"BOYS," a famous headmaster of Eton once remarked, "you must be pure in heart, for if not, I will thrash you till you are." For centuries, guided by such rough-and-ready principals, Eton turned out 19 Prime Ministers, hundreds of British M.P.s, and presumably won the battle of Waterloo on its playing fields. But in this querulous century, in novels and memoirs, such latter-day Etonians as Osbert Sitwell, Aldous Huxley, Cyril Connolly and George Orwell have all looked back in irony or outrage at the cult of games, the bullying and beatings, the high premium placed by school authorities on well-organized mediocrity.
Partisan Aim. The latest old Etonian to call public attention to the soup stains on the old school tie is 24-year-old David Benedictus. Brought out in England last June to coincide with the date of the school's fanciest annual party (from which it takes its title), the book caused a small but predictable stir. Liberal reviewers used it to launch an impassioned appeal for school reform. Conservative critics, many of them older Etonians than the author, shrilly denounced him for sensationalism. They were offended by an incident in which a student sells his handsome younger brother to the rowing eight, and objected to Benedictus's portrayal of the bishop as a voyeur.
Now published in the U.S., the book proves itself more than a kind of private school Peyton Place. Benedictus's obviously partisan aim is to indict the Eton system for destroying a poor boy named Scarfe because, as a plebeian farmer's son brought to the school in a "democratic" experiment, he cannot conform to it socially, and for corrupting a rich boy named Phillips by giving him no socially acceptable choice except conformity.
Cheeky Urge. Benedictus deftly draws these two crucial characters with scrupulous shading. No misunderstood paragon, Scarfe is a self-pitying, physically ungraceful, volubly religious boy destined for hazing in any school. Thoughtful and sensitive by nature. Phillips nevertheless wants to be accepted at school. Eventually he is elected to the house "library," a group of senior students who dispense discipline, including canings, to the others. When Scarfe comes up for caning, Phillips disapproves privately but does not protest. And as the caning goes on, he makes an appalling discovery about himself. "He found himself pressing his knees together in excitement . . . He was sure that they all had hopes, as he had, that Scarfe would cry out.''
Especially in describing ancillary incidents and fringe characters, the author cannot repress a cheeky schoolboy's urge to shock the grownups. He succeeds.