have to die, in a manner of speaking.” Though Wilberforce’s father is too lost in his own grief and pain to parent the teen, Wilberforce eventually finds the kind of parental (and overtly biblical) love he needs in order to embrace his identity and grow. The Bishop is sage in his advice and understanding of how to help someone accept themselves as a whole person. “Spiritual direction?” he says, comforting Wilberforce. “That doesn’t involve commanding. If anything, it involves standing beside people and helping them work out how the Holy Spirit is directing them.” If anything, the Bishop’s approach to these spiritual talks feels modern—a little too anachronistic—but the conversations in the last third of the book are so moving that it doesn’t much matter.
“[L]ife deals suffering,” Wilberforce’s absentee father tells him, in a letter. “[H]as already dealt [suffering]—and the more you thrash about trying to escape it, whether through gritting your teeth or outright flight, the deeper you will fall into the pit.” In both H is for Hawk and Wilberforce, absence or death of a parent causes great pain, and forces the protagonist into a spiritual crisis. While her literary guide, White, never quite escaped his pain except in moments with his hawk, Macdonald abandons humans, devoting herself entirely to her goshawk, and reaches a place of serenity. Wilberforce needs companionship, too, but the human kind. It’s the Bishop’s pressing questions that allow him to finally come to a place where he is comfortable in his own skin. In both cases, the strict confines of identity presented by an English boarding school loom large in the background. Whether restrictions on identity come from grief itself, or institutions, these works present a view into the way forward.