Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Rugby School. One of the great English public schools, founded in 1567. In writing this novel, Thomas Hughes described the world of Rugby School as he knew it when he was a student there in the 1830’s. Tom’s first sight of the school is of the playing field and a long line of stone buildings, with the chapel at one end and the schoolhouse, containing the headmaster’s residence, at the other. Much of the action occurs on the close, or playing field, a large, open space divided into two areas. Between a gravel walk bordering the building and a line of elm trees, the younger boys play their cricket matches, and on the other side of the trees the older boys play theirs. There are goals at the ends of these fields, which are kept in good repair by the school’s servants, as are the grassy fields themselves, which are regularly wetted down and smoothed with rollers. At one side is a fives’ court for handball players. From his first day, when he throws himself into a cricket match, until his last day, nine years later, when he plays as the respected captain of the school’s best team, many of Tom’s successes and failures take place on the close.
Schoolhouse hall. Large chamber, thirty feet long and eighteen feet high that is the setting for many of the indoor events in the story. Along one side are two large fireplaces whose blazing fires provide the heat and much of the light....
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The novel takes place in the 1820s and 1830s in England. The opening chapters describe Tom Brown's early childhood in the rural county of Berks, west of London in the Vale of the White Horse. There Tom leads an active life under the tutelage of family retainers. Although he is a member of the upper classes, Tom associates with members of various social classes in the course of his daily activities. Hughes depicts a close-knit rural community just before the onslaught of the railways and the Industrial Revolution.
The scene shifts first to a small private preparatory school and then to the primary setting of the novel, Rugby, where Tom spends the next eight years. Located in a small, rural town, Rugby is a large, all-male public school run by Thomas Arnold, one of the great reformers in British educational history. Except for a brief reference to the urban parish work performed by the deceased clergyman father of one of Tom's classmates, George Arthur, Hughes ignores the political and economic ferment occurring at the time in England.
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Except for his occasional use of authorial intrusions in order to ensure that readers grasp the moral point of certain episodes, Hughes propels Tom Brown's Schooldays along quickly with a straightforward, action-packed narrative. The book is not deeply analytical, and character development hinges on the events of the plot. Hughes's characters speak in a highly colloquial dialect, leading some critics to argue that the novel contains so much slang that reader comprehension suffers.
Perhaps Hughes's greatest achievement in Tom Brown's Schooldays is the vividness and timelessness of his schoolboy portraits. Tom and his friends engage in the same activities enjoyed by modern adolescents. Never the creations of an idealistic do-gooder, they learn about what helps or prevents an individual's reaching maturity as they progress through their schooldays.
Despite the excitement and humor of the narrative, Hughes's tone is serious. The boys are moving through a time that is bringing about great change for them, their circle of friends, and the society they inhabit. Although he seldom refers directly to political or social currents in mid-nineteenth-century Britain, Hughes nonetheless draws implicit parallels between the turbulence of his characters' adolescence and the havoc wreaked upon Victorian England by the Industrial Revolution. The boys gradually face the reality that their schooling has to end and that they must begin careers and...
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Tom Brown's School Days is a novel about upper-class boys developing into upper-class men. Women exist only on the periphery of the novel, mostly in the role of mothers and servants; young women are not mentioned. Because of this deliberate oversight, Hughes ignores a major part of the maturation process for most males: their relationships with females. More important, the female characters who are included in the story function only in relation to the men they nurture or serve. Hughes never portrays the women in the story as individual, fully developed characters. Thus, although Hughes viewed himself as a champion of social reform, his seemingly exclusive concentration on male issues—manifested in his advocacy of "muscular theology," his devotion to men's colleges and cooperatives, and his creation of books for and about boys—reveals his entrenched Victorian sexism. Moreover, despite his professed desire to improve the lot of all social classes, and despite his belief in human equality in the eyes of God, Hughes never questions the class system that permeates Rugby, the British public school system, and British society in general. Hughes and the boys he describes assume that their upper-class position is assured, and there is no indication in the novel that Tom Brown or his peers see anything wrong with the children of the poor being excluded from Rugby. The very popularity of Tom Brown's Schooldays has helped perpetuate boarding schools as...
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Topics for Discussion
1. What social value does Hughes see in the village feast days? Has the importance of these days changed at all over the years?
2. Why does Hughes describe in such detail the history of the Brown family and the Vale of the White Horse? How would you explain the role of the Brown family in the social system of the vale? What features of this contained social system serve to diminish class differences?
3. What sorts of activities does Hughes consider appropriate for boys and young men? For girls and young women? Cite evidence from the book to support your answers. How might his views put him in conflict with modern critics?
