On more occasions than I care to recall, I've absolutely wasted a dollar. But sometimes $1.00 is brilliantly spent, as in the case of my on-line purchase (+ $3.99 shipping!) of the useful book we'll examine today.
Vyvyan Holland's 1954 autobiography, Son of Oscar Wilde, begins: "I was born in my parents' house in Tite Street in November 1886… My arrival was somewhat of a disappointment to my father, who wanted a daughter to remind him of his sister, Isola…
In my birth certificate, my father's profession is given as 'author'. The declaration was made by my mother; my birth was not registered for some weeks after I was born, as my father and mother each thought the other had seen to the matter. When the time came, no one could remember the exact date on which I had been born… though everyone was sure it was during the first five days of November."
These paragraphs reside on the first page of Chapter One, ironically entitled "The Happy Years." Holland's life among guardians who sought to keep his identity a secret, and in a world that misunderstood or even reviled his father, seems to have been anything but idyllic.
His birth in 1886 made Holland ten years older than George Mills, and, although ten years is no blink of the proverbial eye, some of his life is instructive in understanding the world in which Mills was raised, especially regarding higher education in England.
What's most useful to us here, however, is that Holland records some details of his friendship with Joshua Goodland, a man who was also a major influence on the life of George.
We first meet Goodland in this text as Holland arrives at Trinity Hall [right], sent by his guardian family (which loves him none too well) to study Law after he is told matriculation to Oxford (his father's alma mater) is out of the question: "Before starting serious reading at either University one had to pass one's Preliminary Examination at Cambridge (or Responsions at Oxford), or be excused from it. If my Higher Certificate had included Greek, I would have been excused from this Preliminary Examination (known as the Little-Go). As it was, I had to take the whole examination and learn Greek in the bargain."
Just an aside: We know, for example, that when George Mills returned from the First World War, he was excused from taking Responsions at Oxford. We don't know for sure, but I would guess skipping Responsions was a boon to Mills because my hunch is that he, too, had neglected to study Greek in depth.
Holland continues: "Luckily the summer term at Cambridge had not yet begun, and, as I would naturally not be going up until after Long Vacation, this gave me the whole summer in which to prepare for my Little-Go in June. So I was sent up to Cambridge to prepare for the examination in charge of Joshua Goodland, with whom I lived in rooms at Trinity Street. I resented this very much, as I considered I was once more being thrown to the lions."
The year was 1904, and Holland is being raised by guardians who, frankly, don't seem to care very much for him personally, or for the memory of his father, Oscar Wilde.
"Goodland was about twelve years older than myself. He was a very sympathetic man, who afterwards became one of my greatest friends, but at the time I resisted all his attempts at friendship. I was not yet a member of the university and knew no one there, whereas he had taken his degree in Law the previous year and knew a great number of people. I felt that I was in the way in his sitting-room and tried to keep out of it as much as possible. I worked hard and neither drank nor smoked. Neither did I talk much. I spent most of my time, when not attending lectures or being coached in Greek and Paley's Evidences of Christianity, reading in my bedroom."
According to Holland, we know Goodland had earned his undergraduate degree in Law by the spring of 1904, and in 1903 if Holland is being literal. We can also begin to see Goodland as the kind of sympathetic man who could nurture a bright but wounded adolescent like Vyvyan Holland, as well as a bright young man in pain like George Mills.
"One day, when this had been going on a fortnight, Goodland tackled me on the subject after dinner. And I told him frankly that I knew I was redundant in his scheme of things and I thought it was more tactful to efface myself as much as possible. He then said: 'Look here, there must be some mistake somewhere. When I first saw your guardian, he told me you were a most difficult case, that you were idle, drank to excess, and frequented bad company. Yet you work very hard, refuse to drink even a glass of beer, and so far from frequenting bad company, never seem to speak to anyone at all.' That was typical of the 'family,' who delighted in being able to find fault with me and to prove to themselves that I was thoroughly bad."
Holland continues: "When Long vacation came, the problem with my disposal once more became acute. Goodland was going to Scandinavia with his good friend Peter Wallace, who had been at Trinity Hall with him. He offered to take me with them and my guardian accepted the proposition and obtained permission of the Chancery Court for me to leave England and go to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
In point of fact, we altered our minds at the last minute and went to Riga instead, by a Russian freighter through the Kiel Canal. From Riga we went back to St Petersburg, Moscow, and Nijni-Novgorod and back to St Petersburg, where we took a coasting steamer to Stockholm. We eventually ended up in a little village called Bydalen, about three hundred miles northwest of Stockholm, where we remained about a month before returning to England. I had to keep very quiet about having been to Russia, as the country was in a very unsettled state after massacres in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg [Bloody Sunday, depicted at right], and the Chancery Court would never have given me permission to go there."
