This isn’t the easiest time to ask for sympathy for the pupils of Britain’s boarding schools, said Henry Mance in the Financial Times. “Privately educated posh boys are often blamed for the country’s current mess.” But in this account of his time at prep school, Charles Spencer – the 9th Earl Spencer, and brother of Diana, the late Princess of Wales – “offers a different context for discussion”: he argues that many boarding school pupils were in fact “victims of child abuse”. 

His memoir centres on Maidwell Hall in Northamptonshire, which he attended in the 1970s, between the ages of eight and 13. It was a place where “pastoral care didn’t exist”, where boys were beaten if they “spilt their milk a few times” – and where Spencer was sexually abused by an assistant matron; she would lure him out of his bed at night by offering him sweets. Spencer says his time there stunted him emotionally, leaving him with “next to no understanding of intimacy”. He blames the matron for his decision, aged 12, to lose his virginity to an Italian prostitute. All in all, “A Very Private School” is “a moving, if sadly familiar” story. 

Maidwell’s headmaster in the 1970s was a man named Jack Porch, who would summon “handsome and blond” boys to his study for punishments and religious “confessions”, said Kate Maltby in The Washington Post. There, he’d beat them with canes he referred to as “the Flick” and “the Switch”, while also fondling their genitals. 

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Spencer’s descriptions of abuse make for “horrific reading”. His analysis of boarding school culture is “basic”, but he shrewdly describes the “alternating obsequiousness and resentment” that masters so often displayed towards their high-born pupils. As a document of experiences that scarred him and “hobbled his [two] marriages”, this is a “tour de force”.

It’s hardly news that boarding schools harboured sexual abusers, said Boris Starling in The Daily Telegraph. But two things mark this memoir out. First, Spencer is “the ultimate establishment man” – which makes it brave of him to take on the “shibboleths of his class and upbringing”. Second, he often writes delightfully; he has an excellent turn of phrase. 

Nor is this a “one-man crusade”, said Holly Williams in The i Paper: Spencer presents testimony from many fellow pupils, who talk movingly of how their time at Maidwell damaged “their confidence or sense of joy”. There are those who still maintain that such tough schooling is character-forming. Spencer’s book is a “resounding rebuttal of that view”.

William Collins, £25; The Week Bookshop £19.99

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