Friday, May 29, 2009

Tom Brown vs. George Orwell

{While I'm away at Bookexpo, my friend Maggie Bandur, who makes her living writing for television and was last seen in these pages lamenting about my gift to her of all 1,600 pages of Clarissa, has been kind enough to offer the following post on Thomas Hughes's Victorian boys' improvement novel Tom Brown's Schooldays, the latter of which will be accompanying me to New York this weekend.. Enjoy!}

I was surprised when Levi saw my generous Christmas gift of Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) as retaliation for his throwing down the leaden gauntlet of Clarissa last year. I had thought the beloved children’s classic might provide some insight into the national character of England – a country we both love. The book, in fact, begins with a Hardy-esque ode to the simple, honest, country life that was fast disappearing. Included is a description of the amusement of “back-swording” by “gamesters,” mentioned earlier here:
[T]heir object is simply to break one another’s heads: for the moment that blood runs an inch anywhere above the eyebrow, the old gamester to whom it belongs is beaten, and has to stop. A very slight blow with the sticks will fetch blood, so that it is by no means a punishing pastime.

If you say so. With these healthy pursuits on the wane, Hughes warns there must be
Something to put in the place of the back-swording and wrestling and racing; something to try the muscles of men’s bodies and the endurance of their hearts, and to make them rejoice in their strength.
Trying the muscles and the heart in the absence of hitting one another with sticks is the task appointed to Tom Brown’s alma mater Rugby. The school and its real life headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold {father of Matthew Arnold--ed.}, are dedicated to shaping honest, “manly” boys into the scions of Empire. Hughes sees good, solid fellows like Tom as the backbone of Great Britain. They are the ones who are good at cricket and football, who “[have] never hurt [themselves] by too much reading,” and have healthy high spirits--which seem to take the form of taunting Irish road workers.

Tom settles easily into the somewhat contradictory aspects of Rugby life. Honor and order are prized, yet prepubescent boys are left to police themselves – while drinking school-provided beer from the age of nine! Bullying is wrong, but snitching is anathema: our young Tom is held close to the fire by the cowardly Flashman for so long he passes out, but heaven forfend that he have so little staunchness he report something that most would consider a crime. The boys are raised to be good Christians--the godly Arthur implores Tom to stop using Latin crib notes from what was almost his deathbed--at the same time that the school runs on violence: fights, whippings, punishment if you sing your solo badly. The headmaster himself authorizes another student to administer a whupping:
Boys will quarrel, and when they quarrel will sometimes fight. Fighting with fists is the natural and English way for English boys to settle their quarrels. What substitute is there, or ever was these, amongst any nation under the sun? What would you like to see take its place?

A sharp contrast to Hughes’s book is offered by George Orwell's description of his early schooling at St. Cyprian’s in the essay "Such, Such Were the Joys." Although over half a century later, the school’s methods--and level of hygiene--were almost identical to those in Tom Brown’s schooldays. (The one difference is Orwell went to a “private” boarding school, as opposed to a “public” one, public schools allowing boys to leave the grounds to give them greater independence and more opportunities for baiting the Irish.) Orwell was acutely aware of the contradictions in his education:
The various codes which were presented to you at St. Cyprian’s--religious, moral, social and intellectual--contradicted one another if you worked out their implications. The essential conflict was between the tradition of the nineteenth-century asceticism and the actually existing luxury and snobbery of the pre-1914 age. On the one side were low church Bible Christianity, sex puritanism, insistence on hard work, respect for academic distinction, disapproval of self-indulgence: on the other, contempt for “braininess’, and worship of games, contempt for foreigners and the working class, an almost neurotic dread of poverty, and, above all, the assumption that not only that money and privilege are the things that matter, but that it is better to inherit them than to have to work for them. Broadly, you were bidden to be at once a Christian and a social success, which is impossible. At the time, I did not perceive that the various ideals which were set before us cancelled out. I merely saw that they were all, or nearly all, unattainable, so far as I was concerned, since they all depended not only on what you did but on what your were.
(Oh, Eric Arthur Blair, would you be whingeing if you were only born in manly Berkshire?)

The incompatibility adults feel is no problem for children. Even if Orwell was miserable and didn’t accept things as cheerfully as Tom Brown, accept them he still did. Orwell bears no ill will when he is whipped for bedwetting:
I knew that bed-wetting was (a) wicked and (b) outside my control. The second fact I was personally aware of, and the first I did not question. It was possible, therefore, to commit a sin without knowing that you committed it, without wanting to commit it, and without being able to avoid it. Sin was not necessarily something that you did: it might be something that happened to you.
Not only are arbitrary beatings justified, Orwell doubts “whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment.”

Was this schizophrenic education the key to England’s success? A good, dutiful subaltern has to hold all the competing impulses that make his nation great inside his unquestioning breast. Rugby and its ilk created the Englishman who could believe simultaneously in fair play and world domination, who could be a jolly good fellow who objects when things aren’t quite cricket, but would fight to the last man to make sure the sun never set on the British empire. Was Tom Brown happy because he was achieving all Victorian England asked of him, and Orwell miserable because the rapidly approaching First World War was making all those values obsolete? Or, more likely, were the two boys’ starkly opposite experiences due to the difference in temperament between the popular and the lonely which transcends the ages?

Were there miserable, trapped boys at Rugby? To be fair to Hughes, Tom does befriend some odd ducks who would be nerds in any century, but even these boys are confident and fairly satisfied with themselves. If there were desperate boys at Rugby, the book doesn’t deal with them, and it’s unlikely Hughes or Brown would even notice if there were. Orwell heartbreakingly describes the great divide between adult and child:
[H]ere is one up against the very real difficulty of knowing what a child really feels and thinks. A child which appears reasonably happy may actually be suffering horrors which it cannot or will not reveal. It lives in a sort of alien under-water world which we can only penetrate by memory or divination. Our chief clue is the fact that we were once children ourselves, and many people appear to forget the atmosphere of their own childhood almost entirely.
Hughes isn’t cruel. He also admits the boy mind is different from the adult and makes allowances. Dr. Arnold, though a little casual about student-roasting, does manage to stay many steps ahead of his charges, and his plan to keep Tom on the straight and narrow by entrusting him with the protection of a weaker boy is a stroke of genius. (One wonders if Arnold would have bothered to engineer a beneficial friendship for young Master Orwell, or if his weak lungs and love of reading for pleasure made him a lost cause from the outset.)

Tom Brown’s Schooldays and "Such, Such Were the Joys" when taken together may or may not illuminate the British psyche; certainly America can give England a run for its money in the awkward union between our ascetic origins and a desire to be liked socially. But the two works taken together explore the full range of childhood experience: the golden age with the firm belief greater things are ahead and the time of misunderstood fears and helplessness. We also get to enjoy the memories of childhood with the knowledge it is possible to escape. Orwell is floored when he meets a student expelled for the mysterious, but terrible crime of self-abuse, who seems happy and successful outside the bosom of St. Cyprian’s. And won’t Tom be unpleasantly surprised when he learns this isn’t the end of Flashman? The pieces illuminate the potent cult of the boarding school, which still holds sway in English literature, as evidenced by Harry Potter. Certainly, the derivation of the derogatory term “fag” has become abundantly clear. Thus, I thought these would be books Levi would like to read, without causing him too much damage.

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