I recently re-read Tom Brown’s Schooldays to revise my book chapter on muscular Christianity and disability.  Now, I know as a good historicist reader I’m supposed to get totally into the mindset of the mid-Victorians and never judge, but there was one thing that really had me going.

Has anyone else noticed how often the boys taunt working-class men and then bribe them not to tell?  And how this receives no comment whatsoever from the narrator, who is prone to moralize on everything from how fighting is healthy for boys to the proper use of the fagging system?

Two examples:

1)  East recounts to Tom the adventures of “Stumps,” the tuck shop proprietress Sally Harowell’s ne’er do well  husband.  “Amongst his other small avocations, he was the hind carrier of a sedan-chair, the last of its race, in which the Rugby ladies still went out to tea, and in which, when he was fairly harnessed and carrying a load, it was the delight of small and mischievous boys to follow him and whip his calves. This was too much for the temper even of Stumps, and he would pursue his tormentors in a vindictive and apoplectic manner when released, but was easily pacified by twopence to buy beer with.”

2)  After “Velveteens” catches Tom fishing off school property one day, Tom presents him with a half crown and they become “sworn friends”  The narrator continues, “I regret to say that Tom had many more fish from under the willow that May-fly season, and was never caught again by Velveteens.”  (Note the regret is for Tom breaking school rules and fishing, not for the bribe–and that the narrator also calls the groundskeeper “Velveteens”)

I know boys will be boys, but really?

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3 thoughts on “Re-reading Tom Brown

  1. I never read Tom Brown; however I have read Charles Dicken “Great Expectation”. I will agree it did sound odd for the guy to justify fighting as being healthy for boys. I can even hear the rational, “It’s a good way to get out youthful aggression”.

  2. Since this blog is about the Victorian Era and you mention a book that’s relating to disabilities. I’d love to find out more on this topic. As I’m both visually impaired and hard of hearing.

  3. Hi Barry–if you are interested in learning more about disability in the Victorian Era, the place to start is Martha Stoddard Holmes’s book, Fictions of Affliction (U of Michigan Press, 2004). You would be able to get a copy from a university library, or it’s available on Amazon. Tom Brown features an invalid but nothing on hearing or visual impairment that I can remember. K

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