TOM BROWN’S SCHOOL DAYS defined a whole generation of “Muscular Christian” English gentlemen. The author of this immensely popular Victorian novel, Thomas Hughes, set out to redefine the values deemed essential to ruling the greatest empire the world had ever known. He had no time whatsoever for effeteness, and even less for arid intellectuality. What Great Britain and its sprawling empire needed were strong and practical souls – leavened by a sound education. What it had absolutely no need for, Hughes insisted, were bullies.
Tom Brown’s School Days provided the model for all the many “school novels” that succeeded it – the most recent of which, J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series – owe a great deal to the original. The all-wise figure of Professor Dumbledore, for example, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dr Thomas Arnold, the real-life headmaster of Rugby School from 1828-1841 who “plays himself” in Hughes’ partly autobiographical novel.
In many respects, Tom Brown’s School Days represented a girding of British ruling-class loins for the great tasks that lay ahead, as British imperialism got its second wind in the Nineteenth Century’s second half. Certainly, the novel’s hero possesses an impressive tally of the virtues required for the daunting mission of imposing “civilisation”. He’s physically fit, amiable, courageous, and up for any challenge. As the novel unfolds, however, it becomes clear that these muscular qualities are not of themselves sufficient. Minds need training as well as bodies, and courage must always be tempered by compassion.
Lest their be any confusion, however, Hughes introduces the unforgettable figure of Flashman, Rugby’s biggest and most brutal bully. It is Flashman who supplies the novel’s most memorable scene, in which a defiant Tom is held in front of a roaring fire by Flashman’s accomplices. Although Tom is ultimately rescued from Flashman’s torture, it is the bully’s viciousness that remains with the reader.
As George MacDonald Fraser, author of the best-selling Flashman novels, realised, it would be the anti-hero’s amorality, not Tom’s Christian piety, that titillated readers in the much darker Twentieth Century.
Hughes’ civilising mission, though indisputably admirable, was always doomed to fail. A thousand Dr Arnold’s could not overcome the brutal fact that imperialism is a brutal business. Seizing and holding other peoples’ lands is an undertaking for which the Flashmans’ of this world are much more suited temperamentally than the Tom Browns.
The bitter truth is that Great Britain’s “public” schools (and their many imitators in the Empire’s far-flung dominions) were consciously designed to produce a very particular kind of imperial administrator. These men needed to be courageous, but not compassionate; clever, but not too clever; up for anything their superiors deemed necessary, and indifferent to others’ pain and suffering. Most importantly, these imperialists needed to enjoy wielding power and subjecting weaker peoples to their will.
In other words, producing bullies was what Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and all the other public schools, were all about.
Why else would public schoolboys be expected to read Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul in the original Latin? (Hint: It wasn’t because he demonstrated Muscular Christianity!) The other great lesson these privately educated gentlemen were required to learn, apart from the practicalities of genocide, is that what a ruling class tells the world it is doing, and what it actually does, are two very different things. Hypocrisy is, always, the indispensable aspect of effective governance. Take note of what I say, not what I do (or have done in the past) is the necessary expectation of those who wield power over others.
These, the instincts and habits of domination are much too important to learn on the job. That is why the pliable young saplings that enter our elite schools must be bent, twisted and violently pruned until they are ready to be released upon the world. It’s why the people responsible for running these schools turn a blind eye to the brutalities by their star pupils, and protect them when they go too far. After all, isn’t life just one long game of rough-and-tumble? And isn’t it better to win at that game than to lose?
The Powers-That-Be may say they want a world filled with the likes of Dr Arnold and Tom Brown. What they really want, however, is a world filled with the likes of Flashman.
Bullying isn’t a bug in the private education system – it’s a feature.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 August 2022.