FRANCES Vernon's suicide at the age of 27 makes the publication of this, her fifth novel, particularly poignant. She had recently finished it at the time of her death in 1991, and its posthumous appearance is both a tragic reminder of what she might have gone on to do, and a testimony to what she did achieve in the course of a writing life which began when she was only 18 with her award-winning first novel, Privileged Children.
Vernon's long-established interest in historical themes is evident in The Fall of Doctor Onslow, which takes its inspiration from the extraordinary memoirs of the eminent Victorian writer and homosexual, John Addington Symonds. Symonds describes Harrow, where he was at school in the 1850s, as a place where 'every boy of good looks had a female name and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow's 'bitch'.' His most amazing revelation is that the headmaster himself was involved in sexual relationships with pupils. This is the germ of Vernon's plot.
Doctor Onslow is the young, ambitious head of a prominent public school. Like most male educators of the time, he is also a clergyman, and his marriage to the daughter of a bishop looks like a smart career move. He and his wife Louisa have an amicable, if uncommunicative, relationship. To most of the boys he appears sarcastic, Olympian, and intolerant of bad Latin.
Then one of the seniors, Christian Anstey-Ward, discovers his secret. In chapel, another boy hands him a note confessing to being the headmaster's 'bitch', together with an incriminating letter in Onslow's hand. Christian is a dreamy idealist, full of chaste fantasies about Socratic love and of loathing for physical sex. He confides in his father, who demands Onslow's resignation on pain of exposure.
Vernon turns the meeting between the two men into the novel's climactic moment. Their private battle is to dominate the rest of Onslow's life, and Vernon uses it to explore the issues of doubt and faith which preoccupied the Victorians: one of her most significant inventions is to make the Anglican Onslow's adversary a Darwinian atheist.
Onslow and his wife - who sees his 'sin' as insignificantly venial, perhaps more through ignorance than enlightened tolerance - retreat into the country. His resignation is explained as stemming from a scrupulous fear of worldly ambition, but, when it comes, he can't resist the offer of a prestigious bishopric. Yet he immediately capitulates on receiving Anstey-Ward's laconic telegram: 'Resign immediately.' By the end of the novel, Anstey-Ward's dominance is total: as well as his career, Onslow loses the religious faith which had always sustained him.
In Symonds's account, the headmaster is a shadowy, unsympathetic figure, dismissed as a treacherous abuser of boys. His story appears only as an adjunct to the writer's own self-analysis. Vernon, however, shifts the focus: Anstey-Ward junior (alias Symonds) disappears early on, and Onslow is fleshed out into a tragic individual, lonely and hunted.
Vernon leaves open the moral questions raised by Onslow's predicament, which are perhaps more complex today than they were in the 19th century. Great advances have been made: homosexuality is not stigmatised as it once was. But sexual harassment of pupils by a teacher continues to be a common abuse of power. Though our sympathies remain with Onslow, it is the very ambiguity of his position which compels our interest.
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