Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Tom Brown's School Days by Thomas Hughes.

Tom Brown's School Days is Thomas Hughes' first novel and was published in 1857. In fact, Thomas Hughes only wrote three novels: Tom Brown's School DaysThe Scouring of The White Horse (1859), and Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), the sequel to School Days. He was a Liberal MP for both Lambeth (south London, 1865–68), and Frome (Somerset, 1868–74), involved in the Christian Socialist Movement, was one of the founders of the Working Men's College in Great Ormond Street (London; also supported by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Ruskin, John Stewart Mill, Charles Kingsley, and later Seamus Heaney), and the first president of the Co-operative Congress. Some of these left wing philosophies do filter through to Tom Brown's School Days, but it is by no means a political novel.
1852 painting of Rugby School.

It is, in fact, semi-autobiographical and is based on Hughes' own days at Rugby. Rugby is a public school, or fee-paying school which was, when Hughes attended, an all boys school. It's in Warwickshire (in the West Midlands), and has been the school of many a famous names: Lewis Carroll, Arthur Ransome, Salman Rushdie, A. N. Wilson, and Rupert Brooke, and in politics, Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1937 - 1940. Thomas Hughes attended Rugby from 1834 - 1842, and it is in the early 1830s (when William IV was on the throne) that Tom Brown's School Days is based. He wrote it for his son Maurice who was to attend Rugby himself, however he sadly drowned not long after the novel's publication.

By Louis Rhead for the
1896 edition of Tom Brown's School Days
publishedby Macmillan. 
In it, Hughes tells the story of Tom Brown, a sort of "every-man", which Hughes describes in the first chapter (possibly the most 'left-wing' of the lot):
For centuries, in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English counties, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands. Wherever the fleets and armies of England have won renown, there stalwart sons of the Browns have done yeomen's work. With the yew bow and cloth-yard shaft at Cressy and Agincourt—with the brown bill and pike under the brave Lord Willoughby—with culverin and demi-culverin against Spaniards and Dutchmen—with hand-grenade and sabre, and musket and bayonet, under Rodney and St. Vincent, Wolfe and Moore, Nelson and Wellington, they have carried their lives in their hands, getting hard knocks and hard work in plenty—which was on the whole what they looked for, and the best thing for them—and little praise or pudding, which indeed they, and most of us, are better without. Talbots and Stanleys, St. Maurs, and such-like folk, have led armies and made laws time out of mind; but those noble families would be somewhat astounded—if the accounts ever came to be fairly taken—to find how small their work for England has been by the side of that of the Browns.
The young Tom Brown has had quite a privileged upbringing in the Vale of the White Horse (Berskhire at the time of writing, now Oxfordshire): he attends private school, and then, in Chapter Four, he goes to Rugby. These early chapters, as I say, really show Thomas Hughes' socialist left-wing beliefs, and has been criticised as 'preachy' (Hughes' response to this was "Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching"), boring ramblings with a little too much in the way of description of the landscapes. I'd say it was anything but - the landscapes sound beautiful, and Hughes' socialism is compelling: it's an excellent, almost Eden-like depiction of his young years before he begins his progress through Rugby.

Thomas Arnold by Thomas Phillips.
And from Chapter Four we see this progress. Tom is brave, spirited, popular young fellow who enjoys sport and all the things young boys like. He gets into various scrapes, has to navigate through bullying (here enters the abominable Flashman!), Latin, Greek, and lines. Later in the novel, in order to calm young Brown down a little, Dr. Arnold (the real-life Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828-41) gives Tom the care of George Arthur (probably based on Hughes' own friend at Rugby, Arthur Stanley, later the Dean of Westminster). They become firm friends, and Arthur acts as a sort of moral compass to Tom, whilst Tom imparts his knowledge of Rugby, making friends, and thriving on an active life outdoors.

It is a great book, full of very memorable characters (especially Flashman, who inspired George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels) and I loved Tom Brown's best friend Harry "Scud" East). It is, of course, a wonderfully detailed snapshot of public school education of the Victorian times, and also of a child's life from his very young years to adulthood in the early part of the 19th Century. There are themes of the importance of integrity, loyalty, and the battle of good and evil (particularly in the Tom Brown / Flashman scenes), and the importance of being independent and not expecting others (in this case adults) to solve all of one's problems. It is no surprise why this novel is so well loved and so highly regarded. I'm so happy I've finally read it: I think this quite possibly has sat on my TBR pile the longest - I wanted to read it when I saw the film but never got to it, and I believe I saw the film when I was 11. So that is 20 years it took for me to finally read Tom Brown's School Days!

To conclude, then, some illustrations. The first set in colour are by Hugh Thomson (from the 1920 edition published by L. Phillips), and the second set are by Arthur Hughes and Sydney Prior Hall (1869 edition published by Macmillan).

The sequel.
Further Reading

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