The classic British public school prepares its inmates expertly for taking on (or over) the world, and not at all for that half of the world known as the opposite sex. Its charges are trained, in effect, to see women as a foreign country (most of the old boarding schools are still all-male), and even as they are taught just how to give or take orders, and how to bring their curious blend of stoicism and fellowship to Afghanistan or Arabia, they receive no instruction in what to do with that alien force that awaits them every night at home. Much of twentieth-century English literature comes, not surprisingly, from products of these half-military, half-monastic institutions (not least because self-discipline and getting things done are part of what they impart), and the result is a grand corpus of books written by men who seem at once fascinated and unsettled by that mysterious other known as woman.
The archetype of this tradition might be said to be Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, about a crippled young medical student and sometime artist who is so determined to act in the chivalric mode, and so unused to dealing with real women in all their complication, that he alights upon a waitress who clearly has little time for him and sets about trying to rescue her, even if the consequences are disastrous for everyone concerned. Throughout the works of Philip Roth, a similar tangle between weak, too trusting men and manipulative women is often central, but the tone is strikingly different, if only because Roth’s men want merely to be good boys. They are just regular, somewhat bookish, largely bewildered young men, in love with their parents and not with their schools and a code of Tennysonian valor.
Or—to take an almost random example from Graham Greene—look at Wilson in The Heart of the Matter, composing love poems for his old school magazine while in Africa and blurting out “I love you” to a woman he’s met just once; his roommate, from the same public school, confesses, “To tell you the truth, women scare me.” It is in fact the very heart of Greene’s creed of paradoxes that it is the impulse to help or save others that always condemns us, and that “innocence must die young,” as he puts it in the same novel, “if it isn’t to kill the souls of men.” In works like The Quiet American the action turns upon the dialogue between an older man who barricades himself behind a pretense of not caring and a much younger man whose chivalry the older man mocks because he feels its vestiges so strongly in himself. Reading John le Carré, also, the clear heir to this tradition, one often comes away thinking that in his work, too, the author seems to know about all the esoteric conspiracies and hidden currents of the political world,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.