Perhaps, in order to find Molesworth utterly hilarious, it is necessary to have read it as a child. Wendy Cope claims to ‘hav been reading this stuff and roaring with larffter since i was 11 yrs old’ (which, if nothing else, endorses Philip Hensher’s assertion in the introduction to this edition that those who attempt to imitate Molesworth’s style always ‘come a cropper’). Hensher, too, at ‘inexplicable moments’, has had to ‘lay down Down with Skool! and cry with laughter’, and he first read it when he was ‘probably no more than ten or eleven’. So I suppose I ought to say at this point that I didn’t read it when I was at school, and reading it now I don’t find it hilarious, though it is sometimes funny. People who did read it at school probably think I’m missing the point, and of course I am – in fact, I can’t fail to, because I didn’t read it at school – but I’d say that those who, like Hensher, think Molesworth is ‘sublime’ are missing a different point: and they’re bound to, because they did read it at school.
Nigel Molesworth is a 1950s prep-school boy – the ‘goriller of 3B’, ‘curse of st custard’s which is the skool i am at’ – whose spelling is atrocious. His diaries, written by Geoffrey Willans (a one-time schoolmaster) and illustrated by Ronald Searle, originally appeared in Punch, as a kind of sequel about a boys’ school to Searle’s St Trinians drawings. They were published in book form as Down with Skool! (1953), How to be Topp (1954), Whizz for Atomms (1956) and, semi-posthumously (Willans died in 1958, at the age of 47), Back in the Jug Agane (1959).
Unlike his 1990s successor, Harry Potter – the name of Potter’s school, ‘Hogwarts’, is surely derived from ‘The Hogwarts’, a Latin play by Marcus Plautus Molesworthus – Molesworth does not have adventures; instead he daydreams, ruminates and observes. The subtitle to Down with Skool! is ‘A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and Their Parents’, and we are introduced to headmasters, other masters, matrons, lessons, sports, parents, skool food (‘the piece of cod which passeth understanding’) and so on. They are the bad things. ‘The only good things about skool are the BOYS wizz who are noble brave fearless etc. although you hav various swots, bullies, cissies, milksops greedy guts and oiks with whom i am forced to mingle hem-hem.’ Prominent among those with whom Molesworth is forced to mingle are: his younger brother, Molesworth Two; his best friend, Peason, who is almost exactly like Molesworth but less fat and with a pointier nose; Grabber, ‘who is head of the skool captane of everything and winer of ther mrs joyful prize for rafia work’; Gillibrand, whose ‘pater is a general’; and the inimitable Fotherington-Tomas, ‘uterly wet and a sissy’, who has a sister called Arabella, lives in a cottage called ‘swete lavender’ and skips about saying ‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky.’ The most important word in Molesworth’s vocabulary, on the other hand, is ‘chiz’: ‘a swiz or a swindle as any fule kno’; it’s also an expletive.
On top of the usual subjects – ‘lat. french. geog. hist. algy, geom’, the last two taught by Sigismond the mad maths master – Custardians also get to study botany, which mostly involves going for walks in the woods. But these fungal forays are not the only extra-curricular activities: in the later books especially, we learn about Molesworth’s life outside school. During one summer holidays, Armand (‘as far as i kno he is the weedy wet in the fr. book who sa the elephants are pigs’) comes to stay. ‘You can well immagine him only he is worse than anything you can immagine. Armand is 6 ft tall, wear short pants, and look upon molesworth 2 et moi as if we were a pare of shoppkeepers.’ He has an enormous appetite but won’t eat Mrs Molesworth’s cooking, and ‘he like GURLS aussi.’
While this is likely to amuse anyone who’s ever entertained a French exchange (an exclusive category, certainly, but not on grounds of age) there are many jokes that most 11-year-olds wouldn’t get, and not only because they’d be crying and roaring with laughter so much they would no longer be able to read. For example: ‘“Who invented the first railway engine?” “Stalin”’. Or the headmaster’s beginning of term speech: ‘I should like to introduce a new master who hav joined us in place of mr blenkinsop who left sudenly.’ This is footnoted, in ‘the molesworth crib to reel thorts’: ‘who would hav thort it he semed so nice.’ (When one of my teachers was unexpectedly summoned from the cricket pitch, never to be seen again, we accepted the explanation of ‘personal reasons’ without a murmur.)
The most dizzying jokes are in Searle’s drawings. Unrelated to anything in particular in the text, Down with Skool! features five full-page pictures: ‘A GAUL marching into Italy’; ‘A ROMAN marching into Gaul’; ‘A Gaul and a Roman passing each other in the Alps’; ‘A GAUL returning to Gaul’; ‘A ROMAN returning to Rome’. These are followed, in How to be Topp, by an equivalent series: ‘Gabbitas creeps round the wood one way’; ‘Thring creeps round the other way’; ‘Gabbitas and Thring trap a young man and lead him off to be a master.’