Holland then writes a paragraph much of which can be found on-line: "Having been duly entered as an undergraduate at Trinity hall, I spent the remainder of the Long Vacation at Seaford, with Goodland and another Law coach. And there I had the misfortune to learn to play golf, an affliction from which I have never wholly recovered."
By 1907, however, Holland began to realize that studying Law was not for him. He relates: "So after another May Week I said goodbye to Trinity Hall and my friends there. It seems strange to me now that all the time I was at Stonyhurst and Cambridge my most intimate friends, such as Joshua Goodland, Gerald Seligman and Ronald Firbank, were quite unaware of my identity [as the son of Oscar Wilde]. But before I went down I told one or two of them. When I told my great friend Joshua Goodland, he said: 'I always thought there was something mysterious about you. And now I know why. But what does it really matter? Your father was a great writer.' And that cheered me as nothing else could have done."
Once again, we see that Goodland has the ability to assuage someone's pain with acceptance and reassurance—things for which George Mills must have hungered as well.
The final selection regarding Goodland proceeds some months after Holland has departed Cambridge: "Then one day Joshua Goodland came to see me and told me that he and Peter Wallace, with whom I had travelled to Russia and Sweden, were going to Canada on a shooting expedition in the north of Quebec, and I asked whether I could come too. As they were off in a week, this did not give me much time for preparation. But the world was free then. No passports were required for the American continent; there were no currency restrictions and passages were easy to obtain."
Later, he describes the trip itself: "And on 22 November 1907, I sailed from Liverpool on the R.M.S. Victorian, of the Allan Line, bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
This American trip lasted altogether five months, during which I spent a great deal of money I could ill afford. Goodland and Wallace were growing restless and decided to move on to Japan. But I began to take stock and had a feeling of lusisti satis and decided to return to England alone. So I left them at Monterey and took the train from San Francisco to New York. I began to have a guilty feeling of 'Life is real, life is earnest' and that I must buckle on my armour."
Now, Holland was under the guardianship of a family named Scoonce, and one must assume that they were responsible for him. He needed their permission to make this trip, so one might assume that they were making sure he had an allowance that provided a roof over his head and food on his table, even when he was attending Cambridge.
And am I correct in assuming that one must have paid some sort of tuition to an institution like Cambridge at the time, and that the Crown did not cover all costs for scholars who could pass the Little-Go?
Goodland was a Law coach while at Cambridge, and may have even done some work as an architect, but if the latter were true, Holland doesn't seem to have been aware of it. Joshua also took a great deal of time off from both his studies and his coaching, and when he travelled, the record shows it was first class, and the stays away from home were lengthy (as we can see from the fact that they stayed in America for five months before Goodland departed San Francisco for Japan).
Could Goodland have supported himself, gone to school, and supported a relatively expensive and time-consuming travel habit without some outside aid as well? No, and that's why we suspect that his brother, Gillmore Goodland, must have been the financier behind Joshua's education in the discipline of Law at Cambridge.
Just what were the travel costs then, even for a student who had a benefactor like Holland? After riding the train through Chicago (and visiting a doctor there for a case of bronchitis), he relates: "I was now getting near the end of my funds, and when I had booked a second-class passage to England on an American Line boat for £15, I had to watch every cent. So, on this my only visit to New York, I spent time walking about the streets, admiring the sky-scrapers and going to museums and art galleries during the three days I had to wait before my boat sailed. I dare say that I saw more of the surface of New York in those three days than most visitors see in a month.
The voyage on the ship was uneventful. I played bridge most of the time at ten cents a hundred and made about twenty dollars, which enabled me to remunerate the stewards adequately; when I arrived in London I had about thirty-three shillings left, which was cutting it a little fine in a journey all the way from San Francisco."
Imagine what gratuities must have been expected from first-class passengers in 1907! Travel, although the merest fraction of what the same trip would cost today, seems to have been relatively expensive. Twenty five years later, my own father would work summer vacations from high school cutting granite for street curbing in the hot sun in Philadelphia for $10 a week. One wonders exactly what $20 was worth in 1908!
