Tom Brown's Schooldays

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Tom Brown's Schooldays, first published in 1857, is a novel by Thomas Hughes, set at a public school, Rugby School for Boys, in the 1830s when Hughes himself had been a student there.

The novel was originally published as being 'by an Old Boy of Rugby', and it is immediately apparent that much of it is based on the author's experiences. In fact, Tom Brown is based on the author's brother, George Hughes, and George Arthur is based on Arthur Penrhyn Stanley.

Tom Brown was tremendously influential on the genre of British school novels, which began in the 19th century, and is one of the few still in print.



Much of the language and sentence construction are the very epitome of mid-Victorian obfuscation. It is singularly dense and impenetrable, with complex and interweaving sub-clauses, and is rife with what now appear to be condescending references to 'Gentle readers' etc. The characters sometimes sound like real boys, but sometimes reach heights of eloquence that would do credit to a successful preacher. This, however, went with the territory in much of the writing of the time, and it took writers of the calibre of Dickens and Hardy to break these self-inflicted linguistic shackles, to demonstrate that, as le Corbusier was to later put it, 'Less is more'. In this respect, therefore, it should be considered that Tom Brown's Schooldays is representative and indicative of a much broader style of writing.


Tom Brown is energetic, stubborn, kind-hearted, athletic more than intellectual. He acts according to his feelings and the unwritten rules of the boys around him more than adults' rules.

The early chapters of the novel deal with his childhood at his home (including a nostalgic picture of a village feast). Much of the scene setting in the first chapter is deeply revealing of Victorian England's attitudes on society and class. His unsatisfactory experience at a private school leads to his arrival at Rugby School and his acquaintance with people who lived at the school and in its environs.

On his arrival, the eleven-year-old Tom Brown is looked after by a more experienced classmate, East. Soon after, Tom and East become the targets of a bully named Flashman. The intensity of the bullying increases, and, after refusing to hand over a sweepstake ticket for the favourite in a horse race, Tom is roasted in front of a fire. Tom and East eventually defeat Flashman with the help of a kind (though comical) older boy. In their triumph they become unruly.

In the second half of the book, Dr. Thomas Arnold (the historical headmaster of the school at the time) gives Tom the care of a new boy named George Arthur, frail, pious, academically brilliant, gauche, and sensitive. A fight that Tom gets into to protect Arthur, and Arthur's nearly dying of fever, are described in loving detail. Tom and Arthur help each other and their friends develop into young gentlemen who say their nightly prayers, don't cheat on homework, and are on the cricket team.

An epilogue shows Tom's return to Rugby and its chapel when he hears of Dr. Arnold's death.


A main element of the novel is Rugby with its traditions and with the reforms instituted by Dr. Arnold. Arnold is seldom on stage, but is shown as the perfect teacher and counselor and as managing everything behind the scenes. In particular, he is the one who "chums" Arthur with Tom. This helps them both become men.

The central theme of the novel is the development of boys. The symmetrical way in which Tom and Arthur supply each other's deficiencies shows that Hughes believed in the importance of physical development, boldness, fighting spirit, and sociability (Tom's contribution) as well as Christian morality and idealism (Arthur's).

The novel is essentially didactic, and was not primarily written by its author as an entertainment. As Hughes said: "Several persons, for whose judgement I have the highest respect, while saying very kind things about this book, have added, that the great fault of it is 'too much preaching'; but they hope I shall amend in this matter should I ever write again. Now this I most distinctly decline to do. Why, my whole object in writing at all was to get the chance of preaching! When a man comes to my time of life and has his bread to make, and very little time to spare, is it likely that he will spend almost the whole of his yearly vacation in writing a story just to amuse people? I think not. At any rate, I wouldn't do so myself."

Related Works

Hughes wrote a sequel, Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), which is much less well known.

Tom Brown's Schooldays was adapted for film in 1916 (British), 1940 (U.S.), and 1951 (British). It has also been adapted for television, as a mini-series by the BBC in 1972 and as a single two-hour programme by ITV in 2005.

The character of Flashman was adopted by the British writer George MacDonald Fraser as the narrator and hero (or anti-hero) of his popular series of "Flashman" historical novels.

Chris Kent, a British writer of homoerotica, wrote The Real Tom Brown's School Days: An English School Boy Parody (2002). Despite what might be inferred from the title and some reviews, this novel has a contemporary setting, and the characters and events do not closely mirror those of the original Tom Brown.


The geography described in the book is very different from the present day: see Rugby#History. For example, most of the pools along the River Avon that the boys used for swimming, were obliterated when the BTH factory was built.

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