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Eminent Edwardian

The Character Factory: Baden-Powell and the Origins of the Boy Scout Movement

by Michael Rosenthal
Pantheon, 335 pp., $22.95

If they can honestly and accurately recall themselves at twelve, many middle-aged men will have happy memories of the Boy Scouts. If they were dutiful scouts, they will also remember reading Scouting for Boys, the Koran of the scouting movement written by its prophet, Lord Baden-Powell (1857–1941). A distinctive self-portrait of B-P emerges from his own pages: soldierly and salty; quirky, humorous, and kindly. But beyond that: if the young reader was more than just assiduous, he will have been struck by the odd tone of parts of Scouting for Boys, and may have found his interest in B-P’s personality quicken.

Robert Stephenson Smyth Powell was born in 1857, not the son of professional soldiers or of squires but into the bosom of the Victorian professional and intellectual upper middle class. His father, the Reverend Baden Powell, was a clerical don, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford. The boy took his first two given names from one of his godfathers, the inventor of the steam engine. Another godfather was Benjamin Jowett of Balliol. The family circle included Ruskin, Thackeray, Browning, and T.H. Huxley. When the boy was young his father died and in the professor’s memory his widow added to and hyphenated the family’s surname as Baden-Powell, helping to create a myth. He was known as “Stephe” at home, “Bathing-Towel” or other barely tolerable nicknames at school and in the army, but “B-P” was to be his nom de guerre in more than one sense.

B-P was sent to school at Charterhouse, where he excelled at theatricals and spent solitary afternoons in the countryside quietly watching nature, but did little work. For all their connection, Jowett decided that the boy was “not quite up to Balliol form.” In fact, despite his academic indolence and a tendency—in reaction maybe to his background—to mock those who put brains before brawn, B-P was far from stupid. He passed directly into the cavalry and left for India and the Thirteenth Hussars. He was a conscientious regimental officer, became the Raj’s leading exponent of pigsticking, or hunting wild boar on horseback with a lance, and developed his passion for scouting: following others’ trails, living rough, and gathering intelligence by observation.

It was in Africa rather than India that his career took off. He was ordered to the Gold Coast in 1895 and served as a staff officer—and war correspondent—in the Ashanti campaign in what is now Ghana. In the spring of 1896 he helped put down a Matabele rising in what is now Zimbabwe. After briefly commanding another cavalry regiment, the Fifth Dragoon Guards in India, he found himself in October 1899 in what is still South Africa as the Boer War began. There, just before the Queen-Empress’s reign closed, he became one of the heroes of Victorian England by commanding the garrison at Mafeking during its 217-day-long siege by the Boers. As could be seen even at the time, the siege was militarily futile. The Boers’ one chance of victory in that autumn of 1899 was to drive for the Cape and the seaports before overwhelming British reinforcements could arrive, instead of wasting their men and supplies in interminable and pointless sieges of British outposts. But their folly was good news for Colonel R.S.S. Baden-Powell.

His talents for leadership, and theater, and public relations, were given full rein. Among his colleagues at Mafeking was Lord Edward Cecil, one of Prime Minister Lord Salisbury’s gifted sons and author of the delightful Leisure of an Egyptian Official. Cecil organized the Mafeking Cadet Corps of young boys, and an idea was born. The war over, B-P spent several more years in the army, retiring as inspector general of cavalry.

In a letter to the Eton College Chronicle in December 1904, he thought out loud. His rather fanciful suggestion was that in their holidays Etonians should model themselves on knights of yore and lead “clumps” or troops as knights once had. The clumps were to be composed of lower-class lads, the sons of their fathers’ tenantry or servants, perhaps. That idea never caught on. But in 1907 B-P ran a summer camp for boys on Southsea Island in Dorset. “The results were such as to encourage the highest hopes as to the possibilities of the scheme when carried out on the large scale,” he wrote. Scouting had begun.

By now B-P was working in collaboration with C. Arthur Pearson, a hugely successful magazine publisher who had cashed in on the press revolution of the turn of the century—“a famous organizer; a great publicity man,” B-P is supposed to have said when he stayed at Pearson’s house. Pearson launched The Scout as the organ of the new movement. Within a year it was selling 110,000 copies a week. On January 15, 1908, Pearson began publishing Scouting for Boys in parts. It came out as a book in May, B-P having given more than forty lectures on scouting within two months. Scout troops sprang up spontaneously all over England. The movement grew, and grew, spreading from one country to another. At the Scouts’ international “Jamboree” of 1920 B-P was declared Chief Scout of the world. He had been knighted in 1909, was made a baronet in 1921, created Lord Baden-Powell of Gilwell in 1929, and died in 1941 in his eighty-fourth year laden with honors, six honorary degrees and the Carnegie Wateler peace prize among them.

