London: Macmillan, 1857.
One way to classify much English-language fiction is by setting or background theme, and one of these is the coming-of-age novel, about the human process of growing up. A sub-genre in Britain focuses on the protagonist’s educational experiences and the transformative effect they have on his (or her) development — most often in the context of a private or boarding school (which in Britain are called “public schools”). Thomas Hughes more or less invented this species of story a century and a half ago.
It’s been with us ever since (though it peaked in the early 20th century with Angela Brazil’s books), through Stalky & Co., Mr. Chips, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and right up to Harry Potter’s adventures at Hogwarts. It’s a less common theme in American fiction, but we do have The Catcher in the Rye, The Rector of Justin, A Separate Peace, and Prep. And school life is also prominent in Japanese manga. The main point in this sort of novel is that the school itself, with its traditions and almost foreign, non-home milieu, becomes a character in itself. The emphasis in the plot and among the characters most often is on personal honor and loyalty and the inculcation of other moral values, resistance to bullying, developing friendships, challenging and learning to deal with the adult world (and fitting oneself into a profoundly conservative society). Because most such schools are single-sex, there’s usually an unrealistic absence of sexual activity, but it’s there subliminally. And it all started right here, with Tom Brown, son of the squire in a village in the Vale of the White Horse, who (by internal evidence) goes off to Rugby in 1833 at the age of eleven. Of course, this is precisely the period during which the author was himself a pupil at Rugby and the portraits of Tom and his friends are heavily, almost wistfully, autobiographical. (Literary critics also have attempted ever since to identify the real individuals behind such characters as Harry East and George Arthur.) While most “new boys” probably would flounder about at first and suffer from homesickness, Tom acquires a friend and mentor almost before he enters the school gates for the first time. He’s determined to do his best and to make his parents proud of him, but he soon slips from the straight-and-narrow, becoming a dare-taker and making adventurous night-time excursions in violation of the headmaster’s rules. Eventually, of course, his better nature wins out and his natural leadership asserts itself, though he’ll never be a scholar. The master, who is referred to only as “The Doctor” (up until the final chapter, when Tom returns from Oxford on learning of the master’s death) is Dr. Thomas Arnold, who during his tenure at Rugby almost singlehandedly revolutionized the world of the British public school. For modern readers, the class-ridden world in which Tom and his companions operate is extremely alien. Even when the townspeople catch the boys from the school engaging in some outlaw activity, a couple of shillings generally smoothes things over. The boys are “gentlemen,” after all, and the locals know their place. One has to wonder, too, what exactly Rugby is teaching its pupils, since lessons seem to consist entirely of memorizing, translating, and “construing” so many lines of the Latin and Greek classics every day. (This ability appears to be the only real requirement for progression to university, too.) It is said of young Martin, a talented and self-taught natural scientist, that he should never have come to Rugby but should have been “trained” elsewhere. Actually, Tom and the others are mostly being taught how to be gentlemen, which means they don’t really have to know how to do anything except to command the lower orders. And play cricket, of course. East, for instance, becomes an army officer in India, for which his years at the school appear to have entirely prepared him. (Though one wonders where he learned tactics.) To properly appreciate the story, the 21st-century reader must become a time traveler, willing to forget the modern world exists, or a social archaeologist. The interesting thing is, there are still plenty of gentlemen today, the products of Britain’s public schools, who function on the 19th century model and who still are attempting to run the country — and that includes nearly all the prime ministers of the past century. Hughes writes a lively, self-deprecating prose, filled with quiet humor — not at all like Thackeray or Dickens, for instance — and observing Tom Brown’s progress through adolescence is a fascinating experience.