Tom Brown’s Schooldays (Thomas Hughes)

book-coverUnless you’re an Anglophile, you might prefer watching one of the dramatizations of this story. The films tend to have more plot than the book, which is more a series of chronological anecdotes set amidst statements of philosophy than it is a novel. “Character” and “fair play” are much emphasized but remain fuzzy concepts, which rather deflates its moral purpose. Jolly great fun is had by chucking stones at Irish labourers and otherwise tormenting the lower classes. “Fagging”–the practice of young boys having to fetch and carry for the older boys (and yes, that’s where the word comes from)– is an accepted and honoured institution. 

Mr Hughes introduces us to Tom Brown—first describing his home village and his life there, before following Tom through his years at Rugby under Dr. Arnold. We are given Tom’s experiences as a new boy with everything from his first football match to being tossed in a blanket. And then we follow him through the rigors of learning Latin and Greek to learning what it means to be a true British gentleman. We are taken over the countryside to investigate kestrel nests and to fish in forbidden waters. We see Tom defend a younger boy’s honour in his first and last fist fight; and finally we see Tom at the end of his school days as captain of the cricket team and having learned all his lessons well.

This is a very interesting snapshot of life at the public school in early Victorian times. Dr. Arnold (a real personage) has recently taken over as the master of Rugby and is trying to instill the ethics of the good, Christian British gentleman while reining in the bullying and other nastiness that public schools have been known for. Most important of the lessons Tom learns is that of fighting the good fight—for what you believe in, for the good of a friend, for the underdog. After a difficult period of tricks and trouble, Tom is given a younger, new boy to take under his wing and it is then that he really begins to learn the life lessons that Dr. Arnold values. The beginning drags on a bit. It takes quite a while to actually get Tom to school. Once there the story itself is interesting and very informative of this time period.

We learn a lot about what a boy’s life in the public school of the time would have been like. It is perhaps idealized in part—it is obvious that Hughes, who really did attend Rugby under Dr. Arnold, has rosy memories and great respect for the master of Rugby. Hughes does tend to go on a bit with a preachy attitude about the moral of the story, but this is understandable given the time period. As a window on the past, Tom Brown’s School Days is highly interesting. For example, if  you are abused you should never complain about it. The author argues that this shows a lack of character. And boys must never go to the school authorities with tales of bullying. A lesson which makes me thankful that we no longer live in the 19th century.

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