Friday, May 25, 2012

Review: To Serve Them All My Days

Is R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve Them All My Days known to the blogosphere?  Have any of you read it?  I didn’t find it by reading someone else’s review.  Instead, I was browsing Amazon, looking up television series similar to Downton Abbey, and came across the film version.  After reading the synopsis, I decided to try the book.  It could easily have been a dud, but wasn’t.  It was spectacular.  Spanning thirty years, To Serve Them All My Days is a glorious, expansive retelling of the English experience across two world wars.  I will note here that this review contains a few minor spoilers.  Highlight them to reveal, if you wish.

Scarred from his experience as the only survivor of a mortar blast in the early days of the First World War, David Powlett-Jones needed an occupation.  Physically healthy but mentally unsteady, David was prone to fits of the shakes.  His doctor was a great believer in the power of fresh air for healing and restoration, and recommended that David find a place with a small, stable population.  Thus it was that despite having no teaching experience, this young man of twenty-two found a post as a schoolteacher at Bamfylde, a boarding school for boys in northern England.  There, he teaches history (the subject he was studying at university before going off to fight in the war) and some English to the younger boys.  The school serves as his refuge and healing place.  David immediately takes to the desolate but beautiful moor, visible from his bedroom window, and after only six months, finds it to be more “home” than his hometown of Pontnewydd in Wales, where his entire family still resides.

But recovering from his emotional injuries takes time.  David’s reaction to the school’s celebration of the end of World War I:
“He kept his gaze on the floor until Bouncer [nickname for the schoolteacher saying grace] had subsided, but there was worse yet to come.  When the school orchestra had assembled and the singing began, they chose numbers that the troops had sung so repetitiously down all the roads of Picardy and Artois, “Tipperary,” “Who’s Your Lady Friend?,” “Long, Long Trail” and the like.  To someone who had heard these choruses sung in that setting it was unbearable and soon, but inconspicuously, he escaped, slipping out through the sculleries to the cinder path leading to the piggeries.  And here, unashamedly, he wept, blundering through trailers of mist until he found the path to Herries’s [the headmaster’s] thinking post, and pausing there, gulping down the dank, night air but still within earshot of the uproar in the Hall.  He thought desperately, “For Christ’s sake…what is there to sing about…?  Why does it have to be a celebration when it ought to be a wake?”” (49)

His healing begins first with the steady routine of teaching and his growing ability to lead the boys.  Then it is his first kiss with Elizabeth Marwood, a pretty and vivacious nurse of nineteen that he met during his first summer holiday: “A very shy, restrained kiss it was, his first since party days in the Valley, a thousand years ago.  Yet it did something to him, reviving, deep within him, a sense of being and existing, that snapped the final cord attaching him to the dried-out husk of a man he had been in the rejuvenating months at Osborne, a restoration of youth that he had come to accept as dead and buried, along with his generation, a quickening of ambition passing into his bloodstream like a powerful stimulant.” (68)

He later clarifies: “she stands for hope, in the way kids like Boyer and Skidmore and Briarley do, and between ‘em I daresay they can teach the left-overs to start out all over again…” (88)

Beth is the perfect complement to David.  She takes to the secluded school life immediately, and her perception helps her to understand David and his needs and make friends with the boys.  Her vivaciousness and spirit are undiminished by a life surrounded by so many men, and she finds joy in everything she does.  (Highlight the following for spoiler:) When tragedy strikes, and Beth and his daughter Joan are killed, Bamfylde continues to rehabilitate David, becoming his home, his love, and his life’s work.  This causes some difficulty in his personal life – both of the two women he sees after Beth’s death are reluctant to live as the wife of such a dedicated schoolteacher.

Over the course of the novel, David navigates school politics, the birth of his twins, a fire in the boys’ dormitory he watches over, the earning of his bachelor’s degree in history, the publication of his first book, the outright war between him and a new headmaster, and many minor emergencies caused by the students.  All of the boys at Bamfylde are profoundly changed by their association with Powlett-Jones, whom they call “Pow-Wow.”  It’s difficult to keep from comparing this novel, at least in its early stages, to the wonderful movie Dead Poets Society, which also tells of the impact of a particularly wonderful teacher at a boys’ school.  Like Gandalf to the hobbits, Keating enters spectacularly into these boys’ lives and adventures ensue.  They are never again the same, and the movie tells their stories.  The focus is different in To Serve Them All My Days.  Here, the antics of the boys provide a steady background, sometimes entertaining, sometimes worrisome, to the real story, which is David’s.  Yet the boys are realistic and lifelike, not throwaway characters.  Delderfield really understands boys, their jokes, mischief, and troubles.  As this book takes place in a boarding school, boys come and go as the years progress, but Delderfield does a great job of helping his readers keep them straight.

This is a very male-centric book, one that is distinctly English.  Different from the majority of the other books I’ve been reading, it centers around the emotional responses of men.  We see boys dealing with such devastating events as their parents’ divorces, David’s reactions to his own family troubles, and above all, the reaction of students and teachers to both the threat and reality of war.  It’s also a book about education and teaching, about how policy sets the atmosphere and tone within a school and the impact that atmosphere has on the quality of education for the students and the morale of the teachers.  There is also useful advice regarding the navigation of school politics.  Over the course of the novel, readers also see how the isolated school is nonetheless subject to its external climate.  England’s increasingly unstable political environment, widespread unemployment, the wars, and even the rise of contraception all take their toll on the school.  Adding to all this a substantial dose of conflict between tradition and innovation, To Serve Them All My Days has a lot to offer.  Should you decide to try it out, I'd love to know what you think!

Things I'm reading:
A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne
The Awakening, Kate Chopin
Half Magic, Edward Eager
Musicology and Difference, Ruth Solie, ed.

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