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Tom Brown's School Days (1857)

by Thomas Hughes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Tom Brown (1)

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1,454238,964 (3.31)79
Recounts the adventures of a young English boy at Rugby School in the early nineteenth century.
  1. 00
    Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton (thesmellofbooks)
    thesmellofbooks: Why would I pair these two books, when one is set over many years in boarding school and the other is a single summer of woodcraft and exploration? Because there is a sensibility shared between the two, the energy and love of adventure, play, and learning, and the camaraderie that develops between the actors. Two of the loveliest books I have read, for this reason.… (more)
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Raised near a rural village in Berkshire, in the Vale of White Horse (presently part of Oxfordshire), Tom Brown was a healthy, hearty young English boy, full of fun and plenty of mischief. His parents, convinced that the female authority of his nurse was not enough to keep him in line, sent him to private school at the age of nine. When this school unexpectedly closed due to illness, he was sent early to Rugby, one of England's great public schools.** His father advised him that he would see a great many cruel deeds at school, but that he should always "tell the truth, keep a brave and kind heart, and never listen to or say anything you wouldn't have your mother and sister hear." Arriving at school, Tom initially found it rather difficult to adhere to this good advice, discovering that he and his new schoolfriend, Harry East, had made an enemy in the form of the upperclassman and bully, Flashman. The battle with this adversary takes up the rest of the first part of the book, while the second is devoted to Tom's growing friendship with the frail and saintly George Arthur, a pious and brilliant young new boy, who has a reciprocal good influence on our eponymous hero...

First published in 1857, and set during the 1830s, Tom Brown's Schooldays - alternately knowns as Tom Brown at Rugby, School Days at Rugby, and Tom Brown's School Days at Rugby - was an immensely influential work of children's fiction, both in the genre of the school story, but also in the field of schooling itself. It is apparently based upon the experiences of author Thomas Hughes' brother, George Hughes, while he was a student at Rugby, while the sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) was based upon George Hughes' time at that university. The character of George Arthur is thought to be based upon the figure of Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, a churchman and academic also educated at Rugby in the 1830s. Needless to say, the beloved 'master' in this story, frequently referred to simply as 'the Doctor,' and named only in the final chapter, is educational reformer Dr. Thomas Arnold, Rugby headmaster from 1828-1841. In an interesting twist, the character of Flashman, although not believed to be based upon one specific real-life person, did go on to become the anti-hero of a series of immensely popular novels written by Scottish author George MacDonald Fraser, from 1969 to 2005.

In addition to exploring the institutions and customs of Rugby - birthplace of rugby football, which features prominently in the story - Tom Brown's Schooldays is often considered the first and best argument in favor of what would come to be called "Muscular Christianity." This was a mid-19th-century English philosophy that tied moral and physical education to one another, emphasizing the masculine experiences of religion and sport, and tying them to national duty and political citizenship. In the context of Britain, this meant participation in the British Empire, but in the United States, where it spread in the later part of the 19th century, its was tied to patriotism more generally. Many of the authors of boys' sports fiction of the late 19th and early 20th centuries might be said to exhibit a kind of Muscular Christianity, or, in the case of authors like Earl Reed Silvers, whose work was secular, a kind of Muscular Good Citizenship.

Tom Brown's Schooldays is a book that I had long been aware of. It has often been incorrectly cited as the first British school story, an honor that actually belongs to Sarah Fielding's 1749 The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy. Although not the first, it was certainly influential in the development of the genre into the later Victorian and post-Victorian periods. It was an assigned text in the history of children's literature I took while getting my masters, and I am glad to have read it. I found the story engaging, and became quite fond of Tom's forthright, goodhearted, and non-intellectual character. I can understand why some today might find the story preachy, but I actually thought it quite entertaining, and I found the discussion of prayer quite moving. There are many different kinds of cowardice, and many different kinds of bravery, something Tom discovers when he witnesses the frail George Arthur kneel down to say his evening prayers, surrounded by a group of boys who are likely to mock and bully him for it. Tom's epiphany that night - his realization that in this sense, he himself has been a coward, while the frail boy he pitied has been strong and brave - is a valuable one, and the perspective shift perceptively captured. The peace that he feels, once he has decided how to respond to this revelation - "he who has conquered his own coward spirit has conquered the whole outward world" - was very moving to me. Surely, whether one is religious or not, the conduct of those who stick to their beliefs, in the face of possible persecution, can be admired and respected.

In sum: this is well worth the time of any reader interested in Victorian children's literature, the school story genre, sports fiction for boys, or the development of the idea of Muscular Christianity.

