Thursday, June 16, 2011

Corporal Punishment and Private Perversion



E.M. Sanchez-Saavedra

A disturbing theme in many school stories that appeared in English boys’ journals was the spectre of flogging. The nineteenth century, despite Victorian genteel stereotypes, was full as brutal an era as those which had gone before. William Hogarth’s graphic “Four Stages of Cruelty” could easily have been redrawn with different costumes and lost none of their accuracy a century later. Both animals and people groaned under the whips, fists and boots of brutal masters. Horses, dogs sailors and slaves often died as a result.

Violence in many forms was perfectly acceptable in adventure yarns, but sexual topics were strictly taboo, except indirectly. Samuel Bracebridge Heming (1841-1901) had begun his career as a novelist with mildly racy adult fiction in the “Railway yellowbacks” after assisting sociologist Henry Mayhew with a penetrating study of London prostitution. Even after concentrating on juvenile adventure serials, Heming included elements of both sex and extreme sadism in his famous Jack Harkaway stories and other works.

Implied sex rears its head fairly often in the Harkaway saga. Jack and Emily have a son, Dick and Hilda have a daughter, Monday and Ada have a son, while Mr. Mole has several offspring by various non-caucasian wives. At least one illustration shows Mole and wife number three in bed together. Among the secondary characters, Smiffins/Bigamini is a fugitive bigamist. In continuations of the Harkaway series by Philip Richards and others, Captain Monastos seduces the wife of Petrus, while Thyra, a Greek dancing girl rescued from a Turkish harem, literally throws herself at Young Jack. Jokes about polygamy and Mormonism are plentiful in the series.

The initial story, Jack Harkaway’s School Days, contains some restrained and properly Victorian material about Jack’s estranged parents, but also some curiously sado-erotic scenes between adolescent Jack and his headmaster’s cruel wife. In consequence of careless stone throwing, Jack manages to injure Mrs. Crawcour’s hand and is condemned to a flogging by Mr. Mole, while Mrs. Crawcour watches. Mole trusses Jack to a wall and stretches him in the best style of a Torquemada:

“Get a cane out of Mr. Crawcour’s study. You shall punish him. I would do it myself if I could.”

Her face assumed the expression of a handsome but enraged tigress.

Mr. Mole...soon returned with a long, glistening, lithe-looking cane...

“Let him take off his jacket and waistcoat, and then tie his hands with that string, and haul it up tight, so that his hands will be over his head, and he will be standing upright and unable to escape you...”

...The cord ran through a brass ring firmly fixed in the wall about nine feet from the floor...Mr. Mole tied Jack’s wrists firmly together, and then hauled up the cord until his arms were drawn up over his head and he stood almost on tiptoe, so great was the tension.

The other end of the cord he made fast to a leg of the piano.

“He cannot move much now,” he said, with a grim smile.

“That will do,” replied Mrs. Crawcour, leaning back in the chair with an approving nod.

“Cane the little wretch as severely as you can, and go on until I tell you to leave off. It will be some satisfaction to me to see him suffer what he so well deserves.”

Jack’s face was to the wall, but he turned his head half round with a reproachful look.

How could one so lovely be so great a savage?

He could not understand it.

She made a sign to Mr. Mole to begin.

The senior master was a tall, thickset, well-built man, and a very strong blow from his hand was one which made itself felt,

He swung the cane round, and it descended upon Jack’s shoulders with a dull thud.

The boy set his teeth firmly together.

“She shall not have the satisfaction of hearing me cry,” he said to himself.

With well regulated sweep the cane descended time after time.

At every blow the victim’s frame quivered.

Still he did not cry out.

Mrs. Crawcour was annoyed at his fortitude.

“Harder,’ she said. “He doesn’t feel it. These boys have no feelings for themselves or others, it seems to me.”

Mr. Mole redoubled his exertions.

A low sob, and then another, which he could not repress, broke from Jack.

It seemed as if the tension of the rope was dragging his arms out of their sockets.

First one thin red line, and then others made their appearance.

It was blood which the cane had drawn forth.

