The Rich and the Poor in mid-nineteenth century England were as two separate nations. Each was as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different continents, or inhabitants of different planets; formed by different breeding and not even governed by the same laws.1
It was Benjamin Disraeli2 who first popularised the image of England as being like two separate nations, later stating: “Upon the education of the people of this country, the fate of this country depends.” The opportunity for local people to take control of their own ‘fate’, by establishing their own school boards, released amazing energy especially in the rapidly growing industrial cities. New board schools, often built of red brick and towering over the local urban landscapes, became commonplace. A school for infants in Birmingham had 600 children within a year, and 900 nearly a year later3. Within twenty years two thousand and five hundred school boards had been established, educating nearly half the country’s children. There had, indeed, been big gaps to fill.
As more and more families recognised the value of education, and had just sufficient income to keep their children in school until the age of twelve, so parents wanted a curriculum far broader than the traditional three R’s. Many School Boards found that they could do this by levying higher taxes,, but the church schools had no such funds to access. This aggravated the tension between the church schools which predominated in the country, and the increasingly large urban board schools who began to see education primarily as the responsibility of the state. People began to question whether there really was a difference between elementary and secondary education. Meanwhile amongst the cloisters of the public schools the last thirty years of the century were their high-noon; there seemed to be endless opportunities in the Empire for their old boys as administrators, clergy, soldiers and entrepreneurs4.
Two men, both such absolute masters of the English language that it is a fair bet that their writings will last as long as the English language continues to be spoken, epitomised these ‘two nations’, D. H. Lawrence5 and Winston Spencer Churchill6. Yet these were men whose breeding, manners and education could hardly have been more different. Churchill, born at Blenheim Palace, adored his mother (whom he hardly ever saw and who was reputed to have had some 200 lovers), was in awe of his father, at the time Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was largely brought up by his nanny, a very down-to-earth woman who gave the boy an aversion to all things French. The nanny’s brother-in-law, a former prison warden who had fought in Africa, successfully implanted in Winston his own prejudices against Zulus in particular, and prison convicts in general. Accepted into Harrow in 1886, even though he gained no mark at all on his Latin paper, he came under the influence of two remarkable men. In his English teacher, Mr. Somervell, he had a brilliant grammarian, and in his headmaster, Mr. Wheldon, a most able classicist who somehow managed to squeeze the rudiments of classical knowledge into the boy’s privileged but obstinate head. This combination of experiences, it seems, enabled Churchill to leave to posterity sentences that changed a nation’s destiny. “We shall not flag, nor fail. We shall go to the end. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing fields, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”.
D. H. Lawrence couldn’t have been more different. His father was a coalminer working under the appalling conditions that predominated in Nottinghamshire sixty years after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; he was possibly illiterate, and frequently drunk. His mother, Lydia7, came from a lower middle-class, religious family whose luck had run out. A bright girl, by the age of thirteen, she was already a pupil-teacher, but six months later had to leave so as to earn sufficient money to look after her invalid father. Life was always tough for her. David was born just before Winston Churchill went to Harrow, and at the age of five went to Beauvale Board School. Lydia’s eldest son died and, terrified that she might also lose David when he suffered from pneumonia, Lydia effectively home-schooled him for three years. In this time she poured into her only surviving son what otherwise she might have given to many. It was a highly confused mother-son relationship which partly created the sexual tensions and social frustrations in this nervous and highly-strung young man.
In a relatively short life (he died of T.B. in 1930) Lawrence was prolific in his writing. “Curse the blasted, jelly-bellied swine”, he wrote to a friend, “the snivelling, dribbling, dithering, palsied, pulse-less lot that make up England today. They’ve got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it’s a marvel they can breed”8. Of all his novels it was the rawness of the vernacular (“John Thomas says goodnight to Lady Jane, a little droopingly, but with a hopeful heart”), the harshness of the social criticism, and the directness of his sexual commentary in Lady Chatterley’s Lover9, which most surely personifies the ‘two nations’ that Disraeli so perceptively identified. Would both Churchill and Lawrence have been lost to history if each had had to attend the other’s school?
Thesis 52: 24th August 2006