It is thirteen years since Alan Bennett’s The History Boys premiered at the National Theatre – and I’ve finally got around to seeing the film adaptation. I was bewitched and bedazzled for much of it. Its depiction of a group of 1980s sixth-formers preparing to take their Oxbridge entrance exams was immensely watchable. But – and at the risk of sounding like ‘one of those picky-ass readers who apparently live to tell writers that they messed up’ (as Stephen King calls them) – there was a moment that stood out for me, and I don’t think it was intended to.
The students’ maverick English teacher Hector – who wants them to learn poetry for its own sake, not in order to pass exams – should surely be a master of his subject. Admittedly, he is described by his own creator as ‘not an ideal teacher … he is sloppy and quotes stuff almost at random.’ But even if Alan Bennett wants to show us that the boys ‘know more than any of the teachers,’ Hector’s USP is that he believes that ‘All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest use,’ so why make him the mouthpiece for the wrong interpretation of a poem? He says of Thomas Hardy’s elegiac war poem Drummer Hodge that ‘the important thing is that he [Hodge] has a name’ because ‘… these were the first campaigns when … common soldiers … were commemorated, the names of the dead recorded and inscribed on war memorials.’ But Hardy did not intend the reader to understand ‘Hodge’ as the boy’s real name. It is in fact society’s pejorative nickname for the peasant class to which he belongs. Which makes him indistinguishable from its other members – the reverse of Hector’s point. The fact that Drummer Hodge’s bones will not, as in previous times, be ground up with those of his fellow lowly soldiers into fertiliser doesn’t change that.
When Hector says ‘So, thrown into a common grave though he may be, he is still Hodge the drummer. Lost boy though he is on the other side of the world, he still has a name,’ he is, in my view, missing some of the vital pathos of the poem. Drummer Hodge has made the ultimate sacrifice for his country but in death, as in life, he is treated neither with respect nor as an individual. Victorian society is snobbish to the end. It has always tended to lump such people together as ‘Hodges’. And a Hodge is, as Hardy explains in Longman’s Magazine in 1883, ‘a degraded being of uncouth manner and aspect, stolid understanding, and snail-like movement.’ Hardy’s lifelong mission was to show that this is a deeply unhelpful caricature, and that individuality shone out among the labourers of his native Dorset just as much as among the so-called higher classes of London.
It’s interesting, too, that Alan Bennett gives the sport-loving son of a former Oxford college servant – a student who, in the Head’s disparaging words, ‘might get in at Loughborough in a bad year’ – the name Rudge. Maybe this is a nod to Dickens’ simple but goodhearted eponymous hero Barnaby. But the name is inescapably similar to that of ‘Hodge’. When Rudge is unexpectedly offered a place by his interviewers at Christ Church, Oxford – he doesn’t have to wait for a letter like his peers – it is a telling moment. Rudge represents a type that they want – ‘college servant’s son, now an undergraduate, evidence of how far they had come, wheel come full circle and that’. He is not, therefore, valued as an individual – and he knows it. And although he trots out his party piece that Stalin was a ‘sweetie’ and Wilfred Owen a ‘wuss’, we know the dons are not deceived because they say, wittily if cynically, that he is ‘plainly someone who thought for himself and just what the college rugger team needed.’
It seems to me that the correct reading of Drummer Hodge earlier would have enhanced this moment.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!