Alarmed, Mr. Mole suggests stopping the flogging, but the headmaster’s wife is adamant. Finally, Jack faints.

“Dear me,” said Mrs. Crawcour, rising from her chair; “I had no idea that he was ill. How obstinate he is to be sure.”

Instead of feeling ill-used and vengeful, Jack falls in love with his tormentor. Jack Harkaway’s School Days is unique in that its obligatory punishment episode involves sexual gratification on the part of the headmaster’s wife. Mrs. Crawcour is described as

“...a very lady-like and not at all bad-looking woman, between thirty and forty years of age.

“Her hair was dark, her features regular and classic. “Her complexion pale, her eyes full, but wicked.

“Being a slight judge of character, Jack saw at a glance that she could be a firm friend, but a most determined enemy.

“It was a beautiful, but a very cold, cruel face.

“Yes; cruel is the word to be used in describing Mrs. Crawcour’s expression.”

This formidable succubus archetype recurs in much popular Victorian fiction, most notably as Ayesha, or “She Who Must Be Obeyed,” in H. Rider Haggard’s imaginative novel, She. She personally nurses the lad back to health, and he falls in love with her, (or at least becomes “spooney.”) At one point she confesses:

“Oh! if you only knew what a dreadful curse my temper has been to me all my life. Had it not been for my temper, I should not now be the wife of a schoolmaster in a country town.

“... I have been called a beautiful pythoness before now.

“She lowered her head, and her hair, escaping from a pin that held it, fell over her face, and she kissed his forehead.

“She smiled, and with rather a sad air, left the dormitory, her rich silk dress making music as it went along, and hanging gracefully about her symmetrical figure.”

Pretty hot stuff for a Victorian teenager!

In a later chapter, Jack breaks his collar bone in a football scrum against the rival boarding school and is nursed once again by the bewitching headmaster’s wife. She asks him,

“Have I been kind? Are you satisfied with me?”

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I should like to be ill forever, if I might always have so kind a nurse as yourself.”

She put her arms round his neck, and kissed his forehead, while she pushed back his curly chestnut hair from his temples.

“How would you like to have me for a mamma?” she asked.

“I would rather have you for--for----”

“Well, dear, for what? Speak out,” said Mrs. Crawcour in an encouraging tone.

“I was going to say for a sweetheart, ma’am.”

...”You are so lovely,” replied Jack.

“Am I lovely?” Mrs. Crawcour repeated, looking at her handsome and majestic figure in the glass with some satisfaction.

The hot blood mounted to Jack’s face, and made it burn.

“How you blush. Why do you blush so?” she asked.

“I don’t know, ma’am. It’s because I’m talking to you, I think.”

When combined with her husband’s fondness for his cane collection (about fifty of assorted sizes: “I call them my little persuaders,” he smirks,) these sequences are closer to Heming’s earlier boudoir yellowbacks than they are to Tom Brown’s Schooldays.

We have no record of the readers’ reactions to this kinky relationship, but it is never alluded to again. Jack goes on to rescue and woo Emily Scratchley (and rescue, and rescue her, ad infinitum) and finally to marry her after finishing his university course.

Interestingly, the flogging scene was not illustrated in any of Edwin Brett’s editions of the tale. In its first appearance in Frank Tousey’s Wide Awake Library, in 1879, the cover illustration depicted a scene that did not even apply to the story, showing a water fight in a school dormitory. Not until 1895, when Tousey reissued the Harkaway series, would the scene be illustrated, and never afterwards. Although stylized and almost mannered, the Wide Awake cover echoed a savage illustration for Boyhood’s Battles; or, the Ups and Downs of a Runaway (Hogarth House, ca. 1885,) showing “Mr. Hackchild” mercilessly beating an emaciated boy.

As at Eton schoolboy from 1853 to 1857, Bracebridge Heming was all too familiar with the frequent castigations administered by heavy-handed masters. On page 403 of Sir H. C. Maxwell Lyte’s A History of Eton College (1440-1898), published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd., London, 1899, appears a woodcut of the infamous birch and block upon which so many boys suffered.