Anyway, the fact that Goodland moved on to Japan [below, right, in 1908] and points in the Far East and South Seas, continuing to sail first-class and presumably providing appropriate remuneration for his stewards, indicates he had far more disposable income than a student typically might have, unless coaching Law was a veritable "cash cow" at the time.
Holland eventually returned to Cambridge to finish his degree and take examinations after a period of relative freedom, living in Kensington. He remarks: "It was strange to be back under the comparatively strict college discipline."
George Mills would have been 13 years old at the time, living in Kensington with his parents and younger sisters—at least when he wasn't in school at Parkfield in Haywards Heath. It's even possible the paths of the two crossed. Relative freedom would have been what George enjoyed as a young man, living at home in that part of London, and it seems certain that when George arrived at Christ Church at Oxford in October 1919, adjusting to that "comparatively strict college discipline" may have presented a problem similar to his handling of the discipline under which he'd wilted while in the military during the preceding three years.
In addition, Holland describes some of what University life would have been like in England during the early 20th century: "Not only had I to start an entirely new train of thought in studying Law, but I also took up rowing. Trinity Hall was a famous rowing college, and the sport was almost compulsory if you were there as an undergraduate. It almost amounted to treason to prefer another form of athletics, and although we had cricket and football blues in the college, they were looked upon with disfavor and even grave suspicion."
Interestingly, Oxford's own website reminds us today: "The University’s top athletes gain the status of ‘Blue’ – an accolade that stems from the first boat race in 1829, when Cambridge tied light blue ribbons to their boat and Oxford adopted Christ Church’s dark blue."
Christ Church was the college George Mills attended at Oxford, and likely a hotbed of rowing as well. One wonders if the long, lean, but very slightly built Mills, sporting a below average chest and girth and some nasty varicose veins, had much success.
Holland continues, writing of a student 'going down,' or entering the working world after graduation: "It is the same with his games. He plays cricket and football or rows [a Cambridge team is seen, left, in 1907] at his schools, and does the same thing when he reaches university. His great shock comes when he goes down."
Mills, like Goodland and Holland, was a lover of sport and games. It's easy to understand why teaching school might have appealed to George, resigning himself to that off-to-work-every-day, no-fun-and-games life after Oxford. The option being able to assist in the coaching of sports at a preop school would have had great appeal.
This final insight from Holland [below, right] regards University life of the era in general: "We all had an exaggerated idea of our own importance. We interpreted the word 'university' as being the center of the universe, round which everything else revolved. The prominence given in the press to events like the Oxford and Cambridge Boat race fostered this illusion… We sincerely thought that for all practical purposes a man's life was over when he went down and started a weary round of grinding work to keep body and soul together. And we thought that at the age of forty a man might as well be dead…
It was, I suppose, part of the general intolerance of youth and a sign of healthy enthusiasm. Sometimes we wondered how on earth people amused themselves in the outside world while we, the real lords of creation, were up at universities during term time."
There must have been aspects of university life that George Mills loved—or at least loved vicariously. At 25, upon leaving Oxon, Mills was ill-prepared, and still certainly not of a mind to grow up.
Though an intelligent fellow, George clearly seems to have chafed under the burden of academia. A lover of sport, fate failed to provide him a body that would have been hearty enough to compete, allowing him no respite while at Oxford in sculling or other physical recreations (his father, while there, had played competitive Chess). And being a child in a well-to-do family of many accomplishments, he seems to have been bereft of much self-discipline or ambition.
Still, I imagine Mills, upon his departure from Oxford, very much feared the lifelong death sentence that Holland describes above: Going down without any visible means of support, without a degree, and without a father who was likely to sympathize much with his son's shortcomings.
One thing that his attendance at Christ Church would have provided Mills was a sense of somewhat equal footing when he became acquainted with the robust Joshua Goodland. Although Goodland was sensitive and empathetic toward others who were struggling, be it academically or socially, it is unlikely much could have come of their meeting if Mills hadn't attained a level of confidence—perhaps even a level of comfort—with himself, making him receptive to Goodland's friendship and advice.
Something changed in George Mills between leaving the army with what must have been a certain sense of failure and his brief career as a schoolmaster that almost immediately led to him becoming a published author of multiple texts.
Oxford and the people he met there, to some degree, played an important role.
So did Joshua Goodland.
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