Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

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.

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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 Brown’s School Days. Arnold’s hopes for Rugby and the Rugby portrayed in Hughes’s novel were different. Arnold was committed to turning his charges into Christian gentlemen, to giving them a moral grounding to shape their entire lives. Good form had to be matched, in Arnold’s view, by a commitment to performing one’s duties to society. Public school students would become the governing class, and their lives must be guided by Christian moral principles. Hughes would not have disagreed with the moral imperative propounded in Arnold’s approach. In his novel, in what may be a reflection of Arnold’s religious ideology, Hughes creates a climate that is essentially anti-intellectual. Squire Brown, musing to himself about what he wants for Tom at Rugby, notes: “I don’t give a straw for Greek particles, or the digamma. . . . If he’ll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that’s all I want.”

At Hughes’s Rugby, games take precedence over scholarship. Tom’s first introduction to Rugby is taking part in a football match, the rules of which had yet to be codified into the modern sport of rugby. When the match is over, Tom’s house having emerged victorious, one of the senior boys, Brooke, addresses the boys of the house and claims that he is prouder of the house’s victory than if he had won a scholarship to Oxford University’s prestigious Balliol College. Tom’s last activity while still a student is to captain the cricket eleven against the famous Marylebone players. Arnold, who loved and respected the intellectual life, would have opposed this overemphasis on games. As the nineteenth century went on, however, public school life revolved increasingly around games. The change of focus is evident in the stories and novels of schoolboy life that multiplied in the wake of Hughes’s success with Tom Brown’s School Days and in the many new schools that emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The formation of character on the sports field took precedence over the development of the intellect.

Tom Brown’s School Days has never been out of print since it first appeared in 1857, and its impacts on succeeding generations have been profound, not only among those who might expect to attend a school such as Rugby but also among schoolboys in the middle class and in the working class. The novel’s moral lessons are clear, and its events are often exciting and easily accessible even to those without roots in the public school milieu. The importance of telling the truth, being brave, fighting fair, and doing well at games became the novel’s message. Lying is breaking the code, and bullying—endemic in the schools—is condemned. Flashman, who torments Tom and others, has become a lasting symbol of the cowardly bully.

Hughes was himself a Christian gentleman who exhibited his social responsibilities in his commitment to furthering the rights and opportunities of the working class. Less than a generation after his death in 1896, it would largely be former public schoolboys who, as junior officers, died in considerable numbers leading their troops into battle during World War I. It is difficult to imagine, in the different environment of a later era, that the effect of Tom Brown’s School Days on readers can be as influential as when it first appeared. In the late twentieth century, another British writer, George MacDonald Fraser, turned Hughes’s Flashman, still the cowardly bully, into a notable success as an antihero in a series of popular novels.

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