Saturday, 16 June 2012

Review: Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes

Published: 1857
Pages: 307 (Penguin, 2004)
Read: 4/6/12 - 6/6/12
Challenge(s): Project Fill in the Gaps
Also part of: A Victorian Celebration

Synopsis: Tom Brown attends Rugby, deals with a bully who goes on to have his own spin off, cheats at Greek, drinks beer, plays cricket and rugby, and generally grows into a thoroughly good chap (albeit one with alarming Victorian facial hair).

First line: "The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle within the memory of the young gentlemen who are now matriculating at the universities."

Review: I have to admit, I started reading this with a couple of fixed opinions - that the book would contain all those elements which later became cliche in boys' school stories, and that it would be a slog to get through.  Both were proved wrong.

This really isn't a difficult read at all, for all that the first three chapters are an ode to England that reminded of the Fry and Laurie sketch in which they end up yelling "England! England!" like they're stuck on repeat.  Yet even this part is readable, harking back to a simpler time in which 'folk' ways dominated.  It sets the tone for the book, which is very much about the wonders of England and what the right kind of male characters can do for the country.

As for its position as one of the first (if not the first) school story: there are many elements that I'd say are familiar from later school stories - the sports, the bullies, the need to behave correctly not only for the sake of the school but for later life - but a lot of the more outlandish elements are missing*.  This is more about charting the development of one boy rather than the activities of an entire school, which is borne out by the book featuring so much of Tom's early childhood as well as his time at Rugby.  That this is also evident in the highly Christian ethos of the book - something which does feature heavily in a lot of later school stories, for boys and girls - suggests that this novel is about as instructing as much as entertaining.

Not that it isn't entertaining, if only for the differences between considerations then and now, my favourite being that it's not all right for an eighteen-year-old boy to drink gin (it's never named but that's what the bad drink has to be), but it's perfectly fine for eleven-year-olds to drink a lot of beer while enjoying an all-house-singsong.  And while there aren't all the pranks that are so frequent in later books of the genre, there is the Least Sensible Rugby Match Of All Time:

1) The entire school plays, that's approximately three hundred boys aged between eleven and nineteen.
2) It's school-house vs. the rest of the school, so about sixty boys vs. over two hundred.
3) It's best of three goals, and it's considered miraculous that a goal is scored in the first hour.
4) The match is split over three consecutive Saturdays.
5) The rules are explained in such a way that Quidditch seems like an easy sport.  I'm not a rugby expert, but I can follow a match; even so, I was thinking "what the hell are you saying, Hall, that makes no sense whatsoever!"
6) An eleven-year-old attempts to tackle a much older boy and simply bounces off.
7) Tom ends up at the bottom of a pile up and is only saved from crushing by the fifth former on top of him bearing most of the weight of the boys above.  Still, at least they all think he's a plucky youngster for diving on the ball.

In fact, if I took anything away from this book it's that rugby used to be incredibly chaotic and confusing - and that Thomas Hughes loved it enough to turn Chapter Five into propaganda for the sport (and for school-house, which is fairly obviously his old house). 

I would recommend this book, especially for anyone wanting to read Victorian literature that's more light-hearted than a lot of the tomes that were produced.  The message of marvellous imperial Christian England (never Britain, it's all England) does grate somewhat, but within the context of the times is less wearing than it could be.  For a school story fan, it's fascinating to see where a lot of elements originate, and I found myself thinking most of Elsie J. Oxenham's books, which attempt to view issues such as death through a similar prism of faith.  A fun read, and a good start to my reading for A Victorian Celebration.

Rating: 8/10

* For example, no one is left lying grey and motionless and apparently dead, which is something which always livens up the latter third of a school story.

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