'Examiners and Candidates'

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 9 June 2007

(Cornhill, November 1884.)

I'm going to let most of this go without comment, because it really doesn't need any. While the examinations in the title are Civil Service, some things transcend that kind of context, and the piece itself begins with a wonderful portrait of an age of academia that's long gone now. Well... maybe.

It happened on this wise. I had just taken my degree at Oxford, and, elated by the full sleeves of my bachelor gown, I naturally felt that a career of triumph was in store for me. Still, at the moment, I had not settled the plan for my life-campaign. In fact, my degree had come a little earlier than I had expected. The betting in the best-informed circles had been three to one against my passing my Second School when I did. However, I had passed it, had discomfited the bookmakers, and was now at one and the same time enjoying my triumph and casting about in my mind what I should do next.

At this juncture I received a message from the president of my college, requesting my attendance. There was nothing unusual or alarming in this. At an earlier stage in my academical career it would have been disquieting in the extreme, the president being a Deus ex machina whose intervention always meant some unlucky tangle in undergraduate affairs. Now, however, though still nominally in the pupil stage, I had practically got beyond all such dangers. And I knew that the president was in the habit of sending such a message as I had received to every fresh-fledged graduate.

So I accepted the invitation without any special fear, and with only that general, undefined uneasiness which one cannot at once cast of with one's undergraduate's gown. And yet, as I had often noticed before, anything less awe-imspiring than our good president it would be difficult to imagine. It must have been the divinity of his office that made him formidable, for the man himself was exceptionally meek and mild. It is true he was constructed on a somewhat large scale, but he was physically flabby, whilst he had but little power of moral self-assertion. His health was indifferent, his voice was always tremulous, and he spoke sometime with a positive stammer. His learning was popularly supposed to be of the profoundest order. Certain it is, he devoted almost all his time to reading, getting up at six o'clock summer and winter to pursue his studies the more effectually; but as far as I know, nothing came of it all. He had never published a line, and for many years past had not delivered a lecture, and I never noticed that he threw the slightest new light on anything in conversation.

He was engaged in poring over a dingy folio as I entered his study. He had started a little when I was announced, but the start had not been strong enough to tear him from his book. At last I ventured to cough.

'Oh! – ah! – yes; I beg your pardon,' he said, looking round and forcing a smile. 'I was thinking of something else at the moment.'

He seemed to still be thinking of the something else, for his eye had a very vacant expression. However, by degrees it gathered a little more meaning, as he advanced towards me, holding out his hand.

'I have to congratulate you, Mr. Melrose, on being how a graduate. Let me see; you took honours, I think?'

The question did not strike me as a happy one, as I had to answer it in the negative.

'Just so,' said the president, a little confused. 'I must have been thinking of some one else. No doubt it is a good thing to take honours; but, after all, there are various positions in life for which they are not essential.'

'I hope so, sir,' I said. The president's remark struck me as being deficient in breadth.

'By the way,' he resumed, 'I remember now what I wanted to see you about. You will, I suppose, be looking about for something to do. Or have you some plan already in view?'

'No, sir,' I said, 'I have nothing at all in view.'

I might have added –'except enjoying myself a little,' but I was mercifully preserved from saying this.

'I wonder,' resumed the president, dreamily, 'whether this would suit you. I don't profess to understand it, but you seem to be just what they require.'

It was clear to me that the president was pursuing his own line of thought, and in fact had got pretty well to the end of it before I had reached the beginning. So I pulled him up gently.

'I am afraid I do not quite understand, sir.'

'Quite right – quite right, Mr. Melrose. I had almost forgotten the letter. Where can I have put it? Never mind, however, I think I can, perhaps, explain it sufficiently for you to – to – do what you think best in the matter.'

I bowed expectantly, and the president went on:–

'It seems that for some of these Civil Service Examinations they want sometimes additional examiners. I presume the ordinary staff is not sufficiently large – there is so much economy nowadays, especially in everything connected with the Government. Perhaps it is hardly worthy of a nation such as ours. However, it is in this way that the opportunity arises.'

The president stopped, as if he had fully delivered himself of his message. But it was still a little obscure to me.

'Do I understand, sir, that the Civil Service Commissioners require my help?'

It was unintentionally a conceited way of asking the question, and I could see that even the president noticed it, for he half smiled as he answered:–

'They do not ask for you by name, Mr. Melrose; but one of the officials, Mr. Guy Sinjin, an old member of this college, has just written to me to ask if I know of any young men who have just taken their degree and would like to help in this way.'

