What mighty people they were, those Victorians. Their stern be-whiskered faces gazing down on us from many a school hall or house dining room; their three-volume novels and their even more intimidating two-volume Lives and Letters causing bends in the middle of many a modern bookshelf.
They knew about education, those old Headmasters, and they certainly knew about suffering too; pandemics were well known to them. Archibald Tait, Headmaster of Rugby after Thomas Arnold, had to bury later in life – within weeks – five of his scarlet fever-stricken children. Another Victorian colossus, Edward Thring of Uppingham, lost so many of his pupils to typhoid that he decided to evacuate the school for a year to North Wales.
When, two months ago, a very bright boy wrote to me talking about the unprecedented mental suffering his generation were experiencing as a result of Covid, I looked at my bookshelves with a mixture of embarrassment and regret. Those mighty Victorians – how the devil did they display all that energy, absorb all that suffering and then in addition manage families of ten or more?