Thomas Hughes (1822-1896) succeeded in creating a role-model in Tom Brown. That he was a school boy character immediately caught the attention of the cross-section of the society. The book saw the light of the day in the year 1857 and instantly a school-boy hero was created. Tom Brown-likes became school and sports stories. Some novels were also published in Britain and United States imitating the plot of Tom Brown’s schooldays.
Hughes intelligently crafted the Victorian Era public school ground realities of life at Rugby through the leadership of its headmaster, Dr.
Thomas Arnold. Intentionally or unintentionally, he created the characters in the novel related to the sociological conditions then prevailing in the schools and therefore the information provided became invaluable to the British society, as the country moved increasingly into an era of imperialism and militarism.
Pulse of the people and the society in the Victorian Era….
Viewing from any aspect of his background, Thomas Hughes knew the pulse of the people and the society.
He was the son of a landowner, enjoying the lifestyles of the landowners and at the same time he must have had the first hand experience of the living conditions of the peasantry (working class). His training as a lawyer naturally gave him orientation about human rights, whether they were social, political or religious. He was one of the founders of the Christian Socialist Movement. The object of this movement was to look into the problems of the working class, find a solution and prevent them from becoming the tools of revolution.
He was just 34, when the book Tom Brown’s Schooldays was published. That was the sum total of his experiences at Rugby School, and Tom Brown was the ideal ‘combustible youngster’ Hughes tried to portray with tremendous success. Hughes became a Liberal MP between 1865 and 1874 and principal of the Working Men’s College from 1872 to 1883. The book is semi-autobiographical. No author can remain without depicting a part of his self, own experiences in the major characters of the book. Hughes is no exception. His headmaster influenced him profoundly and that is reflected in Tom Brown’s mental make-up.
The sterling qualities that will make any young youngster proud, like fight against evil that are part of Tom Brown, is due to the influence of the Sunday evening sermons of Arnold. Arnold inspired many such positive qualities, which molded the life of Hughes, ipso facto, Tom Brown. Tom Brown is not an intellectual student in terms of the progress report and the percentage of marks scored. He is a boy who has the following of the students, and at times he creates his own rules for the school-life. He behaves according to his feelings, is highly energetic, stubborn yet kind-hearted. He is an excellent athlete.
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 and Norman 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.
Rugby seizes Tom Brown. Such is his liking for the game that he does not wish to leave the school when he is nineteen, the maximum age allowed at the school. Well-meaning description is given in the novel, how sports activities, in the present case Rugby, created ideal youngsters to take on the responsibility to lead the nation, would set standards of virtue and moral behavior, and follow Christian ideals with all the sincerity. The foundation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, is the practical experience. Thomas Hughes was thinking how to mold the school career of his 8 year old son, before he went off to Rugby.
This practical counseling could be the delightful and educative plot for a book, thought Hughes, and he was absolutely right. The book appealed to the emotions of the parents and children alike. It kindled the curiosity of the teaching staff. That the ‘syllabus’ of college life has been told in the form of the novel, makes the book ‘unputdownable’! The school children now and then (151 years ago), in the Victorian Era, were poles apart. They were under the strict control of the parents, the Principal commanded lots of respect, he could be strict to the point of rudeness, but all for molding the character of the students and make them committed citizens as for their religion and the country.
How the patience, perseverance and prudence of the Head Master were amply rewarded in the long run—he chiseled a perfect human being out of the rough and tough Tom Brown. You get a clear picture about the English Public School in the early 1800s. Hughes has also created another brilliant character in bully Flashman, in addition to Tom Brown. The ‘modern bullies’ loitering in the corridors of Schools and Colleges need to take a lesson of two from the genius that makes Flashman.
This book is historically fascinating. So much of legend and history is enumerated in the book by Hughes, especially in the first chapter. The glimpses of England of the bygone era are interestingly described. This book is perhaps the first-ever story related to the school life of the Victorian Era. The contents are the homogenous combination of instructions and entertainment.
Hughes, Thomas: Book: Tom Brown’s Schooldays
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd; New Ed edition (27 Oct 1994)