'I wonder if it's hard work,' I said.

The president did not like the remark. All his life he had been an example of hard work and of its occasional inutility. Something like a frown gathered upon his placid features. I hastened to divert his thoughts.

'I suppose,' I said, 'there is some remuneration?'

'The remuneration,' answered the president, with unusual emphasis, 'is paltry – quite unworthy of a Government like ours. I was struck by it, I remember, when I read Mr. Sinjin's letter. Fifteen shillings a day! Shillings always seem to remind one of artisans. Nothing under a guinea should be offered to a gentleman.'

'Or accepted by him?' I asked, for I was not captivated by the prospect set before me.

Then something of the innate paternal goodness of the president came to light. He actually laid a hand – very timidly, it is true – on my shoulder.

'Believe me,' he said, 'anything is better for a young man than idleness. If you have nothing else in view, it can do you no harm to help these people.'

There was just a tinge of contempt in the tone in which he spoke of Her Majesty's Commissioners. The fifteen shillings a day had left an uncomfortable feeling in his mind. But I was touched by his kindly interest in myself, and I made up my mind on the spot to place my valuable services at the disposal of the Commissioners. The country should not suffer though the lack of my assistance.
Anecdotes about the exams and candidates themselves below the fold.

Obeying the instructions I had received, I began prowling about among the candidates, quite resolved, however, not to catch any prey if I could possibly help it. My own examinations were still too fresh in my recollection for me to feel anything but sympathy for these unhappy victims of the great education craze. But I soon discovered that the prowling was not without its dangers to myself, ignorant as I was of official etiquette. It is a well-known fact that examination-papers, which are set with the well-known purpose of testing the accuracy of students, are themselves, as a rule, models of inaccuracy. There is some excuse for thise. Such papers are always printed as short a time as possible before the examination. There is some excuse for this. Such papers are always printed as short a time as possible before the examination. In fact, at some of our examinations the candidates arrived before the papers. Thus there is always a hurry in connection with them, and in consequence they furnish almost as rich a harvest of grotesque mistakes as the papers of the unsuccessful competitors. The German paper bristled with appalling absurdities, which might well have made the most sanguine candidate despair of ever getting through it with unimpaired sanity. I noticed how the poor fellows were racking their brains, but, as they had been brought here for the torture, of course I could not interfere. That was a matter they must settle for themselves with their enlightened country.
After the German and French papers had been done, or left undone, as the case might be, we had a most amusing scene, enacted under the name of English Dictation. No one then present in the room being considered competent to deliver himself of this dictation effectually, a hunt was made, apparently in some remote corner of the building, for a specially dictatorial examiner, who, after a while, appeared with an air of much importance. It almost seemed as if he were kept in a separate room for his voice to accumulate. This gentlemen either was at that time, or had been at some previous time, a clergyman, and was supposed to have acquired in the pulpit a strength and purity of intonation impossible to the thin-voiced haunters of pews. I must do him the justice to say that, as he was a man of high culture and gifted with a splendid voice, I can quite believe that he was a very effective preacher. But a conscientious desire to discharge his duty to the Civil Service Commissioners had developed in him a style of reading seldom heard in any pulpit. The fact was, he was over-anxious to give exactly the right sound and emphasis to each individual syllable. Take care of the syllables and the words will take care of themselves, was apparently his maxim. Moreover, the official custom of reading the sentence over twice, and pausing at different points in the two readings, gave to it something of the nature of a dreary, monotonous catch. Add to these drawbacks a decided echo in the room, and you have some idea of the difficulty of the task now set before the enfeebled survivors of the German and French papers. Sitting at the farther end of the room, I was aware that a gentleman on the platform was engaged in the most painstaking manner in shouting out some resemblance of an articulate language, but the sentences themselves were incomprehensible to me. I remember catching something about 'Fred,' followed, as it seemed, by a sneeze in sections, and then the word 'mate,' and I could not help wondering at the selection of such a colloquial piece of English composition. Upon referring afterwards to the printed paper, I found that the opening sentence ran somewhat as follows:–

'Alfred's achievement in this respect is difficult to estimate,' &c. &c.
There follows a short interlude in which he hears 'muttered sounds as of rebellion in my immediate neighbourhood', followed by a cry from one of the candidates of 'It's all bosh; it's impossible to make it out!' The actual commissioners themselves ('the Celestials') have arrived at this point, though, and when they grant his request to be allowed to sit closer to the speaker, everyone decides they want the same, and 'a physical competition for seats took the place of the mental competition for appointments'. Once quiet is restored:

