In Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes created what proved to be the archetypal novel of life in a British public school (that is, privately funded boarding school). Written as his own eight-year-old son went off to Rugby School, Hughes’s novel was to be an inspiration and a model of what his son might expect. Hughes had entered Rugby School in 1833, five years after Dr. Thomas Arnold had become headmaster, and many of the incidents and much of the atmosphere of the novel reflect Hughes’s own years at Rugby. Tom Brown’s School Days is not, however, merely a fictional recollection of Hughes’s experiences. Hughes had a didactic purpose: He produced a moral tract concerning what the public schools and their students might attain.
Some of England’s most prestigious public schools had their origins in the late Middle Ages. By the early nineteenth century, these boarding schools had become the exclusive preserve of the sons of Britain’s ruling class. Fees and tuition were charged, and although scholarships were sometimes available, the schools were extremely exclusive. The public schools were producing the next generation’s government leaders, politicians, generals, admirals, and diplomats; they were the training ground for the rulers, not the ruled.
The first section of Tom Brown’s School Days has nothing to do with Rugby. Instead, it portrays Tom’s early childhood and where he grew up, a rural area far removed from London and where the traditional gentry still maintained their influence. Hughes was a member of the gentry, and his choice of the common name of Brown suggests that Tom comes from that rural governing class that Hughes claimed formed the backbone of England. In this idyllic setting were young Tom’s roots, and there he played with the sons of artisans and workers, people further down the social scale than the Browns. There were no boys from that lower social stratum at Rugby, however, where only those from the middle classes and the aristocracy—the top 10 percent of the population—were brought together.
Arnold’s tenure at Rugby marked a milestone in the history of the British public schools. If he was not the first reformer to make a significant impact on the institution of the boarding school, he was the most prominent. The father of the poet, essayist, and critic Matthew Arnold, Thomas Arnold left an indelible mark on the nineteenth century, in part because of Hughes’s Tom...
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