Arthur's first night at Rugby, Tom defending him from the bully who has thrown a slipper at him as he says his prayers. Illustration for 1869 edition of ''Tom Brown's Schooldays by Thomas Hughes. Original edition 1857. Picture Credit: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Tom’s curious heirs

The torrent of popular school stories that followed Tom Brown’s Schooldays inverted its central message of Christian reform


This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.#

Among the most treasured possessions in my study, gathering dust but re-read from time to time, are my bound volumes of The Captain magazine. They are a good selection, amounting to about a quarter of the total, of the output of the magazine during its existence between 1899 and 1923 and they’ve been around pretty well all my life.

The Captain was part of a stable of magazines founded in the 1890s by George Newnes who had made a fortune from Tit-Bits, arguably the first genuinely mass publication, which he unleashed in 1881. The most famous was The Strand Magazine which published most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (though it did not introduce them). Because the two magazines looked alike and The Captain was aimed at a younger audience it was nicknamed “the Junior Strand”. It had a subtitle: a magazine for boys and “old boys”.

God-like headmasters who are benign but peripheral

The Captain contained many kinds of feature for boys including articles on technology (cameras and engines in the early days, crystal sets towards the end) and worthy articles on potential careers. There was also a lot of sports coverage confined entirely to amateur and elite sport: the magazine claimed to have introduced the idea of the “athletic editor”, its first being C.B. Fry and its last Harold Abrahams.

An advert for the first edition of the Captain

But a great deal of the magazine comprised of novel-length serialised stories in the classic Victorian fashion. Many of these were adventure stories almost invariably set on the frontiers of Empire or the Wild West. But the absolute stalwart, amounting to half the total, was the school story: “boys” and “old boys” meant public schoolboys.

This was an exponentially growing market: when the Clarendon Commission reported on the role of the public schools in national life in 1864 it concerned itself with only nine institutions, but by the end of the century there were more than 200. They were exclusive by self-definition, defined by the Headmasters’ Conference which excluded not just state schools but mere “private” schools which did not make the grade as well as preparatory schools for younger boys.

It is now reckoned that there were around 90 stories set in boarding schools published between 1790 and 1857, but few people read them and they are almost entirely forgotten. Then along came Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Thomas Hughes’s fictionalised memoir of his time at Rugby School in the 1830s. It was a huge hit and thoroughly in tune with its times because people wanted to read it as a story, but it was also taken seriously in its implications for education.

An illustration from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with the author’s name carved on the wall

It was read all over the Empire and America, but it was translated into all major languages and was hugely influential in Japan. It also had a particular impact in France where a young aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, read it and set off on what was almost literally a pilgrimage to Rugby in 1873.

As is often the case with apostles, there was a great deal which de Coubertin misunderstood, particularly about headmaster Thomas Arnold’s role in the development of organised games. Yet more open to interpretation was Hughes’s report of Rugby’s revival — in a modernised form — of chevalerie as an antidote to commercialism and socialism. What he originally conceived as the Jeux Arnoldien became the modern Olympic Games — de Coubertin gave Rugby and Arnold credit for them until the end of his life.

As well as Hughes’s influence on education and sport, he initiated a literary genre, the school story which — with the parallel development in girls’ stories — became the principal reading matter of many under-twenty-year-olds throughout the Anglophone world.

In 1940, George Orwell complained about this dominance in his essay “Boys’ Weeklies”; to Orwell the ubiquity of these stories, read by millions who had never clapped eyes on a boarding school, had a deeply conservative impact. For all the horrors of the twentieth century the world portrayed in The Gem and The Magnet was eternal; 1940 was no different from 1910 because, “… there is a cosy fire in the study … The King is on his throne … Everything will be the same forever.”

The principal ingredients of the stories persisted from the outset: plucky heroes, bullies to be vanquished (the dreaded Harry Flashman in the original), great sporting contests, disputes settled by honest fist fights, modest rule-breaking, corporal punishment accepted stoically and God-like headmasters who are benign but peripheral. But if you read Tom Brown and follow it with a Captain story you realise that the spirit of the tales has changed entirely.

In the original, Hughes deeply admires “the Doctor” who is attempting to reform the school. He is central to the message but peripheral to the plot because the school is effectively run by a levée of senior boys. The situation is overtly political, with the boys openly discussing the merits of their “old ways” as opposed to the Doctor’s reforms. Arnold was evangelically religious, an anti-imperialist and radical social reformer. Insofar as the two Toms (Hughes and Brown) are converted by him it is to something deeply anti-capitalist and opposed to the status quo.

Original caption: “The doctor’s counsel to young Brooke.”

In The Captain’s stories, however, the status quo is never questioned, the Empire is portrayed as the best thing that has happened to the world and the principal characters are conservative, snobbish and racist. Thus the irony (a theme of Lytton Strachey’s essay on Arnold in Eminent Victorians) of Arnold and Hughes giving a major impetus to a movement — the growth of the public schools — which came to embody everything of which they disapproved.

It is a curious parallel to the irony of George Orwell’s life. Arnold and Orwell died young: Arnold on the eve of his 47th birthday, Orwell a few months younger. But it’s also true that they both became patron saints of movements quite hostile to their own outlook: Orwell was a democratic socialist who is now quoted in anti-Communist and anti-étatiste arguments a hundred times for every time he is quoted as a socialist.

