The First Schoolboy Hero
The heroic English schoolboy is an archetype that has survived for two centuries, finding its most recent incarnation in the form of Harry Potter, a perfectly adequate avatar for a generation of middle-class children who wanted stories set in a rigorously ordered society of loyalties and hierarchies.
But the story of the English schoolboy goes back much further. It was originally kickstarted by a man named Thomas Hughes. Born in 1822, Hughes was sent to boarding school at age 8 and mentored by a high-minded moralistic headmaster who left his mark on the lad.
Hughes became a lawyer and a Liberal MP, and wrote books titled True Manliness and The Manliness of Christ (I’m still not quite sure what this means). However it was the novel he began writing for his son when he was 34 that lasted – yet for all its influence, very few modern-day children have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays or its sequel Tom Brown at Oxford.
This is mainly because the writing is incredibly preachy, although there’s a good adventure within it. Brown goes to boarding school, makes friends and faces the bully Harry Flashman, who in the book’s most unpleasant scene blisters his legs against an open fire. There are scrapes and dramas including a bout of pneumonia from a plunge in a lake, an honourable decision on cheating and a heroic last-minute substitution in a cricket match. All the ethical and moral dilemmas of young life are presented along with physical, social and spiritual development, coupled – inevitably – with a great amount of detail about the rigid order and structure of school life; Potter’s strongest suit by far.
Despite being didactic and not written to entertain, the book was an astounding success read by everyone from Tennyson to Dr Livingstone, and even in 1940 was still the fourth most popular read for schoolboys. In Japan it became the most popular English text of all time, although the cricket match was cut out because the translators didn’t know the game’s rules.
If you think the Potter saga has done well in other media, (it’s now a pair of plays as well) it’s worth remembering that Tom Brown has been filmed five times and was even turned into a musical (with Keith Chegwin). Its villain Flashman span off, becoming the anti-hero of George MacDonald Fraser’s successful novel series, and Tom Brown was a clear influence on every other school-set character from Billy Bunter to Jennings. However, it wasn’t the first book set in an English boarding school. That was Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, or the Little Female Academy, which had appeared in 1749 and was the first full-length novel written for children.
Inevitably George Orwell took against such tales (as he did with Bunter), to little effect. Readers preferred stories venerating idealised schooldays to ones vilifying them, and still do judging by the stupendous marketing success of the boy wizard. Of course, such characters bear no resemblance to the makeup of a modern British classroom at all, but it’s an image the world enjoys.
One wonders whether JK Rowling will go the same way of Hughes and vanish from bookshelves in years to come. If the queue to be photographed at the porter’s trolley in King’s Cross station is anything to go by, I suspect he’ll represent the archetypal English schoolboy for a very long time.