I have just finished the recording of Tom Brown’s School Days that I have been doing for LibriVox. This is my first solo project, and I’m very pleased with it. Now that I’ve finished, though, perhaps it’s time to think about what the book meant to me.
I remembered the book from the 1970’s BBC TV series that I watched as a child. I particularly remembered the scene where Flashman, the school bully, roasts Tom in front of an open fire. But although the struggle against a bullying culture is a large part of the book’s message, I was surprised to realize that it’s main message was the growth of a normal, English boy into an English man.
The opening chapters deal with Tom’s early childhood, and describe country life in the Vale of the White Horse. The people we see there are held up as examples of good, honest working folk, the best that England can produce. The author certainly does not approve of modern customs.
Tom is sent to Rugby, a public school, and we find that he is no better than average at his lessons, but masterful at getting into and out of trouble: he comes home late after a long run; he falls foul of a gamekeeper and a local farmer; and he is involved in a famous fight. The School’s headmaster despairs of him, but he hatches a plan to pair Tom with a “good” boy who will need his protection, and so we meet George Arthur.
For me, this is where the book loses a great deal of its fun. It becomes a catalogue of virtuous behaviour as Tom learns to try properly at his lessons instead of using a crib, to pray nightly as he was taught, and to value honesty and “Christian” manliness. My strong impression is that this second part of the book represents the meat of what Thomas Hughes has to say to us. I found it more than a little priggish and proselytising, and was made distinctly uncomfortable by the overtly Christian message. For instance, one of the scenes that had the greatest effect on Tom was talking with Arthur , who had narrowly survived a bout of fever. The dream that Arthur recounts isn’t at all subtle in its portrayal of Christian ideals, and yet it strongly affected Tom. It would have had me sticking two fingers down my throat if I’d been in Tom’s position.
Nevertheless, I am glad I did re-visit this book. I now have a much deeper appreciation of what it really is. And most importantly, I have a deep pride in what I have made.