Tom Brown's Schooldays is a novel by Thomas Hughes first published in 1857. The story is set at Rugby School, a public school for boys, in the 1830s. Hughes attended Rugby School from 1834 to 1842.
The novel was originally published as being "by an Old Boy of Rugby", and much of it is based on the author's experiences. Tom Brown is largely based on the author's brother, George Hughes; and George Arthur, another of the book's main characters, is based on Arthur Penrhyn Stanley. The fictional Tom's life also resembles the author's in that the culminating event of his school career was a cricket match.
Tom Brown was tremendously influential on the genre of British school novels, which began in the 19th century, and is one of the few still in print. A sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford, was published in 1861 but is not as well known.
Tom Brown is energetic, stubborn, kind-hearted, and athletic more than intellectual. He acts according to his feelings and the unwritten rules of the boys around him more than adults' rules.
The early chapters of the novel deal with his childhood at his home in the Vale of White Horse
(including a nostalgic picture of a village feast). Much of the scene setting in the first chapter is deeply revealing of Victorian England
's attitudes towards society and class, and contains an interesting comparison of so-called Saxon
influences on England
. This part of the book, when young Tom wanders the valleys freely on his pony, serves as a sort of Eden
with which to contrast the later hellish experiences at school.
His first school year was at a local school. His second year started at a private school, but due to an epidemic of fever in the area, all the school's boys were sent home, and Tom was transferred mid-term to Rugby School, where he made acquaintance with the adults and boys who lived at the school and in its environs.
On his arrival, the eleven-year-old Tom Brown is looked after by a more experienced classmate, Harry "Scud" East. Soon after, Tom and East become the targets of a bully named Flashman. The intensity of the bullying increases, and, after refusing to hand over a sweepstake ticket for the favourite in a horse race, Tom is deliberately burned in front of a fire. Tom and East eventually defeat Flashman with the help of a kind (though comical) older boy. In their triumph they become unruly.
In the second half of the book, Dr. Thomas Arnold, the historical headmaster of the school at the time, gives Tom the care of a new boy named George Arthur, frail, pious, academically brilliant, gauche, and sensitive. A fight that Tom gets into to protect Arthur, and Arthur's nearly dying of fever, are described in loving detail. Tom and Arthur help each other and their friends develop into young gentlemen who say their nightly prayers, do not cheat on homework, and are on the cricket team. An epilogue shows Tom's return to Rugby and its chapel when he hears of Dr. Arnold's death.
A main element of the novel is Rugby with its traditions and with the reforms instituted by Dr. Arnold. Arnold is seldom on stage, but is shown as the perfect teacher and counselor and as managing everything behind the scenes. In particular, he is the one who "chums" Arthur with Tom. This helps them both become men.
The central theme of the novel is the development of boys. The symmetrical way in which Tom and Arthur supply each other's deficiencies shows that Hughes believed in the importance of physical development, boldness, fighting spirit, and sociability (Tom's contribution) as well as Christian morality and idealism (Arthur's).
The novel is essentially didactic, and was not primarily written by its author as an entertainment. As Hughes said:
- Several persons, for whose judgment I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is 'too much preaching'; but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn't do so myself.
The book contains an account of the rules used to play Rugby football
, the variant of football
played at Rugby School. The book's popularity helped to spread the popularity of this sport beyond the school.
References from other works
- The character of Flashman was adopted by the British writer George MacDonald Fraser as the narrator and hero (or anti-hero) of his popular series of "Flashman" historical novels. In the Flashman novel Flashman in the Great Game, the main character reads Tom Brown's Schooldays (achieving a remarkable degree of abstraction as Flashman, a fictional character, is portrayed reading a real book about himself). The novel's real popularity causes the fictional Flashman some fictional social troubles. The Flashman novels also include some other characters from the novel, for example: George Speedicut and Tom Brown himself (in the book Flashman's Lady). Flashman also encounters the character of "Scud" East twice, first in Flashman at the Charge, when both he and East are prisoners of war during the Crimean War, and again in Flashman in the Great Game at the Siege of Cawnpore during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. East is mortally wounded during the massacre and dies in Flashman's arms. However a reading of Tom Brown in Oxford reveals that "Scud" East survived India (after suffering two bullet wounds, a broken arm and a gash in his side) and emigrates to New Zealand (see chapters XXI "The Intercepted Letter-Bag" and XLVIII "The Wedding-Day").
- Tomkinson's Schooldays, the pilot episode for the TV series Ripping Yarns, is a parody of the novel.
References to actual geography
The geography of Rugby
has changed greatly since the period in which the book was set. The town has expanded enormously, industrialising in the late nineteenth century
. For example, most of the pools along the River Avon
that the boys used for swimming were obliterated when the British Thomson-Houston
factory was built. Tom Brown's adventures in countryside in the Avon river valley happened in what is now Rugby's industrial area.
In the book, Tom's first year at the school mentions no transport to Rugby except stagecoach, but the end part of Tom's last year mentions "the train". Therefore the Midland Railway was built along the Avon valley past Rugby while he was at the school. But none of his adventures around the river Avon mention the railway or its working, or the large rowdy noisy navvy-camp which would have been in the area while the railway was being built.
County boundaries have been changed so that most of the Vale of White Horse is now in Oxfordshire, not Berkshire as the author says several times.
Film, TV and theatrical adaptations
Tom Brown's Schooldays was adapted for film in 1916 (British), 1940 (U.S.), and 1951 (British). In the 1940 version, Thomas Arnold was portrayed by Cedric Hardwicke and the title role was played by Jimmy Lydon.
It has also been adapted for television, as a 1971 mini-series by the BBC and as a two-hour ITV 2005 television movie, starring Alex Pettyfer. The 1973 BBC documentary Omnibus: The British Hero featured Christopher Cazenove playing Brown.