What I’m Reading: Tom Brown’s Schooldays

Hmm, I’ve just finished a book about an average English boy who gets called away to a special private school. When he arrives there, he’s accepted to one of several houses that each have their own special character. He’s not so hot academically and often gets in trouble with his small group of schoolmates, but finds acceptance in the school by proving himself on the field playing the school’s favorite sport. After several years at the school, he defeats great evil, becomes friends with the wise school head, and to everybody’s surprise, graduates an accomplished young man ready to face the world.

So I must be getting into the Harry Potter series, right? Not at all! The book in question is Tom Brown’s Schooldays, by Thomas Hughes, written in 1857 and set in the 1830s at Rugby School in Warwickshire, England. Actually, besides being a direct and acknowledged inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s fantasy books, it also set off a fad in private school novels in England after its publication. Apparently, it was also immensely popular in Japan in the 1890s, and there have been at least five film versions. Actually, Tom Brown’s Schooldays may be one of the most influential books ever published, at least if judging by the number of works it’s inspired.

So I’ve described the general plot above, but more specifically, Tom Brown arrives at Rugby school when he’s eleven and joins the Schoolhouse, one of several houses. His first year goes well, but in the second year, some of the sixth-form boys (the oldest boys, probably 17-19 years old) who had kept peace and order in the house have graduated, and the new lot is not as well respected. A rather nasty fifth-former (15-16 year olds), Flashman, and his buddies find that there is no one to stop them bullying and demanding service from the younger boys. It’s up to Tom to lead a revolt by the younger boys against the bullying, which brings him to Flashman’s particular and unwelcome attention. It’s only after Tom is roasted over a fire by Flashman and his cronies in a harrowing scene that some of the older boys turn against Flashman and order gets restored.

That’s the first half of the novel. The second half concerns Tom’s befriending a small and sickly boy newly arrived at the school named Arthur. At first, Tom’s main concern is making sure the new boy doesn’t get bullied the way he was, but over time, Arthur’s studiousness and religious devotion rub off on Tom, and as they get into the upper grades, it’s Arthur who becomes the greater influence on Tom. The climax of the book comes when an epidemic sweeps through the school and a number of boys fall ill, including Arthur.

I found Tom Brown’s Schooldays to be fairly delightful, and I think anybody who enjoys Harry Potter and is able to look beyond the magic to the story underneath would also enjoy Tom Brown. At the time it was written, Thomas Hughes explicitly aimed the book at teen-agers, so it was the YA of its period. The nineteenth-century language might make it a bit tougher for today’s teens, although it’s by no means a difficult read. It does get off to a slow start though, with the first chapter basically dedicated to a description of the landscape around Tom’s home town. Skip the first chapter to get right into the story and this might be a good choice for a Harry Potter fan who wonders what to read after The Deathly Hallows is over.

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