Book Review: To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield

Book Review: To Serve Them All My Days by R. F. Delderfield

I don’t remember which blogger recommended this book; but I know I checked it out of the library based on somebody’s recommendation. (I think I’ve got to start writing these things down somehow.)

I’d never heard of Delderfield before and didn’t know much about the book except that it was about a boys school in England. But I was very pleased with this novel.

The book begins when the protagonist, David Powell-Jones, having been invalided out of the British army during the first World War, is sent by his doctor to teach at a country boarding school to recover his health and his sanity after his experiences in the trenches. The novel begins in the middle of the first World War and ends in the middle of the second. David’s life at Bamfylde school mirrors what’s going on in the world and yet the school is also an island set apart from the world.

What I really liked about this book, other than the wonderful evocation of a particular time and place, was the look at a philosophy of education. At Bamfylde what is really important is not the math and history and science lessons but the formation of the person. As David tells his wife, who doesn’t quite get it:

“I’ve been trying to explain for years that education isn’t a matter of text-books and blackboards…. At least it isn’t in schools of this kind….Of course, they have to be taught something, and of course they have to be coached through the Cambridge senior or some qualifying exam, but that isn’t why they’re here.”

The why is somewhat harder to distill into a pithy quote. But here’s what the headmaster, Rev. Algernon Herries, says:

Education, in the generally accepted sense of the word, has never rated very high on my list of priorities. All that the best of us can do is to teach boys how to educate themselves between their time of leaving here and their time of crossing that Rubicon that comes for all of us at about twenty-five when the memory sponge is getting soggy and we tend to read and forget.

I’ve had plenty of first-class scholars through my hands since 1904, but I can’t claim much credit for their academic successes. They would have been achieved at any school, given the same material. But helping to equip two generations of predatory males with the qualities of patience, tolerance, good fellowship and the ability to see someone else’s point of view—qualities I see as the keystones of democracy—that’s something else.

Herries illustrates his idea of the ideal Bamfylde student with a story about a time when two of the boys found themselves on a train seated in a compartment with a mother nursing a baby. The baby was dramatically sick and one of the boys, the star pupil who later went on to become president of a famous insurance company, hid behind an upside down newspaper. The other boy, seated next to the mother, “was on the receiving end of the business” but was completely nonplussed. He whipped out a clean handkerchief, “the only clean handkerchief I’d ever seen him sport,” and thoroughly cleaned up both baby and mother. This second boy, we are told, “never won a prize or a race. Neither did he find time to do the only thing he was equipped to do—raise a family. He was killed at First Ypres, but I still remember him. Rather better than I remember Petherick [the first boy]. As a matter of fact… I thought of him as one of our outstanding successes.” Algy Herries explains in his farewell speech.

I agree wholeheartedly with this measure of success proposed by Delderfield. I don’t aspire for Isabella to be rich or famous, brilliant or successful. But I want her to show compassion to everyone she meets, be always ready to lend a helping hand, and equal to whatever upsets and unpleasantnesses life throws in her path.

The hero is successful because he subsumes himself to his work, to raising a generation of boys, the generation who become the soldiers who heroically sacrifice themselves to save their homeland in the Second World War. He survives personal tragedy but endures because of his work and his great love of the school.

The book is a fascinating exploration of the inner workings of an English public school and of a period of English history that is not well known to me. I loved the way the passing years are marked with amusing anecdotes about exemplary boys and the way the school itself becomes one of the book’s most beloved characters.

My only caveat is that I didn’t like the protagonist’s attitudes toward divorce and remarriage and to extra-marital sexual relations. But these, unpleasant as they were, were not great distractions from the heart of a good story. Highly recommended.


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  • I am actually responding to your earlier blog about your fall down the stairs.  I just want to make sure that you read this, because you might not go back to earlier blogs.  If you fell down many steps, and have bruises so that it’s difficult to bend, I encourage you to have an x-ray.  I fell down the stairs many years ago.  My entire back was black and blue, but because I could stand and walk, I thought nothing was broken.  Wrong.  After 20+ years, I am now having back problems aggravated, my doctor told me, by a spinal injury that didn’t heal properly.  We only discovered it recently.

  • Melanie, we are leading parallel lives. Our husbands are both dark-haired, goateed, not-skinny boys, we have had similiar life-bending events in the past six months…
    I too was a teacher, but we felt I had to go back after Madeleine. When The Boy came along 18M later, I was done. I’ve missed it for about, oh, 6 hours in the past 4 years and change.


  • Teaching, for me at least, takes huge swathes of time, more than it probably should. But I’m that terrible combination: a perfectionist and a procrastinator.

    Ach!  Me too!!  wink