Stand Before Your God
Stand Before Your God: A Boarding-School Memoir is indeed a memoir, though the names and identifying characteristics of some of the principals have been disguised. In the book, Paul Watkins delivers a brief but compelling account of his formative years spent at two different boarding schools in England. During this time period, Watkins spent only summer vacations at home with his family on the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. Though he was barely thirty years old at the American publication of his memoir, Watkins was already the author of four critically acclaimed novels. Night over Day over Night (1988) is a World War II tale told from the perspective of a young SS soldier. It won a Booker Prize. Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn (1989) is set in New England and won Britain’s Encore Award for the year’s best second novel. In the Blue Light of African Dreams (1990) is set in northern Africa. The Promise of Light (1993) examines the Irish independence movement. All these novels have been thoroughly researched and are the work of a master storyteller. Stand Before Your God reveals the roots of Watkins’ urge to write and, more specifically, his fascination with storytelling and historical subjects.
The book begins with Watkins’ arrival at the Dragon primary school at the age of seven. Delivered to the school from his Rhode Island home by his tall and vaguely mysterious father, young Watkins thinks that he is at some kind of party. After his father leaves, it slowly sinks in that the dormitories, playing fields, and classrooms of the Dragon are to be his new home. Gradually, Watkins comes to adjust to the Dragon school with its odd customs and rigid rules. He even adjusts to his status as the school’s one and only American student (until his younger brother arrives). Helping him to adjust are his two best friends, Nightingale and Codrington, known somewhat uncharitably as “Cuddlybum.” As will be seen shortly, Watkins’ friendship with the latter had virtually eroded by the time he finished at Dragon.
After graduation from Dragon, Watkins tests into Eton (his parents had put his name on the waiting list during his infancy) and once again undergoes a difficult period of adjustment, one that even affects his academic work. In time, however, Watkins adjusts to the rigors and idiosyncrasies of Eton, fitting in, excelling academically, and finding his life’s work. Here too he finds companionship, but of an odd kind, particularly with a boy named Rupert. The book ends with Watkins nearly done with his English boarding-school experience, readying himself for a return to the United States (and New England), where he would attend Yale University.
Thematically, Stand Before Your God is first and foremost a tale of a young author’s coming of age. It follows Watkins through various crises, adjustments, and transformations as the naïve and terribly lonely boy from Rhode Island becomes a hardened veteran of the boarding-school experience. Though not unscarred, he emerges with a sense of certainty about his vocation as a writer of historical novels as well as the poise and self-discipline needed to function successfully at Yale.
The most basic crisis or challenge of Watkins’ coming of age has to do with his national identity. Watkins is quickly singled out at Dragon as the school’s only American. At first this actually firms up his identity as an American. When he returns to his Rhode Island home during vacations, however, he finds himself out of phase with his friends and the community as a whole. To be sure, the transformation is a subtle one. It is not that Watkins is losing his national identity or that he is becoming an English “wannabe.” He is, rather, slowly taken beyond the limits of any single national identity. He begins to graduate to a profound cosmopolitanism, one that is highly evident in the broad range of characters and subject matter represented in his novels. In consequence, however, Watkins also experiences a kind of cosmic homelessness. He gains acceptance at both of the English schools he attends and ends up thoroughly committed to the program. Indeed, the book’s title is drawn from this question of commitment. Discussing those students who never give themselves over to the program, Watkins says that one must “stand before your God” and make a commitment. There is no middle ground. On the other hand, Watkins never quite accepts the limits of either his Rhode Island or his boarding-school consciousness.
A second crisis or point of development involves the relationship between Watkins and his...
(The entire section is 1898 words.)