4. Squire Brown debates at length over what advice he should give his son upon the boy's departure for Rugby. Do you think the squire offers Tom valid advice? Why or why not?
5. The maturation process is dramatized through various symbolic events in Tom Brown's Schooldays. What aresome of the symbols Hughes uses? Do you think these symbols would be appropriate for a treatment of maturation in contemporary American society? If yes, why? If no, what symbols would you substitute?
6. Tom Brown's first days at Rugby are marked by dramatic events involving sports. How do the sports Hughes describes resemble or differ from modern athletics? What value does Tom's society place on athletics?
7. Little is said in the novel about the academic curriculum at Rugby, but much is said...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Tom Brown's Schooldays draws frequently on an academic, schoolboy, and sports vocabulary that may be un- familiar to modern readers. Using the Oxford English Dictionary or other appropriate sources, develop a glossary of unfamiliar terms. Do you think that the inclusion of these terms strengthens or weakens the novel?
2. Tom Brown's Schooldays is the first of many so-called "prep school novels." The most famous American examples are J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and John Knowles's Separate Peace. Read one of these works and compare it to Hughes's novel.
3. Hughes wrote a sequel to Tom Brown's Schooldays called Tom Brown at Oxford. Read it and compare the two works. Which do you find more interesting? Why? Are Hughes's views consistent in the two books?
4. Hughes believed that team sports such as Rugby football and cricket were superior to individual sports such as running because team sports encouraged cooperation. Investigate the history of scholastic sports in nineteenth century America.
5. Thomas Hughes was an advocate of Christian Socialism and the cooperative movement. Research and report on these movements. How do the philosophies that guided these movements resemble the principles Hughes outlines in Tom Brown's Schooldays?
6. Several film versions of Tom Brown's Schooldays have been made over the past five decades. Some are...
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The bulk of Hughes's writing addressed economic and political issues, but in 1861 he wrote a sequel to Tom Brown's Schooldays called Tom Brown at Oxford. The sequel gives a picture of life at a British university where sports and parties seem to overwhelm academic studies. The novel focuses on Tom's efforts to sort out his priorities.
Two notable motion-picture versions of Tom Brown's Schooldays were released in 1940 and 1951. The first of these was produced by David O. Selznick in America, but directed by an Englishman, Robert Stevenson. This movie reflects an Englishman's concerns about World War II and consequently emphasizes Tom's victory over Flashman as an example of right triumphing over might. Directed by Gordon Parry, the 1951 movie emphasizes period authenticity and Tom's school life, although Flashman remains a cruel antagonist. Of the two, the latter film better captures the mood of the novel and is likelier to interest the general audience.
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For Further Reference
Cordery, Gareth. "Tom Brown's Schooldays and Foreskin's Lament The Alpha and Omega of Rugby Football." Journal of Popular Culture 19 (Fall 1985): 97-104. A critical study of how the ethos of sports as presented in Tom Brown's Schooldays has permeated New Zealand society as depicted in Foreskin's Lament, a play.
Gathorn-Hardy, Jonathan. The Old School Tie. New York: Viking Press, 1977. This comprehensive history of British public schools traces their evolution from the Middle Ages. Of special interest is chapter 4.
Mack, Ernest C., and W. H. G. Armytage. Thomas Hughes: The Life of the Author of "Tom Brown's Schooldays." London: Ernest Brown, 1952. A full overview of the life of Hughes. Chapter 6 deals with the writing and publication of the novel.
McLachlan, James. American Boarding Schools. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970. In this historical study of the emergence of American boarding schools in the nineteenth century, Mc- Lachlan shows the influence exerted by Hughes and Arnold on Americans attempting to establish schools comparable to Rugby.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Briggs, Asa. Victorian People. New York: Harper & Row, 1963. The author, an eminent British historian, discusses the notable figures, ideas, and events of the high Victorian era (1851-1867). Included is a brilliant chapter on “Thomas Hughes and the Public Schools.”
Chandos, John. Boys Together. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. In this scholarly analysis of the English public school from 1800 to 1864, Dr. Thomas Arnold plays the central role. The importance of Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days as popularizing Arnold’s reforms at Rugby is discussed.
Mack, Edward C., and W. H. G. Armytage. Thomas Hughes: The Life of the Author of “Tom Brown’s School Days.” London: Ernest Benn, 1952. This is the standard biography of Hughes, an archetypal Victorian figure, and illustrates his many literary, political, and social endeavors. Included is an extensive discussion of Tom Brown’s School Days.
Quigly, Isabel. The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story. London: Chatto & Windus, 1982. Analyzes the development of the numerous stories written about England’s public boarding schools, a genre that began with Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days.
Worth, George J. Thomas Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1984. A recent...
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