A rebellious teen’s first taste of trouble
What Went Down at a Famous Boarding School?
Harrow is a legendary British boarding school. It’s within the northern reaches of greater London. The students are boys between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. The tuition is expensive, though scholarships are available to those who can’t afford to pay. It’s now more racially and ethnically diverse than it once was. It’s still not easy to get into.
Several years ago I went up to look at Harrow. I wanted to see what the romantic poet Lord Byron might’ve seen when he first went there, aged thirteen, in 1801. How might the school have affected him? How did it send him on the road to becoming an extraordinary writer of prose and poetry?
I took away something different. I left with a renewed gratitude for my own, considerably more modest career as a reader, a teacher, and a writer. To my surprise the whole exercise increased my self-respect.
On the trail of a lord as he has his first hard knocks
The day I went to Harrow was wintry. To get to the school you have to climb up a steep hill from the train station. There was a crust of overnight snow. It was slippery going up the sidewalks. That was one of the first times Byron’s disability struck me. It would have been twice as difficult going up that icy hill with a clubfoot.
Once I got to the top, all at once, there were the boys. They were crossing back and forth to go from the houses where they lived to their classes. They were wearing straw hats and blue blazers with pale gray trousers. The light gray is strangely unflattering, almost cheap looking. The straw hats look great for a summer’s day spent boating on a river, but not for going outdoors in January.
The boys themselves were underwhelming too. They’re the best of an international pool of applicants. Still, they looked like awkward, pimply, embarrassed, hurrying-not-to-be-late, ordinary teenaged boys. They looked neither suave nor self-confident, most of them, the day I was there. The school uniform was a little different in Byron’s day, but the manners and appearance of teenaged boys were surely the same in his day as they are now.
Nor were they very seductive. Like most gay men, I have a tendency to romanticize all-male environments. Boarding schools, summer camps, armies, and even prisons tend to prove that all men are just like us. Byron’s days at Harrow were the beginning of his coming to terms with his own sexuality. He liked both boys and women, servants who were dependent on him, as well as people higher than him on the social scale whom he regarded as his superiors. “Bisexual” is too narrow a term to take in all his sexual appetites. Yet, it was hard to recapture the atmosphere of adolescent sex in the air the day I went to Harrow. The boys were a bit grubby and in their uniform even Timothée Chalamet would’ve looked slightly lower middle class.
My host at Harrow that day was the archivist, who was going to show me some of Harrow’s collection of Byron letters. She introduced me to a man called Custos, an ex-soldier who keeps the keys and enforces the rules. They took me into the schoolroom, the only room that is exactly today as it would have been in Byron’s day. It’s a long, dark, paneled room with a single fireplace. I couldn’t imagine even a big fire warming that cheerless room.
Departing boys are allowed to engrave their names in the wood. They don’t do it themselves, or they didn’t in Byron’s day. His B-Y-R-O-N in bold lettering is the work of an expert woodcarver. Byron must’ve paid him. There’s one Byron on the wall near the corner. Then it’s engraved again further down the wall. Why do it twice? To make sure everyone will find at least one version of his name? What must the boy who did this have been like? Was he that desperate for attention?
On the first day of his first term Byron arrived at Harrow without his mother or his guardian. Instead, he came with his solicitor, John Hanson. The headmaster, Dr. Joseph Drury, recalled his first meeting with Byron. The boy sulked. He showed signs of being difficult. Drury’s wife later observed Byron coming up the hill. She thought he looked like a ship at sea without a rudder or a compass. In short, he looked lost. Byron himself hated the idea that anyone should pity him.
There were boy-dukes in his dorm. The headmaster was a doctor of divinity. The traditions of the school stretched back the sixteenth century. Byron showed up as a boy who was also a lord, but that was not atypical at Harrow. He was more impoverished than many of the other boys. There was much there to make him feel insignificant.
Like American high schools now, Harrow was a school where doing well at sports was the path to popularity. The difference is that at Harrow sports are also historical. There are pictures online of Harrow boys wearing football uniforms, strange caps, and striped socks that look as if they date from more than a hundred years ago. Byron loved history, but it was difficult for him to be a part of this cult of historical games. Though he could run a short distance, and bat, and catch, it didn’t come as easily to him as it did the others. He could swim, but he had to have a pony to ride down to the pond that served as the school’s swimming hole. Even walking long distances was hard for him.
It must be difficult for any new boy to make his way in such intimidating surroundings, but it was particularly hard for Byron. The other boys played tricks on him. He woke up one morning to find that someone had taken his bad foot and put it in a tub of water. The English upper classes pay, by American standards, excessive attention to pronunciation. Byron sometimes spoke with the traces of a Scottish accent. Older boys may well have ridiculed him for that. Byron was all his life known for his effeminacy. In an all-boy school that probably wouldn’t have helped him either.
One day a teacher discovered Byron talking in the chapel to the boy next to him. He descended upon the pair, the wings of his black gown flying, and called Byron a “blackguard.” Byron demanded from his mother that she withdraw him from the school. He couldn’t bear the insult. For a time she successfully refused. He developed the habit of going and lying on a gravestone in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, adjacent to the school. A man named Peachey was buried under a large, flat tombstone with a sweeping view down the hill. Byron would go and lie on Peachey’s stone and wish himself dead. Maybe it was the one thing he enjoyed the most about his first years at school. Certainly those miserable and introspective moments were the beginnings of a self-knowledge that he later put into memorable verse.
On the trail of Lord Byron I become lord of myself
Even though I’ve had to deal with difficult boys in my teaching career, and even though I’ve always been an excessively rule-abiding person myself, I still admire Byron for all his adolescent disobedience and troublemaking. There’s an instinctive belief in himself and in his own judgement, which may have often been wrong, as no thirteen-year-old boy knows completely what’s good for him. However, that confidence in his own view of the world, even if mistaken, was something that would propel him into adventure, friendship, and literary accomplishment later in life.
Byron’s boyhood renews my vocation by encouraging me to break rules as a fully adult male. I can mix genres, write incomplete sentences, and own up to my own rackety sexual past. I didn’t do that when I was his age, but the spirit of the boy Byron tells me to do that now. Paying attention to his biography gives me that permission and that backing.
I also can’t help liking the talent for self-dramatization in that kid lying in the graveyard. I was trained as a historian to keep myself in the background, never to use “I,” and to efface the motivation that brought me to history in the first place. Lord Byron helps brings that “I” out of the closet. I can never be him precisely, but I can take my own repressed sense of the dramatic and remove the caution.
For example, I haven’t told you about the part of my visit to Harrow that took place in the church. The archivist encouraged me to go hear some boys give scratchy performances on violin and piano. Then I eavesdropped on their music teacher sitting near me speaking to them afterwards. He spoke in the same tones and the same language I’ve often used with my own students. There at one of the most selective schools in the world, I had my own performance as a teacher reflected back at me. I felt strangely and indirectly flattered.
There’s something very ordinary about Byron’s boyhood, too. There are universals in his testing the limits of teachers’ authority and in his self-pity when he couldn’t get away with bending the rules. It’s easy to recognize him as he struggled with the general beastliness of other adolescent boys. Who but a teenaged brute would make fun of Byron’s deformity by soaking it in water?
But I defeated similar brutes when I was a teenager. I was called all the toe-curling things most gay boys are called when young. How I found the wherewithal and the deviousness to survive it, I don’t know. Somehow the kid I was then became the writer I am now and I still have some of his persistence, and his ability to seduce. To find the ordinary in a great writer like Byron is somehow to rediscover and appreciate the extraordinary in me.