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Boys Will Be Boys

The Boy-Man: The Life of Lord Baden-Powell

by Tim Jeal
Morrow, 670 pp., $24.95

In a famous eighteenth-century Japanese document, entitled Hagakure, there is one passage I find particularly arresting. In it the author, an elderly samurai named Yamamoto Jocho, advises his readers, presumably young followers of Bushido, or Way of the Samurai, to always “carry rouge and powder with one,” for “after rising in the morning, or after sobering up, we sometimes find that we do not look very good. In such a case we should take out the rouge and put it on.” This, he went on, is especially important when going out to do battle, for one must be beautiful even in death.

Yamamoto wrote his tract setting out the rules of warriorhood at a time when Japanese warriors had little else to do but worry about rules, appearances, style, for the major battles had been fought and the time was set for almost three centuries of uninterrupted peace. The old samurai was evidently worried that peace would sap the manly virtues of the warrior caste and wished to make sure the young retained their vigor through constant training of body and mind. The inevitable happened, however: warriorhood without wars was soon reduced to a set of stylish postures, adding another form of theatrical behavior to a period already so rich in dandyism. The Hagakure enjoyed a brief revival in the hands of one of the great dandies of our time, the late Mishima Yukio, who used it to castigate the decadence of postwar Japan.

Lord Baden-Powell, affectionately known as B-P, hero of Mafeking and the World Chief Scout, approved of Japan and of the samurai spirit in particular. There was nothing unusual about this, for many Edwardians found much to admire in a Spartan code that extolled such virtues as self-sacrifice, obedience, bravery, and comradeship. The Russo-Japanese war of 1905, when the great Russian bear, so it was thought, was defeated through sheer Japanese pluck, elicited considerable enthusiasm in Britain, and B-P was especially impressed by the way Japanese soldiers were prepared to blow themselves to bits for their emperor and country.

In this, as in so many enthusiasms (building empire, disciplining boys, shooting animals, etc.), Baden-Powell was a man of his time. Less common perhaps, though by no means completely eccentric, was his love of acting in drag, which he called skirt-dancing. Possibly related to this, and if not then certainly to Yamamoto Jocho’s philosophy, was a curious personal habit noted in Tim Jeal’s superb and exhaustive biography. Even during the partly self-inflicted rigors of roughing it in the African veldt, B-P insisted on using scented soap in his collapsible bath tub.

It is a small detail, but it seems so at odds with B-P’s cultish adherence to what he called “the flannel shirt life,” that peculiar predilection of hearty English gentlemen to revel in discomfort, and at such complete variance with his often stated fears of effeminacy, that it makes one wonder. Is there a point at which machismo turns into its opposite? And if so, did B-P, like Yamamoto’s samurai (not to mention Mishima), cross that line?

Jeal’s notes on the Chief Scout’s acting career suggest that he did, rather often in fact. Baden-Powell was essentially a man of the theater. His was a life of poses, fancy uniforms, strange oaths, flowery speeches, medallions, mottoes, and jamborees. The most famous Boy Scout maxim, “Be Prepared,” reflected the Chief’s narcissism. Great military men are often great poseurs, which doesn’t necessarily make them closet sissies. But there does seem to be a lot of muscle flexing for the benefit of mama (as in B-P’s own case, there is usually a great mother hovering closely behind our great heroes). Certainly, skirt-dancing is a venerable masculine tradition in Britain, still carried on in some very rough pubs. And yet, to one not raised in that tradition, some of B-P’s theatrical roles suggest a strong feminine streak in the old scout which, combined with an equally strong fear of females, could help one to explain, without wishing to be too Freudian, his general attitudes to life and politics.

B-P’s theatrical talents were already in evidence as a schoolboy at Charterhouse. His role as Mrs. Bundle, the waterman’s wife, was so much admired that the butler in his house saved part of his dress. One of his more romantic roles in an army production was as a Guardsman named Tosser who falls in love with Penelope, played by a young officer by the name of Kenneth McLaren, whom B-P judged a “wonderfully good lady.” Tim Jeal’s description of the play is one of the more amusing passages in his book. “I’d choose to be a daisy if I might be a flower,” sang Penelope, as she entered the stage. “Where can Penelope be?” exclaimed the love-struck Tosser. “I am longing to embrace her.” One can be sure that much hearty fun was had by all.

