If you love Harry Potter, then you owe a debt to Tom Brown.
Tom Brown at School (sometimes Tom Brown at Rugby) is the pattern for all great English books about school life.
Tom Brown, very much a boy, an English boy of his era, heads off to Rugby and is made a manly man under the tutelage of Dr. Thomas Arnold and his reform of Rugby public school. Brown becomes a decent scholar, fabulously well educated by today’s decayed standards, and an excellent sportsman.
Tom Brown at School is a good antidote to those of us who got our first picture of English education through C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy. Lewis came after Brown, when Arnold’s encouragement of games had replaced Arnold’s Christianity as the religion of English public schools. Brown had (as Strachey concedes) plenty of free time and has good friends who do not play school sports. Arnold cannot be blamed that Rugby secularists replaced God with the idol of sport. In any case, Tom Brown flourishes at Rugby and since the book is based on the real life experiences of the author (Thomas Hughes) and his family good must have come of the education for some.
I wish I could have gone (and sent my children) to Rugby under Arnold.
Later Tom Brown was “accused” of promoting a “muscular” Christianity. Tom Brown is certainly muscular, but he is also tender and pious in ways ESPN or the “Man Channel” never portrays. Brown’s closest friend is like Helen in Jane Eyre driving Brown to a more consistent Christian ethic. Under his guidance Brown gives up Greek and Latin “cheat sheets” and actually learns his Greek and Latin to the point that the first year of Oxford University was a bit of a review.
Part of Brown’s “muscular” Christianity is to say his prayers openly every night at Rugby.
If we have forgotten Dr. Arnold’s great lesson, it is partly because he was slandered by the anti-Victorians. Lytton Strachey, a loser with literary flair, proved that for a time the poison pen is greater than the professor and the good Arnold was forgotten for a time. Strachey blamed Arnold for directions English public schools took that Dr. Arnold would have hated and checked. In an overly pious age Strachey must have seem refreshing in showing “idols” had feet of clay, or personalities, but his attack on eminent Victorians has not worn well. Surely we will not feel critical of Florence Nightingale for being a strong person and Arnold’s dedication to classicism has held up better than Bloomsbury. Strachey is no longer necessary, his views as dated as Tom Brown’s without any of the charm.
We need more Tom Brown, purged of his faults, and we have plenty of Lytton Strachey.
For a Christmas treat I read the sequel Tom Brown at Oxford and got more of the same. Victorian values are not all Christian values and Tom Brown at Oxford mixes the two in a way obvious to us, but not so obvious to the readers of the time. For us this means that the errors of the book are pretty harmless and the lessons very valuable.
Tom Brown learns a great many lessons at Oxford. He learns that like any system at Oxford money has too much power and merit too little. His Christianity and the memory of Dr. Arnold protect him from this particular error. Brown keeps a sound body, but learns that moderation in the passions and in pleasures is equally important.
Brown goes through several phases at Oxford tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil. He never fits well with the party crowd (the “flash set”). He considers exploiting a local woman for thoughtless sex and then he does not, but he leads her on horribly. He pays a price for his failure, repents, receives grace for his sins, but then works out his repentance over hundreds of pages. If things turn out happily in the end, the happiness was delayed by Brown’s sins. This is more true to life than most school romances are.
Brown is tempted by radicalism and foolish intellectual idealism. He knows the poor must be helped and sets off to help them. His condescension and folly do more harm than good and he has to learn to moderate his intellectual and religious passions as well as other desires.
Brown remains a bit of a goofy do-gooder, like the author. When not writing, Thomas Hughes set up a Utopian community in Rugby Tennessee that serves as a caution against all Utopian schemes. Instead of fixing what was, he tried for a blank slate and got little or nothing. And yet even Hughes at his worst (or Brown his avatar) did more good than harm. Brown does not despise wealth he just lives moderately. Brown (or Hughes through his character) does not use state power to do good he can do with his own muscular hands.
Brown and the real men he represented said their prayers, fed the poor, were true to their ideals, repented their sins, and served their Queen and country. Brown is a good bit more useful to the poor than Bloomsbury intellectuals that attacked men like he was portrayed. Tom Brown as an ideal was a Christian, a servant, a leader, and a man.
He would have looked at the pajama boys of our time and urged us to go out and get some fresh air, read our Virgil, say our prayers, and find some great work to do for the church and for our country. He would have talked with us if we wished, but not endlessly. If I were to long for Tom Brown, saying: “Where have you gone Tom Brown? The nation turns its lonely eyes to you!” Brown would have said: “Stop whining, man up, and ask God to help you.”
Thank you Tom Brown.