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decorated initial 'F' rederic William Farrar's cautionary tale, Eric, or, Little by Little presents the gradual downfall of the unfortunate English schoolboy, Eric Williams. Despite the novel's apparent place in the school-boy literary canon, Farrar makes no attempt to hide his stern moral message: Eric's good intentions fail as he succumbs to the temptations of schoolboy popularity. Having started on this path, his pride urges him onwards down a path of cheating and drinking. Thus although his best friend, Edwin Russell, and his little brother, Vernon, die pious deaths and use their last breaths hoping that Eric will repent, Eric fails to be saved and eventually runs away to sea. However, unlike the penny dreadful hero Jack Harkaway, Eric is not cut out for adventure upon the high seas, and he ultimately returns home only to die, repenting.

The tale begins with the twelve year-old Eric counting down the days until he starts school at Roslyn. The pastoral femininity of Fairholm Cottage, where he lives with his widowed aunt and her daughter, contrasts sharply with the all-male environment of Roslyn. Fairholm Cottage, the abode of two gentlewomen, lies in a green valley surrounded by Nature, the "wisest, gentles, holiest of teachers," and here Eric "was allowed to go about a good deal by himself, and it did him good. He grew up fearless and self-dependent, and never felt the want of amusement" (13). Although Eric and his friends are able to enjoy the countryside around Roslyn, women make almost no appearance at the school. Instead, Eric is constantly surrounded by boys, both well meaning and corrupt, and guided only by the well-meaning, mostly stern schoolmasters. Roslyn's somewhat two-dimensional bullies, such as Baker and Bull, highlight the fact that Eric is good at heart.

Here Eric departs from his predecessors in evangelical tracts, for, unlike them, he has inherent goodness, but it is not enough to ensure salvation, for one must also overcome temptation. Mr. Rose, Eric's mentor at Roslyn, makes this clear in his letter to the schoolboy:

The innocence of mere ignorance is a poor thing; it cannot, under any circumstances, be permanent, nor is it at all valuable as a foundation of character. The true preparation for life, the true basis of a manly character, is not to have been ignorant of evil, but to have known it and avoided it; not to have been sheltered from temptation, but to have passed through it and overcome it by God's help. [137]

In an early episode, the previously sheltered Eric fails to avoid evil, staying silent instead of condemning his dorm mate's indecent nighttime talk. The narrator warns that this seemingly innocuous lapse is crucial:

Now, Eric, now or never! Life and death, ruin and salvation, corruption and purity, are perhaps in the balance together, and the scale of your destiny may hang on a single word of yours. Speak out, boy! Tell these fellows that unseemly words wound your conscience; tell them that they are ruinous, sinful, damnable; speak out and save yourself and the rest. Virtue is strong and beautiful, Eric, and vice is downcast in her awful presence. Lose your purity of heart, Eric, and you have lost a jewel which the whole world, if it were "one entire and perfect chrysolite," cannot replace. [71]

When Eric fails to speak out, he takes yet another small step towards his eventual disgraceful downfall that happens a hefty two-hundred pages later. Interestingly, Farrar was roundly denounced by his contemporaries for his harrowing descriptions of rampant schoolboy drinking and cheating.

Yet despite Farrar's criticism of Roslyn and of the company of English school boys, Eric remains a surprisingly good read. Farrar describes public school life with great familiarity, and amid his forced pathos and barely disguised lessons, he conveys a sense of innocent fun and childish enjoyment. The boys enjoy nature walks and boating trips and at times even extract great satisfaction from their scholarly achievements. Moreover, although Farrar carefully casts a pious light on every scene, his descriptions of late-night pillow fights, jaunts to the town pub, even the manner in which the sly, blackmailing Billy is finally caught, and of course, Eric's brief service as ship's boy strongly call to mind the scintillating details beloved by penny dreadfuls. Thus when Dr. Rowlands, Eric's stern House master, takes a night off, the boys engage in hilarious antics:

It was Mr. Rose's night of duty. He walked slowly up and down the range of Dormitories until every boy seemed ready to get into bed, and then he put out all the candles. So long as he was present, the boys observed the utmost quiet and decorum. All continued quite orderly until he had passed away through the lavatory, and one of the boys following him as a scout, had seen the last glimmer of his candle disappear round the corner at the foot of the great staircase, and heard the library door close behind him.

After that, particularly as Dr. Rowlands was absent, the boys knew that they were safe from disturbance, and the occupants of No. 7 were the first to stir.

"Now for some fun," said Duncan, starting up, and by way of initiative pitching his pillow at Eric's head.

"I'll pay you out for that when I'm ready," said Eric, laughing; "but give us a match, first."

Duncan produced some several vestas, and no sooner had they lighted their candle, than several of the dormitory doors began to be thrown open, and one after another all requested a light, which Duncan and Eric conveyed to them in a sort of emulous lampadephoria, so that at length all the twelve dormitories had their sconces lit, and the boys began all sorts of amusement, some in their night-shirts and others with their trousers slipped on. Leap-frog was the prevalent game for a time, but at last Graham suggested theatricals, and they were agreed on. [78]

And again, only a few weeks after this eventful night, the schoolboys persuade Eric to go to the town pub:

"Well, it's all gone. We must get some brandy — it's cheaper," said Brigson; and accordingly some brandy was brought in, which the boys diluted with hot water, and soon dispatched.

"Here! before you're all done swilling," said Brigson, "I've got a health; 'Confound muffs and masters, and success to the anti's."

"And their chairman," suggested Wildney.

"And their chairman, the best fellow in the school," added Brigson.

The health was drunk with due clamor, and Eric got up to thank them.

"I'm not going to spout," he said; "but boys must be boys, and there's no harm in a bit of fun. I for one have enjoyed it, and am much obliged to you for asking me; and now I call for a song."

"Wildney! Wildney's song," called several.

Wildney had a good voice, and struck up, without the least bashfulness —

"Come, landlord, fill the flowing bowl,
Until it does run overt
Come, landlord, fill," &c

"Now," he said, "join in the chorus!" The boys, all more or less excited, joined in heartily and uproariously —

"For to-night we'll merry merry be!
For to-night we'll merry merry be!
For to-night we'll merry merry be!
To-morrow we'll be sober" [161-62]

Farrar carefully recounts these episodes only to denounce each event as immoral — Eric is invariably caught or claims responsibility for each debacle and duly punished while his superior friends pray for his salvation — he nonetheless makes them very entertaining, which probably explains why Eric enjoyed such popularity in the mid nineteenth-century. The pious moral tone underlying every jaunt must have appealed to adults while there remains just enough excitement to satisfy youthful readers.

Finally, it is interesting that Farrar, who is obviously deeply religious, has Eric describes his final disgrace by referring to Tennyson's cursed Lady of Shalott:

"The curse has come upon me," cried
The Lady of Shallott.

Like the Lady confined to her tapestry and her tower, the bulk of Eric's adventures occur within an enclosed, protected world. The academic walls of Roslyn are his tower of Shalott, and his precipitous escape into the outside world brings about his early death. Eric loses his health in the squalid conditions in "the foul, horrible hold of the 'Stormy Petrel'" (258). Having travelled a full circle from the maternal, loving atmosphere of Fairholm Cottage to the boisterous schoolboy environment at Roslyn to the rough company of male crew on board the Stormy Petrel, Eric returns to his childhood home to die, "oh, happy, happy at last — too happy!" surrounded by his female relatives and his school companions.

References

Farrar, Frederic W. Eric, or Little by Little. 1858. BiblioBazaar, 2006.


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Last modified 14 August 2007