B-P took McLaren under his wing and would henceforth refer to him affectionately as “the Boy.” This relationship might well have been the closest he ever enjoyed with anyone apart from his mother. When the Boy was captured by the Boers, while B-P was holding the fort at Mafeking, B-P wrote to him daily (such still were wars in those days) and consoled himself by looking at photos of the Boy on his desk. It is hardly surprising, then, that when the Boy finally decided to get married, his wife found little favor in B-P’s eyes. And when B-P himself, after years of procrastination, got married at the age of fifty-five, his bride, Olave, declined to invite the Boy to their wedding. The arrows of jealousy will find their target, even if those of Eros are denied.

Which begs the inevitable question: Was B-P a closet queen? The question has been raised so often, about so many imperial old boys (Kipling, Lawrence, etc.), that this angle has become a bit of a cliché. Still, in B-P’s case the pointers are hard to ignore. One of the strengths of Jeal’s book is that he seriously explores the evidence, without being prurient, sensational, or boring. To begin with the greatest cliché of all: the Mother.

Henrietta Grace was by all accounts, including Jeal’s, rather a monster, who commanded, and duly received, her sons’ absolute devotion, as well as a considerable chunk of their incomes to keep her in the style to which she had accustomed herself. Her main aim in life was what she called “getting on.” Jeal begins his chapter on Henrietta Grace, aptly entitled “That Wonderful Woman,” with a quotation from her most famous son: “The whole secret of my getting on lay with my mother.”

Getting on in British society, then as now, meant doing battle in the class war, in the case of the Baden-Powells, battling to move from middle to upper class. This in itself involved a large amount of theater. The family name, for example: Powell was changed by H. G. to the more distinguished sounding Baden-Powell (that all-important hyphen) by attaching her husband’s first name, Baden, to his surname. Baden had the added advantage of sounding vaguely Germanic; an advantage because of the German connection of the Royals and the then fashionable association with Teutonic vigor. When this association lost its shine later in the century because of Germany’s increasing rivalry with Britain, more stress was laid on the Powell side. H.G. even laid claim to a bloodline that went back to Athelystan Glodrydd, Prince of Fferlys, whoever he may have been.

Getting on meant living beyond the family means, but since Mrs. Baden-Powell was absolutely “determined not to make any new friends unless very choice people indeed,” this sacrifice had to be bravely born. The house in London, indispensible for wining and dining the highest and mightiest available, was maintained at vast expense, severely cramping the styles of H. G.’s sons for most of their lives. But it must be said in H.G.’s defense that her strategy paid off: the family, particularly through the efforts of B-P, got on, at the price, of course, of a permanent social neurosis, but that is the normal British condition to this day. B-P’s fondness for camping out in Asian deserts and African veldts was a welcome and in his time customary respite from the class war back home.

The presence of formidable mothers is generally not a help in the battle of the sexes, to be sure, but it does not automatically drive sons into the arms of boys either. To his credit, Jeal does not say that it did. He finds stronger evidence for B-P’s desire for his own sex (in the mind, if not actually in the camp bed) elsewhere. But even there, where the indications seem most obvious, one must bear in mind that what may strike a modern reader as homosexual behavior often was not regarded as such by a man of B-P’s class and time.

Take, for instance, the case of the photographs. B-P had an old friend (Rifle Corps and Football First Eleven) called A.H. Tod, who taught at Charterhouse after retiring from the army. One of Tod’s amusements was to take the boys out and photograph them in the nude. His work can no longer be seen, alas, for the pictures were destroyed in the late 1960s, supposedly to protect Tod’s reputation. But Jeal quotes one source describing them as “contrived and artificial as regards poses”—Charterhouse boys as Greek athletes, perhaps, throwing javelins, or dancing between the trees like fauns. In any event, they were much admired by B-P and visits to his alma mater were preceded by pleasant anticipation of another peek at his friend’s art.

It is possible of course that B-P’s interest was purely artistic and it is true that fondness of the male nude was as conventional among the late Victorians as, well, skirt-dancing. B-P’s enthusiasm for naked men went further than art, however. During the Great War he took great pleasure in watching soldiers “trooping in to be washed in nature’s garb, with their strong well-built naked wonderfully made bodies.” This, too, would not be necessarily significant if it were not for his equally pronounced distaste for the female body (“pinkish, whitish, dollish women”), or indeed anything to do with female sexuality. Interest in girls, which, despite his warnings, he could not fail to note among many young men in his charge, he regarded as a temporary disease (“girlitis”). It would soon pass, he was convinced, with a sufficient regimen of the flannel-shirt life. Masturbation was of course the very devil’s work, and sex to him, though unfortunately indispensible for procreation, was so much “beastliness.” No wonder he suffered constant migraines—not to mention torrid dreams of soldiers putting their hands in his pocket—during the time he dutifully cooperated in the production of three children. No wonder his headaches ceased the moment he forsook the marital bed for the more rugged quarters of his balcony.

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