Wilberforce chronicles life for Morgan Wilberforce at St. Stephen’s boys’ academy in 1926, where boredom and hormones are often released with spats on the rugby pitch, pilfered magazines, and sneaking out of dorm rooms for a pint. When a mild rebellion by the younger class is followed by a disaster that ends a boy’s life, Morgan expects the headmaster to close the academy for good—and he’s irrevocably torn. But then classes resume, tougher than ever, and after Morgan once again refuses to bend to their rule, he’s sent away for reforming under the tutelage of a decorous bishop. Morgan returns to school eventually, but we are left wondering at what expense.
The book jacket touts a “contrary spirit” for its characters, and Wilberforce and his companions live up to the mark. We are given a close inspection of Morgan, the pain felt after his mother’s death, and the torments of the other students, without a real hook of investment. At one point Morgan finds a bit of solace in a teacher, who tries his best to answer the pressing questions of life despite his own shortcomings, but his story is discontinued almost as quickly as it begins. The writing itself is dense and dark at times, which lend well to the story’s overall landscape. Personally, I find dashes instead of quotes difficult to follow in conversation, but I think enthusiasts of the period will find much to love about Cross’s look into boarding schools of the past, and the tormented adolescents within.