Book of the month

A VERY PRIVATE SCHOOL by Charles Spencer
(William Collins, £25)

The 9th Earl Spencer's childhood memoir of his time spent at an elite boarding school in the 1970s is jaw-dropping and devastating, but also compulsive reading. Part of one of Britain's most prominent aristocratic families, he is the younger brother of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.

This searing and thoughtfully written book charts the culture of cruelty and abuse Spencer and his fellow pupils suffered at Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire. He describes his account as a blend of 'chronicle and memoir that's intended to stand as a piece of modern history'.

It also provides insight into the echelon of society that supported these soulless institutions. They considered it normal not to see their children for weeks on end and were totally oblivious to what was really going on in these brutal 'closed communities'.

Despite his parents' divorce, Spencer says he was very happy until being packed off to boarding school aged eight. What followed was a horribly rude awakening, where he and other boys were tormented and forced to hide every emotion. There are revelations of psychological and sexual abuse, corporal punishment and regular beatings with 'the flick - a thin malicious instrument that whipped round the buttocks to nick the top of the recipient's right thigh'.

Reading about these experiences is soul-wrenching. However, it is important to point out that this is also a story about Spencer's search for understanding and renewal. While researching the book he reconnected with school friends in a cathartic way and even sought psychological help. As one therapist astutely put it: 'Your problems aren't with addiction. What does need addressing is the toxic residue of your distant past.' This is just as much a book about self-discovery and healing as it is about childhood trauma.
Elizabeth Fitzherbert
This review first appeared in the May 2024 issue of The Lady magazine.
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