The Character Factory is not a formal biography of Baden-Powell—the English writer Tim Jeal is at present working on one—or a history of scouting. It is “an attempt to ‘read’ the culture of Edwardian England through one of its representative institutions and the man who started it,” an examination of the social and mental climate from which scouting grew, and of the purposes which scouting might have been designed—consciously or unconsciously—to serve. Mr. Rosenthal’s fascinating and detailed book is also an undisguised demolition of B-P’s reputation, which directly refers to Lytton Strachey.

In fact there is little difficulty in showing the dark side of B-P’s personality and career. The British Empire was not built or run by tenderhearted philanthropists, but there seems to have been a streak of ruthlessness in B-P which is at odds with his carefully constructed self-portrait. During the Matabele campaign, he had an African prince tried after a fashion and shot, pour encourager les autres. The breezy tone of Scouting for Boys can be wearisome at the best of times; it is more than wearisome to read a message from B-P at Mafeking: “I ordered a man to be shot last night and forgot to sign the warrant, shall he wait for tonight?”

However much England venerated the hero of Mafeking, those closer at hand had reservations. In order to keep the comparatively small white garrison fed, rations for the blacks were drastically reduced. Blacks could—and were sometimes forced to—flee the town to run the gauntlet of besieging Boers, or they could stay and starve. Their treatment by B-P, wrote the Times correspondent, Angus Hamilton, was “altogether at variance with the dignity of the liberalism which we profess and are at such little pains to execute,” meaning the hypocritical British pretense that their intervention in South Africa had the best interests of the black majority at heart.

Nor was B-P as much admired by professional colleagues as by readers of the cheap London papers. “More outside show than sterling worth,” wrote Kitchener. “Organizing is as far as I can see the last thing Baden-Powell can do: some of his officers are plainly disgusted and wishing to leave him.” (Mr. Rosenthal might have mentioned the background to this put-down, the fierce enmity between Kitchener and Milner, whose protégé B-P was.) Again, there is the revealing episode of B-P’s dealings with Ernest Thompson Seton. Seton was the proponent of a proto-scouting movement, Woodcraft, and author of How to Play Indian, which B-P shamelessly plagiarized. There was a bitter correspondence between them—or rather it was bitter on Seton’s side, blithely dismissive on B-P’s—and Seton was one of those who deplored what they thought of as the authoritarian tone of scouting.

Mr. Rosenthal deplores it also. His central argument is that scouting was in essence a military movement with an imperialistic purpose, having grown out of Edwardian England’s anxieties about defending the empire, and had an ideology “firmly rooted in the self-interest of the upper classes.” In part this is almost too obvious to be worth stating. The sound of sledgehammers can be heard, amplified by Mr. Rosenthal’s earnest and humorless tone. Or, rather, it would not be worth saying were it not for the relentless mendacity of the scout movement. Scouting’s votaries have long insisted that the movement is and ever was pacific, international, and multiracial, when it was in fact founded with obvious military overtones—uniforms and camps—by a famous soldier of the greatest empire on earth.

Rosenthal has no difficulty either in showing B-P’s patent racism, by later standards, toward Africans and Indians. B-P rarely missed an opportunity to remind his young English readers that they ruled an empire whose inhabitants enormously outnumbered them and from whom no insolence should be tolerated: “But you forget that you are dealing with a Briton,” an Indian is told in an anecdote quoted in the first edition—though not in later editions—of Scouting for Boys—“one of that band who never brooks an insult even from an equal, much less from a native of this land.”

It is going farther to suggest that B-P made “a genuine, if modest contribution to early twentieth-century racist thinking.” But then going far is Mr. Rosenthal’s technique, a method of insinuation and conclusion-drawing which sometimes seems both slippery and naive. “I am not suggesting that either the movement as a whole,” he writes, “or Baden-Powell in particular was guilty of anything akin to programmatic anti-Semitism,” while going on to play up anti-Semitic themes. Here and elsewhere he runs the danger—though it is also his device in argument—of anachronistic judgment. I don’t suppose any of us would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall in the officers’ mess of the Thirteenth Hussars in the 1880s when Jews were mentioned. And if Mr. Rosenthal thought that British cavalry officers a century ago shared the political, social, or ethnic attitudes of the average reader of The New York Times today, then he certainly had a nasty shock coming. But all he can really show is that one of B-P’s scouting associates who visited Russia in 1920 was grotesquely anti-Semitic—“A friend of mine, an Englishman, had the pleasure of hanging a Jew a few days ago”—and that B-P himself sometimes equivocated on this as on other subjects.

It is not so much that Mr. Rosenthal is being tendentious as that he misses the point, the point that B-P was distinguished not by sharing many of the prejudices of his age and class but by at least pretending not to. B-P was unusual, an oddball. Part of his appeal was his very quirkiness, and that was surely part of scouting’s appeal also. There were other quasi-military organizations that put boys into uniform. None chose a uniform as peculiar as did B-P. The cultishness of scouting, with its rules and mottoes, was its strength. Mr. Rosenthal finds “Be Prepared”—consciously sharing B-P’s own initials—a sinister slogan. Maybe it is merely odd, in so far as it isn’t actually meaningless.

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