Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Story of a Great Schoolmaster (1924)

Wells's only biography, this volume memorialises Frederick William Sanderson (1857-1922) who was headmaster of Oundle School from 1892 until his death. Oundle was where two of Wells's sons went to school: George Philip (‘Gip’, born 1901), and Frank Richard (born 1903). Wells and Sanderson became friends, and as Wells through the 19-teens and the 1920s increasingly focused his energies on educational reform he often discussed these matters with Sanderson and drew on his ideas. There's no question that he admired the man. This is how The Story of a Great Schoolmaster begins:
Of all the men I have met—and I have now had a fairly long and active life and have met a very great variety of interesting people—one only has stirred me to a biographical effort. This one exception is F.W. Sanderson, for many years the headmaster of Oundle School. I think him beyond question the greatest man I have ever known with any degree of intimacy, and it is in the hope of conveying to others something of my sense not merely of his importance, but of his peculiar genius and the rich humanity of his character, that I am setting out to write this book. To tell his story is to reflect upon all the main educational ideas of the last half-century, and to revise our conception of the process and purpose of the modern community in relation to education ... I knew him personally only during the last eight years of his life; I met him for the first time in 1914, when I was proposing to send my sons to his school. But our thoughts and interests drew us very close to one another, I never missed an opportunity of meeting and talking to him, and I was the last person he spoke to before his sudden death. [Schoolmaster, 1]
That death happened in June 1922. Sanderson had travelled to London to deliver a lecture on his educational philosophy to members of the National Union of Scientific Workers. Wells chaired the event, which was held in the Botanical Theatre of University College, London. Sanderson got through the talk and sat down, and as Wells asked if anybody any questions Sanderson fell from his chair, dead of a heart attack. Dramatic, or what?

Wells later met with Sanderson's widow and agreed to compile a memorial volume, including Sanderson's speeches and writings together with a biographical account of his life. Wells did indeed write this latter, and it was published, as Sanderson of Oundle, in 1923; but this volume did not have Wells's name on the title page.

What happened is that Wells and Mrs Sanderson had what seems to have been a perfectly civilised difference of opinion over the work. She and her husband had both, she insisted, been intensely private people, and she did not want any merely personal details included in the biographical sketch. In particular, she asked him to remove material relating to the fact that their eldest son had died in the war. Wells, though, insisted that it would not be possible properly to create a portrait of Sanderson without such personal material. The compromise reached was that the ‘official’ account, though written by Wells, was published anonymously, and contained nothing but Sanderson's own writings and a neutral narrative of his work at the school; whilst The Story of a Great Schoolmaster was published, as by Wells, in 1924, and was much more personal:
The disaster of the great war came to Sanderson as a tremendous distressful stimulant, a monstrous and tragic turn in human affairs that he had to square with his aims and teaching. He had had our common awareness of its possibility, and yet when the crash came it took him, as it took most of us, by surprise. At first he accepted the war as a dire heroic necessity. This aggression of a military imperialism had to be faced valiantly. That was how he saw it. Both his sons joined up at the earliest possible moment, and the school braced itself up to train its senior boys as officers, to help in the production of munitions, to produce aviators, gunners and engineers for the great service of the war ... In April 1918 his eldest son, Roy, died of wounds at Estaires after the battle of the Lys. Loss after loss of boys and trusted colleagues had grieved and distressed him; now came this culminating blow. [Schoolmaster, 6 1-2]
Perhaps surprisingly, given its very personal and specific focus, this book did well: it was translated into Swedish and Spanish, was serialised in the USA and received very respectful reviews. ‘Reviewers remarked how much Sanderson and Wells had done to rejuvinate education and provide a series of goals for young teachers’ [Smith, H G Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 261].

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