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May 04, 2005

A Paean to Christian Socialism and "Manly Piety" - Thomas Hughes' Tom Brown's Schooldays

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Tom Brown's Schooldays
by Thomas Hughes
first published 1857

Few books have created their own genre to the extent that this one did. It was the first of its kind, but by the early years of the twentieth century about half of what boys in England read, to judge from the contents of The Captain magazine and its imitators, consisted of "school" stories directly descended from Tom Brown. Later it created a spin-off series in the form of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman stories in which Hughes' villain becomes the central character [see Seamus Sweeney's review of the latest Flashman]. This is almost a second genre with many forms: for instance, in the 1980s the D.C.Thomson comics was running a story about Cadman who was clearly a Flashman rip-off.

I haven't read the original for many years until now. What I have done is to instruct other people to read it, students on the "Sport, Politics and Society" programmes I was running at the University of Warwick. Of all their comments, two stand out. The first, relatively trivial observation concerns how like Harry Potter it is. Tom = Harry, Rugby (the school) = Hogwarts, Dr Arnold = Professor Dumbledore, Rugby (the game) = Quidditch etc.

An important difference is that Tom is the happy offspring of an old-fashioned Tory squire whereas Harry is a lonely orphan. But it is not an important difference that Harry Potter is about magic: the syndrome of nobility, chivalry, sportsmanship and Christian mysticism which Hughes portrays at the heart of the Arnoldian vision of education is a kind of magic. Certainly the French commentators like Hippolyte Taine and Pierre de Coubertin who saw Arnold as the last hope of a Europe in spiritual despair, saw it as magical. And so did I when, aged ten, I was sent away to a school whose headmaster had been a pupil at Rugby before the Great War; the world of "prep", "scrums", "house colours" et. al. seemed every bit as exotic as Hogwarts.

The more profound comment came from a student who did everything I asked and compared Tom Brown with one of the standard products of half a century later (in this case Acton's Feud by Fred Swainson which was serialised in The Captain in 1908). He remarked that he found Tom Brown a book of great ethical seriousness while its successor was morally vacuous, a mere formulaic celebration of the institution of the public school in which the good guys always win in the end. (A similar comparison would be between Chariots of Fire and virtually any other sports film.) I took his point; indeed, I think it is the key to understanding a very important book.

Tom Hughes was a Christian socialist. I had always known this, but not until I read the book again did I appreciate how Christian and how socialist. His ever-present but rarely seen hero, Thomas Arnold, is a Christian Whig and it takes the hero in the forefront of our attention, Tom Brown, eight years to become his disciple. In fact there is a great deal about the book I had forgotten including the first eighty pages which cover the Brown family and rural Berkshire. These pages are, incidentally and apart from anything else, an excellent source of detail about pre-industrial recreations like back-swording. The part that everybody remembers, the struggle of Brown, East et al. against the bully Flashman, comes and goes in the second quarter of the book. The most important boy in the story is certainly not Flashman or East, perhaps not even Tom, but George Arthur, the sickly, pious and intellectual son of an heroic clergyman who has died because he remained at post in his industrial parish when the cholera struck. He is Tom's spiritual mentor as Tom is his cricket mentor.

The socialism is a fairly constant theme of Hughes' writing, from his disapproval of the new practice of the rural gentry in separating themselves off from those whom they imagine to be their inferiors to the contempt the nineteen-year old Tom has for "mere moneymaking". It is a Merrie England kind of socialism which extols rural fairs and impromptu after-cricket dancing in the Close as well as a moderate amount of beer drinking. It is far more tolerant of Toryism (including "school Toryism") than of free market capitalism. Hughes' vision is of the public schools as the staff colleges of a Christian socialist movement to reform the world. It is not without its legacy in the form of all those public school Labour MPs and perhaps also radical and sporting clerics like the late David Shepherd. Perhaps one might even stretch that legacy through to Tony Blair? But it is bound to be seen from a later period as something of an historical paradox: the public schools for which Hughes might be claimed as chief propagandist became bastions of conservatism and social exclusion. And if they were the staff colleges of anything it was imperialism, whereas Thomas Arnold was vigorously opposed to virtually every practice of the British Empire of his day including the exploitation of indentured labourers in the West Indies and the transportation of convicts to Australia.

The specifically Christian content is much more concentrated into Part II of the book and can be quite shocking to a contemporary non-believer in its vividness and assertiveness. I did vaguely recall the scene in which Arthur prays in the dormitory and is mocked and bullied as a result so Tom joins him and plays a part in the evangelisation of the school which is part of the Doctor's Grand Scheme. By my time this was all going into reverse, of course, and I note with interest that the 1830s insults hurled at those who took religion seriously were "saints" and (obscurely?) "square toes" whereas in my youth it was "God squad". But I had forgotten the bleak and terrifying vision of a godless world which Arthur has when he nearly dies of the fever, as serious a piece of religious writing as you will ever find in popular fiction. And the strange Carlylean sentiments of the final paragraph where Hughes presents the hero-worship of Thomas Arnold as a necessary step on the road to the love of Jesus Christ!

But this is also a sportsman's book where prowess and athletic contest are seen as a good deal closer to Godliness than is cleanliness. Crucial episodes of the story involve accounts of back-swording, wrestling, cricket, boxing and the embryonic game of rugby. The significance Hughes attributes to sport is the germ of what later came to be caricatured (and perhaps to caricature itself) as "muscular Christianity", but his own phrase is "manly piety". It is at its most challenging in Hughes' overt, even hectoring enthusiasm for fist-fighting as the decent, English way of settling a dispute. Fists are "the weapons God gave us" in the pursuit of righteousness. In his overtly sermonising mode (page 302 of the Oxford reprint of the original edition) he counsels all boys:

. . . don't say "No" because you fear a licking, and say or think it's because you fear God, for that's neither Christian nor honest. And if you do fight, fight it out; and don't give in while you can stand and see.
Most would say, I guess, that Hughes' sentiments are more authentically muscular than they are Christian.

At the level of popular fiction this book was an enormous success: it created a new form of adventure where bullies must be defeated and matches won. The success becomes more profound when we consider the moral dimension and the contest between the natural "blackguardism" of boys and the virtuous place to which the Doctor can lead them. It is like the invention of the Western (where the equivalent book is Owen Wister's The Virginian, also a great deal more ethical and ethically complex than its thousands of imitators). But the direction in which Hughes influenced the world is by no means the direction he chose. In that respect he is like a number of other socialist writers: Upton Sinclair's The Jungle had a dramatic effect on the regulation of the meat trade but did little or nothing to advance American socialism while William Morris's writings served to encourage conservation rather than the communism he believed in.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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