Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh: Ch. 27

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Chapter XXVII

I will give no more of the details of my hero’s earlier years.  Enough that he struggled through them, and at twelve years old knew every page of his Latin and Greek Grammars by heart.  He had read the greater part of Virgil, Horace and Livy, and I do not know how many Greek plays: he was proficient in arithmetic, knew the first four books of Euclid thoroughly, and had a fair knowledge of French.  It was now time he went to school, and to school he was accordingly to go, under the famous Dr Skinner of Roughborough.

Theobald had known Dr Skinner slightly at Cambridge.  He had been a burning and a shining light in every position he had filled from his boyhood upwards.  He was a very great genius.  Everyone knew this; they said, indeed, that he was one of the few people to whom the word genius could be applied without exaggeration.  Had he not taken I don’t know how many University Scholarships in his freshman’s year?  Had he not been afterwards Senior Wrangler, First Chancellor’s Medallist and I do not know how many more things besides?  And then, he was such a wonderful speaker; at the Union Debating Club he had been without a rival, and had, of course, been president; his moral character,—a point on which so many geniuses were weak—was absolutely irreproachable; foremost of all, however, among his many great qualities, and perhaps more remarkable even than his genius was what biographers have called “the simple-minded and child-like earnestness of his character,” an earnestness which might be perceived by the solemnity with which he spoke even about trifles.  It is hardly necessary to say he was on the Liberal side in politics.

His personal appearance was not particularly prepossessing.  He was about the middle height, portly, and had a couple of fierce grey eyes, that flashed fire from beneath a pair of great bushy beetling eyebrows and overawed all who came near him.  It was in respect of his personal appearance, however, that, if he was vulnerable at all, his weak place was to be found.  His hair when he was a young man was red, but after he had taken his degree he had a brain fever which caused him to have his head shaved; when he reappeared, he did so wearing a wig, and one which was a good deal further off red than his own hair had been.  He not only had never discarded his wig, but year by year it had edged itself a little more and a little more off red, till by the time he was forty, there was not a trace of red remaining, and his wig was brown.

When Dr Skinner was a very young man, hardly more than five-and-twenty, the head-mastership of Roughborough Grammar School had fallen vacant, and he had been unhesitatingly appointed.  The result justified the selection.  Dr Skinner’s pupils distinguished themselves at whichever University they went to.  He moulded their minds after the model of his own, and stamped an impression upon them which was indelible in after-life; whatever else a Roughborough man might be, he was sure to make everyone feel that he was a God-fearing earnest Christian and a Liberal, if not a Radical, in politics.  Some boys, of course, were incapable of appreciating the beauty and loftiness of Dr Skinner’s nature.  Some such boys, alas! there will be in every school; upon them Dr Skinner’s hand was very properly a heavy one.  His hand was against them, and theirs against him during the whole time of the connection between them.  They not only disliked him, but they hated all that he more especially embodied, and throughout their lives disliked all that reminded them of him.  Such boys, however, were in a minority, the spirit of the place being decidedly Skinnerian.

I once had the honour of playing a game of chess with this great man.  It was during the Christmas holidays, and I had come down to Roughborough for a few days to see Alethea Pontifex (who was then living there) on business.  It was very gracious of him to take notice of me, for if I was a light of literature at all it was of the very lightest kind.