The four books have now been published as a single volume by Penguin, and branded a ‘20th-Century Classic’, a label which is, I think, only transiently applicable: a classic for, rather than of, the 20th century (even if Simon Winder, editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics series launched this month, said recently that ‘there is no reason why Molesworth should not sit alongside The Trial, Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses’). As far as I can see, what takes Molesworth beyond the merely funny for his fans – the kind of people who, according to Hensher, ‘ruin’ dinner parties for the ‘non-Molesworthphile’ guests by saying things to each other like ‘nearer and nearer crept the ghastly THING’ or ‘the prunes are revolting’; the same sort of people, I imagine, as those who describe Gary Larson cartoons or perform one of Eddie Izzard’s routines when they want to be funny – is nostalgia. And the books are not just a sunny reminder of blissful childhood days spent climbing trees to smoke clandestine cigarettes during Miss Pringle’s botany walks: more pungently, reading Molesworth now is evocative of reading it as a child. (The innuendos, like the references to Huxley, Proust and Eliot, allow adult readers fondly to reflect on their own childhood innocence and ignorance.) Extra piquancy (or poignancy, depending on whether or not you read the Molesworth books at school) is added by the fact that they were written in the 1950s, a decade which would appear still to represent our national childhood, and as such has a lingering tendency to bring on rashes of mass nostalgia.
That the Molesworth books have this nostalgic power and cult status is testament to their cleverness: but it also sets a limit on their achievement – it’s the reason that they’re not, as Hensher claims they are, ‘works of sublime genius’ with a ‘ferocious satirical bite’. They purport to view the world with a cynical eye, but the effect they have is far from unsettling; quite the opposite, in fact – they’re terribly cosy. One reason for this is the smallness of the World of Molesworth, where everyone has Latin lessons and piano lessons and knows enough about the gerund to find the idea of it as a long-nosed creature with horns sneering at a smaller bird-like thing – ‘Social snobery. A gerund cuts a gerundive’ – funny. A description of a history lesson includes the following: ‘This meant the Rise of the People and the People hav gone on rising ever since like yeast until you kno where they are now hapy and prosperus you ask them when the television programme is over.’ Maybe this is satirising snobbery, but most prep-school boys would probably align themselves with Molesworth, laughing at the proles. Back in the Jug Agane ends on an apparently plaintive note: ‘i do not think i will ever be the BRANE of BRITAIN as every other boy will be. Perhaps by that time’ – he’s looking ahead to 2000 – ‘there will be room in the world for a huge lout with o branes.’ Well, yes, as long as he was privately educated – it is still much as it was in the 1950s.
Another reason for the paradox of cosy cynicism is that Molesworth isn’t actually a huge lout with no brains at all. (There’s the spelling problem, of course, but nowadays his disorder would have been properly diagnosed and he’d have special tuition after lunch every other Tuesday and Thursday.) In fact, he displays a shockingly precocious intelligence. His real failings are as the hero of a satire. Hensher’s introduction begins with a neat reference to something Jonathan Aitken said before beginning his all-too-brief stretch in prison: ‘I’m sure I will cope. I lived through Eton.’ We are then told that the former Cabinet minister, ‘whether he knew it or not’, was ‘quoting Grabber, head boy of St Custard’s’, who in one of Molesworth’s daydreams is sent to prison and says: ‘he do not care so boo there is no difrence between st custard’s and wormwood scrubs anyway.’ A better gloss on Aitken can be found in Decline and Fall – ‘anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison’ – and it’s more than possible that Grabber’s stiff(ish) upper lip is itself an allusion to Waugh. Decline and Fall is an altogether fiercer book than the Molesworth collection, and one reason for this is that Paul Pennyfeather, like so many protagonists of great satire before and since, is a flawed innocent out of his depth; Molesworth, by contrast, is too knowing, too much of a winner pretending to be a loser. The world appears carelessly brutal and casually corrupt in the light of Pennyfeather’s disarming naivety and uncritical gaze; refracted in Molesworth’s boisterous schoolboy cynicism, it seems reassuringly attentive and benign. The claustrophobic world of high society in Decline and Fall is satirised in part for the damage it unthinkingly wreaks on the rest of the world, to which we are alerted by Pennyfeather’s ex-friend Potts, plodding for the League of Nations and failing to be a force for good; in Molesworth there is no rest of the world.
Hensher comments on Searle’s time in a Japanese POW camp during the Second World War: ‘it would not be too much to wonder whether those half-comic, half-dreadful figures of authority and sadism’ – St Custard’s masters – ‘are beginning to expunge some inner demons.’ He immediately reassures us, however, that ‘this black undertow need not trouble the reader’ – and this is true not least because of Molesworth’s invulnerability. In fact, there is something genuinely unsettling about the idea of boarding prep schools – the youngest of these children are only seven – and the great disingenuousness of the Molesworth books is that they appear to exaggerate the institutional horror when their actual effect is to condone the institution. It’s perhaps worth noting that the books have never been samizdat texts in prep schools.
After predicting Grabber’s imprisonment, ‘the eye of the prophet molesworth next lite upon dere little fotherington-Tomas’, who will become ‘a very brave space pioneer’. ‘O goody say fotherington-Tomas peeping over my shoulder O goody molesworth you hav put me in and made me brave. How can i thank you enuff? i’m brave i’m brave hurra. I should not count on it, i sa. It is only a flite of fancy.’ When he peers into his crystal ball and sees himself as a couturier, Molesworth ‘take the wretched cristal pill and punt it out of the window’. Hensher plays a similar game in the introduction, imagining what Molesworth and his contemporaries might really have become: ‘Peason, I am very much afraid, went into insurance and, not quite understanding why, went down with Lloyd’s.’ But the truth is the whole bunch ended up where they’d actually been all along – with Fotherington-Tomas and his sister Arabella, in their cottage called ‘swete lavender’.