In the past week and a half I’ve read eight school stories from the Victorian and Edwardian eras for my comprehensive exam. Below are reviews of my favorite two.
Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes (1857)
This novel holds a special place in the history of children’s literature because it is the first boys’ school story written for children. After the publication of Tom Brown the genre of boys’ school stories was extremely popular from the Victorian period into the 1950s.
There was a revival of this genre, though not specially for boys, with the publication of Harry Potter. Many have argued that Harry Potter participates in Victorian boarding school story conventions. Proof of this argument can be found in Tom Brown as I noticed several similarities between the two. In many ways Tom Brown feels like the great-great-great grandfather of Harry Potter. The way the school is described reminded me of Hogwarts ( for example the School-house hall: “It is a great room thirty feet long and eigtheen high, with two great tables running the whole length, and two large fireplaces at the side, with blazing fires in them” ). The three best friends in Tom Brown was also familiar. Tom and Harry both share the spotlight in their respective stories, often put their heroism to the test, and are the centre of attention in their schools. The role of “best friend” are filled by East and Ron, and both are loyal best friends to Harry and Tom. East and Ron are fun and well-meaning, though not the smartest, and often get into trouble without meaning too. George Arthur is a prototype for Hermione as he is the smartest of his friends, often their conscience, and cares more about his grades then excelling in athletics.
Tom Brown’s School Days takes place at Rugby school, a real school which author Thomas Hughes attended, and that is still in existence today! While Hughes was a student at Rugby, Dr. Thomas Arnold was the headmaster. Dr. Arnold instituted many new practices that since have become common place in English boarding schools (and will be familiar to those who have read Harry Potter). Significant changes Dr. Arnold made include:
Dr. Arnold had his students study history, math, and modern languages (ie. German, Italian, French, not just Latin and Greek as had been the standard)
Dr. Arnold developed the Praeposter or Prefect system. The prefect system gave high achieving older boys from the upper classes power over the rest of the students, which was intended to keep order in the school. Prefects were placed in each dormitory to monitor the younger boys, were hall and class monitors, and could decide how boys who misbehaved were to be disciplined. Basically Percy Weasley was the ideal Prefect.
Dr. Arnold loved sports, and he allowed his students to take part in sports, like field hockey and football, as an alternative to hunting and fighting (yes fighting was allowed). School sporting events mark some of the biggest and most anticipated events for students in the novel, which again can be seen in Harry Potter in the excitement and emphasis that is placed on Quidditch matches between houses (competition between houses is also in Tom Brown).
Though the Rugby school environment may seem as foreign to contemporary readers as Hogwarts, there are timeless themes that run through the novel. For example, bullying is present throughout the novel. The edition that I read included in the preface a letter written to Thomas Hughes that draws attention to bullying within schools. The author of the letter tells Hughes:
A boy may have moral courage, and a finely-organized brain and nervous system. Such a boy is calculated, if judiciously educated, to be a great wise and useful man . . . but one nights bullying may produce such an injury . . . that this usefulness is spoiled for life (xxxvi)
Over 150 years later, the destructive effects of bullying on a child’s spirit is well known and still too common. Tom Brown is bullied by older boys when he first enters the school and Tom is only able to overcome his tormenters with the help of others. When other boys rally around Tom the bullying ceases. This is an important lesson, and I hope would inspire any young person to likewise not be a bystander to bullying in their schools.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Tom Brown’s School Days and how much I enjoyed Hughes writing (simply beautiful). I give it a 4/5
Tom, Arthur, and East
A World of Girls: The Story of a School by L. T. Meade (1886)
L.T. Meade started writing at 17 and wrote over 300 books during her life. A World of Girls is arguably Meade’s most famous. What I appreciated about this book, and what I found refreshing about it amidst the other Victorian school stories I was reading, is that the characters felt real. They weren’t perfect. Everyone is flawed. Even the head mistress (which is usually a pillar of perfection in these types of school stories) makes mistakes.
The novel follows Hester Thornton (called Hetty) who is sent to Lavender School shortly after the death of her mother. Hetty is stubborn, proud, unforgiving, and has a quick temper. She has trouble fitting into Lavender School because the other students find her extremely stand-offish and difficult to even strike up a conversation with. Hetty immediately and irrationally dislikes the school favorite Annie Forest. Most of the plot centres on the feud between Hetty and Annie, which is portrayed in an entertaining (in that it makes you want to see what happens next) and realistic way (in that you could probably relate to similar relationships in your own life).
The characters that surround Hetty and Annie are dynamic and interesting. There is Hetty’s first roommate Susan Drummond who is perpetually tired and impossible to wake up, and who always carries around lollipops. There is Dora Russell, a upper year girl who is spoiled and proud, and yet gets in trouble for reading Jane Eyre (its banned at the school!). There is Tiger, a gypsy dog who is so intelligent that he can actually understand what people say to him. Oh, and there’s gypsies, which are always a good time.
This book is arguably more accessible than Tom Brown’s School Days. Thomas Hughes devotes a lot of space to descriptions which I know some readers find tiresome, and he also makes very Victorian specific references that could confuse those not knowledgeable of the era. World of Girls has timeless themes like friendship and bullying that continue to make it relatable, and has exciting twists and turns that are entertaining (did I mention gyspys?!?!) and the characters are more vibrant which makes for a more pleasurable read. I give it a 5/5.
Annie tries to win over Hetty
If either of these novels sound interesting to you, they can be read online for free at the Gutenberg Project.
And if you’re interested in the other books I read this week, but didn’t talk about, they are listed below and most can also be read on the Gutenberg Project.
James DeMille’s The B.O.W.C. (1869) 4.5/5 (I may post on this book at a later date, because it is excellent)
William Mayne’s A Swarm in May (1955) 4/5
Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did at School (1873) 4/5
Angela Brazil’s The Fortunes of Philippa (1907) 3.5/5
W. Farrar’s Eric; or Little by Little (1858) 3/5