Heming’s Dick Lightheart, The Scapegrace of the School, provided another example:

Whenever a boy was caned, it was Venner’s duty to “horse” him; that is to take him on his back and, holding his wrists around his own neck, keep him in a favourable position for the head master’s blows…

In an instant Venner gave a quick jerk, and Dick found himself perfectly helpless and tightly held.

Then Venner turned around, and took up a position in an open space, so as to give the professor’s arm full play.

Swish went the cane through the air, descending on the offender’s back with a dull thud.

At first these were the only sounds to be heard, but as the pain increased to positive torture, and the elastic cane bent double and twisted around his jacket, actually cutting the cloth, Dick began to add his cries to the noise.

At length he screamed with pain, and kicked violently, receiving the blows on the calves of his legs…and it was not until the cane broke off at the top, by coming in contact with the boy’s boots, that the professor desisted from his efforts.

Adding imprisonment to injury, Dick is thrust into a mouldy cell to reflect upon his conduct, the object being to bring him to a proper sense of the duty owed to those who are set in authority over him.

As one ex-schoolboy of the period (possibly Algernon Charles Swinburne) put it, English public schoolmasters,

“one and all, appealed to the very seat of honour...flogging, used with sound judgment, is the only fundamental principle upon which our large schools can be properly conducted. I am all the better for it and am, therefore,


Bondage and “nursery games” have long been a mainstay of brothels. Public school corporal punishments seem to have created a burgeoning market for this form of gratification. To the schoolboy readers of Jack Harkaway, however, the subject probably struck too close to their own reality to be enjoyable as fiction. Later penny school stories retained the birching scenes, but concentrated on humorous schemes for avoiding the pain and “getting square” on the pedagogue.

George Emmett’s Hogarth House had "scooped" Edwin J. Brett in 1867 with the first true penny-dreadful school story entitled The Boys of Bircham School. This piece set the style for most other English boarding school serials, consisting of equal parts of adventure, cruel slapstick humor, and descriptions of more or less sadistic punishments administered by the faculty of "Birch ‘em” School. Later stories would feature "Thrashemwell College," “Stingwell School,” “Dr. Rodwell’s School,” “Dr. Whackley’s Lexicon College,” “Thrashem’s Public Grammar School,” "Scarum School," and so on, echoing Dickens' "Dotheboys (Do the boys) Hall" and its cruel master, Wackford Squeers (with the emphasis on “whack!”) from Nicholas Nickleby.

“Dominie Dobbs,” a schoolmaster character in Marryat’s Jacob Faithful (1834), observes:

In short, I have a...pleasure in hic, haec, hoc; and even the flourishing of the twigs of that tree of knowledge, the birch, hath become a pleasurable occupation to me, if not to those upon whom it is inflicted.

An early English poem, printed around the year 1500, called “The Birched School-Boy,” reveals the antiquity of floggings in the educational process:

I wold ffayne be a clarke

But yet hit is a strange werke;

the byrchen twyggis be so sharpe,

hit makith me haue a faynet harte...

My master pepered my ars with well good speede...

he wold not leve till it did blede.

1 comment:

  1. That the punishment of birch-flogging, as practised in the grammar and public schools of England from the Medieval through to the early Victorian era, was a perverted and sado-erotic punishment, there can be little doubt.
    Most schools used the birch in conjunction with the twin-stepped school type 'flogging block', of the Eton type. A boy to be flogged would have to lower, or completely remove his breeches and any underwear, and kneel on the lower step of the block, bending his torso acutely over the upper step, so as to place his hands flat on the floor on the far side of the block. The posture on the flogging block spread and exposed the naked buttocks in the most lewd manner possible, also exposing the anus, perineum, and the back of the genitals to the view of the Master administering the flogging.
    The birches used were often savage instruments - 4 or 5 feet long, thick, heavy, bundles of brine soaked birch twigs, with the hard buds still left on. Two or Three dozen strokes would leave the whole of the victim's buttocks and upper thighs, including the anal/perineal region, and, in rare extreme cases (especially if the Master's aim was poor) the back of the scrotum, a mass of blood and raw flesh.