Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tom Browns Schooldays

I finally read it a few weeks ago. Not the first time I'd tried by any means; there was a copy in our school library and I borrowed it twice. I think I got further into the volume on the first try (20 pages) than I did the second. I'd have been maybe twelve at the time.

I've been watching As time goes by[^] on PBS almost since first coming to the US to live. Not even the first time I'd seen the series; it ran (and may still do for all I know) on ABC Australia throughout the 90's. We're on about the fifth repeat and I do sometimes wish PBS could bring themselves to be adventurous and maybe program some other British comedy in its place. Heck, they've been running Keeping up appearances[^] just as long and I find that a tiresome series. British comedy or not I just can't watch it.

Anyway, back to Tom Brown. It so happened that Lionel was reading the book in a couple of episodes of 'As time goes by'. My childhood aversion to the book notwithstanding I thought I'd give it another try.

The first problem was tracking down a copy. Half price books didn't have it; nor did Borders or the other chain whose name escapes me. It may be that there are dozens of other book shops lurking around but if so they're well hidden. Of the three that I know of, all are chains and Half Price is the best of the three. At least they don't have a coffee shop!

So I turned to the Phoenix Public Library. Yes, they had a copy. You know, it just occurred to me to check if it's online at Project Gutenberg and yes, it is[^]! So I reserved the copy they had, from the childrens section.

Hmmm. This may once have been a childs book (the copy the library has is a 1947 edition) but I think it's in serious need of reclassification. I can't see any child of 1947 let alone a child of today reading it. Definitely of limited adult interest. To be honest, I can't imagine any child of any time reading it. Doubtless there were children who did but it strikes me as the kind of book one receives from a well meaning but somewhat idiotic relative at Christmas time; the kind of book that makes the heart sink whilst ones parents force one to the insincerity of a 'thank you'.

Nonetheless, there must be a reason why it's still around.

Rather like the curate's egg it's good in parts. I enjoyed the 'jingling match' (chapter 2 if you're interested). Not, however, a game I'd be prepared to indulge in; methinks my head is insufficiently hard for such boisterous sport!

I found it interesting the way that schoolboys of tender years are described as having a daily allowance of beer! Though never explicitly stated it's implied that we're talking real beer; none of this ginger stuff!

Overall I enjoyed the book though I can certainly see why I didn't at the age of twelve; it's incredibly preachy. That's not too suprising considering the year of publication, 1857. One of my favourite 19th century novelists, Mrs Henry Wood (link over there ---->) got her start by writing a prize winning novel for a temperance society. Though, based on that novel, Danesbury House, she'd hardly have approved of beer for boys, the preaching is on a par. The villains, Flashman et al, are clearly villains, the hero, Dr Arnold, just as clearly the hero. Interesting then to compare the Tom Browns Schooldays account of Dr Arnold with that of Lytton Strachey[^], written in 1918.

The 'education' described is almost incomprehensible in this age. Latin for gods sake! Latin, more Latin and when that palls, Ancient Greek. Don't misunderstand me; there's a place for such things and I, for one, would be sorry to see Latin and Greek disappear from our language. Indeed, when, some years ago, I read in the paper that Mel Gibson was working on a film which would be entirely in Latin and Aramaic I vowed that I for one would be there to see it. I was disappointed somewhat later to discover that the movie was subtitled in English but you can turn those off on the DVD!

You can get the flavour from this quote (chapter three).

To condense the Squire's meditation, it was somewhat as follows: "I won't tell him to read his Bible, and love and serve God; if he don't do that for his mother's sake and teaching, he won't for mine. Shall I go into the sort of temptations he'll meet with? No, I can't do that. Never do for an old fellow to go into such things with a boy. He won't understand me. Do him more harm than good, ten to one. Shall I tell him to mind his work, and say he's sent to school to make himself a good scholar? Well, but he isn't sent to school for that—at any rate, not for that mainly. I don't care a straw for Greek particles, or the digamma; no more does his mother. What is he sent to school for? Well, partly because he wanted so to go. If he'll only turn out a brave, helpful, truth-telling Englishman, and a gentleman, and a Christian, that's all I want," thought the Squire; and upon this view of the case he framed his last words of advice to Tom, which were well enough suited to his purpose.

A curious mixture of good sense and nonsense! Going to school and not be a good scholar? But I can't help admiring the rest of the sentiment.

I'm probably making too much of it but I've found far worse ways to spend time than curling up, in the summer heat, with this book.

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