Arnold wanted his pupils to be Christian gentlemen

One of the most successful and influential writers of school stories when The Captain began was Fred Swainson and in 1900 the magazine ran his story “Acton’s Feud” alongside a Boer War tale, “The Three Scouts”. The story is specifically set in 1898: John Acton is a wealthy, handsome, clever and athletic boy — we might call him an “alpha male” — who has come late to St. Amory’s having been educated largely abroad. Selected for the “socker” (sic) XI against a visiting adult team, he commits what we should call a “professional foul”. The skipper, Phil Bourne, is appalled by this breach of the unwritten code: he “cuts” Acton and refuses to award him a “cap” — though he continues to select him.

Acton responds to this by running a popularity campaign among the younger boys implicitly discrediting Bourne while at the same time befriending Bourne’s younger brother, Jack, and introducing him to a demi-monde of gambling and nightlife. Eventually, the decisive incident comes when Bourne spots a runaway carriage containing a terrified beautiful woman. At great risk to himself, he skilfully controls the carriage and saves the lady. Of course, she turns out to be Acton’s mother and the two boys become firm friends, a villain redeemed rather than banished in the Flashman style.

In Feud there is no longer a debate about values. There is a code (old chap) and if you don’t know it then you’re in the wrong. Nobody explains to Acton what has gone wrong. His weakness — and his excuse — is a foreign background. The South Asian students in the school are despised not by the bad guys, but by the supposed good guys and described by words unprintable in the twenty-first century. The lower classes are “guttersnipes” and to be avoided.

I think it is impossible to ignore the choice of name for the eponymous character: Lord Acton, distinguished writer and politician — he of the pithy quotation about power — was still alive at the time of writing. He was really John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, born in Naples (and died in Germany), Liberal, Roman Catholic. He was everything, in short, that Swainson would have found threatening.

It is as if the Doctor’s enemies have recaptured his citadel falsely using his name. The key word to understand is “gentleman”. Arnold wanted his pupils to be Christian gentlemen defined by a Christian code of purpose and discipline. His compromise with the boys was that they could continue their games provided they were codified and excluded “ungentlemanly conduct” — a phrase echoed in the rule books of sport ever since.

They respond to authority with trickery and disdain

De Coubertin translated “gentleman” as chevalier rather than gentilhomme because, as another French aristocrat in search of an acceptable future, Alexis De Tocqueville, had explained, whilst American and Englishmen aspired to be gentlemen, Molière and the revolution had rendered gentilhomme risible in France. But by the time of The Captain “gentleman” in England was simply a matter of social class, used in the constitutions of numerous amateur sports organisations to ban or limit the participation of lower class players. Paradoxically, by the time of The Captain, sport had become about winning. “Tom’s Last Match” was a defeat and there didn’t seem to be anything untoward about that; in The Captain, heroes always win in the end just as they do in American sports movies.

“Acton’s Feud” contains much that would offend even the most conservative sensibilities in our own times, but, curiously, it seems to have inspired a work that does not do so, because it is still in print. P.G. Wodehouse always said that it was Swainson’s story that inspired him to try his own hand at the school story and his The Lost Lambs was serialised by the magazine in 1908. It is a deeply subversive piece.

Its heroes, Mike Jackson and Rupert Smith, have arrived at Sedleigh school having been removed from other schools for poor behaviour and performance. They are non-conformists, and cricket refuseniks. They respond to authority with trickery and disdain. Wodehouse uses a form of ironic reference to the genre as the characters discuss what kind of characters they are:

Smith (having just met Jackson): Are you the Bully, the Pride of the School or the Boy who is Led Astray and Takes to Drink in Chapter 16?

Jackson: The last for choice … but I’ve only just got here so I don’t know.

It is impossible to imagine Tom Brown or Phil Bourne talking like this. But, of course, our two heroes turn out to be very good chaps and awfully good cricketers. And Wodehouse fans will have realised that among the infuriating traits of the languid and arrogant Smith is his insistence that his name is spelled “Psmith” with a silent “P” (“as in Pshrimp”).

The Lost Lambs was later republished as Mike and then Mike and Psmith; there are several sequels and Psmith remains one of the greatest creations of one of the finest comic writers of the twentieth century. Arguably he is one of a long line of jester-heroes which includes Prince Hal (in Shakespeare if not in history), the Scarlet Pimpernel, the cinematic James Bond and practically any character played by Errol Flynn, David Niven or Cary Grant.

Harry Potter is Tom Brown with magic

But if the tradition of the jester-hero thrived the same cannot be said of the school story itself. Unavoidable, according to Orwell, in 1940 they had all but disappeared by 1960. One of the most prolific producers, Percy F. Westerman, who wrote 178 hardcover stories for boys, had turned his attention to naval stories. They were really — if vaguely — out of tune with their era and most writing over the last six or seven decades has given the traditional boarding school way of life a very bad press.

The precise and undeniable cause of the demise was television. Perhaps I enjoyed these stories so much at the time because from 1957 I was a boarder at Lancaster Royal Grammar School which had specifically moulded itself in imitation of Rugby (the headmaster had been a housemaster there) and we didn’t have a television so I only heard about Hoss in Bonanza and Fancy Smith in Z-Cars from other boys.

I continued to read school stories (often from secondhand bookshops) which resembled the world I knew. But, despite several versions of Tom Brown, television never took to prefects as it did to cowboys and policemen. I should add that I also read the D.C. Thompson comics, The Rover in particular, which Orwell had praised as “more modern”. They certainly offered a different class perspective: while reading The Captain I hated “guttersnipes”, but while reading The Rover I hated “toffs”.

The decline of the school story carries an important rider. My children and grandchildren, none of whom went to boarding school, preface questions to me with, “You know when you were at Hogwarts…”. Harry Potter is Tom Brown with magic, chums and bullies all over again. Young people in a closed world behind stone walls may not be so old school after all.


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