As all examinations are conducted on the principle of regarding candidates, like Siberian convicts, as nameless numbers, there is no greater abomination to an examiner than the spectacle of a candidate sitting at a desk which does not correspond to his individual number. Judge, then, of our feelings (for the moment I identify myself with the official staff) when, after the intervention and departure of the Celestials, we found that almost every candidate was in a wrong place. Mr. Smithson, returning at this juncture, was momentarily paralysed, but rapidly recovering himself was about to deliver an oblique oration as to th general wishes of the Commissioners, when he was interrupted by Mr. Everard, who explained, in a manner largely leavened with disgust, that the present imbroglio was the direct work of the Commissioners themselves. He also pointed out the ringleader – that very audacious youth with the loud voice and corresponding attire.

When we had fitted them once more with their numbers – convicted them, as it were, a second time – we turned with some interest to the official key, by the aid of which each number could be converted into a name, in order to inform ourselves as to the identity of the ringleader. Of course I am not going to reveal his name. Suffice it to say that he proved to be a young aristocrat whose father might have asked awkward questions in the House of Lords had the ingenuous youth failed to pass in his dictation.
On one occasion the candidates had the best of it. I think it was when the telegraph clerkships were first thrown open to the fair sex. An incautiously worded notice to that effect had been inserted in the papers, and the result was one never to be forgotten. On the morning fixed for the examination the whole street was packed with competitive young ladies. Far as Mr. Smithson's eye could reach, there was nothing but one serried mass of hats and bonnets and parasols! They stormed the office, or, more literally, flooded it, leaving no nook or cranny unoccupied. And the cry was 'Still they come!' I was not present, but the scene has often been described to me by awestruck officials. I believe the Department, tough as it undoubtedly is, temporarily collapsed under the strain. But no one seems to know exactly what took place after the building had been stormed. This is in itself, perhaps, the best proof of the awful confusion that must have prevailed. To this day Mr. Smithson never refers to it except with bated breath.

As I have mentioned the fair sex, I will add (under shelter of anonymity) that I did not at all like the task of examining them. I deeply regret to say it, but I certainly found them much more troublesome than the competitive males. It is very difficult to maintain discipline amongst them, or to arouse in them any keen sense of the virtue of scrupulousness. I shall never forget being intrusted with the examination of certain eight young ladies. The first thing that struck me was that they had evidently arrayed themselves in their most exaggerated costumes, no doubt with the view of insinuating themselves into the favour of their judges. Though somewhat nervous and jerky in manner, it was clear they fully meant to fascinated. Poor things! they little knew the iron sternness of the Department. It was with difficulty that I got them to sit down, and with still greater difficulty that I induced them not to crowd together.
And finally:
When the paper-work was over, it appeared that no less than five of the eight young ladies wished to speak to me privately. I did not know whether to feel flattered or embarrassed by this desire. However, feeling bound to hear what a candidate had to say, I requested No. 1 to favour me with her communication. It was very lengthy, and was delivered with a great volubility. I will not attempt to reproduce it exactly – that would be quite beyond my powers; but it was to the general effect that she (the speaker) would have done her papers a great deal better – would, in fact, have triumphed over them completely – but for the circumstance that her maiden aunt, Miss Cox, who lived at No. 5, Laburnum Villas, Bermondsey, and who had brought her up since the death of her poor father of typhoid fever in the year 1867, was unfortunately very deaf, though otherwise highly talented and accomplished, and that in consequence Miss Tibbits (she had at the very beginning utterly refused to yield to my entreaty and speak of herself as a number, but had persisted in introducing herself as Miss Tibbits) had not derived all the advantages from her aunt's instruction which she would most certainly have derived under different circumstances. And she desired me, as the examiner, to take this into account, as was only fair and right, in looking over her papers.

By this time I had learnt the official formula for answering the questions of candidates. I consider that, as a piece of simple verbal mechanism readily adjustable to occasion, it deserves a patent. It runs this: 'The Commissioners alone decide on the papers, but I am quite sure that they will allow due weight to any circumstances that deserve consideration.' Isn't it beautiful? First you state an incontrovertible fact about the Commissioners, which relieves you personally of all further annoyance. And as the Commissioners are not as a rule accessible to candidates, they are not inconvenienced. Then you proceed to convey a little temporary consolation to the wounded spirit of the candidate, without committing yourself in the least. That keeps him or her quiet and hopeful, which of course is a great advantage in an examination.
The more things change...