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October 8th, 2019


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08:10 pm - Tom Brown's Schooldays, the rude bits
Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) has some odd sexual undercurrents. It is a largely male world, with occasional appearances by old women as nurses, sweet sellers and matrons. However, all those youthful spirits had to go somewhere.

There was a certain category of boys at the school who were deemed inferior and/because they were feminised. As Hughes put it, boys who were ‘always getting laughed at, and called Molly, or Jenny, or some derogatory feminine nickname.’

At one point Tom and his pal East had a confrontation with a peer who had been sent to round up fags for a sixth former.

‘He was one of the miserable little pretty white-handed, curly-headed boys, petted and pampered by some of the big fellows, who wrote their verses for them, taught them to drink and use bad language, and did all they could to spoil them for everything * in this world and the next.’

I am fascinated that Hughes included a footnote here to comment that the fagging system was not necessarily bad but that he felt he had to include this obscure description of the moral hazards.


‘* A kind and wise critic, an old Rugboean, notes here in the margin: “The small friend system was not so utterly bad from 1841-1847.” Before that, too, there were many noble friendships between big and little boys; but I can't strike out the passage. Many boys will know why it is left in.’

I know I have a dirty old post-twentieth century mind, but can this be read as anything other than an oblique reference to homosexuality here? One that Hughes is assuming that ‘many boys will know why it is left in’.

I could compare this with the written description provided by a near contemporary. AJ Symonds wrote a description of his time at Harrow in 1854 (ie three years before Tom Brown’s Schooldays* was published, but left the manuscript at London Library with conditions preventing it being quoted or even paraphrased until 1977. He described his time at Harrow thus:

‘Every boy of good looks had a female name and was recognised either as a public prostitute or as some bigger fellow’s bitch. Bitch was the word in common usage to indicate a boy who yielded his person to another. The talk in the studies and dormitories was incredibly obscene. One could not avoid seeing acts of onanism, mutual masturbation, and the sport of naked boys in bed together.’

Tom, of course, is above this sort of thing – though it does cast a different light on the way he and East were tortured by older boys for refusing to fag for them, chased through the dormitories, barricading themselves in their studies, being aware that some boys would be taken for bullying each night out of the dormitories, and, of course, Tom having his buttocks pressed against the fire by Flashman.

And this also leads back to Arthur. Before meeting him, Brown worried that he might be the type of boy likely to be called by girl’s names; after meeting him, Brown is too enchanted to care. Brown calls him by the nickname Geordie or Young Un, and worries over him like a hen with one chick (as another boy observes).

Brown gets into his only serious fight at the school when defending Arthur’s honour, after another boy snickers at Arthur being moved to tears by Homer. Arthur cannot bring himself to watch the terrible violence, but instead walks up at down in the close waiting for word of the outcome of the battle.

The emotional climax of the book is when Arthur is ill and expected to die. Brown is not allowed into the sick room and instead lies awake reading the Bible. Surprisingly, Arthur does survive and Brown is reunited with him. Arthur speaks to him seriously about death and faith and Brown repents and agrees to never again use copybooks to assist in his Latin translation. This is a rather anticlimactic epiphany, but still, read the purple prose….

‘Arthur was lying on the sofa by the open window, through which the rays of the western sun stole gently, lighting up his white face and golden hair. Tom remembered a German picture of an angel which he knew; often he had thought how transparent and golden and spiritlike it was; and he shuddered to think how like it Arthur looked, and felt a shock as if his blood had all stopped short as he realized how near the other world his friend must have been to look like that. Never till that moment had he felt how his little chum had twined himself round his heart-strings; and as he stole gently across the room and knelt down, and put his arm round Arthur's head on the pillow, he felt ashamed and half angry at his own red and brown face and the bounding sense of health and power which filled every fibre of his body and made every movement of mere living a joy to him.

He needn't have troubled himself; it was this very strength and power so different from his own which drew Arthur so to him. Arthur laid his thin, white hand, on which the blue veins stood out so plainly, on Tom's great, brown fist, and smiled at him; and then looked out of the window again…’

Hughes perhaps realises he has gone slightly too far because he then introduces Arthur’s mother (come to nurse him) and has Tom fixate on her. Tom immediately wonders if Arthur has a sister he can marry, which does not perhaps resolve the homosocial desire quite as well as Hughes thought it did.

The penultimate glimpse is of Brown as captain of the cricket team, watching the play on a perfect day, while Arthur kneels at his side.

‘[Here he is], in white flannel shirt and trousers, straw hat, the captain's belt, and the untanned, yellow cricket shoes which all the eleven wear, sits a strapping figure near six feet high, with ruddy, tanned face and whiskers, curly brown hair, and a laughing, dancing eye… It is Tom Brown, grown into a young man nineteen years old, a præpostor [prefect] and captain of the eleven, spending his last day as a Rugby boy, and let us hope as much wiser as he is bigger since we last had the pleasure of coming across him.

And at [his] feet on the warm, dry ground, similarly dressed, sits Arthur, Turkish fashion, with his bat across his knees. He, too, is no longer a boy, less of a boy in fact than Tom, if one may judge from the thoughtfulness of his face, which is somewhat paler, too, than one could wish; but his figure, though slight, is well knit and active, and all his old timidity has disappeared, and is replaced by silent, quaint fun, with which his face twinkles all over as he listens to [Tom].’

That is one romantic picture.

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