Letters Between a Victorian Schoolboy and his Family 1892-95 is a remarkable example of amateur scholarship. David Crane has assembled the complete correspondence between one Tankred Tunstall-Behrens and his parents, letters about him, to and from his school, and associated documents, including reports, examination papers and ephemera. Nearly 100 photographs, as well as maps, drawings and facsimile manuscripts illustrate and support the text. There is a critical introduction (by Julie Crane, the author's wife), and the letters are cross-referenced, indexed and annotated in a way that leaves no detail unexplained. The book itself is an unusually handsome artefact.
Does this chance-discovered correspondence justify such efforts? As literature, perhaps not. Few of the letters are finely turned. But as an insight into upper- middle-class life in late-Victorian England the collection is fascinating; as a record of social history its completeness makes it unique.
It was an age on the very cusp of modernity, and the boy's mother, for one, was knocking loudly on the new century's door. Moved by a lecture by the trade union activist Tom Mann ("Think of a dwelling for 16 families with only one WC in it!") Min writes to Tankred telling him that "it is such a duty for those who understand these things & have some leisure to look after their poorer brethren". And she hosts at-homes at which her lady guests can hear lectures on "Safeguarding the Faculty of Originality of Children" - a subject we might do well to consider today.
Her husband, Leu - an immigrant German merchant with patriarchal ambitions - has rather more old-fashioned ideals. He views his wife's enthusiasm for female suffrage as "that franchise vampire, which destroys the happiness of our home". And while Min is designing and patenting an "omnidress" to allow emancipated women the freedom of movement they need to ride bicycles, climb mountains or shoot, her husband is arguing with the authorities at Clifton about the way that the public school system has treated his son. The boy claims to be innocent of an offence for which he was flogged by his seniors. "Will you kindly explain to me," Leu writes to Tankred's house tutor, "the powers and limits of power of the VI form boys? Is their serious responsibility supposed to exclude gentlemanly behaviour & permit cowardice? Can a prefect do no wrong & is therefore unpunishable? If such is an existing error at Clifton I desire to expose it & have it rectified." Some chance. Luckily for Tankred, time passes. The matter dies down; he survives.
Letters, then, is a work not only of historical but of human interest. There is much amusement to be had from it, too, despite (and, at times, because of) the moral solemnity of Mr Behrens and the schoolmasters, or the gushing earnestness of Min. The quaintness with which both parents inquire whether "moral beastliness" and "vile practices" obtain at Clifton is as comic as Tankred's reply is apt: "All public schools are morally weak to a more or less degree." School nicknames and jargon do not disappoint: "bunting" and "barging" carry on despite the efforts of "The Bogie" and "The Moor"; and among the many "Fair"s and "Very Fair"s of Tankred's reports there is an impressive "Capital!". And this is a "capital" book!
Michael McMahon recently gave up school teaching