**American readers should note that in the British context, 'public school' does not refer to a state-funded school, but to a certain kind of prestigious private school, open to "the public" of the nation. ( )
  AbigailAdams26 | Jun 1, 2020 |
Ex-lib. AADL ( )
  ME_Dictionary | Mar 19, 2020 |
(Original Review, 1981-01-22)

The issue of class and elitism (subjects dear to my heart) are, paradoxically, less important in these boarding school books than the fact that the children/teenagers are on a metaphorical island. They are without what in fictional terms is either the safety belt of having parents to look after them if they get into scrapes or of the social realism of having to deal with boring, dull, irritating parents in the form and shape the reader is likely to meet.

So the characters can be vulnerable, brave, cheeky etc but they have to do it with these surrogate parents, (teachers etc) who don't have the same sanctions and same psychological links and hooks that parents have. The school format also gives the writer the possibility of writing about a range of surrogate parent types and so can deal with children's 'split' view of their parents (love'em/hate'em etc).

In a way, a lot of the books, then, aren't really psychologically about private boarding schools about the reader's anxieties about how to make out in a world without your parents.

I'm not sure Harry Potter books are any more elitist than the myths of Moses or Jesus. They are messiah myths which means you can focus on the idea that the messiah will save us all or - flip it - and it's about the kinds of trials and quests that the messiah figure will need to do in order to win his crown...even though it's pre-ordained that he will. Ultimately, yes, this is elitist, but not in a social realist sense. More, in a mythic sense that socially we 'need' some kind of prince to 'save' us from an imperfect world. (As an ideology, I think that's crap. As a storytelling device, it's compelling because it induces us to care about someone who the world doesn't yet know or appreciate is 'the special one'. Doesn't that appeal to the part of us that thinks that about ourselves...'I'm special, but the world doesn't know that yet...' Whilst giving us hope that the world could be improved if only it woke up to the fact that it has a messiah in its midst.

The point about boarding school stories, at least for the purposes of the author, is that they give your protagonists an environment where authority and pastoral care are thinly spread, maybe intermittent, but extant, thus falling between the extremes of a closely observed and nurturing family life, where you'll get caught pretty smartly if you try anything wild (note that Will Stanton in the much-praised 'The Dark is Rising' is the youngest of a family of nine, and so over-anxious care is pretty thin on the ground for him too), and the full-on anarchy of 'Lord of the Flies'.

I understood the worlds of Bunter and Jennings very well, and have never derived anything much from their stories other than mild amusement and the occasional conspiratorial smile because their world was real to me and therefore not very interesting. I've always revered Kipling, but detested Chalky. What a smart-arse. He wouldn't have lasted long at my school before experiencing the dark, lonely horrors of being sent to Coventry, I can tell you. Hogwarts? There's fantasy for you. Great stories, crappy literature! But Molesworth is best as any fule no.

I recently read, and loved, a modern story (probably written for older kids), not about a boarding school but about a school trip which takes place in a closed environment. It was “Pandemonium” by Christopher Brookmyre. Great fun. ( )
  antao | Nov 30, 2018 |
Read this because of the Flashman connection. Enjoyed reading about the boys until they began to kneel beside their beds to say prayers - - - - - Teenage boys! That is when I realised they were public school twats, groomed by their rich parents to become useless residents of The House of Commons or top lawyers with no experience of real life whatsoever. We all know they exist but we don’t need to read about them and their pampered lives. ( )
  Novak | Nov 19, 2018 |
This book struck me as being the boys' version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women - the same mixture of stories of childhood events and moralizing. Not being a boy nor from England, this one didn't make the same connection with me that Alcott's classic did.

I was spurred to read this by the references to it in Flashman, which I read (and hugely enjoyed) last year. It was interesting to see how Hughes portrayed Flashman, who was much more prominent in this book than I had expected. Fraser did a great job taking such a cowardly bully & sneak and, without making him a different person, making him the 'hero'. That interest & the lovely illustrations by Rhead made me give this an extra ½ star. ( )
  leslie.98 | Feb 14, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (25 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Thomas Hughesprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abbe, S. VanIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Briscoe, E. E.Illustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hughes, ArthurIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Recounts the adventures of a young English boy at Rugby School in the early nineteenth century.

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Lively and mischievous, idle and brave, Tom Brown is both the typical boy of his time and the perennial hero celebrated by authors as diverse as Henry Fielding (in Tom Jones) and Alec Waugh (in The Loom of Youth). The book describes Tom's time at Rugby School from his first football match, through his troubled adolescence when he is savagely bullied by the unspeakable Flashman, to his departure for a wider world as a confident young man. This classic tale of a boy's schooldays under the benevolent eye of the renowned Dr Arnold still retains the appeal for which it was acclaimed on its first publication in 1857. In its less well-known sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, we follow our hero to St Ambrose's College, and, in sharing his undergraduate experiences, gain a vivid impression of university life in the mid nineteenth century.

Available online at The Hathi Trust:
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Also available at The Internet Archive:
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